EAST CLEVELAND, Ohio – Charges were expected to be filed against a registered sex offender who is under investigation following the discovery of three bodies in trash bags in a poor Ohio neighborhood riddled with abandoned houses.
The search for additional bodies was suspended Sunday after police and volunteers scoured about 40 empty homes, with no immediate plans to resume, said East Cleveland Police Chief Ralph Spotts.
Spotts identified the suspect as 35-year-old Michael Madison. He said Madison is expected to be formally charged on Monday, but did not elaborate.
Mayor Gary Norton said the suspect has indicated he might have been influenced by Cleveland serial killer Anthony Sowell, who was convicted in 2011 of murdering 11 women and sentenced to death.
It's the latest in a series of high-profile cases involving the disappearance of women from the Cleveland area.
Eric Wilson, a neighbor who saw Madison frequently, said Madison threatened about a month ago to attack women in the same fashion as Sowell.
Wilson and others said Madison was a neighborhood fixture, constantly walking up and down streets and seen everywhere.
It wasn't immediately clear whether Madison has an attorney. A woman at a small white house at the address Madison used in the state sex offender database answered a few questions through the blinds of a window Sunday, refusing to come out or give her name. She identified herself as a family member, and said the family was shocked by the allegations.
An odor led to the discovery Friday of one body in a garage. Two others were found Saturday — one in a backyard and the other in the basement of a vacant house. The bodies of the three women, all wrapped in plastic bags, were found about 100 to 200 yards apart, and authorities believed the victims were killed in the last six to 10 days.
Teenager Daniqwa Martin said she smelled the odor Tuesday but ignored it, thinking it was a dead animal. Martin, 16, said Madison had offered her a ride in the past but she always declined.
Spotts indicated later Sunday that the suspect's comments haven't provided clarity on whether more bodies might be found.
"He really hasn't stated that there's any more, but he hasn't said anything that would make us think that there's not," Spotts said.
Norton said authorities have "lots of reasons" to suspect there are more victims, but he refused to say why.
Norton said Madison, who was arrested Friday after a police standoff, has indicated to authorities he might have been influenced by Sowell.
"He said some things that led us to believe that in some way, shape, or form, Sowell might be an influence," Norton told The Associated Press.
All three bodies were found in the fetal position, wrapped in several layers of trash bags, Norton said. He said detectives continue to interview Madison, who used his mother's address in Cleveland in registering as a sex offender, the mayor said.
Madison was classified as a sex offender in 2002 when he was sentenced to four years in prison for attempted rape, according to Cuyahoga County court records. He had previous convictions in 2000 and 2001 for drug-related charges.
Cuyahoga County medical examiner Dr. Thomas P. Gilson said Sunday that the bodies were in advanced stages of decomposition and that it would take several days to identify them and how they died.
About three dozen volunteers, including community anti-crime activists, fanned out Sunday morning across yards, through vacant houses and along a railroad to help police search. The chief advised them to watch for missing floor boards as they looked inside houses. One young searcher crawled under a board screwed across a door to go inside a house to search.
"The MO of each body we've found so far was wrapped up in a lot of garbage bags, so if you see anything .... and it might not look like it's a body, but it could be — because each bag, the way he had each person was in a fetal position," Spotts told searchers before they began. "It didn't look like a person could actually fit in the bag."
Barbara Stirtmire, part of a local motorcycle club whose members were pitching in to search Sunday, said she came to help because she knows so many people in the area and as the mother of a teenager daughter, understands what people with missing children must be going through.
"It doesn't make the city look good, I know that," said Stirtmire, 31, who works at a nearby auto parts store. "But as far as everybody coming together, it's beautiful. "
One neighbor, Nathenia Crosby, said she was familiar with Madison and had seen him walking through the neighborhood. She said she had told him to stop chatting with her daughter and warned him after seeing him talk to her cousin.
"It's very scary, especially when he used to be talking to my daughter," said Crosby, 48. "But I told him he was too old to be talking to my daughter because she was only 19. When I found out how old he was, I said, 'You need to move on, she's too young.' "
A day earlier, police, FBI, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department went through yards and abandoned houses over about three blocks and used dogs trained to find cadavers.
The neighborhood in East Cleveland, which has some 17,000 residents, has many abandoned houses and authorities want to be thorough, the mayor said.
"Hopefully, we pray to God, this is it," he said.
Resident Tina Young lives on a nearby street between two abandoned houses, with five others on her street also empty. She parks in her driveway close to the street so she can go in her front door, afraid of parking in the back.
Young echoed comments of several neighbors who said crime wasn't as much of a concern in East Cleveland recently as the huge number of abandoned homes.
"There's not a lot of crime that happens here," she said. "So this is something new for all of us to see."
The case brings to mind recent notorious Cleveland searches that involved missing women.
In May, three women who separately vanished a decade ago were found captive in a run-down house. Ariel Castro, a former school bus driver, has pleaded not guilty to nearly 1,000 counts of kidnap, rape and other crimes.
In 2009, Sowell was arrested after a woman escaped from his house and said she had been raped there. Police found the mostly nude bodies of 11 women in garbage bags and plastic sheets throughout the home.
Prosecutors described him in court papers as "the worst offender in the history of Cuyahoga County and arguably the State of Ohio."
He was found guilty in 2011 and sentenced to death.
Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus. Associated Press writers Kantele Franko in Columbus, Dan Sewell in Cincinnati, and Peggy Harris in Philadelphia contributed to this report.