In October 2009, officers discovered two badly decomposed bodies and a freshly-dug grave in the basement of an Imperial Avenue house, and the hunt began for a possible killer in Cleveland.
We knew he was a registered sex offender. We knew he served 15 years in prison for rape. But the clear picture of who is Anthony Sowell would take time to come into focus.
While some searched for Sowell, others continued to comb through his home. Before he was arrested, police had found six bodies that were not easy to identify. In fact, investigators did not know immediately if they were male or female.
But before the bodies of 11 black women were found at Sowell's home in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of East Cleveland, there were other allegations against the accused killer.
Anthony Edward Sowell was born on Aug. 19, 1959 and enlisted in the Marines as a teenager. From 1978 to 1985, Sowell was stationed at Parris Island, South Carolina, Cherry Point, North Carolina, Camp Pendleton, California and Okinawa, Japan. Sowell was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in 1985.
One of Sowell's sisters, Tressa Garrison lived with her brother and his wife, Kim, while in North Carolina. She said doctors told the family Sowell would be permanently blind, following an explosion.
"The car exploded in his face… The car overheated and exploded in his face. And he was blinded," Garrison said. But Sowell did regain his vision.
In 1990, Sowell was convicted of attempted rape and served 15 years in prison. The Plain Dealer published information from Sowell's 2005 psychiatric evaluations that said he had a six in 100 chance of being a repeat offender once he was released from prison. The report also detailed Sowell's drinking problem and sexual history.
When Sowell was released from prison in June 2005, he was registered as a Tier III sex offender. Tier III sex offenders must verify their place of residence and employment every 90 days for life.
The Cuyahoga County sex offender registry unit said it must be notified if Sowell was arrested for certain crimes, especially rape. But the only way that can happen is when the case goes through the court system. Police records said Sowell was arrested and accused of raping a 40-year-old woman in December 2008. However, that case never made it to court, so authorities could not arrest him and the unit was not notified. Sowell was not on probation at the time the bodies were discovered because he served his full sentence in prison.
After the alleged rape in 2008, another woman claimed to have a violent encounter with Sowell. That incident happened in September and that’s the case police were investigating when they discovered two decomposed bodies in Sowell’s Imperial Avenue home.
"The attack happened right here in the home, allegedly on the second floor. That’s why our detectives came here to try and gather information for this crime,” said Lt. Thomas Stacho with the Cleveland Police Department.
Police characterized Sowell as dangerous during the manhunt. There was even a $12,000 reward for information leading to his capture. The U.S. Marshals soon joined in to help look for the then-50-year-old.
"When I went there, Tony was there. He was on the couch. He got up. He seemed excited when I told him that ‘Police were at your house and dead bodies are there,’” said neighbor Debbie Madison, as the area of Imperial Avenue and East 123rd Street was left in shock at the discovery. Soon after, Madison told police she saw Sowell.
Sowell was arrested two days after the initial discovery. A resident called police after seeing Sowell on Manor Avenue. When police responded, he was walking a block away on Mt. Auburn Avenue and was arrested without incident. Police said he told officers “I’m the guy you are looking for” when he was picked up just before noon on Oct. 31, 2009.
The Imperial Avenue case even went international, as investigators looked into the possibility that Sowell is connected to killing while he lived outside of Ohio, while he was serving in the military. There are still questions of whether he could also be linked to some of the unsolved murders in East Cleveland during the late 80s.
A man who once owned a convenience store across the street said Sowell would come into the store often to buy garbage bags. Assad Tayeh said Sowell stopped by the store almost everyday since getting out of prison just four years prior. Tayeh said Sowell would disappear down the aisle, searching for garbage bags and he specifically asked for extra-strength, heavy-duty bags.
"And he used to tell me, 'Can you get me the heavy duty garbage bags?' I told him next time I order my groceries I get you a box for the store. So one time, I will never forget, he bought five boxes of Glad trash bags. I told him, 'Why you buying so much garbage bags, my God?' He said, 'Oh, I am going to be cleaning around the house,'" Tayeh said. He also believes that Sowell was using his Dumpster and the Dumpster next to Ray’s Sausage.
"A bag, a big bag stuffed and wrapped with duct tape and there was a very bad smell coming out of it," Tayeh said. "I saw the bag and I can't stand the smell of it, so I shut the Dumpster. I told him (a store clerk) to get a bottle of bleach and put it in the Dumpster.”
Sowell was unemployed at the time of his arrest. He was known to walk the streets “scrapping” and frequented area scrap metal yards and his elderly mother owns the home where the bodies were found. Allen Sowell, Anthony’s brother, said his stepmother was following the events of the case after the 11 women were discovered, but said she was unaware there was anything wrong during the time she lived there.
More than a month after authorities began sifting through the house that sits at 12205 Imperial Ave., Sowell was indicted on 85 counts, accused of murdering 11 women and raping two women. The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s office said Sowell has since been charged with attempted rape for the 2008 incident and attempted murder and kidnapping for the an alleged assault of a 36-year-old woman in 2009. He was also charged with attempted murder and rape after authorities said he choked a 51-year-old woman at his house just days before police found the first two bodies.
On July 22, 2011, after more than 60 witnesses took the stand, Sowell was convicted on 82 counts, including aggravated murder, abuse of a corpse and rape.
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