How The 'Cleveland Strangler' Created A House Of Horrors

Photo of serial killer Anthony Sowell
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News & Politics
Sarah Guy

Everyone likes to imagine that they truly know the people who live beside them in their neighborhood, but those who lived next door to Anthony Sowell had no idea that the Cleveland native was committing unimaginable crimes right under their noses. For years, he would be able to successfully conceal his violent behavior and live a seemingly normal life until his true nature was finally revealed.

Early Life

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Anthony Edward Sowell was born on Aug. 19, 1959. During his childhood, Sowell and his family lived in a large two-story home with a roomy backyard, but eventually his neighborhood would begin slipping into poverty.

As a result of the declining safety of his surroundings, Sowell opted to join the Marines in 1978. However, upon his return in 1985, Sowell was reportedly a different person as he had developed a temper and had started relying heavily on alcohol. During the years that followed his exit from the military, Sowell also got in trouble with the law. In July 1989, he was convicted of abducting and raping a pregnant woman and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Violence Continues

Photo of serial killer Anthony Sowell
youtube | VICE

After his release in 2005, the newly-freed Sowell reportedly began befriending seemingly vulnerable women. At certain points, he would even offer them malt liquor, shelter, and companionship. However, the arrangement was too good to be true, according to two victims. If at any point Sowell felt betrayed by the women, he would terrorize, attack, or even rape them.

Troubling Pattern Emerges

Crime scene photo of Anthony Sowell's home in Cleveland, Ohio
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While Sowell's previous behavior was already very concerning, the brutality would continue to escalate over time. Between the years of 2007 and 2009, Sowell murdered 11 women. After luring them back to his home with a promise of drugs or alcohol, he reportedly raped his victims before killing them. Most of the women were killed by manual strangulation, which resulted in Sowell eventually becoming known as the "Cleveland Strangler."

Survivor Comes Forward

Survivor Vanessa Gay testifying about her experience with Anthony Sowell
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Even though Sowell had been responsible for the deaths of at least 11 people, three women were able to escape, including Vanessa Gay. After meeting him in 2008, she initially viewed him as a pleasant person and did not notice any immediate red flags.

On one particular day, Sowell and Gay had been discussing various topics, such as his military background and his love for cooking. Shortly thereafter, he invited her back to his home to celebrate his birthday. After offering her drinks and drugs, she agreed to visit his residence as he appeared to be harmless. Once she entered the Cleveland home, she could feel that something was amiss, and even described the interior as "murky and dreadful."

After taking a hit of a crack pipe, Sowell punched her in the face and repeatedly beat and raped her throughout the next 12 hours. At one point, she even recalls that he said she didn't deserve what he was about to do to her. During a trip to his bathroom, she noticed a human torso in another room but managed not to panic. After agreeing not to tell the police about her encounter, he allowed her to go free. Fortunately, she did not follow through and alerted police.

Crime Scene Discoveries

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Upon visiting his home, law enforcement were able to piece together Sowell's dark and violent crimes after they found 10 decomposed bodies and a human skull inside a bucket. Two of the bodies were found on the third floor, while the others were scattered around his home, including in crawl spaces and shallow graves.

Despite the various disappearances and foul odor that was coming from Sowell's neighborhood, it took Gay's brave eyewitness account to fully move the case forward.

Ultimate Arrest

Serial kilelr Anthony Sowell in a police interrogation room
youtube | Oxygen

Cleveland police eventually charged Sowell with 5 counts of murder, rape, assault and kidnapping. Then, in 2011, a jury found him guilty of a range of charges, including multiple counts of aggravated murder and attempted murder. Sowell was then placed on death row.

Life After Conviction

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After a lengthy time behind bars, Sowell, then 61, died in prison in 2021 from an undisclosed illness unrelated to COVID-19.

In the time following his arrest and conviction, the city of Cleveland paid more than $1.3 million to the victims and their families to settle lawsuits. However, Gay stated that she was left out of the settlement as he was never officially charged with offenses relating to her and her experience prior to the case being submitted to a grand jury. She also contacted a lawyer about starting a nonprofit group called Justus, which would focus most of its work around African Americans suffering from addiction and mental health issues.

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