CLEVELAND – Police say there's only one way for the families of missing women to know for sure if their loved ones are among the victims found in suspected serial killer Anthony Sowell's house: Give DNA samples. But relatives with checkered pasts in the hardscrabble neighborhood seem reluctant to come forward.
Area pastors are urging families to provide DNA samples that could help the coroner's office identify the remains of eight black women, saying that nearly two dozen others are still missing in southeast Cleveland. The coroner's office, meanwhile, tried to calm concerns by promising the samples would not be shared with police.
"The only way we are going to get closure is to find out who these victims are," said City Councilman Zach Reed.
Police and a cadaver dog re-entered the house Thursday where Sowell apparently lived among the reeking, rotting corpses of 10 women and the paper-wrapped skull of another that authorities found in a bucket. The ex-Marine, who served 15 years in prison for attempted rape, is being held without bail on five aggravated murder charges.
In response to messages asking how the investigation would proceed on Friday, a police spokesman e-mailed a brief note stating only that a news release would be issued late in the morning.
So far only three victims have been identified: Tonia Carmichael, 52, of Warrensville Heights; Telacia Fortson, 31, of Cleveland; and Tishana Culver, 31, also of Cleveland.
If people are hesitant to reach out directly to police or the coroner's office, Reed said they should contact him or a pastor.
Stanley Miller, executive director of the NAACP in Cleveland, said people concerned about turning over their DNA to authorities might be reassured by the coroner's offer to use the DNA only for the purpose of identifying victims.
"People are very reluctant because they don't trust the establishment," he said. "They don't trust the police, and they are not very apt to give up something like DNA that can match you to anyone, anytime forever. That's an issue."
Powell Caesar, a coroner's office spokesman, said nobody should be alarmed about providing DNA, a painless process that involves swabbing the inside of a person's cheek. The program is voluntary, and samples from a mother or a child of a missing person are most helpful in matching genetic markers.
For those who still don't want to provide samples, he recommends they supply dental records, which are just as helpful. Relatives of missing women, in particular, can provide the coroner's office with the names of dentists who may have treated their loved ones, he said.
Near Sowell's home, a plywood memorial hangs from a chain link fence, the word MISSING stenciled in black. Five stuffed animals and an artificial rose adorn the sign, which holds fliers showing 13 missing women and three men.
The fliers reflects not just fears that their bodies might be on Sowell's property, but also community members' frustrations with how they say police treat missing-persons reports from their downtrodden neighborhood.
Some of the missing are women who lived on society's fringe. Some were active or recovering drug users. Some had gone to jail, producing criminal records their families believe are the reason police didn't take their disappearances seriously.
Gloria Walker was 43 when she disappeared May 20, 2007. She was an alcoholic and dabbled in drugs, said her aunt, Sandy Drain.
"I think police looked at it as, 'Oh, just another drug addict gone," said Drain, who now cares for Walker's two sons, 16 and 26.
Janice Webb was on her way to a Father's Day gathering with her family when she disappeared, said fiancee Ronnie Bowie of Lakewood. Her grandmother lives in Sowell's neighborhood.
Webb, the 47-year-old mother of a grown son, was a drug user, but had a good heart and would "give you the world," Bowie said.
"She did things I wasn't proud of," he said. "That still don't give nobody the right to kill."
Though Bowie disapproved, Sowell's neighborhood was one of the areas Webb frequented. Bowie says he went to police in Lakewood to report his fiancee missing, but they refused to take it because she was an adult.
"They said, 'I'm sorry about your loss. But she's a grown woman.'"
Later, he went back with her sister, but they still wouldn't listen.
"If I was rich," he said, "they'd have been looking for her."