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Nov. 10 2009 - 2:35 am | 219 views | 1 recommendation | 1 comment

Cleveland Serial Murders: the mystery of Anthony Sowell

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 4:  The home of Antho...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

This is the first of a  multi-part post on Anthony Sowell, who has been charged with of strangling at least five women in Cleveland, Ohio.

Cleveland, Ohio – Eleven women entered the modest duplex at 12205 Imperial Ave., and never left.  Now we know who two more are. The bodies of Janice Webb, 49, and Kim Yvette Smith, 44, were identified on Monday.

What we know of them mirrors what we know of the other seven victims. The victims were African American women, and most were in their 40s. They had criminal records for theft and drug possession.  Several frequented Mount Pleasant, the neighborhood where the house is located.

How they died isn’t in dispute; authorities say all the victims were strangled. Seven of the bodies still had ligatures around their necks. And soon we will know “when” the women died, although some have been missing for more than a year.

Anthony Sowell, image courtesy of Cleveland Police Dept.

Anthony Sowell, image courtesy of Cleveland Police Dept.

The questions that remain center on Anthony Sowell, who lived in the duplex on Cleveland’s southeast side.  He sits in jail, under a $5 million bond, and has been indicted for rape.

Enough information is known to answer the what, when and where of his life. Sowell, 50, was convicted of attempted rape in 1989 and served 15 years. He grew up in the suburb of  East Cleveland, and committed his crime there. The city’s police have reopened three murder cases that are similar to the Cleveland crimes.

He spent time in the military and was stationed in North Carolina and California. Authorities in both places are taking a second look at unsolved crimes committed when Sowell lived in the vicinity.

But the dry facts don’t begin to explain who he is, especially to those acquainted with him. They, like many, are trying to square what they know about Sowell with the events swirling around him.

“I know that (guy),” community activist Amir El Hajj Khalid A. Samad told trueslant.com.  Anger and disgust seemed to rise from his gut and push words from his mouth. “I know that (guy). ”

Samad is the executive director of  Peace in the Hood, a Cleveland anti-crime and gang-prevention organization. He has deep personal ties to Imperial Avenue.  Family members lived on the street, so he often visited when he was a youngster, he said. As an officer in the youth gang unit of Cleveland Municipal School District, he fought the cliques that helped bring down a former prosperous, middle- and working-class community in southeast Cleveland.

According to Samad,  Sowell appeared in the neighborhood in 2005.  It wasn’t his neighborhood;  he’d grown up in East Cleveland, a suburb about 5 miles northeast of  Mount Pleasant. But his stepmother owned the house, and he came there after getting out of prison.

Although he worked off and on, Sowell was  known for breaking into houses and stripping them of  copper and siding, Samad said.

And the man was known to have a drug problem. “There were people who knew what he was about, that he was using the house to get high,” Samad said.

Still, the traffic into the house wasn’t constant, Samad told trueslant.com. And he pointed out that the corner of  123rd and Imperial, just feet from  Sowell’s home, was  in the heart of a lively drug market.

“(123rd street) was a known street for drug activity,” Samad said. “The whole street was just bad.”

Dwight Sutherland agreed.

He grew up on Imperial Ave., across the street from the Sowell’s home. He didn’t know the family, but he knows the neighborhood. And he knows there’s lots going on.

“People were up day and night,” he told trueslant. “Drugs is a problem in the area. It wasn’t a quiet community.”

Perhaps, then, it was no wonder that Sowell’s activities didn’t raise suspicion. The neighbors had him pegged: he was a scrapper who sold metal when he found it, however he found. He liked to drink and he liked to get high.

That was his front, the face Sowell wore when he greeted his public. So sociologist and criminologist James Chriss is not surprised that neighbors had no idea something was terribly amiss at the house.

Chriss, a professor at Cleveland State University, believes Sowell was doing what everyone does: he was putting his best foot forward.

“Through socialization, we learn to present a respectable front: how to be courteous, to stay out of trouble,” Chriss, a professor at Cleveland State University, told trueslant.com

That strategy works well for folks who have something to hide, because people judge by outward appearances. Chriss even thinks the appearance of the house blinded onlookers to the possibility of wrongdoing there.

“The house is well-kept,” he pointed out. “You can do all sorts of stuff behind closed doors. ”

-more to come-

(read part 2)

(read part 3)


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  1. collapse expand

    Stereotyping anybody is a dangerous interpersonal practice. When law enforcement personnel and neighorhood sources they rely on fall into the stereotyping pit, tunnel vision usually results and public safety suffers. Stereotyping, aka tunnel vision, plays a role in many wrongful convictions and also in many failures to arrest the actual perpetrators. When will they (we) ever learn?

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