CLEVELAND – The discovery of 11 bodies in one home in a run-down neighborhood here has relatives of the presumed victims wondering how such a gruesome scene could have gone unnoticed for perhaps years, and they charge that police ignored their missing person reports.
The man who lives in the home, 50-year-old Anthony Sowell, was ordered held without bond Wednesday on five counts of aggravated murder.
No one is sure how long Sowell, a registered sex offender who would offer free barbecue to the neighbors, had been living in his three-story house with corpses lying around, many of them black women who had been strangled. Police have recovered bodies in the living room, crawl spaces and backyard graves from the home on Imperial Avenue. There was even a skull in the basement.
"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.'"
Even neighbors seemed unfazed by the disappearances: They say many of the women were known prostitutes or drug users.
But 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 neighborhood 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.
Councilman Zach Reed is demanding an investigation into how crime reports in the neighborhood have been handled.
Mayor Frank Jackson refused to second-guess officers but said he expected the police chief would evaluate the situation and make adjustments if necessary.
Police Chief Michael McGrath said the city takes about 10 missing-person reports a day but typically clears at least 90 percent within 48 hours.
Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Brian Murphy called Sowell "an incredibly dangerous threat to the public" and said he could face the death penalty if convicted of five aggravated murder counts. Sowell also faces charges of rape, felonious assault and kidnapping after a Sept. 22 attack on a woman at his home.
Chuck Cole, a landlord with rental homes in the area, said most of the women who disappeared went by nicknames. He said he sometimes saw them buying beer at the corner convenience store, or lounging on Sowell's front porch.
"He reeled them in like that with the money and, you know, promises," Cole said of Sowell.
After a while, though, the women stopped coming around.
Residents said that in retrospect the smell alone should have raised questions. It wafted down the street, sometimes forcing employees at the sausage shop near his home to abandon the store on hot summer days.
Sowell's street is lined with occupied homes 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 Reed, whose mother lives a block away. "How did somebody get away with this in a residential neighborhood?"
It smelled like a dead dog, neighbors say. Like sewage. Like rotting meat.
"It was smelling so bad, horrible, putrid," said Kenneth Broader, a postal carrier who delivers mail to Imperial Avenue.
Sewage lines were replaced. Equipment was scrubbed. City utility officials even came to investigate, on more than one occasion.
But the stench lingered.