A new house of horrors that shocked America

The gruesome details of the Sowell case have plumbed new depths in criminal depravity. But the revelations of skulls and smells have also put the authorities in the spotlight

They used to blame the sausage shop for the awful stench on Imperial Avenue, in a mostly forlorn neighbourhood on the east side of Cleveland. The stench persisted even though the owners had installed new sewer pipes and replaced the fat trap in hopes of fixing it. On hot days the shop's own employees had to close up, almost unable to breathe.

As all of Cleveland – all of America and the rest of the world – now knows, the awful odour had nothing to do with Ray's Sausage Co. It was coming instead from the shabby three-storey home of Anthony Sowell, a former Marine who had moved to the street in 2005 after spending 15 years in prison for rape. It was the reek of human corpses left to rot.

In a country that is used to digesting gruesome crime stories, the unfolding tale of Mr Sowell, 50, and the charges filed against him in a Cleveland court on Wednesday, chart new realms of horror. "I've spent 24 years in law enforcement, and I've never seen anything like it," admitted deputy police chief Edward Tomba.

But Mr Tomba is also well aware that the headlines swirling around this case will not just be about the depravity of the crimes Sowell is charged with and his apparent jaw-dropping indifference to the state of his residence. Almost from the word go, they have also encircled the police and social services in the city, and the mystery of how Sowell's alleged activities went undetected for so long. It is not as if no one ever said anything: the police were flooded with reports. So many missing person filings, yet the dots in this neighbourhood were never joined.

Only in the past few weeks did the penny drop: police suddenly began to get suspicious of Sowell and what he was up to in his home when a woman accused him of rape and assault. Then there were the events of 20 October, when a local fire engine went to the house after local residents saw a naked woman fall from a first-floor window. Interviewed by police in hospital she said she had been "partying" in the house and was high on crack cocaine.

But this was a part of Cleveland – a northern Ohio city hurt, like so many others in the rustbelt, by industrial retreat and economic atrophy – where drug-taking and drug-peddling are so commonplace the police barely have time to notice. It happens mostly in the myriad unoccupied houses, many emptied by the plague of foreclosures.

It was with the cooperation of the woman who had filed the rape accusation that police obtained the necessary warrants finally to search the Sowell home. What they found defied the worst imaginings of any urban detective. Sowell was arrested last weekend. On Wednesday, he was remanded in custody without bail, facing assorted charges including aggravated murder. More charges are likely to follow and prosecutors have indicated he could face the death penalty.

So far the toll of dead women stands at eleven. It had levelled at ten on Wednesday until police said they had determined that a skull stuffed inside a paper bag and left in a bucket did not belong to any of the other ten corpses they had found. Some of the bodies were inside in the home, abandoned in the basement and stuffed inside crawl spaces under the living room floor. Five victims were found outside in shallow, backyard graves.

By yesterday, police activity at the house appeared briefly to have ceased. Officers had promised however that they would return soon, to tear down walls and gut the building to make sure no other bodies remained to be found. They will also set about hunting through all the other abandoned homes within a half-mile radius. It is a task that may take several days.

But the search is urgent because those who have vanished in Cleveland over recent years – some of the corpses in Sowell's house were so badly decomposed they may have been there for up to four years – number more than just 11. By yesterday morning, a makeshift bulletin board of plywood had been attached to a nearby fence with fliers showing the names and faces of 13 women and three men under the word "MISSING" stencilled in black.

Beneath the board meanwhile the beginnings of a shrine were appearing – a few stuffed toys, melted candles and bunches of flowers – as local pastors tried to organise a memorial for the victims in a local church.

As Sowell was appearing in court, responding to questions in a low whisper, police were for the first time giving out the identity of one of the women found murdered. Like all the others, it would appear, she had been killed by strangulation. Many of the bodies were found with ligatures – rope, cord and wire – still around their necks. The woman was 53-year-old Tonia Carmichael of Warrensville Heights, a self-confessed drugs user who had gone missing last November. While so many others in this part of Cleveland whose relatives, especially women, who have gone missing are still left to wonder and pray that their loved ones did not end their days in Sowell's house, the relatives of Ms Carmichael were finally in no such state of uncertainty. The mystery of their mother and daughter had been bitterly solved.

They are grieving – and also complaining. They had asked for help from the police in their search for Ms Carmichael. Apparently they never got much. "They told us to go home, and as soon as the drugs are gone, she'll show up," the victim's daughter, Markiesha Carmichael-Jacobs, revealed. "It's hard to imagine but that's what they told us to our face: 'She'll turn up'." Hers was one of the five bodies found in the scrubby back garden.

Meanwhile the mother of the victim, Donnita Carmichael, spoke to The Cleveland Plain Dealer of her growing dread about her daughter as the news of the Sowell home began to surface last weekend. "We expected the worst when these bodies starting popping up. We knew she could be one of them."

Another Cleveland woman told the television station, WKYC, that she had been the victim of attempted rape by Sowell last year but had escaped. "It was like the devil, eyes glowing," Gladys Wade said in an interview. "He was demonic or something. You could see the demons in him." As she fought him, he "kept twisting my neck, twisting it, twisting it. And I was gouging his face at the same time. I was trying to take his eyeballs out."

For the residents of Cleveland, however, it may be tales of the smell that are the most appalling but also the most baffling element of the case. If it was so powerful, how is it possible no one investigated?

"We used to think that it was coming from out of Ray's Sausage," one neighbour confirmed this week. "But you smell these smells, and I live right there and... we used to come out here and oh, these smells would just be horrible." Another local added. "I came around the corner and I smell it. You could smell the dead bodies. How are you going to tell me people in the neighbourhood couldn't smell that?"

The city council had been told about it back in 2007. "We received a phone call from a resident that said a foul odour came across the street and it smells like a dead person," Councilman Zach Reed told CNN. "Not dead meat, not a dead animal – a dead person." Mr Reed's own mother lives nearby. "We're not talking about some desolate area, some abandoned barn. How did somebody get away with this in a residential neighbourhood?"

The council, while recognising the degree of public concern, said a full enquiry will have to wait. "The top priorities at this time must be to discover the full extent of the tragedies and to bring forth justice," it said in a statement. "We acknowledge the issues being raised by the community and the media and will examine the case at the appropriate time but we will do nothing to impede the investigation."

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson is also holding back from pointing fingers of blame. "There is still a lot of work that needs to be done and a lot of unanswered questions that need to be addressed," he said. "Until the families of the victims get the closure they seek and ultimately the justice they deserve, this case will continue to be our focus."

Sowell is behind bars pending trial. "After 26 years on this bench, this is by far the most serious set of allegations I've ever faced," said Ronald B. Adrine, a municipal court judge.

And the most gruesome.

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