A convicted murderer was charged Tuesday with the cold-case slayings of two women who died in an impoverished part of Cleveland more than seven years apart.
Joseph Harwell was indicted on charges of raping and killing 27-year-old Mary Thomas in 1989 and 33-year-old Tondilear Harge in 1996, said Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason. The county's cold case unit has been investigating unsolved rapes and murders for several years, but they began a special investigation on the east side of Cleveland in November 2009 after the bodies of 11 women were unearthed at the home of Anthony Sowell.
"We've discovered another serial murderer on Cleveland's east side," Mason said.
Investigators pulled 75 unsolved slayings of women within a three-mile radius of the two homes where Sowell has lived since the 1980s _ the "surge" area, they called it. That included the house on Imperial Avenue where the bodies were found and a nearby home on Page Avenue.
Sowell, who pleaded not guilty to killing the women, is awaiting trial in June.
Like the women found in Sowell's home and backyard, each cold-case victim was nude or partially clad, indicating she had probably been raped.
"I believed all along and I still believe that there are more bodies," Mason said. "Not just the ones that were found in the house."
The cold case unit, which includes retired homicide detectives and scientists at the coroner's office, pored over case files to see if evidence from the original crime scenes had been preserved and could be tested for DNA.
In November 2010, they got their first hit. Harwell's DNA was traced to Thomas, who was found in an abandoned building in the surge area near Sowell's home on March 28, 1989. The coroner ruled that she had been strangled with a red cord and beaten to death. Thomas was three months' pregnant when she died.
Investigators had already been looking into Harwell since 2008, when his DNA was matched to Harge. Her case was not part of the surge investigation, but her body was found in an empty lot near Sowell's home.
As of early March, 46 of the original surge cases remain active. Most of them are on hold, awaiting further testing at the coroner's office. So far, Thomas is the only victim to produce a DNA hit.
Harge's death was ruled a "homicide undetermined." Both women were addicted to crack and left behind several children, who were raised by relatives and friends.
"The bottom line is these families who have been missing their loved ones," Mason said. "And they're just left wondering what happened. And here we are, 20 years later, showing up and solving the murder for them."
The 50-year-old Harwell was charged with six counts of aggravated murder, two counts of rape and six counts of kidnapping. He does not have an attorney.
Harwell pleaded guilty to killing Teresa Vinson in Columbus in 1997 and is incarcerated at Richland Correctional Institution in Mansfield, about an hour south of Cleveland, serving a sentence of 15 years to life in prison. He is eligible for parole in 2012.
Harwell has a long criminal history dating back to the 1970s, including a conviction for felonious assault in 1989, when he attempted to strangle a woman who survived.
The cold case unit, funded by a federal grant, has filed 15 indictments on unsolved cases since it began operating in 2006.