When it comes to the bodies of their victims, there are two types of serial killers. Those who dump their victim’s bodies either out in the open, hide them away in crop fields or bury them underground to evade detection, and those who keep them close, by leaving them inside their own homes. Chicago’s John Wayne Gacy will forever be known for the 29 bodies that were found in the crawl space under his house and buried around his property. Jeffrey Dahmer kept the mutilated bodies of his victims inside his Milwaukee apartment to fuel his necrophiliac fantasies, with four severed heads found in his fridge and the remains of numerous other victims in his freezer.
London’s Dennis Nilsen, who is believed to have murdered at least 15 men, also kept his victims’ bodies. He stashed them in bin bags in wardrobes inside his home before he tried to dispose of them by flushing them through the sewer system of his block of flats, the actions which got him caught.
Another serial killer who also used his home as his killing ground was Anthony Sowell, otherwise known as the ‘Cleveland Strangler’. The gruesome discovery by police officers when they did get inside his home would shock them to the core and reveal that Sowell had been killing for much longer than anyone anticipated.
Anthony Sowell joined the US Marine Corps when he was 19-years-old, spending seven years training and being stationed across the US and one year in Japan before he was discharged with merit in 1985. By all accounts, Sowell was a good Marine. He responded well to authority, committed himself to his training, and his behaviour and conduct did not raise any red flags during his service. After his discharge from the Marines, however, he carried out a horrific rape and was sentenced to 15 years in prison, being released in 2005 and moving into a home on Imperial Avenue in the neighborhood of Mount Pleasant, Cleveland, Ohio.
Anthony Sowell was a registered sex offender and, as a result, he was visited regularly by authorities to ensure he was sticking to the rules; however, they did not have permission to enter his home as he was not on parole or probation.
In 2009, Mount Pleasant was an area struck by poverty, with little work available and many of the homes boarded up due to foreclosure. Drug and alcohol addiction were common with many of the woman who would later lose their lives to Anthony Sowell having histories littered with periods of time where they disappeared with little or no contact with family and friends. This made them vulnerable prey for Sowell.
Sowell’s 2016 court appeal documents from the Ohio Supreme Court details that in late October 2009, a woman from the Mount Pleasant area of Cleveland, Latundra Billups, reported a terrifying rape attack to police. The man who carried out the attack, she told them, lived at 12205 Imperial Avenue. It was this report which sparked the investigation into Sowell and prompted a search warrant for his home.
In the months before the bodies were discovered, there was a foul odour penetrating Imperial Avenue, one that residents had repeatedly complained about. Next door to Sowell’s house was an operating sausage factory that was the obvious target for where the smell was coming from. The owner undertook expensive works to the sewer system of the factory in attempts to fix the problem, attempts that were fruitless as it was not his property or equipment that was the source of the smell.
Seasoned police officers talk of the ‘smell of death’, the powerful pungent odour released from the human body during the stages of decomposition. It is a smell they recognized as soon as they entered the Sowell house, but for those who have not smelt this before they have no way of associating it with death.
The first search of Sowell’s home by police discovered two decomposing female bodies left lying on the floor of a bedroom on the third floor of the house. These bodies would later be identified as 38-year-old Diane Turner and 31-year-old Telacia Fortson.
With the use of cadaver dog, four further bodies were discovered in various locations in the house including the crawlspace underneath the property and under the staircase down into the basement. These bodies were identified as 48-year-old Janice Webb, 43-year-old Nancy Cobbs, and 29-year-old Tishana Culver. Tonia Carmichael’s body was found buried in the backyard. A search was now on for Anthony Sowell who had not been at the property during any of the police searches and may have been unaware his killing spree had been uncovered. He was spotted by a member of the public and arrested on 31 October 2009.
Three days later, during further searches of his home, four more bodies were found. These were the bodies of 44-year-old Michelle Mason, 43-year-old Kim Smith, 46-year-old Amelda Hunter, and 38-year-old Crystal Dozier. A human skull also found at the house was identified as Leshanda Long.
Eight of the victims had been murdered by strangulation with seven found with the ligatures used still around their necks. Six victims showed evidence of being bound by their wrists and ankles.
Police were horrified at these discoveries and charged Sowell with as many charges as available to them, wanting to ensure without any doubt that this man would never be out on the streets again and able to harm another woman. In total, Sowell was charged with 85 counts which included multiple counts of aggravated murder, felony murder, and kidnapping. Alongside the 11 murder victims, police now had three victims who had survived attacks by Anthony Sowell. For these victims, he was charged with kidnapping, attempted murder, rape and attempted rape, and felonious assault.
Anthony Sowell claimed he suffered from mental illness. He told police in his initial statements after his arrest he had no memory of killing anyone or did he have any knowledge of the 11 bodies that were on his property. He talked of ‘dream-like states’ where he dreamt he had ‘hurt somebody’ by choking them but when he awoke there was no one in his house.
He talked of voices in his head that told him he was supposed to take action against the women of Mount Pleasant who had tried to ‘hustle him out of money and drugs’. Before his trial, Sowell tried to get these initial statements suppressed, not wanting them to be heard in open court.
His motion was denied with the trial court finding “Sowell knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily had waived his Miranda rights during police interviews” and that “his statements were neither coerced nor the result of a psychosis that interfered with his ability to make free and rational choices.” They did, however, close the suppression hearing to the public so Sowell could receive a fair trial without these statements being released and discussed in the mounting media attention his case had attracted and tainting the jury pool.
Sowell pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity at his trial in February 2011, two years after the bodies were discovered in his home. While the Mount Pleasant neighborhood could be a considered a rough area and many of these women struggled with drug addiction, some turning to prostitution, each one of these women had lives, families, and friends. Many were mothers with children who were left wondering what had happened to their mother when she simply vanished from their lives. All had family members and friends who loved them and all had the opportunity of better lives ahead of them that was snatched away by one man, Anthony Sowell.
By the time of his trial, five witnesses who had been attacked by Sowell inside his home and survived came to court to testify. Their testimony was harrowing, each describing that once they were inside his house, Sowell would turn violent, hitting them and raping them. The similarities in their experiences were startling. Sowell would invite these women to his home, often offering them alcohol or drugs as an incentive. As soon as they were alone he would kidnap them, sexually assault them, and in many cases attempt to strangle them.
No defense witnesses were called and Anthony Sowell was found guilty on 84 of the 85 counts he was charged with. The only not guilty verdict being given for the final count, that of robbery against one of his surviving victims.
The jury who found him guilty also recommended death sentences for each of the 11 women he so brutally killed. In December 2011 the house on Imperial Avenue in Cleveland where Sowell murdered his victims was demolished, with those watching chanting “Tear it down!” reported CBS News. Cleveland.com reported in October 2017 that Anthony Sowell’s latest attempt at achieving a new trial had been rejected by the Ohio Supreme Court. Sowell will remain on death row at the Chillicothe Correction Institution, awaiting his execution date.