VIA: New York Times
She organized search parties to comb abandoned houses. She got neighborhood children to help post fliers on light poles. She recruited a national advocacy group for missing persons to host a rally. She even hired a psychic to look for clues in her niece’s apartment.
“It was pretty obvious the police weren’t going to help us,” said Ms. Drain, 65, who added that the police began seriously investigating the case of her niece, Gloria Walker, only after Ms. Drain’s initial efforts prompted the news media to begin asking questions.
“If you’re from this neighborhood, you come to expect that,” Ms. Drain said.
Her desperation and anger have grown here on Cleveland’s gritty east side since the police last week arrested Anthony Sowell, a convicted sex offender who has been charged with multiple counts of murder after 11 decomposing bodies were discovered in his house and backyard.
Despite being accustomed to drugs and violence, residents said they were shocked by the case’s gruesomeness and appalled that a man convicted of attempted rape had apparently been able to hide such heinous crimes, even as the authorities were regularly checking up on him.
Community activists added that in recent years they had received dozens of reports from residents in this largely poor and black neighborhood who told of encountering similar frustrations in getting the police to investigate cases of missing adults.
“They belittled it and made jokes,” said Barbara Carmichael about her repeated and failed efforts to file a missing-person report about her daughter Tonia, whose body was the first of the 11 found in Mr. Sowell’s house to be identified this week. “They told me to wait a while because she would return once all the drugs were gone.”
Law enforcement officials insist, however, that they had done everything they could.
“We take these cases seriously,” said Lt. Thomas Stacho, a spokesman for the Cleveland Police Department, who added that Ms. Carmichael’s case had occurred out of Cleveland’s jurisdiction.
In the case of Ms. Drain’s niece, “certainly our records show that we spent a significant amount of time investigating the disappearance,” Lieutenant Stacho said, including checking leads, looking up license plates and obtaining Ms. Walker’s dental records.
Experts on crime also point out that unlike cases involving missing children, where the police typically react quickly, cases involving missing adults are more complicated. With adults, the police tend to investigate only when there is clear evidence of foul play, rather than just signs of a family feud or the disappearance of a drug addict who, perhaps, has chosen to remain out of touch while on a binge.
Many of the women from the neighborhood who were reported missing were known drug users, according to neighbors and the police.
But as a crowd gathered to stare at the cream-colored duplex where Mr. Sowell lived — one of the better-maintained homes in a neighborhood filled with abandoned houses — many people said it should not matter whether a person was a drug user for the police to investigate.
Many also wondered aloud whether they knew anyone among the dead.
“She has been missing since April,” Fawcett Bess, owner of the pizza shop across the street from Mr. Sowell’s house, said of a former girlfriend of Mr. Sowell. “But nobody really paid any attention because she was into the dope. It’s crazy.”
“I just feel sad,” Mr. Bess added. “All these girls missing, and nobody did anything.”
In 2005, Mr. Sowell moved back into this neighborhood of crumbling streets and vacant two-story walk-ups interspersed with a few tidy homes.
He had spent the previous 15 years in state prison for luring a 21-year-old woman into his home, then choking and raping her, according to the county prosecutor’s office. Mr. Sowell pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted rape. (Earlier reports on the county court’s Web site that he had been convicted of rape were incorrect.)
On the corner of Imperial Avenue and East 123rd Street, just feet from Mr. Sowell’s house, many people said Thursday that the only thing they remembered about the place was the stench.
“People thought the stink was me,” said Ray Cash, the owner of Ray’s Sausage, a meat-processing plant next to Mr. Sowell’s house.
To eliminate the smell, Mr. Cash said he had the plant’s gutters cleaned, drain pipes flushed and sewage drain cleaned with bleach. It made no difference.
The smell was so bad, Mr. Cash said, that his workers preferred the pungent air inside the meat factory to the foul odor outside, so much so that they kept the windows shut, even in the summer heat.
Last Thursday, the police finally discovered the cause of the smell. While serving a search warrant on Mr. Sowell’s house in response to an accusation of rape, the police found two bodies. By Wednesday, the count had risen to 11.
Councilman Zack Reed, who represents the neighborhood, said the smell should have been the first clue to the authorities that something was awry.
“Clearly, something could have been done differently,” Mr. Reed said, adding that he did not understand why the police and sheriff’s officers who had visited Mr. Sowell’s home weeks ago did not investigate the smell further.
On Sept. 22, two county sheriff’s deputies appeared at Mr. Sowell’s door to make sure he was obeying the reporting requirements imposed on sex offenders.
Hours later, according to a police report, Mr. Sowell tried to drag a woman into his house to rape her.
Experts say that while local law enforcement is required to track sex offenders when they are released from prison, the authorities are usually given limited legal leeway or extra resources to do this.
“The system that we have to do monitoring and supervision follow-up once they return to the community is just overwhelmed,” said Ernie Allen of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Mary Mason rejected the notion that the police had done all they could to find her sister, Michelle Mason, after she disappeared on Oct. 8, 2008. Mr. Sowell was not caught sooner, she said, because the police ignored complaints from residents about missing persons, much as they ignored the stench from Mr. Sowell’s house.
“The police are still in the mindset that some people don’t matter,” said Ms. Mason, adding that while her sister had a police record involving drug use, she had stopped using drugs 10 years ago. “Shouldn’t the police have noticed that we had so many black women missing before this?”
Police logs show that officers worked virtually every day for months trying to find Michelle Mason, Lieutenant Stacho said. Similar steps were taken in other missing-persons cases, he said.
The reason it took 36 days from the time the police received a rape complaint against Mr. Sowell to the day they finally obtained a search warrant, Lieutenant Stacho added, was that the victim avoided repeated efforts by the police to interview her.
But Ms. Drain, who still does not know what happened to her niece, said she was tired of waiting for answers. “I’m looking at 10 bodies and a skull, and I’m hoping one of them is Gloria,” Ms. Drain said, “because it would be closure for my family.”