CLEVELAND – The man who lived in the house of rotting corpses never gave people a reason to wonder what he was really doing behind closed doors.
Anthony Sowell was the guy who liked to sit on his front steps drinking King Cobra Malt Liquor for $1.50 a bottle, sometimes in the company of a woman. He was the guy who hung around the corner convenience store bumming change off his neighbors. He was the guy who scrounged around sidewalks and backyards for empty cans and scrap metal to sell.
The suspected serial killer seemed so harmless that when he invited neighbors over for a barbecue in his driveway, they came. So benign that when he beckoned women inside his house that smelled of death, they apparently went willingly.
"If it's up to the people in the neighborhood, he probably never would have got caught," said 52-year-old LaBaron Simpson. "Because he didn't cause no problems around here."
The house where the authorities say 50-year-old Sowell lived among the reeking corpses of 10 women and the paper-wrapped skull of another was silent on Friday, and investigators say they have no plans to resume searching for additional remains. The ex-Marine, who served 15 years in prison for attempted rape, is being held without bail on five aggravated murder charges.
So far only four victims have been identified, including 43-year-old Nancy Cobbs, of Cleveland, whose name was released Friday. Others already identified are Tonia Carmichael, 52, of Warrensville Heights; Telacia Fortson, 31, of Cleveland; and Tishana Culver, 31, also of Cleveland. The city coroner's office is combing through DNA samples from the families of missing women to identify more remains.
Unbeknownst to most neighbors, Sowell was a registered sex offender who checked in with authorities from time to time and fooled people into believing he was just another guy trying to scrape out a living.
The only distinguishing physical characteristic about Sowell, who is about 5-foot-11 and weighed 160 pounds, is a scar under his left eye.
He smelled pretty bad, but then a lot of hard-up folks in this rough Cleveland neighborhood smell less than clean, people say. And even when a terrible, rotting stench wafted down the street and past his house, people didn't think Sowell was the source. Instead, they pointed fingers at the sausage shop next door.
"Nobody could imagine that this man was capable of doing what he was doing," said Fawcett Bess, owner of Bess Chicken & Pizza, a restaurant across the street from Sowell's house. "He always showed respect to you — 'good morning' and 'good evening' and that kind of thing."
The portrait of Sowell's early years is hazy, and no record of his birth could be found.
Court papers show he claims he fathered a child in 1978 with a woman who was not identified. He also said he was married in 1981 and divorced in 1985, but did not name his ex-wife.
In January 1978, when he was 19, Sowell joined the Marines, where he became a rifle sharpshooter and won two good conduct medals during stints in Cherry Point, N.C., Okinawa, Japan, and Camp Pendleton, Calif. In 1985, having risen to the rank of corporal, Sowell left the service.
A few years later, back home in Cleveland, he committed his first known attack.
Records of that 1989 assault show Sowell took a 21-year-old woman to his Page Avenue home, pushed her down on the bed and started to choke her. When she tried to scream, he said: "You can scream all you want, nobody is home."
He sexually assaulted the woman twice, gagged her, threatened to kill her and tied her up with a necktie, the report said.
Because of the viciousness of the crime, the parole board repeatedly denied him early release. In a parole hearing, he owned up to a drinking problem and said he'd been drinking the day of the assault.
The prison system gave Sowell excellent grades, however, for his attitude, initiative and dependability at his kitchen job. "Works well w/all staff & where ever needed," according to a July 22, 2003, inmate evaluation report sent to the parole board.
Upon his release in 2005, Sowell moved into the Imperial Avenue home owned by his father Thomas — who had died two years earlier — and Thomas' wife, Segerna.
Neighbors say Segerna Sowell was often sick, and some believe she moved into a nursing home. Though others had wondered if she was among the dead, police Lt. Tom Stacho confirmed Friday that Segerna Sowell "is alive and well in Cleveland."
Despite Sowell's quiet presence in the neighborhood, he was known to behave strangely at times.
We'd catch him talking to himself," said Martin Lloyd, who hired Sowell off the street to help rehabilitate houses, but fired him six months later for stealing tools. "Sometimes he'd just yell out loud."
The city's public defender says Sowell was laid off two years ago, but it was unclear what kind of work he had been doing. For a while, he was collecting unemployment checks.
Sometimes, neighbors say, they saw Sowell dragging garbage bags down the street.
Although his home was in a crowded neighborhood, his backyard — a burial site for five victims — was obscured by trees and a fence. Alongside the fence stood a trash bin that would start to smell about once a month, said neighbor Robby Adams.
"It would get really, really bad," he says, "and it would go away after they emptied the Dumpster."