Cleveland seeks survivors of 'house of horrors'

AP News
Posted: Nov 17, 2009 11:37 PM

Now that most of the bodies found at the home of a suspected serial killer have been identified, Cleveland is turning its attention to the living _ to any women who might be reluctant to come forward after encounters with a man now charged with murder and rape.

The nonprofit Cleveland Rape Crisis Center has set up a hot line in hopes of hearing from any surviving victims of Anthony Sowell, who lived among the remains of at least 11 people, all black women, most of them disadvantaged, stashed around his house and yard.

Women who might have been attacked by Sowell need to hear that "it wasn't their fault that we were in the midst of a maniac, and it's just not their fault," was the message of Tammy Davis, 44, who lives two blocks away from Sowell's house.

Authorities have indicated they're searching around places where Sowell, a 50-year-old former Marine, previously lived for any evidence of earlier crimes. At least three women have come forward alleging that Sowell attacked them.

As of now, Sowell is charged with five counts of aggravated murder and, separately, two counts of rape in a Sept. 22 attack, and is jailed on $5 million bond.

Advocates fear that sensitivities including shame, checkered backgrounds and mistrust on the part of the women he tended to befriend might make it tricky to learn of more victims. In Sowell's neighborhood, some people said Tuesday that community and family attitudes toward so-called "throwaway" street addicts must change to make them feel comfortable reporting a rape.

Davis said she senses a change as the saga has unfolded _ 10 bodies and a skull found at the Sowell home, most of the victims strangled, living alone or homeless, dealing with drug or alcohol addictions.

It soon emerged that a prosecutor declined to file charges after a woman fled Sowell's home last December, bleeding and injured, because she wasn't considered credible. Police argued that they handled the case properly and that it was up to the prosecutor whether to press charges. After the bodies were found, many people came forward, concerned that their long-missing but troubled loved ones might be among the dead _ and some of them were right.

Another woman, 43-year-old Tanja Doss, told The Associated Press two weeks ago that she was attacked by Sowell in April at his home and escaped the next morning. She said she didn't tell police because she felt her past conviction on a drug charge made it unlikely they would take her seriously.

Any other survivors need to know "no matter what walk of life you chose, were actually pushed into, you're still a person. Don't give up on people that sometimes choose a different path of life, as they call them 'throwaways','" Davis said.

The rape crisis center, which has a 24-hour hot line, opened a second line Monday dedicated to handling calls about the Sowell case with the goal of getting help for any rape victim. The line has gotten calls, but the center won't disclose the number or whether any were related to the Sowell case, executive director Megan O'Bryan said Tuesday.

The center held a community forum on sexual assault last week in Sowell's neighborhood, and clergy members and elected officials have encouraged victims to come forward.

Cleveland police do not have any specific initiative to identify more possible Sowell rape victims, Lt. Thomas Stacho said. Chief Michael McGrath has addressed community gatherings to stress that any victim will get police help, no matter what their personal history.

Margaret Kanellis, who handles rape cases in Akron for the Summit County prosecutor, said rapes can be reported in nontraditional ways, including by a doctor or mental health counselor who treats the woman, by a clergy member, or through a support group.

Those avenues can be less traumatic than walking into a police station to report a rape, she said. "Lots of times we see people being convinced through other ways rather than right after it happens, we just walk into the police station," Kanellis said.

Perhaps 80 percent of rape victims never report it, in part out of shame, and the backgrounds of Sowell's alleged victims left them vulnerable because many had lost contact with families, according to Elizabeth Fokes-El, a social worker who visited the suspect's street on Tuesday to see a growing memorial of stuffed animals and mementoes for both the victims and people who remain missing.

Victims might come forward if they feel they won't be seen as worthless, she said. People "need to let her know that she's worthy," Fokes-El said. "She needs to know she's OK, that she didn't deserve to be raped."

Sherri Smith, who works with churches in the Sowell neighborhood and has encouraged rape victims to seek help, said some might be hesitant for fear of being seen as "a certain profile of the women" that he allegedly targeted.

"In our community, a lot of times it's best to just keep quiet and maybe it will go away. That's sometimes the thought: embarrassment, shame, all of that," she said.

Those barriers to reporting rape mean "there's a dire need to have multiple routes" for victims to use to get help, Smith said.