A legal claim filed against BART on Friday says that murder suspect John Lee Cowell twice menaced patrons of the transit system in the days leading up to the fatal knife attack on Nia Wilson, 18, at Oakland's MacArthur station.
The claim filed by San Francisco attorney Robert Arns on behalf of Wilson's family accuses BART of a systematic failure to protect riders from violent crime through inadequate staffing, lack of prompt action on passenger complaints, and allowing rampant fare evasion among other alleged shortcomings. The legal claim is a likely prelude to a lawsuit.
The claim's most explosive allegation revolves around Cowell, 27, a Concord resident with a violent criminal history.
Arns' filing says that about a week before the attack that killed Nia Wilson and seriously wounded her sister, Lahtifa, a passenger "encountered Cowell brandishing a knife in a BART train car. Fearful for her life, the rider exited the car at the next station. Upon finding no BART personnel present, she called the police and reported the incident."
Arns said in a media briefing Friday that the episode occurred near MacArthur station.
The claim says that several days later, another BART patron came across Cowell in a stairwell at the Civic Center BART station. Cowell was "exhibiting erratic behavior and threatening to slit BART passengers' throats," according to the claim.
It says the rider "attempted to find a station agent to report the threat, but was unable to find one in the station."
Those episodes are recounted as part of the claim's larger argument that BART violated several sections of California law, failing to ensure proper staffing or impose measures that would effectively shut would-be fare evaders out of the 47-station, 120-mile system.
"If BART had taken appropriate steps to provide safe transportation for its passengers, it could have prevented Cowell from entering BART and allegedly causing the death of Nia Wilson," the claim says.
A BART spokeswoman declined comment on the allegations.
"We at BART express our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Nia Wilson," spokeswoman Anna Duckworth said in an email. "We have not yet been served and we can’t comment on pending litigation, but we can say that safety is our top priority and we remain committed to do all we can to ensure a safe trip for our riders."
The transit agency is facing at least six lawsuits arising from crimes committed against passengers over the past year and a half.
In BART's most recent quarterly performance report, issued last week, the agency's Police Department reported a continuing increase in serious crime on the system to a rate more than double that recorded just two years ago.
BART police said they recorded 3.87 "crimes against persons" per 1 million riders in the agency's fourth fiscal quarter, from April 1 through June 30. "Crimes against persons" include homicide, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016, the rate stood at 1.8.