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Nightmare hid in city block short on dreams 

The run-down Cleveland neighborhood where 50-year-old Anthony Sowell quietly carved out an existence is the type of place where women can disappear almost in plain sight.
Image: Anthony Sowell,  Kathleen DeMetz
Anthony Sowell, right, stands behind public defender Kathleen DeMetz during his court appearance Wednesday in Cleveland. Sowell, 50, was arraigned on five counts of aggravated murder after 11 bodies were discovered in his home over the past few days.Mark Duncan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The run-down Cleveland neighborhood where 50-year-old Anthony Sowell quietly carved out an existence is the type of place where women can disappear almost in plain sight.

Crack users sneak into vacant houses to do drugs, have sex, steal copper pipes and wiring to make a few bucks.

No one asks a lot of questions, even about the smell of rotting meat that came when the wind blew a certain way. Some likened it to the smell of death, and it seemed to follow Sowell around.

No one is sure how long Sowell, a registered sex offender who would offer free barbecue to the neighbors, had been living in his three-story house with corpses lying around, many of them black women who had been strangled. Police have now recovered 11 bodies from the home on Imperial Avenue, in the living room, crawl spaces and backyard graves. There was even a skull in the basement.

But if Sowell's street is seedy, it's far from abandoned. Occupied homes are sandwiched between vacant, boarded-up houses and scattered small businesses with a steady stream of customers.

"We're not talking about some desolate area, some abandoned barn," said Councilman Zach Reed, whose mother lives a block away. "How did somebody get away with this in a residential neighborhood?"

‘They told us to go home’
Even residents seemed unfazed by the disappearances: They say many of the women were known prostitutes or drug users. But relatives of presumed victims charge that police ignored their missing person reports.

"They told us to go home, and as soon as the drugs are gone, she'll show up," said Markiesha Carmichael-Jacobs, whose 52-year-old mother Tonia, a drug addict, vanished Nov. 10, 2008. Police identified her Wednesday as one of the victims, saying her body was found buried in the backyard with marks indicating strangulation.

"It's hard to imagine," Carmichael-Jacobs said as she stood shivering on a street corner across from Sowell's home Wednesday, "but that's what they told us to our face: 'She'll turn up.'"

Some wonder whether police just didn't look for the women because they were from the city. Or because they were black.

"There's this fear that the neighborhood has been forgotten," said the Rev. Rodney Maiden of Providence Baptist Church.

Cleveland police don't take missing-persons cases seriously if they involve people clinging to the lower rungs of society, said Judy Martin, a leading local anti-crime advocate.

Reed, the councilman, is demanding an investigation into how crime reports in the neighborhood have been handled.

‘A lot of unanswered questions’
Mayor Frank Jackson refused to second-guess officers or their handling of missing-person reports, but said he expected the police chief would evaluate the situation and make adjustments if necessary.

"There is still a lot of work that needs to be done and a lot of unanswered questions that need to be addressed," Jackson said. "Until the family of the victims get the closure they seek and ultimately the justice they deserve, this case will continue to be our focus."

Police Chief Michael McGrath said the city takes about 10 missing-person reports a day but typically clears at least 90 percent within 48 hours.

Chuck Cole, a landlord with rental homes in the area, said most of the women who disappeared went by nicknames, so he doesn't know who they really were. He said he sometimes saw them buying beer at the corner convenience store, or lounging on Sowell's front porch.

"He reeled them in like that with the money and, you know, promises," Cole said of Sowell.

After a while, though, the women stopped coming around.

Residents said that in retrospect the smell alone should have raised questions. It wafted down the street, sometimes forcing the sausage-shop employees who worked near to his home to abandon the store on hot summer days.

It smelled like a dead dog, they say. Like sewage. Like rotting meat.

"It was smelling so bad, horrible, putrid," said Kenneth Broader, a postal carrier who delivers mail to Imperial Avenue.

The stench lingered
Sewage lines were replaced. Equipment was scrubbed. City utility officials even came to investigate, on more than one occasion. But the stench lingered.

Sowell was ordered held without bond after appearing in court under tight security Wednesday, wearing a blue paper jumpsuit that typically identifies inmates at risk of suicide. Although authorities initially described Sowell as a convicted rapist, they said Wednesday the conviction was only for attempted rape.

Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Brian Murphy called him "an incredibly dangerous threat to the public" and said he could face the death penalty if convicted of five aggravated murder counts. He also faces charges of rape, felonious assault and kidnapping after a Sept. 22 attack on a woman at his home.

After Sowell's court appearance, Deputy Police Chief Ed Tomba said investigators have finished digging through the backyard and would begin tearing apart walls inside the house in search of more evidence or bodies.

The house is separated by no more than 15 feet on either side from narrow, dilapidated homes, all near small but busy local shops.

Bess Fawcett, a owner of Bess Chicken & Pizza across the street from Sowell's house, said no one in the neighborhood could imagine the crimes Sowell might have been committing behind his walls.

Respectful and polite
He was respectful and polite, always sitting on his front steps and visiting, once holding a driveway cookout and offering free food to the neighbors.

He walked the streets with different women all the time, Fawcett said, but none appeared to be with him against their will.

That changed about three weeks ago, when Fawcett spotted Sowell, naked and on top of a woman in the bushes next to his house.

"He was laying over her and I said, 'Tony, what are you doing?' He said, 'It's cool, Mr. Bess. It's cool.'"

Bess says he reported it. By the time an ambulance arrived, Sowell had gotten the woman back in his house, and he ultimately left with her in the ambulance. Police, Bess said, didn't show up until hours later. When they returned the next morning, Sowell was gone.