How Cleveland Enabled a Serial Killer

As finger-pointing intensifies over how a murderer with ties to the mayor went unnoticed for years, Mansfield Frazier says the real culprit is the misguided war on drugs.

Mark Duncan / AP Photo

Law enforcement and social service agencies, family members, governmental departments, religious institutions, and an entire community are attempting to place blame on each other for perhaps the most heinous ongoing crime spree in Cleveland’s history. The body count of drug-addicted black women now stands at 11, and the FBI has gotten involved as attention shifts to a vacant house next door to where the first victims were found. Residents are praying that no more bodies are discovered, but a long list of missing Cleveland women remains.

Even the city’s mayor, Frank Jackson, has a personal connection to the crime—his niece has come forward and acknowledged that she lived with the alleged serial killer, Anthony Sowell, for a time last year. The official and community focus, however, still seems to be stuck on exculpation rather than prevention of future tragedies of this kind.

“I knew a couple of these women back in the day, and if there had been some real options in the community, perhaps some, if not all, of them would still be alive today,” said Debbie S. “But we’ll never know.”

The city prosecutor recently stated that a few months ago, when one woman came forward with and accused Sowell of attempted rape, a city detective said she wasn’t a credible witness—in spite of blood splatters in Sowell’s home and other documented evidence. The police chief is now countering that statement by saying it was the prosecutor, not his detective, who didn’t want to move forward on the case.

Meanwhile, the community is up in arms, asking why the police and members of the sheriff’s department—who visited the home on a regular basis, because Sowell was a registered sex offender—failed to notice the stench that has permeated the neighborhood and perplexed residents for years.

But instead of pointing fingers, law enforcement should focus on treating addicts, says one streetwise expert. Chuck W. is a Cleveland drug merchant who admits that he’s a “dealer that never holds.” In other words, he never has to see or touch the product that has caused so much devastation to the city.

“They’re never going to find the right answers because they’re looking in all of the wrong places for all the wrong answers,” he said. “I’m about two years away from getting out of this racket altogether and getting into something legit, and the only thing I’ve ever feared is the feds decriminalizing this stuff, and I knew that was never going to happen. One thing for sure, they’re never going to successfully outlaw the dope game. It’s been 40 years since they started the war on drugs, and they haven’t made a dent in the supply yet. If they want to solve the problem of addiction, they’re going to have to put more money into treatment than trying to catch people like me. I don’t know any crackhead that gets up in the morning and says, ‘Man, I’d sure like to get high today, but I’d better not because it’s against the law.’ That just doesn’t happen.”

Crack cocaine is generally acknowledged to be the most psychologically powerful and addicting street drug the world has ever seen—some say it’s even stronger than mother love. “I used to get high with some women that would sell their own daughters to the drug boys for a couple of rocks,” said Debbie S., a former addict who has been clean for almost five years. “I was fortunate in that I don’t have any kids, and I knew how to hustle, so someone could never have tricked me off into a bad situation like these poor women. I could always find some drugs because I was a good hustler, but what I couldn’t ever find was real treatment.”

According to news reports, all of the dead women had, at one time or another, interacted with the criminal justice system as a result their addictions, but none were successfully treated. “I knew a couple of these women back in the day, and if there had been some real options in the community, perhaps some, if not all, of them would still be alive today,” said Debbie S. “But we’ll never know.”

“The police know who I am and what my people do,” said Chuck W. “What they don’t know is when and where we’re going to do it. If they ever get too close to me, I’m ghost… I’m outta here. This is one big game. They keep the public bullshitted by showing them huge drug busts, just so they can keep on getting funding, but they know they’re only catching a drop in the bucket. If they were winning the so-called war on drugs, the price of a kilo would have gone up, but instead it has gone down, and business is great. Even if they bust me, there’s a bunch of dudes just waiting to take my place. These killings are so sickening I just might get out now. I’ve got granddaughters now, you know.”

Debbie S.’s conclusion? “I really don’t think they want to shut the drug game down,” she said. “Too many people are making a good living off of it. Families that have money or insurance can afford treatment for their loved ones… my family never totally gave up on me. But if you’re poor, it makes no difference if you are black or white, you’re ass-out. I hope no one thinks that this motherfucker killed all of the crack whores in his neighborhood, or in Cleveland for that matter… no one can be that stupid. This will happen all over again sooner or later, you can bet on that—if not in Cleveland, then somewhere else. These women have targets on their backs.”

Mansfield Frazier is a native Clevelander and former newspaper editor. His regular column can be seen on An avid gardener, he resides in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland with his wife Brenda and their two dogs, Gypsy and Ginger.