OPINION: Cleveland Authorities Failed In Serial Killer Case

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If you’re not familiar with the story of Anthony Sowell, allow me to give the abridged version: He’s a convicted rapist and police just found the bodies of eleven people – ten of whom are Black women – in his house, a house situated in a Cleveland neighborhood.

How does a convicted rapist and registered sex offender who did fifteen years get away with such a thing? In an attempt to combat my knee-jerk “the authorities clearly just don’t give a damn” I attempted to hand out a bit of fail to all parties involved, namely, the neighbors, the police and the media.

The media angle is explained easily enough. Black women that go missing are not a story. As I sit, I can’t think of one national news story that involved a Black woman who has vanished. Compound that with the likelihood that Sowell’s victims were poor and you have a non-story. Boom, #MediaFail.

The police claim they didn’t have information on the smell coming from the neighborhood. The neighborhood is poor, and it can be reasoned, however unfortunately, that the police presence in it is for specific reasons or not at all. In fact, their eventual discovery of the bodies was due to serving Sowell a search and arrest warrant on another assault charge.

It’s unlikely that no police had been to the neighborhood in the four years since Sowell had been released, but it could be reasonably argued that the stench was one they missed for various reasons. Also, police said they couldn’t find a link between missing Black women in Cleveland – outside of the fact that they’re missing and Black and women which, in itself, isn’t a story for the police in much the same way it isn’t for the media. Wack, but plausible. All things considered, they probably could have been  more on top of things. Boom, #MediumCopFail.

The above claim holds decent enough. The neighbors said they’d smelled a stench that permeated the neighborhood. They assumed it was the stink of meat from Ray’s Sausages Company, a local business. Ray’s cleaned up its act – replacing grease traps and a sewer line – and the smell persisted. According to police, they had no way of knowing about the smell. It could be reasoned that the police could only be made aware of it if a resident informed them of such things. If that didn’t happen, boom, #NeighborFail.

Except that residents of the neighborhood did call about the smell. In 2007. According to city councilman Zach Reed – who is calling for an independent investigation of the matter – someone rang the city council to inform them of the smell. And they were specific:

“We received a phone call from a resident that said a foul odor came across the street and it smells like a dead person. Not dead meat, not a dead animal — a dead person,” Reed said…Reed noted the local health department and police received calls regarding the house.

Boom, #ColossalAuthorityFail.

Uh oh, Cleveland. Somebody got caught with their pants down. Now, of course, Reed could be lying, but since the nature of the information incriminates him to some degree, it should not be overlooked.

Before hearing this tidbit, I assumed that perhaps the police and Powers That Be weren’t terribly in the wrong; maybe some blame should be placed at the feet of residence who said nothing. But, according to Reed, they did say something and they were ignored. Remember: Police discovered these bodies serving another warrant altogether.

Cops said they didn’t know nothin’. Reed says they did. Who’s telling the truth?

Since we’re discussing Cleveland municipal f**kery, I have a few timeline concerns and questions:

  1. Anthony Sowell was in jail on two charges of attempted rape – something he’d worked out in a plea deal – and served fifteen years, from 1990-2005. If you’re doing fifteen years, it can be reasonably assumed that his crime was of a violent nature. Whose job was it to keep track of him upon his release?
  2. Upon being released in 2005, he was registered as a sex offender and listed the home in which police would eventually find the 11 bodies as his residence or record.
  3. How long was his parole? What were the conditions of his parole? How is it that no one of authority ever stopped by his house in four years? Released in 2005. Call about the smell of a decomposing body in his neighborhood in 2007. My issue is not that they didn’t assume he was the source of the smell; it’s that, apparently, no one of authority had been on the premises of his residence two years after his release, if not earlier. If they had, I would imagine they’d have smelled the foulness.
  4. Someone calls and says “We smell dead human being,” and nobody does anything? No one could send a squad car to the area and ask a few people if they’ve smelled anything funny? Maybe cross-check the area with any suspicious characters known to reside there? The neighborhood stunk for YEARS and nobody did boo about it. The CPD dragged ELEVEN bodies out of this guys house. How bad does that stink?
  5. Again, I’m not saying they should have known it was Anthony Sowell. I am say, however, that basic “serving and protecting” of a community that had made mention of needing such a thing isn’t extremely difficult police work. This isn’t even Lenny Brisco, hard-boiled detective sh*t. This is “what the f**k is that smell?”

Is it any wonder why people in marginalized communities don’t speak up more often? In fact, I wonder how often people do try to be good citizens only to be ignored by the people sworn to look out for their communities and interests.

I wanted to be in the middle on this. I wanted to try and see everyone’s side of it, allow for everyone to take a bit of the responsibility, but I can’t. If Zach Reed is telling the truth, then the Cleveland City Council and police department failed tremendously. Had they given even a small effort in 2007, they wouldn’t have had to carry out eleven bodies today.

But they didn’t care. That the victims and the neighbors who attempted to have the matter looked into are Black and poor is hardly a surprise.

Jonathan Pitts-Wiley is a news aggregator and contributor for The Root. You can check out his personal blog at pittsindeed.wordpress.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/pittswiley. Jonathan currently resides in New York City.

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