Sowell in the wanted flyer issued by the Cuyahoga County sheriff office, November 2009
Anthony Edward Sowell|
August 19, 1959
|Conviction(s)||Death sentence for murder|
Span of crimes
|May 2007–September 2009|
|October 31, 2009|
Anthony Edward Sowell (born August 19, 1959) is an American serial killer known as the Cleveland Strangler. He was arrested in October 2009 after the bodies of eleven women were discovered by police investigators at his Cleveland, Ohio, duplex at 12205 Imperial Avenue in Mount Pleasant neighborhood.
Anthony Edward Sowell was raised in East Cleveland, one of seven children born to single mother Claudia "Gertude" Garrison. Seven other children belonging to Sowell's sister also lived in the household, having moved in after the death of their chronically ill mother. According to Sowell's niece, Garrison subjected the siblings to physical abuse while her own children watched from adjacent rooms. In one incident, Garrison forced her to strip naked in front of the other children, then whipped her with electrical cords until she bled. Sowell himself began raping his niece on an almost daily basis for two years, starting when she was eleven.
At the age of 18, Sowell entered the United States Marine Corps on January 24, 1978. He attended recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in South Carolina, then was further trained as an electrician at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. On July 13, 1978, he was assigned to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, also in North Carolina. In 1980, Sowell spent a year overseas with the 3rd Force Service Support Group, then returned to Cherry Point. He was then ordered to Marine Corps Base Camp Butler in Okinawa, Japan on January 20, 1984. A year later, he transferred to Camp Pendleton in California for three days until his discharge on January 18, 1985. During his seven-year Marine Corps career, Corporal Sowell received a Good Conduct Medal with one service star, a Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, a Certificate of Commendation, a Meritorious Mast, and two Letters of Appreciation.
1989 attack, incarceration, and release
In 1989, a woman who was three months pregnant went to Sowell's home voluntarily. When she tried to leave, he bound her hands and feet with a tie and belt, then gagged her with a rag. The victim told police: "He choked me real hard because my body started tingling. I thought I was going to die." Sowell was charged with kidnapping, rape and attempted rape. He eventually pleaded guilty to the charge of attempted rape, and as a result he served 15 years in prison. He was released in 2005.
Sowell worked in a factory until 2007 when he began collecting unemployment benefits. Neighbors said he earned a living selling scrap metal. They complained to the health department of a foul smell in the neighborhood. He was a member of an online dating service, where he stated that he was a "master" looking for a submissive person to "train".
Lori Frazier, a niece of Cleveland Mayor Frank G. Jackson, began a relationship with Sowell shortly after his release from prison and resided in his home. She claims to have smelled the stench of decaying bodies and that she was told the smell was coming from Sowell's stepmother. When she moved out, she claimed that the smell was from Ray's Sausage Shop, located next door to the Sowell residence. There is some confusion about when Frazier stopped living in Sowell's home. In a video interview she mentions moving out in 2007, but in a published article she is said to have been living there until 2008. Another article quotes a friend of Frazier's stating that Frazier stopped spending time at Sowell's home in 2008.
Discovery of bodies and arrest
In September 2009, Sowell invited a woman he knew to his home for a drink. On September 22, 2009, she reported to police that after a few drinks, he became angry, hit her, choked her and raped her as she passed out. On October 29, police arrived at his home with a warrant to arrest him for the alleged rape. He was not there, but they found two bodies on the floor in the living room. He was located and arrested two days later.
The bodies of four other women were found throughout the home, buried in a shallow grave in the basement and in crawl spaces in the house. After digging in the backyard, investigators found three more bodies and the remains of a fourth. Police also found a human skull in a bucket inside the house, which brought the body count to eleven. Most of the victims were killed by manual strangulation and others were gagged or had ligatures on their bodies when they were discovered. Sowell also had at least three more rape victims that he had actually let live. All three never reported the attacks, due to their prior drug history or other personal reasons. Many victims were led to his property with an invitation to smoke crack cocaine with him. He was a known drug user throughout his neighborhood.
At the time of his arrest, Sowell was 50 years old. He had been living at that location for four years. He was held on $5 million bond. His trial was originally supposed to start on June 2, 2010 but was repeatedly delayed: first to September 7 to allow Sowell's attorneys more time to prepare, then to February 14, 2011, then to May 2 at the request of Sowell's defense attorneys who needed more time to comb through thousands of records and hours of surveillance video footage shot from the property next door to Sowell's Imperial Avenue home, where the remains of 11 women were discovered in 2009, and later to June 6 at the request of the prosecution due to scheduling conflicts. The trial eventually began on June 6, 2011.
Conviction, Sentencing, and Appeals
Sowell was charged with eleven counts of aggravated murder and over 70 counts of rape, kidnapping, tampering with evidence, and abuse of a corpse. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity but later changed his plea to simply "not guilty." On July 22, 2011, he was convicted on all but two counts against him, including the murders of the eleven women whose bodies were found in his house in 2009. On August 10, jurors recommended the death penalty for Sowell. On August 12, Judge Dick Ambrose upheld the jury's recommendation. Since September 14, 2011, Sowell has resided on death row at Chillicothe Correctional Institution.
In November 2011, Sowell's lawyers, Jeffry F. Kelleher and Thomas Rein, filed a Notice of Appeal with the Supreme Court of Ohio. Sowell's execution was set for October 29, 2012, but in March 2012, a Motion for Stay of Execution was filed; the motion was granted in April, pending final disposition of the appeal. In October 2012, Sowell's new lawyers, Jeffrey M. Gamso and Erika Cunliffe of the Cuyahoga County Public Defender's office, appealed to have his conviction and death sentence overturned on 21 points, with the main three being:
- that Sowell did not receive a fair trial because of the extensive media coverage. The "media attention was overwhelming, generating thousands of news stories, and…local coverage was 'both frenzied and sustained.'"
- that the courtroom had been closed to the public "during an evidentiary hearing and while a jury was picked"
- and that he had received "lousy legal representation." "Sowell's trial attorneys should have had their client plead guilty to killing the women and then focus their efforts on preventing Sowell from getting the death penalty."
In September 2014, the court asked both parties to address three issues.
On April 5, 2016, the Ohio Supreme Court heard arguments from Sowell's appellant attorneys and the Cuyahoga County D.A. representing the State of Ohio regarding the merits of the closed pre-trial Suppression Hearing prior to Sowell's trial, and the defendant's right to a fair and public trial. The attorneys representing Sowell argued that Sowell's Sixth Amendment right was violated by closing the Suppression Hearing to the press, and that the Court should commute his Death Sentence to Life-In-Prison as a remedy to the structural error that resulted in the violation. They also argued that counsel had made errors, and "urged the Ohio Supreme Court to send the case back to Cuyahoga County for a retrial. 'Frankly we blew it,' attorney Jeffrey Gamso told the Ohio Supreme Court."
The State argued that if Sowell's Sixth Amendment right was violated via the closed pre-trial Suppression Hearing it would not have affected the outcome of the trial, as the evidence was overwhelming, and that "Sowell's attorneys were the ones who asked multiple times in his presence for the jury selection to be done privately, without cameras in the courtroom." The State also asserted that Sowell has never denied his guilt, and that the heinous nature of his crimes—coupled with little mitigating evidence to deny imposing the death penalty—warrants affirming the death sentence.
On December 8, 2016, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected an appeal from Anthony Sowell, affirming his aggravated murder convictions and death sentence. In May 2017, Sowell appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In October 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court said that it would not review Sowell's appeal. In February 2018, the Ohio Supreme Court denied a request by Sowell to reopen his appeal.
On November 5, 2009, two of the eleven victims were identified. The first to be identified was Tonia Carmichael, a 53-year-old African American woman who had disappeared more than a year earlier. Her body was found buried in his backyard. She appeared to have been strangled and was identified through the use of DNA evidence. Her mother had reported her missing in December 2008.
The second victim was identified as Telacia Fortson, a 31-year-old African American woman who had disappeared five months earlier. Although she had been missing since June, her mother did not report her missing until she heard the news coverage regarding the dead bodies discovered in Sowell's home.
On November 8, 2009, three more bodies were identified. Crystal Dozier was a 38-year-old African American woman who went missing in May 2007. Dozier, the mother of seven children, lived in the area where her body was discovered. Her family reported her missing to the Cleveland Police Department. This was not the first time she had gone missing, and the family accused the police of failing to investigate. The family took it upon themselves to post fliers and call hospitals.
Amelda "Amy" Hunter was a 47-year-old African American woman. Hunter, a beautician and a mother of three, did not live in the area where her body was found, but she did visit frequently. A previous injury left her unable to use one of her arms. Her family did not report her missing until after police began removing bodies from Sowell's house.
Michelle Mason was a 45-year-old African American woman who was last seen in October 2008. She lived in the area where her body was found. According to records, the police conducted a full investigation when her family reported her missing.
Records of missing persons going back to Sowell's June 2005 release from prison were searched and DNA testing was conducted on the bodies found at Sowell's house. Protesters holding posters of missing loved ones gathered outside his home at the time.
East Cleveland police also reopened several cold cases from the late 1980s. The murders by strangulation used a similar modus operandi and had stopped around 1989, the same time that Sowell was arrested. The FBI at the time was gathering information to see if Sowell may have been linked to unsolved cases in cities where he once lived.
Known murder victims
|Number||Name||Age||Date of death|
|1||Crystal Dozier||35||c. May 2007|
|2||Tishana Culver||31||c. June 2008|
|3||Leshanda Long||25||c. August 2008|
|4||Michelle Mason||45||c. October 2008|
|5||Tonia Carmichael||53||c. December 2008|
|6||Nancy Cobbs||43||c. April 2009|
|7||Amelda Hunter||47||c. April 2009|
|8||Telacia Fortson||31||c. June 2009|
|9||Janice Webb||49||c. June 2009|
|10||Kim Yvette Smith||44||c. July 2009|
|11||Diane Turner||38||c. September 2009|
After Sowell's conviction, in December 2011, Sowell's former residence at 12205 Imperial Avenue was demolished on the order of city leaders. Sowell resides on death row at Chillicothe Correctional Institution.
House of Horrors: The Shocking True Story of Anthony Sowell, the Cleveland Strangler, written by Cleveland-based journalist Robert Sberna, examines Sowell's crimes and profiles the 11 women he murdered and the six women who survived his attacks. The book was released in October 2012 by Kent State University Press. House of Horrors was named 2012 True Crime "Book of the Year" by ForeWord Reviews.
Nobody's Women: The Crimes and Victims of Anthony Sowell, the Cleveland Serial Killer was written by Michigan-based crime author Steve Miller. The book details Sowell's murders and how he selected his victims. It was released in October 2012 by Penguin Publishing.
Unseen, a documentary film about the victims and survivors of Sowell, was produced by Laura Paglin and released in 2016. The film, which premiered at the Cleveland International Film Festival, is distributed by FilmRise.
In November 2012. Anthony Sowell released a letter through the website Serial Killers Ink. The letter was to the people of Cleveland. Sowell railed against former trial judge and newly elected Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty and addressed the issue of artwork which he had recently sent to the owner of the website.
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