November 15, 2009, 1:01 AM EST |
As a familiar putrid stench settled over Imperial Avenue one day last summer, making the block near East 123rd Street practically unbearable, one of Anthony Sowell's neighbors turned to him in disgust.... According to the 62-year-old woman, who spoke to me on condition I not name her, the slightly built Sowell, who would frequently cross the street to sit with his older neighbor on her front porch, scrunched up his face and made a show of rapidly fanning his hand in front of his nose.
"It's kicking up again. Do you smell that awful mess?"
"Yeah, I do smell it. It stinks," he agreed.
The neighbor, who first complained to Cleveland Councilman Zack Reed in 2007 about the odor, which she described as smelling like a "dead body," could only shake her head last week when recalling the exchange with Sowell.
"He acted like he was just as bothered by the smell as I was. There is no way you could have told me then that he knew exactly what the smell really was," she said.
"But how hard was I to fool? I didn't even know that he was a sex offender."
Accused serial killer Sowell played an entire city for a fool. He appears to have played us so well because he knew that we are mostly a community of perfectly indifferent pedestrians, bound to the victims by nothing other than shared geography.
But now that the stench of his alleged work permeates the entire city, we are full of angry and nervous questions.
One is, how were we so easily fooled into believing that he did not exist?
Another is, how much are we to blame? How much are his victims to blame?
I spent the last week wandering in Sowell's neighborhood and talking to people, trying to answer these questions. I took on what I knew would be an impossible mission: determining where our collective responsibility for the least fortunate among us ends and the responsibility of those unfortunates to help themselves begins.
I didn't find that line. What I did find was reason for urgency in figuring out how this happened.
When eleven women are raped, murdered, and sloppily buried in one highly visible city location, that represents a full frontal assault on an entire community and its sense of law, order, and shared humanity.
It represents the most callous, brazen and dehumanizing form of pornography. How is it that we were able to overlook him, just as easily as we ignored the women he is accused of making disappear?
How is it that women went missing and no one noticed? Other than alarms sounded by a few family members and largely ignored fringe community activists, no one appears to have really cared or taken the trouble to wonder, "where did they go?"
As a growing collection of women's bodies lay rotting on Sowells' property, some perhaps for years, everything seemed so normal – except that horrible smell.
The church up the street continued to worship, the beverage store on the corner continued to sell malt liquor, Cleveland patrol officers continued to stop motorists who had the impertinence to run the stop sign at Imperial and East 123rd Street, a stone's throw from Sowell's house, and the neighborhood continued to stink to high heaven.
And women – women without voices -- continued to go missing, Their screams went unheard.
"We have to acknowledge that there's a serious problem before we can fix the problem," said Ruth Addison, president and chief executive officer of the Murtis Taylor human service system, headquartered in Mount Pleasant neighborhood. "Did the system drop the ball? Did community safety nets fail? If so, who's at fault? I don't know the answer to those questions, but I do know that a number of women who appear to have desperately needed help went unhelped."
One of the most important questions I have is the one that will prove hardest to answer with certainty: Could someone have stopped this killer before his cruel deviance and bloodlust consumed a city, destroyed lives, and permanently shattered so many families?
You can't consider this debacle without considering the largely absent notion of personal responsibility. These desperate and emotionally disfigured women each made a choice that parents spend restless nights praying that their daughters will never make.
The dead each made the kind of poor choice exercised far too often by the chemically dependent, mentally ill and deeply socially estranged. These women paid dearly.
But as we bury them, someone must also be held accountable for systemic failures. Someone must be held to account for systemic ignorance and systemic indifference.
Someone must explain why a killer, a sadistic rapist, who operated with such reckless abandon, arrogance even, wasn't identified and stopped earlier.
This killer's work didn't represent the sudden violent cloudburst of the Columbine massacre. His was an ongoing serial enterprise. His body count represents the work of a patient, unhurried killer. He knew the personal tendencies of his prey and he correctly anticipated an indifferent reaction by the uninvolved city he lives.
So how do you construct a pecking order of blame?
Let's start with the killer and his compliant victims. The deceased were enticed to their slaughter with cheap beer and drugs. That should serve as a warning to people who could become victims of another monster in the future.
Next: Why didn't Mayor Frank Jackson, or those whom he entrusts with the operations of the city's health and safety forces, identify and stop this casual killer?
Perhaps the question isn't fair. Jackson is just a politician.
But his operating mantra has always been incessant talk about his concern for "the least of these." He governs a crumbling city with what he purports to be a watchful eye on the welfare of the "most unfortunate."
Well, the remains of the eleven "missing" women carried from Sowell's house represent the lost souls of the most unfortunate women ever to pass through this city. The city gave them no love. It failed to even recognize their decomposing smell – their sickening and final cry for help.
No mayor wants a serial killer on his watch. But Jackson has to address this irrefutable evidence of the lawlessness of his city, and how systems he oversees failed to deter a killer, a killer who operated in the wide open with longstanding impunity.
Councilman Reed says the city "dropped the ball" in regard to this deadly travesty. He doesn't excuse himself. He shouldn't.
Reed took a call about the oppressive odor of decomposing flesh some two years ago, he alerted the health department, and then walked away.
How many women were lost after that phone call? How many women were raped and killed after Sowell's neighbor told her councilman that she smelled the stench of a rotting body?
We may never know.
Finally, we should take a deep look at officers of the law. What might be most unsettling about this case is that police officers and sheriff's deputies failed to identify and stop the killer.
Law enforcement officials visited Sowell's home either on criminal complaints or to verify his address as a registered sexual offender on a number of occasions. But never once did they realize that they were standing on a mass burial ground. How is that?
How is it that Sowell was able to fool and circumvented law enforcement systems put in place to make sure that the convicted rapist would never again rape?
He wasn't clever. He is accused of putting his victims in what should have been easily detectable shallow graves.
How is it that police and prosecutors failed to obtain criminal charges against him last year, after he was arrested for choking and attempting to rape a woman at his home?
The man was a known rapist. There was evidence of a bloody attack. The arresting officers found ample evidence of a struggle. Yet Sowell was permitted to return to Imperial Avenue. That decision allowed him to attack again.
What a price this community paid for his freedom.
I spoke with a Mount Pleasant-area woman named Renee last week, about an hour after the county coroner identified the remains of Kim Yvette Smith, the ninth women found buried in Sowell's house.
Renee sobbed uncontrollably as she handed me a picture of Smith, whom she described as one of her closest friends.
The positive identification of Smith proved too much for Renee to bear. Smith's death brought to five the number of women in the Sowell house that Renee considered a friend.
But Renee, who is a lifestyle away from being a very attractive woman, shared a sobering thought before I left the house where she lives with her boyfriend.
"I'm scared, Mr. Morris. There someone else out here raping us. I was raped in July at gunpoint. The same guy, with the same M.O. has raped at least three more of my girlfriends. How can we get this guy off the street before he kills someone?"
Renee's fear hardly appears unfounded.
She told me that she suffers from mental illness and wrestles with drug addiction. She now recognizes just how vulnerable she is. She said she never met Sowell. But she is well aware of the influences and street behaviors that led so many of her friends to their slaughter on Imperial Avenue.
It may have just as easily been her.
This city literally teems with women like Renee. Lost women. I believe her call to me was a cry for help. She wants to live. She doesn't want to be raped. She doesn't want to be treated like disposable garbage.
We – family, friends, safety forces, politicians, media, a city – can no longer turn our backs on women like Renee, or her deceased friends, who found their way in, but not out, of Anthony Sowell's house.
Eleven women died horrible deaths at 12205 Imperial Ave. A city, and far too many families, failed to miss them. We failed to see them, hear them, or most insulting to the non-embalmed dead, to even smell them.
Their ghosts will remain with us forever.
We no longer have the luxury of pretending that these women did not exist.
Article from: Cleveland.Com