5 Reasons The Cleveland Serial Killer Case Flew Under The Radar

How does a sick fuck like Anthony Sowell, who lives next to a sausage factory, get away with murdering eleven (or more) women in just four years? The answer is an ugly examination into our society's structural failings.

While the sausage factory provided a little cover for the horrible stench, the other reasons why Sowell's actions went undetected for so long is a grim state of affairs.

1. All The Victims Were Black

Sadly, the media values some missing bodies over others, and generally prefers attractive young white co-eds as the women most worthy of coverage. (This is the reason why the blog Black and Missing exists.) Obviously, any missing woman is a tragedy - but in the very first episode of the IFC Media Project, Gideon Yago and crew dug into why missing white girls garner so much media attention. The reason? One part racism, one part opportunistic "spokesmen" who are willing (for a fee) to push the story:

Click to view


2. Many Of The Victims Were Drug Users Or Had Run Into Trouble With The Law

One woman, Tanja Doss, narrowly escaped Sowell's insanity:

Doss believes she only narrowly escaped the fate of those dug up from Sowell's yard.

She had met Sowell in 2005, after his prison release, but didn't know the real reason for his sentence. She found him to be "a civilized person, sitting outside drinking beer, a nice person." So she didn't hesitate to join him for a drink.

"And then he just clicked. I'm sitting on the corner of the bed and he just leaped up and came over and started choking me," she said. Shocked, Doss said she lay back and tried not to struggle. "He said, 'If you want to live, knock three times on the floor.' And I knocked on the floor."

Still holding her throat, he told her using several profanities that she could be "dead in the street" and no one would care.

Sowell made her strip and lay on the bed, she said, but did not attempt to rape her. Doss said she curled up in a ball and tried to talk him down, saying things like, "Why you gotta act like that?"

Then she prayed to herself, and eventually, both fell asleep. She awoke in the morning with Sowell acting as if nothing had happened, she said, asking whether she wanted something from the store.

She picked up her cell phone and pretended to call her daughter, then claimed her granddaughter had the flu. When Sowell left for the store, she went in the other direction.

She didn't report the confrontation because "my background ain't squeaky clean," she said.


3. Previous Reports Regarding Sowell's Behavior Went Ignored

Sowell was a registered sex offender, who still had home visits scheduled. And yet, the police were aware of at least two violent incidents he was involved in:

Police ignored not just the smell but also at least two dramatic incidents at the house. Gladys Wade said that he punched her in the face and dragged her into his house on December 8.

She told WKYC-TV that Mr Sowell "kept twisting my neck, twisting it, twisting it. And I was gouging his face at the same time. I was trying to take his eyeballs out".

"It was like the devil, eyes glowing," she said. "He was demonic or something. You could see the demons in him. I actually just saw it. That's what made me fight more. Because I knew this man was trying to take my life.

"I got away for a second and then he dived behind me and jumped on me and started strangling me. So I fell backwards down these stairs and fell straight through a window." Police said that Ms Wade decided not to press charges, a claim she now denies.

On September 22, only hours after police had made a routine check on Mr Sowell, another woman complained that he had choked her with an electrical cord and raped her as she passed out.

On October 20, neighbours saw a naked woman fall from a window at Mr Sowell's house and found him, also naked, beside his house choking her. Action19 News television has even broadcast a cell phone photo of the incident.

Police were called but dismissed the tussle as an accident after the woman told them she had been drinking and fell as she tried to reach for her dropped keys.

"She stated she was in the house. She was partying. They were doing coke, getting high. She fell off the roof," Michael McGrath, the Cleveland police chief, told reporters.

After a 37-day interval, police officers finally turned up to arrest Mr Sowell last week for the reported rape of September 22. He was not at home but the officers found the first two bodies lying in the living room. Mr Sowell was arrested walking down the street two days later.

4. The Police Didn't Take The Missing Persons Reports Seriously

Bridget Crawford of Feminist Law Professors, says she grew up two and a half miles from the neighborhood where the crimes were committed. She looks at various levels of indifference that contributed to Sowell's spree, noting:

As the public learns more about the ongoing investigation, the picture of the Cleveland police is not positive. They failed to take seriously reports of missing women. The police repeatedly ignored complaints from citizens in the accused killer's neighborhood.

The New York Times reports (here) that three separate police stations refused to take a missing person report from the aunt of one of the missing women. Another victim's mother says that she, too, was rebuffed by police when she tried to file a missing-person report: "They [the policy] belittled it and made jokes …. They told me to wait a while because she would return once all the drugs were gone."

5. His Neighbors Saw Sowell As Strange, But Non-Threatening

The AP also reports:

Anthony Sowell was the guy who liked to sit on his front steps drinking King Cobra Malt Liquor for $1.50 a bottle, sometimes in the company of a woman. He was the guy who hung around the corner convenience store bumming change off his neighbors. He was the guy who scrounged around sidewalks and backyards for empty cans and scrap metal to sell.

The suspected serial killer seemed so harmless that when he invited neighbors over for a barbecue in his driveway, they came. So benign that when he beckoned women inside his house that smelled of death, they apparently went willingly. [...]

Unbeknownst to most neighbors, Sowell was a registered sex offender who checked in with authorities from time to time and fooled people into believing he was just another guy trying to scrape out a living.

The only distinguishing physical characteristic about Sowell, who is about 5-foot-11 and weighed 160 pounds, is a scar under his left eye.

He smelled pretty bad, but then a lot of hard-up folks in this rough Cleveland neighborhood smell less than clean, people say. And even when a terrible, rotting stench wafted down the street and past his house, people didn't think Sowell was the source. Instead, they pointed fingers at the sausage shop next door.

"Nobody could imagine that this man was capable of doing what he was doing," said Fawcett Bess, owner of Bess Chicken & Pizza, a restaurant across the street from Sowell's house. "He always showed respect to you - 'good morning' and 'good evening' and that kind of thing."

Then again, Jeffrey Dahmer was supposed to be a nice, non-threatening guy as well.

Stench Still Wafts From Home Of Accused Serial Killer Anthony Sowell [Times Online]
Telacia Fortson And Tishana Culver Identified As Anthony Sowell 2nd And 3rd Victims [Black and Missing]
MP Ep.101: The News Loves Missing White Girls! [IFC Media Project]
Ohio Woman: I Got Away From Serial Killing Suspect [AP]
When Invisible, Addicted And Ill Women Disappear: A Cry For Cleveland [Feminist Law Professors]
After Gruesome Find, Anger At Cleveland Police [NY Times]
Neighbors: Suspected Serial Killer Seemed Harmless [AP]