The smell surfaces every so often: a reminder of the horrors that unfolded here in November 2009, when police began pulling the remains of 11 women from the depths of this rundown white duplex on an impoverished Cleveland street.
“Every once in a while you can hear people saying … ‘What’s that smell?,’” says Tracy Chapman, who lives across the street.
The murder trial gets under way Monday for Anthony Sowell, 51, a convicted sex offender and ex-Marine charged with killing the women and hiding their remains in his home and backyard. The trial, expected to last several weeks, will force Cleveland residents to revisit a dark chapter in the city’s history that most would rather forget. Prosecutors say Sowell, who has pleaded not guilty, lured women from the neighborhood into his home with the promise of alcohol or drugs, then killed them.
In a surprise secret meeting Friday, prospective jurors were introduced to Sowell behind closed doors while reporters covering the case waited on another floor for trial credentials. Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Dick Ambrose had previously said jury selection would begin Monday in his courtroom.
The discovery of the bodies ignited an uproar that has yet to subside, with most of the anger directed at the city’s police department. Some of the victims’ families allege the police never bothered to look for their loved ones because they were addicted to drugs and lived in a dangerous part of town, near Sowell’s home. All of the victims were black. Most were strangled with household objects and had traces of drugs in their systems.
Residents of Mount Pleasant, Sowell’s neighborhood, had complained about a rotting smell for months, but they say their complaints went unheeded.
The women disappeared one by one, starting in October 2007. The last one vanished in September 2009.
They were disposed of in garbage bags and plastic sheets, then dumped in various parts of the house and yard. Five were buried in the backyard; four ended up on the third floor. One woman’s body, found in the basement under a mound of dirt, was nude and gagged at the mouth.
All that remained of Leshanda Long, 25, was her skull, found in a bucket in the basement.
Michelle Mason, 44, was strangled with a cloth and buried in the backyard. Her mother, Adlean Atterberry, chose to re-bury her in a cemetery within walking distance of her home because she could not bear to be far from her daughter. She visits the grave almost daily.
It was a relief when Mason’s body was identified because it put an end to the lurking fear that she was locked in a basement somewhere, suffering. Atterberry is convinced that her daughter was killed quickly — that she could not have remained in that house for long.
“He killed her right there,” she says. “He couldn’t have kept her in that house because she’d have been screaming like somebody — she had the loudest voice you ever heard. She would’ve been screaming. Somebody would’ve heard her.”
The public outcry picked up steam when it emerged that Sowell had been arrested in 2008 when a woman accused him of attacking her, only to be released shortly afterward because police didn’t believe the woman was credible. Several families are suing the city in a slew of lawsuits alleging wrongful death, negligence and racial discrimination.
Yet the effects of the crimes were felt all the way up the political food chain, as high up as the mayor’s office. In a strange twist, a local TV station reported that Mayor Frank Jackson’s niece had dated Sowell and lived with him several years ago. His niece has declined interview requests, and Jackson has been tight-lipped about the connection. The mayor, his wife and his niece are on the list of witnesses who will be called to testify.
Andrea Taylor, the mayor’s spokeswoman, said the mayor does not know why he’s on the list. Taylor said she did not want to speculate but acknowledged the connection between Sowell and Jackson’s niece.
It has been a long road getting to the start of the trial, which was supposed to start a year ago and was delayed several times. The defense has claimed “inflammatory, saturating and prejudicial” news coverage makes it impossible for Sowell to get a fair trial in Cleveland, but the judge refused to move it.
Two judges were forced to step aside before Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Dick Ambrose finally took over. The first judge stepped down after The Plain Dealer, Cleveland’s daily newspaper, published e-mails in which the judge criticized law enforcement’s practice of releasing suspects pending indictment — which is what happened in Sowell’s case in 2008.
The second judge, Shirley Strickland Saffold, was removed by the Ohio Supreme Court to “avoid the appearance of bias” after The Plain Dealer reported that inflammatory anonymous comments posted on the newspaper’s website about Sowell and one of his attorneys had been traced to Saffold’s personal email account.
Last week, Ambrose denied a last-ditch attempt to delay the trial one more time. Jury selection is expected to last two weeks.
Many questions remain unanswered about the homicides, including when the women were killed and how they ended up in Sowell’s house. Because the bodies were so extensively decomposed, some answers will never be known.
The trial is expected to shed some light on Sowell himself.
A former Marine who earned two good conduct medals, Sowell was released from prison in 2005 after serving 15 years for attempted rape. He then moved into the house on Imperial Avenue, where he was known to neighbors as a seemingly harmless guy who scrounged the sidewalks for empty cans and scrap metal to sell. The city’s public defender says Sowell was laid off several years ago, but it was unclear what kind of work he had been doing.
In a defense statement seeking another delay, neuropsychiatrist Dr. George Woods Jr. said he would need six months to “adequately review the material provided and conduct the appropriate interviews.” Sowell’s attorneys have requested thousands of pages of records about Sowell’s past, including military documents and early public school records.
Sowell’s attorneys did not respond to requests for comment on the start of the trial.
The victims’ families are relieved that they will not have to endure another delay; most are desperate for closure.
“They’ve had more than enough time and more than enough money,” says Barbara Carmichael, whose daughter Tonia was strangled with an electrical charger for a cellphone or camera and buried in Sowell’s backyard. “So let’s get this over with.”
Carmichael, 52, had been struggling with a crack cocaine addiction before she died. She had told a friend that she was going out for some fun the day she disappeared. She left behind three children, one of whom died of a heart attack last year.
Sowell’s house is now surrounded by a towering wire fence that stretches almost to the edge of the second-floor balcony, sealing off the property, which has become overgrown with weeds since investigators left. The fence was erected months ago at the prosecution’s request in an attempt to preserve the crime scene. If the judge allows it, prosecutors hope to take jurors to the house during the trial.
The house has become a site of interest on the city’s east side, a place where people come to gawk or pay their respects for the deceased. But most of the residents who knew Sowell — those who saw him drinking malt liquor on his porch, sometimes in the company of a woman, or barbecuing in his backyard — have moved away. There is an eerie silence on the sidewalk, as if the neighborhood is still holding its collective breath.
“People been moving out,” says Chapman, gazing steadily at Sowell’s home from her front porch. “All them houses are empty.”