Murder By Numbers

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Anthony Sowell

Anthony Sowell was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on August 19, 1959. His father having departed the scene before his birth, he was raised by his mother, a strict disciplinarian who often meted out beatings with a length of electrical cord. Anthony however, seemed unaffected by his dysfunctional childhood. Neighbors remember him as a respectful, if introverted, boy.

At the end of 1977, Sowell dropped out of school to join the Marines. He’d spend eight years in the military, serving a spell in Japan and marrying a fellow soldier, Kim Yvette Lawson. The marriage eventually fell apart in 1985 due to Sowell’s drinking. That same year, he left the Corps and moved back to East Cleveland.

But the neighborhood he returned to was very different to the one he’d grown up in. Once it had been middle-class. Now, it was plagued by crack addicts, drug dealers, petty criminals, and prostitutes. And Sowell was soon contributing to the neighborhood’s sky-high crime rate, acquiring a string of arrests for disorderly conduct, DUI, public drunkenness, and possession of narcotics.

It was also during this time that the strangled bodies of young women began turning up in East Cleveland, three of them in the space of just under a year. Sowell was a suspect, but the police had no evidence to link him to the crimes.

They could, however, connect Sowell to the rape of a 21-year-old woman. Indicted on that charge, Sowell skipped out on bail and went on the run. He reappeared months later to commit a near identical crime, raping his victim orally, vaginally and anally. Having finished the assault, Sowell passed out, and the woman escaped. When she returned with the police, he was still asleep.

Sowell faced trial for both this rape and the one he had run out on, eventually entering a guilty plea and earning a 15-year sentence. Despite good behavior on the inside, he’d serve every year of that time.

Emerging from prison in June 2005, the 45-year-old Sowell appeared to be a changed man. He rented a room at 12205 Imperial Avenue, got a job as a rubber-molder at Custom Rubber Corp, and was apparently clean and sober. He also started helping the crack-addicted prostitutes of the area. At least four women would later testify that he had provided them with shelter and protection.

It was also around this time that Sowell began dating Lori Frazier, a self-confessed crack addict who was the niece of Cleveland mayor, Frank Jackson. Frazier moved into Sowell’s Imperial Avenue home and the two had a steady relationship from 2005 until 2007.

But then things started to go wrong in Sowell’s life. First he was fired from his job. Then Frazier ended their relationship, leaving him devastated. Not long after, women began to disappear from East Cleveland.

In May 2007, a woman named Crystal Dozier went missing. Twelve months later, Tishana Culver, a 31-year-old beautician who lived a few blocks from Sowell, disappeared. Twenty-five-year-old Leshanda Long vanished in August 2008. In October of that year, Michelle Mason, a 45-year-old who lived nearby on East 121st Street, went missing. Her family put up flyers asking for information, but no one came forward, certainly not Anthony Sowell, who knew exactly where Michelle was.

Tonia Carmichael, 52, disappeared in the fall of 2008, her car later found abandoned near East 115th Street. April 2009 brought two disappearances. First, mother-of-three Nancy Cobbs, then Amelda Hunter, 47, a regular visitor to Sowell’s Imperial Avenue home. In June, Telacia Fortson, 31, and Janice Webb, 48, were gone. Kim Yvette Smith, a 44-year-old singer who had worked with Gerald Levert, vanished in September 2009. Like most of the other victims, she was a drug addict.

The police were baffled by this spate of disappearances, but it was not as though they were without clues. Sowell had in fact been brought to their attention on several occasions. In December 2008, a woman named Gladys Wade claimed that he’d raped her and tried to kill her. Sowell said that the sex had been consensual and that he’d only beaten Wade after she tried to rob him. The police declined to take the matter further.

In September 2009, Fawcett Bess, a local restaurant owner, saw Sowell standing naked in the bushes bordering his house, beating a woman who was also naked. Bess called 911 but the police didn’t arrive until hours later. When they did, they didn’t even bother questioning Sowell.

Later that month, on September 22, Sowell dragged a woman into his house and choked her with an extension cord, before raping her. The woman later persuaded him to let her go and went directly to the police. It took them 36 days to follow up on the complaint. During that time, a neighbor saw a naked woman jump from a second storey window at Sowell’s house.

On October 29, police officers eventually arrived at the Imperial Avenue house to question Sowell about the rape. Finding no one at home, they left, returning a few hours later. When knocking at the door again brought no response, they entered the residence.

The first thing that struck them was the stench. Almost immediately, they found its source, the decomposing corpses of two women lying on the floor in plain view. The officers immediately stepped away and called in a crime scene unit. Soon the Imperial Avenue residence was crawling with forensics officers.

The following day, while the police continued their search for Anthony Sowell, three more bodies were uncovered. By the time Sowell was taken into custody, the remains of ten women had been discovered in his house.

Anthony Sowell went on trial in June 2011 and was convicted on 82 charges including aggravated murder, kidnapping and abuse of a corpse. Judge Dick Ambrose pronounced sentence of death on August 12.

Sowell currently resides on death row at Chillicothe Correctional Institution.

Anthony Sowell is #100 on the list. Murder by Numbers contains 99 more sensational cases.