CLEVELAND — The run-down Cleveland neighbourhood where 50-year-old Anthony Sowell quietly carved out an existence is the type of place where women can disappear almost in plain sight.
Where crack users sneak into vacant houses to do drugs, have sex, then steal copper pipes and wiring to make a few bucks.
Where no one asks a lot of questions, even about the smell of rotting meat that came when the wind blew a certain way. Some likened it to the smell of death, and it seemed to follow Sowell around.
No one is sure how long Sowell, a registered sex offender who would offer free barbecue to the neighbours, had been living in his three-story house with corpses lying around, many of them black women who had been strangled. Police have now recovered 11 bodies from the home on Imperial Avenue, in the living room, crawl spaces and backyard graves. There was even a skull in the basement.
But if Sowell’s street is seedy, it’s far from abandoned. Occupied homes are sandwiched between vacant, boarded-up houses and scattered small businesses with a steady stream of customers.
“We’re not talking about some desolate area, some abandoned barn,” said Councilman Zach Reed, whose mother lives a block away. “How did somebody get away with this in a residential neighbourhood?”
Even residents seemed unfazed by the disappearances: They say many of the women were known prostitutes or drug users. But relatives of presumed victims charge that police ignored their missing person reports.
“They told us to go home, and as soon as the drugs are gone, she’ll show up,” said Markiesha Carmichael-Jacobs, whose 53-year-old mother Tonia, a drug addict, vanished Nov. 10, 2008. Police identified her Wednesday as one of the victims, saying her body was found buried in the backyard with marks indicating strangulation.
“It’s hard to imagine,” Carmichael-Jacobs said as she stood shivering on a street corner across from Sowell’s home Wednesday, “but that’s what they told us to our face: ’She’ll turn up.”’
Some wonder whether police just didn’t look for the women because they were from the city. Or because they were black.
“There’s this fear that the neighbourhood has been forgotten,” said the Rev. Rodney Maiden of Providence Baptist Church.
Cleveland police don’t take missing-persons cases seriously if they involve people clinging to the lower rungs of society, said Judy Martin, a leading local anti-crime advocate.
Reed, the councilman, is demanding an investigation into how crime reports in the neighbourhood have been handled.
Mayor Frank Jackson refused to second-guess officers or their handling of missing-person reports, but said he expected the police chief would evaluate the situation and make adjustments if necessary.
“There is still a lot of work that needs to be done and a lot of unanswered questions that need to be addressed,” Jackson said. “Until the family of the victims get the closure they seek and ultimately the justice they deserve, this case will continue to be our focus.”
Sowell was ordered held without bond after appearing in court under tight security Wednesday, wearing a blue paper jumpsuit that typically identifies inmates at risk of suicide. Although authorities initially described Sowell as a convicted rapist, they said Wednesday the conviction was only for attempted rape.
Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Brian Murphy called him “an incredibly dangerous threat to the public” and said he could face the death penalty if convicted of five aggravated murder counts.
He also faces charges of rape, felonious assault and kidnapping after a Sept. 22 attack on a woman at his home.