KRON4’s Amy Larson is in court daily to bring you updates on the trial of Nia Wilson‘s killer. Find all her stories here.

OAKLAND, Calif. (KRON) — Killer John Lee Cowell spent another day Thursday sitting in a guarded room of the Oakland courthouse, refusing to enter the courtroom where his murder trial was underway.

Who is the real Cowell?

Nia Wilson’s family believes he is a coward and remorseless.

Prosecutor Butch Ford has repeatedly depicted Cowell as a deceitful drug addict, and “evil.”

Cowell characterizes himself as “the victim.” He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

Cowell’s friends and family described him as a paranoid, schizophrenic man with no place to go.

A psychiatrist wrote in her hospital visit notes, “a pleasant, somewhat manipulative man.”

Witnesses called to testify throughout the trial by Alameda County public defender Christina Moore and prosecutors have painted very different personalities of the BART train killer.

Nia Wilson
Nia Wilson / Facebook

Before deliberating and deciding on verdicts, jurors are trying to figure out how schizophrenia, delusions, drug abuse, and homicidal compulsions intertwined in the summer of 2018, when Cowell senselessly killed an 18-year-old woman whom he had never met. He is charged with murdering Nia Wilson, and attempting to murder her sister, Letifa Wilson.

Friends and family members’ testimony

A friend who has known Cowell since he was 15 testified Thursday about how his behavior spiraled downward from a “troubled youth to a severely disturbed adult.”

Georgina Agnitsch lived a few doors down from Cowell. About five years ago, Cowell called her from a BART station and said he needed a ride. When she picked him up, Agnitsch asked where he wanted to go. He replied, “I don’t know. I don’t have any place to go.”

They talked together for a while at a nearby marina. A fisherman was more than 50 yards away. Cowell told Agnitsch, “That guy down there, he wants a piece of me.” She told Cowell that he was being ridiculous and that the man was simply catching fish.

She also testified that, for six months, Cowell would not talk to anyone unless they opened their mouths so he could check for “transmitters.” One time he took her into his bedroom to show her snakes slithering under his bed, but there were no snakes, she testified.

Moore asked Agnitsch how often Cowell was paranoid. “Pretty much always,” she said. She testified that Cowell has been abusing methamphetamine and heroin since he was at least 15 years old.

Saundra Ferriera testified for two days in her nephew’s defense. She said Cowell’s mother was also very paranoid, heard voices, talked to herself, and acted erratically. She was frequently institutionalized in mental hospitals, so Cowell was raised by his grandmother since the age of four.

After his 18th birthday, Cowell began acting more and more like his mother. Cowell’s first big mental breakdown happened when he attacked his father with a shovel, Ferriera testified.

John Cowell
John Cowell

Cowell’s closest relationship was with his grandmother, and he never accepted her death. His mind’s way of dealing with her death was by having delusions that she was actually kidnapped by aliens, Ferriera testified.

In the summer of 2018, Ferriera kicked Cowell out of her house because he was abusing street drugs and his behavior was too erratic, she testified. Sometimes Cowell thought Ferriera was an alien, too, she testified. “I had to call the police a few times, It was scary.”

Cowell’s family members said they tried to help him, but there were no mental health services available. One aunt told KRON4, “There is no help out there for the mentally ill. Families try to get them help. They call the police. (Authorities) pick them up, keep them for a short time, and put them back out on the streets. Police have nowhere to send him because the government closed all of the mental hospitals.”

Around 5 p.m. on July 22, 2018, Cowell left voicemails on Ferriera’s phone saying he was feeling paranoid and scared. A few hours later, he killed Nia Wilson.

In his own words

While testifying in his own defense, Cowell acknowledged that he has a “reverse psychology” and that he hears voices that are not real.

Cowell testified that he stabbed Nia Wilson and her sister, Letifa Wilson, because they were “aliens” and “gang members” who were threatening him, had kidnapped his grandmother, and were going to torture her.

Cowell and the Wilson sisters rode on the same BART train from Concord to Oakland for 26 minutes before he attacked. Most of the incident, before, during, and after the homicide, was recorded on BART surveillance cameras.

“Do you remember stabbing them?” Ford asked Cowell.

“Yes,” Cowell replied.

“There were three black females together and one was standing over me. Saving, rescuing my family from gang members is not illegal,” Cowell testified.

Nia Wilson
Nia Wilson / Facebook

“What are you doing,” Ford ask, pointing to surveillance images of Cowell the moment before he slashed Nia Wilson’s throat.

“Using a knife against Nia Wilson, the kidnapper. Stopping the attack. They would not give my grandmother back,” he replied.

Immediately after the stabbing, Cowell ran from the MacArthur BART station, threw his knife behind a construction zone fence, and changed his clothing. Ford pointed out that, if Cowell really believed that he was saving his grandmother and wasn’t doing anything wrong, why would he run and hide the knife?

Cowell is currently not taking any medication. He’s refused for months to take the anti-psychotic medication offered to him by the medical staff at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin because the medication is “expired,” he testified.

Ford doesn’t believe Cowell’s expiration excuse. “You’re putting on a show, aren’t you?” Ford told Cowell.

Ford said Cowell has refused to take medication because he wants to look “crazy” before the jury deliberates over his sanity. As part of his schizophrenia, Cowell was diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder. The prosecutor accused Cowell of being a liar, including past instances of Cowell allegedly faking feeling suicidal in hospitals so he could have a meal and place to sleep.

“Most of the time, you would get 5150’s because you just wanted a place to stay,” Ford said.

“Are you trying to look or appear crazy?” Ford asked.

“No,” Cowell replied.

Cowell was thrown out of the courtroom mid-testimony when he began spewing vulgarities at Ford for “being rude.”

“Back the f**k down. They can’t force me to say s**t if I’m leaving,” Cowell vented as he was escorted out by deputies.

While Cowell had fiery exchanges with the prosecution, his behavior while be questioned by his own defense attorney was mostly polite, stoic, and reserved. He answered most questions by saying “yes ma’am,” “no ma’am,” or, “I don’t remember” in a robotic voice.

Many questions made Cowell appear confused, especially when Moore was trying to help Cowell remember dates and times of events. Moore showed Cowell paperwork from doctors visits that include date stamps, but he declined to waiver from his “I don’t remember” answer.

Cowell remembers living in Atascadero state mental hospital in 2015, but he doesn’t remember being there in the spring of 2018.

Except for a brief time at his aunt’s house, Cowell was mostly homeless and jobless during the two months between when he was released from Atascsadero mental hospital and the July 22nd homicide. When Moore asked Cowell how he spent his days, he said he couldn’t remember.

Jailhouse phone calls

A much more cheerful, social, friendly, and normal-sounding Cowell was revealed when jailhouse phone calls were played in court. Cowell is heard laughing and telling his aunt and father, “I love you.” In a call made just last month, Cowell told his aunt Ferriera, “I’m in Santa Rita (Jail) having a blast. I’m doing really good, I’m really happy.”

Letifa Wilson told KRON4 Thursday that hearing the January 2020 phone call reinforced her belief that Cowell feels no remorse for stabbing her and killing her younger sister.

The phone call continued with Cowell expressing hopefulness that he’d be returning home. Ford said Cowell is hoping that the jury finds him “NGI,” not guilty by reason of insanity to avoid a life prison sentence.

“Everything is looking really great. I want to live with my family again. I love living at home with my family,” he told his aunt.

Cowell’s jail calls were not always so cheerful, his aunt testified.

“Some phone calls he didn’t make sense,” but she did her best to keep him calm so that he wouldn’t cause “a big disturbance there at the jail,” she said.

Nia Wilson’s supporters

Cowell is a remorseless killer, a racist, and a malinger, Nia Wilson’s supporters said.

Early on the trial, Cowell was removed twice from the courtroom for making verbal outbursts.

“He’s faking it,” Letifa Wilson said of Cowell’s courtroom behavior.

“When he’s in court, he’s acting like a total donkey,” Letifa Wilson said. If he can call his family and act normal, why can’t he do that in court as well? she asked.

During one of Cowell’s courtroom outbursts that resulted in his testimony being suspended for the day, he fixated on one of Wilson’s family members who was watching from the gallery. Denise Black’s hair was accidentally pulled by someone who was trying to exit the courtroom. Cowell started yelling about it, and used it as a reason to refuse answering any more of Ford’s cross-examination.

“I think he was using me as a (way) to evade what (prosecutors) were trying to get him to focus on. And evade the questions that he needed to answer,” Black said.

Cowell’s most common responses while testifying were, “I don’t remember,” and “I don’t know.”

“He’s using a sympathy card, he’s playing like he don’t know nothing, don’t remember nothing,” Black said.

Black said the incident also showed Cowell is aware of what is going on in the courtroom without confusion.

“He knows exactly what is happening,” she said. “Answer the questions, don’t use me as an escape goat.”

Now that Cowell is refusing to attend the trial at all, nor complete his testimony, the Wilson family feels even more insulted.

When asked by KRON4 Thursday, “Who is the real John Cowell?” Letifa Wilson replied, “A drug addict. Drug addict all the way around.”

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