Image: Cleveland police search the home of Anthony Sowell
John Kuntz  /  The Plain Dealer via AP
Cleveland police search the porch at Anthony Sowell's home, where bodies were discovered on Friday.
NBC News and news services
updated 11/1/2009 5:03:56 PM ET 2009-11-01T22:03:56

Six badly decomposed bodies found at the home of a man facing a rape allegation were females and all were homicide victims, the coroner's office said Sunday.

Powell Caesar, a spokesman for Cuyahoga County Coroner Frank Miller, said at least five of the victims apparently had been strangled. Decomposition made it difficult to determine how the sixth victim died, he said.

None of the victims has been identified, Caesar said. Two victims were black, but race hadn't yet been determined in the other four bodies, he said.

Police found the first two bodies Thursday night when they went to the home of 50-year-old Anthony Sowell to arrest him on charges of rape and felonious assault, but he wasn't there. He was arrested Saturday when officers spotted him walking down the street of his east-side neighborhood.

On Friday, police found a third body and remains that were later confirmed to be three additional bodies. It wasn't determined how long the bodies were at the house, but "they could have been there anywhere from weeks to months to years," Caesar said.

Spent 15 years in prison
People who knew Sowell didn't think he had a job and said he often walked around his neighborhood looking for scrap metal to sell and asking for money. He spent 15 years in prison for the choking and attempted rape of a 21-year-old woman who was lured to his bedroom in 1989, police said.

Online court records do not show an attorney for Sowell, and the jail staff said no information was available.

Sowell's three-story house with neat white siding sits in a crowded inner-city neighborhood of mostly older homes, some boarded up, and small corner stores.

Police spokesman Lt. Thomas Stacho told NBC News on Sunday that officers had found a "makeshift grave under the stairs in the basement" of the home.

Speaking to NBC's TODAY, Stacho alleged Sowell would "befriend ... women on the street, many times talked about drinking a beer with him, sometimes took them back to his home, sometimes forced them back to his home where he attacked them and we believe probably killed them."

Police established a command post in the neighborhood to take missing-person reports and additional information on outstanding missing persons in the neighborhood.

Teresa Hicks, 48, was among the neighbors who said they were relieved about the arrest but left with a heightened fear of crime. She said she has known Sowell since high school.

"He was crazy," she said from her porch. "Sometimes he would just go off if he didn't have his way."

Ida Garrett, 72, walked to church services Sunday just one block from Sowell's home. She said the neighborhood was relieved by the arrest but worried about those missing, including one of her friends who disappeared six months ago, just after Garrett wished her a happy 43rd birthday.

The friend, Nancy Cobbs, lived one street away from the Sowell home. She was reported missing in April, and her family told police they fear she is among the victims.

"She seemed to be a very nice, quiet girl. I've known her since she was a teenager," Garrett said, adding: "I think one of them is her."

Clovice Ramsey, minister at All Nations Deliverance Ministries in nearby Maple Heights, held a "PEACE" sign on a corner within sight of the Sowell home and said the discovery of the bodies had damaged people's trust in law enforcement.

"They don't see the system working for them," Ramsey said. Sowell "is not being rehabilitated. They are not keeping a watch on him. I just feel that when the systems fails, the people give up. They give up on the system, and they give up on the God they can't see."

As a convicted sex offender, Sowell was required to report regularly to the sheriff's office, which said he had complied.

Rape allegation led to discovery
The most recent visit to his home by deputies to confirm where he lived came Sept. 22, but deputies didn't have a warrant and didn't walk inside. Hours later, a woman told police she had been raped at the house by Sowell, whom she knew. That allegation led to Thursday's search and the discovery of the bodies.

The home was still cordoned off with police tape Sunday and officers monitored it from two patrol cars.

The windows of the third floor, where the first two bodies were found, were wide open Sunday as a slight breeze blew through the neighborhood. Some neighbors said a bad smell came from the house several months ago, but they thought then that it might be natural gas.

Sowell returned to the family home in 2005 after his release from prison. The home was owned by two of Sowell's relatives, including a woman — described by neighbors as either Sowell's stepmother or aunt — who kept up the house.

Neighbors said the woman moved into a nursing home after Sowell was released from prison. Teresa Hicks, a neighbor, said people feared that she might be dead. Police were looking into her status.

Police were checking unsolved crime reports for similarities to the 1989 rape or the recent allegation against Sowell.

On Sunday, police urged the public for help in identifying missing people who may have been victims.

More on: Ohio

The Associated Press and NBC News contributed to this report.

Video: Questions linger after man's arrest

  1. Closed captioning of: Questions linger after man's arrest

    >> this morning on "today."

    >>> we have more to rorpt about a true house of horrors . the cleave home of a convicted rapist where six bodies were found as authorities try to identify the dead. there are growing questions for the police and the neighborhood itself about how these crimes went undetected for so long. lee cowan has our report.

    >> reporter: neighbors say there was a stench coming from that dark home on imperial avenue, but no one thought much about it. it was just another strange aspect of the convicted rapist who lived there.

    >> he was nice, but he still gave me the creeps.

    >> reporter: the coroner says the six bodies found in his home are all women, most had been strangled. oddly, it didn't come as a surprise to everyone. melissa, for example. she said he often tried to get her into that house. he scared me. i didn't trust him.

    >> reporter: he'd been accused of luring several women back to his home since he got out of prison in 2005 for rape.

    >> he would befriend or walk up to these women on the street, many times talked about drinking a beer with them, sometimes took them back to his home, sometimes forced them back to his home.

    >> reporter: he was never convicted on anything.

    >> he was on the radar. you can look him up on the sheriff's sex offender website, but no one knew exactly what he was doing.

    >> reporter: deputies did a spot check on his home just days ago as required under the registered sex offender program, but they found nothing suspicious.

    >> there's no reason for the deputies to go in the house. they have to right to enter without a warrant. he served his probation and is not on parole.

    >> that's frustrating to many.

    >> no one seemed to have cared or seemed to have done anything about it.

    >> reporter: donny works for a neighborhood crime prevention organization and says there were plenty of red flags .

    >> it should not have taken six bodies for the city of cleveland in this nation to wake up. all the ingredients are here.

    >> reporter: no one is sure who the victims are. the bodies are so badly decomposed identification is difficult. for family and friends looking for those that disappeared from this neighborhood, the grim question of where they went may soon be met with an equally grim answer. lee cowan, nbc news.

    >>> this is an important time

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