Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Anthony Sowell: The Cleveland Strangler


Anthony Sowell's residence at 12205 Imperial Avenue
Anthony Sowell's residence at 12205 Imperial Avenue
Neighbors say that the stench on the 12200 block of Cleveland's Imperial Avenue could be unbearable, especially on hot days. It smelled of blood, like something decomposing. It smelled of death. Some thought it was the city sewers; others blamed Ray's Sausage Company, one of the few businesses left on the run-down street.
While the source of the miasma continued to be debated, at least eleven Cleveland women disappeared. All of them were black and poor. Most of them were homeless or lived alone. Many of them had histories of drug and alcohol abuse. Their family members would later say that these circumstances led police to disregard these missing persons cases.
Women continued to disappear and the horrible stench of death lingered over that part of East Cleveland.
Until October 29, 2009, when police, responding to a rape allegation, visited Anthony Sowell's house on Imperial Avenue and East 123rd Street. Sowell, 50, wasn't there, but police found a freshly-dug grave and two dead bodies. In the following days, they would find more bodies in the living room, in crawl spaces, in the backyard and under a basement staircase. They even found a skull in a bucket. And they finally arrested Anthony Sowell—after many missed chances to stop him.
By then police and the F.B.I. had armed themselves with blueprints, infrared devices and old case files to see whether Sowell had killed even more women.

A Known Sex Offender

Anthony Sowell
Anthony Sowell
Anthony Sowell moved back to the three-story white house at 12205 Imperial Avenue in 2005. It's in a marginal neighborhood on Cleveland's east side, where well-kept working-class homes sit beside boarded-up houses and abandoned businesses. The house, which had belonged to his deceased father, was cheap. His step-mother lived there with him until she was hospitalized in 2007. Sowell would sometimes blame the house's horrible smell on her.
The house was for Sowell an improvement over his previous residence. He'd spent the previous 15 years in a state prison after pleading guilty to rape. In 1989, according to prosecutors, he brought a victim to his residence on Page Avenue, choked her, tied her up with a necktie, threatened to kill her and then raped her twice. He told her no one would hear her scream. At a parole hearing, he blamed his behavior on his drinking.
Sowell was arrested during another rape investigation while awaiting trial in 1990, but the victim ultimately refused to cooperate with investigators.
Released from prison in 2005, Sowell found work in a factory, but was laid off in 2007. After his unemployment payments ran out, he made change by selling scrap metal and recycling. When that wasn't enough, he'd bum change from guys at the corner store to buy his cheap tipple of choice, 40 oz. bottles of King Cobra Malt Liquor, but he would pay everyone back by having a barbecue.
He was divorced before his conviction, and had a daughter, but, once released, made no effort to get back in touch with his ex-wife or daughter. He did, however, frequent a fetish site called to look for sex partners. He set up his account in 2005, just after he got out of prison. Listing himself as 5 feet 10 inches, 160 pounds and with a distinctive facial scar, he described himself as a "master" looking for a "submissive," and as a partyer, a people person.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson
He also somehow formed a relationship with Lori Frazier, the niece of Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson. She lived with him from 2005 to 2007. During that time he would lure other women in off the street by offering them alcohol or drugs. Some he assaulted, but when they reported it to police little was done. Others, it now seems, didn't make it out at all.
Meanwhile, the stench endured. The city routinely flushed its gutters, drains and sewers in the area. Ray's Sausage Company passed all its inspections; owner Ray Cash kept his business bleach-clean. As Ray's sister and partner Renee Cash noted, they wouldn't have much of a business if their meat smelled like that. The smell in the neighborhood was so bad that Ray's workers couldn't stand it unless they kept the windows closed, since the inside of the plant smelled just fine.
As a registered sex offender, Sowell was required to check in with the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Office once a year. This was upped to once every 90 days in 2008. It didn't help his victims.

A Crime Reported

Anthony Sowell
Anthony Sowell
One night in December 2008, a woman waved police down on Kinsman Road and East 116th Street. She was covered in blood.
Gladys Wade, now 41, told the officers that Anthony Sowell had invited her in for a beer when she passed by on her way to one of the neighborhood's small corner grocery stores. When she declined, Sowell attacked her. She said he dragged her upstairs, strangling her so hard that she blacked out. When she came to, she said, she found that he'd forced her out of her clothing, and was choking her and trying to rape her.
She struggled free and tried to get help at a nearby restaurant. She begged the people there to call 911, only to hear be told to go outside and use the pay phone. Sowell caught up to her there, angrily told neighbors that he'd caught her trying to rob his house and went back home.
When Wade finally flagged down the beat cops, they sent her to the hospital in an ambulance. She'd badly cut her thumb on a shard of glass from a window that broke during her struggle with Sowell and needed stitches.
The cops went to check out the scene at Imperial and 123rd. Tracks in the snow around the entrance to Sowell's house suggested a struggle. There was a bloody tissue nearby, and blood covered the steps. They detained Sowell.
After getting stitched up, Wade talked to Detective Georgia Hussein. She would later relate that Hussein had told her it was just Wade's word against Sowell's, and that for all anyone knew it was just as possible that Wade had been the one to attack Sowell.
Sowell was released two days later, and no search of his residence was made. At least five more women would disappear before his 2009 arrest.

An Opportunity Missed

    The incident with Wade would become the missed opportunity that would come back to haunt the community and its law enforcement officials. After Sowell's 2009 arrest, officials would differ in their explanations as to why Wade's complaint received such little investigation.
Cleveland Police Department spokesperson Lt. Thomas Stacho says that Sowell's accuser wouldn't cooperate with investigators. She eventually agreed to talk to police again but then failed to show up for the interview.
Stacho insists that Hussein presented the case to a prosecutor who decided not to charge Sowell.
Prosecutors agree there wasn't enough evidence to charge Sowell. But detectives and prosecutors continue to dispute who branded the woman "unreliable" and suggested that her testimony wouldn't be believable.

Cleveland Police Chief Michael McGrath
Cleveland Police Chief Michael McGrath
Cleveland Police Chief Michael McGrath was commander of the 4th Police District, where Sowell's home is located, until he became chief in 2005. He defends officers in the 2008 case, noting that patrol cops often don't have time to run background checks. He denies accusations that because of the victims' backgrounds, police were slow to react to the disappearances. McGrath adds that slow police response had nothing to do with the fact that Mayor Frank Jackson's niece had lived with Sowell. Frazier would later say she was shocked by the allegations against Sowell.
Explanations aside, the incident with Wade was not the only opportunity police had to investigate the convicted sex offender.

And Then Another

    In April 2009 Tanja Doss, 43, agreed to go to Anthony Sowell's place for a beer. Although Doss knew that Sowell had been in prison, she didn't know why. In fact, most people in his neighborhood didn't know that this seemingly nice guy was a convicted sex offender. Once she got to his room, he snapped, she later said. According to Doss, Sowell choked her and threatened to kill her.
He demanded that she knock three times on the floor if she wanted to live.

Anthony Sowell
Anthony Sowell
He told her that no one would miss her, that no one would even notice she was gone.
He made her strip, but didn't rape her because they both passed out.
In the morning he seemed normal and asked her if she could use anything from the store. She casually called her daughter, then lied to Sowell telling him that her granddaughter had the flu and that had to get home. He went to the store alone and let her go on her way.
Doss was afraid to call police, because of an old drug charge on her record, a decision she later regretted. Later that same April her best friend, Nancy Cobbs, disappeared. Doss and others searched abandoned buildings for her and put up flyers, which, it is worth noting, seemed to disappear, but never did it occurr to her to suspect Anthony Sowell — until his November arrest.

Right Under Their Noses

    The people at Ray's Sausage Company weren't the only ones who knew that something was amiss in the neighborhood.
Fawcett Bess, 57, owns Bess Chicken and Pizza across the street from Ray's. He'd always found Anthony Sowell polite and respectful, even if he did sometimes smell pretty bad. In September 2009, However, Bess says, he talked to a woman who told him that Sowell had attacked her—and that police had done nothing but take notes when she reported the incident.

Anthony Sowell
Anthony Sowell
A few weeks later, Bess says, he saw a naked Sowell in the bushes bordering his house, standing over a naked woman and beating her. Bess called 911. Bess said that an ambulance took the woman to the hospital, but police, who didn't get to the scene until hours later, did not even try to talk to Sowell, who was still inside his house.
Lt. Stacho denied the allegation saying that police fully investigated each report connected with Sowell. He maintains that police fully investigated all missing person reports. The victims' families disagree, saying that they were brushed aside.
When Barbara Carmichael tried to report that her daughter, Tonia Carmichael, was missing, she says police turned her away, saying that her daughter would come back when she ran out of drugs.
The police reportedly turned away Sandy Drain, 65, away when she tried to file a missing person report for her niece, Gloria Walker. She put up flyers, organized search parties, even hired a psychic. Drain says she got exactly what she expected from cops in her neighborhood.
Mary Mason, whose sister Michelle Mason also disappeared, says that police had been ignoring neighborhood complaints about missing women for years, and that they just weren't concerned with missing black women with a reputation for drug use.
Stacho insists that the cops followed up leads, including obtaining dental records and tracing license plates. Police advocates point out that law enforcement typically investigates missing adults when there is a clear indication of foul play, but do not chase down known drug users, if, as in these cases, they think the person might just be on a bender.
If the expressed fears and complaints of the victims' families didn't do anything to induce police to investigate Sowell, neither did the existing precautions regarding registered sex offenders.

Finally Caught

  On Sept. 2, 2009, Anthony Sowell checked in with the county sheriff's office, as required. On Sept. 22, deputies paid a surprise visit to verify his reported address. Sowell met them at the door and answered their questions, and they left, as usual.
Police say just hours after the deputies left, Sowell dragged a woman inside his house, choked her with an extension cord, and raped her. She told police that she was able to get away by promising that she wouldn't go to the police, and that she'd come back with $50.

Anthony Sowell
Anthony Sowell
The next day she went to the hospital and spoke to police. But police say she resisted their ongoing attempts to interview her further, skipping an October 11 appointment to which she'd agreed, meeting with them only on October 27. This slowed the case down, and police didn't obtain a warrant to search Sowell's house until 36 days after the alleged attack.
During that time, another incident drew attention to the Sowell residence. Neighbors saw a naked woman jump, or fall, out a second story window and called 911. An ambulance took the woman to the MetroHealth Medical Center. She was reportedly under the influence of drugs, and said she'd been "partying" all day. She refused to talk to police at the hospital. Cops went to Sowell's house, but no one answered the door.
On October 29, the police were back, warrant in hand, ready to arrest Anthony Sowell, who was not at home. On entering the residence they found two decomposing bodies. The next day, they found three more. They didn't catch up with Sowell until Halloween, when they arrested him a mile from his residence on Mt. Auburn Avenue. A few days later, police charged Sowell with five murders — and found six more bodies in the house.
At that time, there were still two dozen women missing from Cleveland's east side.

The Women

     By mid-November 2009, police had found and identified the remains of ten victims.

Victims from top left to bottom right: Tonia Carmichael, Nancy Cobbs, Tishana Culver, Crystal Dozier
Victims from top left to bottom right: Tonia
Carmichael, Nancy Cobbs, Tishana Culver,
Crystal Dozier
Tonia Carmichael, 52, of nearby Warrensville, disappeared in the fall of 2008 after telling a friend she was going out for "some fun," which the friend had assumed meant a crack binge. Her family reported her missing, but they said police didn't seem to take their report seriously even when her car was found abandoned off East 115th Street. Police reportedly checked abandoned buildings in the area and showed her photo to residents and bar patrons in February 2009. Her body was found buried in Sowell's back yard. She had been strangled.
Nancy Cobbs, 43, worked construction. She had three children and five grandchildren — and a history of drug abuse. Cobbs lived on Griffing Avenue, a half mile from Sowell, with one of her daughters. She disappeared in April 2009. In June her family reported her missing to the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, who did not contact the police until August.
Tishana Culver, 31, had been working as a beautician and lived just a few blocks away from Sowell. She had history of drug abuse and a series of drug convictions, which perhaps explains why her family thought Culver was in jail or maybe living with her boyfriend in Akron. They didn't even know she was dead.
Crystal Dozier, mother of seven, lived on Sowell's block. She disappeared in 2007, but no one reported her missing. Her mother, Florence Bray, thinks Sowell tore down the fliers her family put up.

Victims from top left to bottom right: Telacia Fortson, Michelle Mason, Kim Yvette Smith, Janice Webb
Victims from top left to bottom right: Telacia
Fortson, Michelle Mason, Kim Yvette Smith,
Janice Webb
Telacia Fortson, a 31-year-old Cleveland mother of three, disappeared in June 2009. She attended church regularly and liked flower arranging. A drug problem cost her custody of her three children, and perhaps her life. She was not reported missing until publicity about the bodies in Sowell's house reached her family. Her mother, Inez "Brownie" Fortson, overwhelmed with grief, had to be hospitalized after hyperventilating at the funeral.
Amelda "Amy" Hunter, 47, went missing in April 2009. She had three children and liked to read and do crossword puzzles. She often had drinks with Sowell at his house. She was not reported missing until authorities started removing bodies from Sowell's house. According to police records a full investigation was conducted when her family reported her missing.
Police haven't found Leshanda Long's body, just her skull. She was 25 years old.
Michelle Mason, 45, lived nearby on East 121st Street. She disappeared in October 2008. Her family put up flyers, which her mother, Adlean Atterberry, thinks Sowell tore down. A mother of two, Mason enjoyed the arts and liked to travel. She had an arrest record, which, Atterberry believes, is why police dismissed Mason's disappearance, even when she stopped cashing her social security checks.
Kim Yvette Smith, 44, was an artist and a cosmetologist, who had worked as a back-up singer for Gerald Levert. Like most of Sowell's victims she had a history of drug abuse. Smith, however, was not reported missing until November 2, the day authorities finished removing bodies from Sowell's house.
Janice Webb, 48, had a son and three grandchildren. Friends called her a natural comedian. She visited the neighborhood often before disappearing in June 2009. Her family reported her missing in August.
Police and F.B.I. launched investigations into other potential Sowell victims.

Just the Beginning?

  Before his prison term, Sowell had served six years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He enlisted at 18, trained as a sharpshooter and achieved the rank of corporal. Stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Okinawa, Japan, he received two good conduct medals. In light of his connection to the missing women, the F.B.I. is investigating whether Anthony Sowell might be responsible for unsolved crimes in the Carolinas, California, or Japan during his 1978-1985 Marine enlistment. A California woman alleged that he raped her in 1979, but the case never came to trial, and police no longer have records.
Police have reopened three unsolved East Cleveland murders from the late 1980s. Rosalind Garner was strangled in her home on Hayden Avenue. Two other women, Carmella Prater and Mary Thomas were found strangled in abandoned buildings on East First Street. Prater had been living down the street from Sowell, on Page Avenue. In 2010 Sowell told police he did not know them.
Reports from neighbors indicated that there may be more bodies out there. They told investigators that they would sometimes see Sowell dragging large garbage bags down the street. They also say the dumpster behind his house would sometimes smell especially bad — like the rotten, deathly air around the house. Police and F.B.I. continued throughout November 2009 to use thermal imaging, x-rays and ground-penetrating radar to examine Sowell's property, and an abandoned lot next door.
On Nov. 15, police searched the house four doors down from Sowell, after a 9-year-old girl living there found an as-yet-unidentified piece of possible evidence. On Nov. 18, the F.B.I. resumed digging at Sowell's and the house next door. They took away multiple bags of evidence.
Sowell was arraigned in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court on November 16, 2009 on charges of attempted murder, rape, kidnapping and felonious assault.
After finding the bodies, police set up a station near the house and asked possible victims' family members to come forward. Few did. The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center set up a hotline and hopes to hear from other women who escaped Sowell. Lt. Stacho says that police will listen to all victims and family members, regardless of their criminal or drug histories.

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