CLEVELAND – Wearing face masks to ward off the smell of death, jurors on Monday walked through the home of a Cleveland man charged with killing 11 women and living among their corpses, then listened as a witness described how he found the first bodies stashed in the house.
The horrors of the shabby white home on Imperial Avenue were quite literally brought to life for the jury in the trial of Anthony Sowell during the first day of testimony, starting with a visit to the crime scene in the morning. It was the public's first glimpse of the house where 11 poor black women — lured by drugs and alcohol, police say — went in and never came out.
"You are about to begin a rather disturbing journey," a frowning assistant Prosecutor Richard Bombik told the jury during opening statements. "It will be burned into your memory for as long as you live."
Bombik walked the jury through each victim's disappearance, describing how they died — most strangled with household objects — and how their remains were discarded throughout Sowell's home and buried in the backyard. He talked about how some of the women were partially nude, and how one woman's skull was left in a bucket in the basement.
Photographs of the women were displayed on two flat-screen television sets, along with stick-figure drawings showing where the remains were found.
In opening statements for the defense, attorney John Parker told jurors there is no fingerprint, DNA or other scientific evidence linking Sowell to the women. Parker described how Sowell had a heart attack while shoveling snow several years ago and later lost his job because he "physically couldn't do it any longer" and later began collecting scrap metal for money.
"I think you will see that his physical health and his well-being went downhill dramatically after that heart attack, that his behavior changed," Parker said.
Sowell, dressed in dark slacks and a white top, sat with his hands on his lap during the remarks. He has pleaded not guilty to killing the women and faces the death penalty if convicted.
After opening remarks, the first witness to testify was Richard Butler, a Cleveland police officer who was part of the SWAT team that found the first two bodies in Sowell's home on Oct. 29, 2009. Butler said he and another officer discovered the bodies when they kicked open a locked bedroom door on the third floor.
"I knew that there were a couple people laying on the floor in front of me," Butler said. "My first response was to stop and shout, 'Police, don't move.'"
It took the officers a couple of seconds to realize that the people on the floor were dead, Butler said.
Prosecutors showed jurors photographs of the third-floor bedroom, which revealed a shovel on the floor next to the bodies. Butler said one of the victims was wearing a house dress that was pulled up to her waist. Black plastic wrapping covered the windows, Butler said.
Next on the witness stand was Raymond Cash, the owner of Ray's Sausage, a sausage shop next door to Sowell's home that was repeatedly blamed for the foul odor that often filled the street before the bodies were found. Cash told the court that he had been forced to spend nearly $30,000 replacing a grease trap after neighbors asked the city's health department to investigate the smell.
"There was a strong stench that was in the air. Because we're in the meat business, people assumed that it was us," Cash said. "But when they walked into our factory, there was no smell like that. It was always outside."
Cash testified that he had known the Sowell family for years and was friendly with Anthony Sowell's father, Thomas, and stepmother, Segerna, both of whom are now deceased.
Cash said Anthony Sowell helped him keep an eye on the sausage shop and had once called the police after a break-in. When Segerna Sowell became ill a couple of years ago, Cash said he would stop over at the house to find Anthony sitting on the front porch.
"I used to ask Anthony over there about it all the time to see how she was doing, and he would fill me in on how she was coming along," Cash said. "I talked to him all the time."
Earlier Monday, under a sunny blue sky, a motorcade of four vans under police escort traveled to Sowell's three-story home.
Jurors wore protective coverings over their shoes as they entered the home, which is surrounded by a towering metal fence. Reporters who accompanied the jury said the house smelled of mildew — and the smell grew worse as the jurors ascended from the basement to the third floor, where flies buzzed around the filthy rooms.
Guided by flashlight, jurors stepped over dirty piles of clothing and saw things like a lone high-heeled shoe sitting on top of a microwave.
Some rooms were in complete disrepair, with men's and women's clothing piled on the floor and dresser drawers flung open. A can of malt liquor stood next to a bed on the third floor, and the mattress was covered with papers. In the basement, a wrench hung from a nail on the wall and a dead rat was found on the floor. Some rooms had pieces of foam insulation and dirt on the floor and large holes in the walls.
There were also signs of the home's former inhabitant: food crusted over in a glass dish, a Ray Charles album, a pamphlet about substance-abuse programs.
The bodies were found buried throughout the home and backyard in November 2009. The women disappeared one by one, starting in October 2007, with the last one vanishing in September 2009.
The jurors were accompanied by the judge, sheriff's deputies and trial attorneys. The attorneys were warned in advance not to discuss the case with jurors or point anything out, and jurors were told that the visit was meant to help provide perspective for the trial. As they toured the home, jurors were instructed to take note of which room they were in.
What jurors see at the house "is not evidence, since conditions may have changed since the time of the events in this case," Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Dick Ambrose said in a court order.