CLEVELAND — An Ohio sex offender charged with killing 11 women and hiding their remains around his home was convicted Friday of aggravated murder.
Anthony Sowell, 51, was convicted in the killing of Tonia Carmichael, who disappeared in November 2008 and was strangled with an electrical charger for a cell phone or camera.
The jury deliberated for just over 15 hours before announcing the verdict on one of the first of the 83 counts against Sowell. The verdicts to dozens of other counts were still being read Friday afternoon.
As soon as the first guilty count was read, Sowell turned around and was handcuffed by a court deputy. Carmichael’s mother and daughter hugged each other and cried.
The aggravated murder conviction means Sowell is eligible for the death penalty.
The women began disappearing in 2007. Prosecutors say Sowell lured vulnerable women to his home with the promise of alcohol or drugs. Police discovered the first two bodies and a freshly dug grave in late 2009 after officers went to investigate a woman’s report that she had been raped there.
Many of the women found in Sowell’s home had been missing for weeks or months, and some had criminal records. They were disposed of in garbage bags and plastic sheets, then dumped in various parts of the house and yard. Most were strangled with household objects and had traces of cocaine or depressants in their systems. One woman’s skull was found in a bucket in the basement.
All of the victims were black, as is Sowell.
During the trial, several women gave grueling testimony of alleged attacks by Sowell, telling the court how they had managed to escape. One woman, who said she was brutally raped by Sowell, testified that she had seen a headless body in his home.
Prosecutors also showed an eight-hour taped interrogation of Sowell after he was first arrested.
During the interrogation, Sowell let out a cry of anguish and buried his head in his hands as two detectives pressed him to explain how the bodies ended up in his house in a drug-ridden neighborhood on the east side of town.
“It had to be me,” Sowell said in the video, rubbing his head with his hands. “I can’t describe nobody. I cannot do it. I don’t know. But I’m trying to.”
Sowell told detectives during the interrogation that he heard a voice that told him not to go into a third-floor bedroom where two bodies were found. He also told them about “blackouts” and “nightmares” in which he would hurt women with his hands. He told detectives that he began losing control of his anger about the time the victims started disappearing.
When one detective described a body that was found in his basement, Sowell became visibly upset again in the video.
“I guess I did that, too,” he said. “‘Cause nobody else could’ve did it.”
The defense declined to call any witnesses. The strategy left unanswered a central question in the case: how could anyone live in a house with rotting bodies?
In his closing statement, defense attorney John Parker questioned the credibility of several witnesses, noting that some had struggled with drug addiction and mental health issues, and criticized police officers for failing to properly investigate when the victims’ families tried to report them missing. He asked jurors whether the prosecution proved who actually killed the women — at one point suggesting that more than one person may have dragged the bodies around the house.
One woman’s body, found in the basement under a mound of dirt, was nude and gagged at the mouth with her shirt tied behind her head. Most were bound at the wrists or ankles with shoelaces, cable wire and rope.
When the bodies were found, police concluded that a nearby sausage shop wasn’t the source of a lingering stench as many neighbors believed. The family-owned business had spent $20,000 on plumbing fixtures, sewer lines and grease traps to get rid of the odor.