Saturday marks anniversary of bodies found on Imperial Avenue

CLEVELAND - While serving an arrest warrant at a house on Cleveland's east side, members of the SWAT team made a gruesome discovery in 2009. But those two decomposing bodies in a maggot-filed room were just the beginning on this real-life Halloween horror story.

Saturday marks the anniversary of the discovery of 11 bodies on Imperial Avenue. In August, 52-year-old Anthony Sowell, a former Marine and admitted drug addict, was found guilty of killing 11 women and keeping their remains around his house. Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Dick Ambrose sentenced him to death.

[Click here for our special section on the Imperial Avenue murders and convicted serial killer Anthony Sowell ]

There were several events leading up to Oct. 29, 2009, when 13 members of the Cleveland SWAT team searched the house at 12205 Imperial Ave. Sowell was a registered sex offender who pleaded guilty to attempted rape in 1990 and served 15 years in prison.

"Throughout the search, ending with the bedroom at the end of the hall… Many of the houses we go into are drugs houses that are unkempt. Once we reached that bedroom, the odor was considerably strong," Officer Richard Butler said, during the first day of Sowell's trial.

"It took a second or two for us to realize the people in front of us were deceased," Butler said. Photos of the crime scene showed a woman's body. She was wearing a dress, with a plastic bag around her feet. Her legs were bare.

The homeowner, Sowell, was not at home at the time and a manhunt soon ensued.

Det. Melvin Smith, who has worked for the Cleveland Police Department since the 1980s, was working second shift on Oct. 29, 2009.

"Dead flies, dead maggots, maggot pieces," Smith said, while describing a photo of a woman's decomposing body during day 7 of testimony. Smith said there was a clump of hair and a steak knife lying next to the body.

On July 7, Smith described photos from Sowell's third-floor bedroom, especially a photo of a pair of women's underwear, draped over bottles of medication. State's exhibit 83 was of women's jewelry is Sowell's room: earrings, bracelet and an orange necklace.

"It was unusual for dirt to be there," Smith said, talking about Sowell's basement. "We thought. We thought there was a possibility for another body."

"In the crawl space, there was a mound of dirt," Smith said. He said the pile of dirt was similar to the pile found in the basement. Tape bordered the crawl space opening and parts of it appeared to be knocked out, Smith said. That's where authorities found a body wrapped in several black, plastic bags.

"There were a lot of patchy weeds in the backyard. A lot of lumpy mounds," Smith said. He said police found another body buried there. The total reached 11 in a matter of days.

Sowell wasn't arrested until Oct. 31, 2009. Joe Veal was driving on East 102nd Street when he spotted a man, matching the description given on various news reports. Veal said he located a police car and lead officers to the man he saw.

"We came across a man walking down Mt. Auburn with a backpack," Ptl. Charles Locke said. "He said 'You got me already. You got me last night.'"

"I found a box cutter, a wallet, an empty wallet and in the backpack was a piece of carpet," Locke said. "If I'm not mistaken he said his name was Anthony Williams." Even while showing the man a picture of Anthony Sowell, the man insisted it wasn't him. Locke said he cuffed the man and put him in the patrol car.

Cleveland police Sgt. Ronald Ross said he met the two officers just before noon on that day, with a man sitting in the backseat of their police car.

"The particular photo I had of Mr. Sowell had a big scratch down his face… There was some weight fluctuation… It was too close to tell" Ross said. "I have a machine in my office, a handheld fingerprint machine." That's when Ross took the man back to the police station.

"As I go to put the machine on him, he goes 'I'm Anthony… I'm the guy you're looking for,'" Ross said. "He started sweating profusely and dropped to his knees. And he said he just wanted to die."

Detectives Smith and Lem Griffin interrogated Sowell for more than eight hours and, at times, he came close to confessing. In the taped interview, Sowell rambled on about his dreams and the voices that told him to stay out of certain rooms of his house. He mentions little things about his victims; that one of them was named Michelle and another one lived in Lakewood.

After a lengthy trial, A Cuyahoga County jury found him guilty on 82 of 83 counts, in the deaths of 11 women and the attacks of a few others who managed to escape.

The three-year anniversary of the discovery could be a little different. The judge set Sowell's execution date for Oct. 29, 2012, which could be changed because of appeals. Sowell was admitted onto death row on Sept. 14.

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