If you are stunned that three Cleveland women could be held captive for a decade without being discovered, then you are unacquainted with the case of Anthony Sowell, also known as the Cleveland Strangler.
Sowell was a registered sex offender who remained at liberty despite a series of sexual-assault complaints against him, until the police finally acted and discovered the bodies of 11 murdered women in his house and backyard.
At least some of those murders and rapes could have been prevented if the police had not reacted so indifferently when a distraught woman called them in September 2008, after being repeatedly raped, beaten, and choked by Sowell. She had at one point sought refuge in a bathroom, where she saw a headless body wrapped in plastic and positioned in a sitting position in the bathtub.
After managing to get away, the woman had stumbled as far as a bus stop before she could go no further. She would later testify: “I couldn’t walk no more. I was tore up. My body was tore up … My face, my female parts, my butt.”
She called the police.
“They told me I had to come in and make a report,” she would testify.
She further testified that she asked the dispatcher, “How do I get there?” The dispatcher told her: “Come in and make a report. We can’t take a report over the phone.”
She told the court that after the call, “I felt less than human. I didn’t know who to turn to.”
As in the Sowell case, there were clues that could, even should, have alerted police to the city’s latest house of horrors earlier.
On December 8, 2008, another woman contacted the police, reporting that Sowell had accosted her outside his house and dragged her around to the back, where he beat, choked, and attempted to rape her. A simple check would have told the police that Sowell was a registered sex offender who had done 15 years for raping, beating, and choking a pregnant woman. Nothing happened.
On September 22, 2009, two county deputies visited Sowell’s house to check that he was accurately reporting his address as a registered sex offender. The deputies almost surely noticed an overpowering stench emanating from the house that had the whole neighborhood complaining for months. It was so bad the workers of the sausage factory next door kept the windows shut, preferring the odors inside.
Later that same day, a woman reported to police that Sowell had beaten, choked, and raped her in his house. The police would later answer allegations that they were slow in responding by saying it took them only three days to assign an investigator. They would insist that they were not to blame—that it took more than a month to secure a search warrant, as the victim was not cooperative.
In the meantime, on October 20, 2009, Sowell choked and raped yet another woman in his house, telling her he was going to kill her. She clambered naked out a third-floor window and hung by her fingertips, intending to let herself drop into the bushes below. But Sowell grabbed her hands and tried to pull her back in. He was unable to do so and threw her. She suffered a fractured skull and eight broken ribs when she landed.
Surveillance video shows a naked Sowell standing over the semiconscious woman. She would not remember the witnesses who came over to take cellphone pictures of her. She would not know until she awoke several days later that the paramedics who responded to the scene let Sowell ride in the ambulance with her to the hospital.
“They thought he was my husband. Ain’t that some shit?” the woman later testified.
The woman decided not to inform the police, fearing they would fail to protect her should Sowell come to kill her.
On October 29, 2009, police finally arrived at Sowell’s house with a warrant based on the complaint from more than a month before. He was not at home, but there were the bodies of two partly clothed women in a third-floor room. A search produced the remains of nine other women, including a human head in a bucket.
Investigators determined that some of the victims had been missing for nearly a year. Investigators also learned that for a time, Lori Frazer, niece of Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, had been Sowell’s live-in companion. She testified at Sowell’s trial that she came home one day to find him bloodied.
“You don’t have to worry about them no more,” Sowell said by her account. “Because I killed their ass.”
She told the court that she did not know who he was talking about and did not inquire, as she did not believe him. She said she did believe him on an occasion when she noticed blood on the walls and he told her he had battled an intruder. He had, in other instances, explained wounds to his neck and arms by saying he had been assaulted in the street.
As for the smell, Frazier said Sowell told her that it came from his stepmother. When the stepmother moved out, Sowell blamed the sausage factory.
Sowell was convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to death.
In 2011, the rape victim who had been told she had to file come in a report had another occasion to call the police, after her 14-year-old daughter went missing. A cop responded this time.
“He spent maybe five minutes here and told me that after the age of 13, a teenager can make a conscious choice to leave, so they really don’t spend a lot of time investigating,” the woman later told a reporter. “How can a child that age make a conscious choice? She’s just a kid.”
After two weeks, the mother went public and started her own campaign. The police joined the search in earnest. The daughter was found.
Sowell’s home was on Cleveland’s East Side, across the Cuyahoga River from the Near West Side house where Amanda Berry and two other women apparently were held after being kidnapped. But both homes were in the vast neighborhoods housing Cleveland’s working poor and downright destitute.
The Cleveland police are discounting reports that they were called to the house after neighbors noted indications that something was amiss at the city’s latest house of horrors, once when a naked woman was supposedly seen crawling in the backyard, and another occasion when there were supposedly shouts and pounding on a door. Police say their records show that the only occasions they visited the house were after Ariel Castro himself called them about a fight on the street and a second time about his work as a school bus driver. They say he had left a child on the bus, but there was no criminal intent and they never had cause to enter the house.
There is still the all-too-familiar tone of the 911 dispatcher when Berry called to report that she had escaped after 10 years of being held captive and that she needed the police.
“We’re going to send them as soon as we get a car open,” the dispatcher replied.
“No, I need them now before he gets back,” Berry said.
“All right; we’re sending them, OK?” the dispatcher said.