Guided by flashlight and wearing face masks, jurors were met with rooms buzzing with flies and a high-heeled shoe left on a microwave Monday as they visited the home of a man charged with killing 11 women and hiding their bodies around his property.
Jurors in the trial of Anthony Sowell, 51, returned from the dramatic crime-scene visit and listened intently to opening statements by both sides as Sowell sat impassively.
The prosecution presented a triple litany for jurors — when the victims disappeared in an impoverished, drug-ridden neighborhood, where their remains were found at his home and how Sowell allegedly killed them.
"You are about to begin a rather disturbing journey," a frowning assistant Prosecutor Richard Bombik warned jurors.
Case will be 'burned into your memory'
The case will create an indelible impression, he told the jury in an opening statement accompanied by color photos of the victims displayed on two flat-screen television sets. "It will be burned into your memory for as long as you live," Bombik said.
The prosecutor said the evidence would make jurors believe beyond any doubt that Sowell is guilty.
Defense attorney John Parker told jurors there is no fingerprint, DNA or other scientific evidence linking Sowell to the 11 women.
Sowell, dressed in dark slacks and a white top, sat with his hands on his lap as both sides presented opening statements to the jury. The prosecution also displayed photos of Sowell's parents and drawings with stick characters showing where the remains were found.
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.
'A strong stench'
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.
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 Pyrex dish, a Ray Charles album, a pamphlet about substance-abuse programs.
A neighborhood killer
Prosecutors say Sowell lured women from his neighborhood into his home with the promise of alcohol or drugs, then killed them. He has pleaded not guilty to killing the women and faces the death penalty if convicted.
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. All of the victims were black, and most had traces of drugs in their bodies.
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.