On November 3, as a Republican electoral insurgency made headlines across the country, all of the media air was sucked out of Cleveland by the apprehension of Anthony Sowell, a convicted sex offender and accused serial killer who it seems has been systematically murdering women in his quiet, stable inner-city neighborhood for as long as four years. The number of victims currently stands at 11 black women, some of whom were reportedly drug abusers. As one local resident said to me, “They seem to only have value in death.”
I graduated from high school with Allen Sowell, the older half-brother of the alleged murderer. He went on to become a social worker and respected member of the community, and recently retired from a local child-welfare agency. I attempted to call him but his voicemail was full; a friend who resides on the same suburban block as he does said he’s fairly sure that Allen and his family packed up and left a few days after the story broke.
The question I wanted to ask Allen I already knew has no rational answer: How can two brothers (albeit, half-brothers) turn out so radically different? Similar questions will haunt Cleveland, and indeed, the entire nation—as they always do when we discover a monster in our midst—for years to come.
“They were both naked, and she was bleeding from the mouth and nose,” says Laster. A former linebacker and a great deal bigger than Sowell, he ordered the accused murderer to freeze.
But perhaps they should have haunted us sooner. The numerous candlelight vigils and prayer sessions held for the victims have taken on an angry tone as community residents accuse the police of doing little, if anything, to alert the citizenry or launch an investigation, despite complaints of a foul odor hanging in the air in the neighborhood for years. After one woman broke free from the alleged killer in September and reported the attempted rape, it still took an incredible 37 days before police finally visited the house of horrors and discovered the first two decomposing bodies.
“Everyone failed these women, and everyone needs to take responsibility for their part of the failure,” said Zack Reed, the city councilman who represents the ward where the crimes occurred. “The only way these families are going to get closure is for all of us to apologize, but the police department is basically saying they bear no responsibility, and this flies in the face of what has transpired here.”
Friction between black communities and police departments certainly isn’t excusive to Cleveland, but there’s a sense here that the strained relations will only worsen as this incident unfolds.
Take the example of Don Laster, who attempted to rescue a woman from Sowell’s clutches on October 20. “I was driving down his street when a young guy flagged me down and rushed me over to a side yard,” Laster told me. When Laster looked into the yard, he saw Sowell and a woman. “They were both naked, and she was bleeding from the mouth and nose,” says Laster. A former linebacker and a great deal bigger than Sowell, he ordered the accused murderer to freeze.
Laster, who is a longtime friend of mine, works on houses in the neighborhood. He knew of Sowell, and says word on the street was that Sowell “was a scrapper,” meaning he’d go into abandoned homes and strip out the valuable copper piping. Laster says he gave Sowell a sweatshirt and told him to cover the woman up. “I said, ‘Put it on her gently,’ then I told him not to move.” He then called 911, and when a fire truck arrived, he says Sowell grabbed the woman and pulled her into the house. The firefighters followed them in, and Laster left the scene.
But he says despite giving his contact information to the 911 dispatcher, the police have yet to call him to follow up. “If you go into a police precinct to make out a complaint they usually treat you like a suspect,” says Laster, “and they’re never going to admit to doing anything wrong.” This apparent official indifference may sound preposterous to many, but black people know it all too well—it happens in our neighborhoods in inner-city Cleveland, and all across the country, every day.
The community has expressed strong and persistent feelings that had the victims been white, or had the crimes been committed in a white neighborhood, more attention would have been paid, and lives could have potentially been saved. Instead, the media has remained silent. For four years, as black woman after black woman has mysteriously disappeared, an impenetrable inertia has kept anything from being done to stop it.
Now, everything is different. Now that we know it’s the work of a serial killer, suddenly these women’s disappearances have real value to people. We can see it in the sea of satellite dishes perched on the roofs of TV news vans suddenly jamming our streets. We can hear it in Cleveland’s local radio-talk shows, which have been having a field day with the story, and in the embedded local racial animus exposed by a white caller to one of those talk shows, who essentially blamed the victims—either for being crack whores, or for simply living in a black neighborhood.
“It’s amazing,” said Bridgette Harper, as she stood with me viewing the bank of news trucks surrounding her home, “that these black women, who supposedly were not worth anything in life, are so valuable in death. If they weren’t worth anything, then why are all of these trucks and cameras out here? Somebody is paying for all of this.”
There has been a quiet but ongoing conversation among members of the black media in regard to which missing-persons stories receive local and national attention, and which do not. One Texas blogger recently wrote that he was amazed that apparently no women of color, even if they are members of the middle-class, ever went missing in America—that is, if the national media is to be believed, since none are ever featured on the national news. Another chimed in that darker-haired woman (even if they were white) didn’t get much coverage either. “Only blue-eyed blondes get any press,” he caustically wrote.
“Hindsight is always 20/20,” said another talk-show caller, “and it’s easy to criticize the police after the fact. I just can’t figure out why the neighbors didn’t suspect more, do more.”
Mansfield Frazier is a native Clevelander and former newspaper editor. His regular column can be seen on CoolCleveland.com. An avid gardener, he resides in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland with his wife Brenda and their two dogs, Gypsy and Ginger.