CLEVELAND – The nightmares happened when Anthony Sowell was smoking crack cocaine in the company of women, especially if they reminded him of his ex-girlfriend. And, as he told detectives, the nightmares were all the same: They involved him hurting a woman with his hands.
When he woke up, the women were gone.
"Reminded me of my girl, that's the best I can tell you. It was like everything's cool, she was spending the night or something," Sowell said in a police interrogation that was recorded as authorities were pulling 11 bodies out of his Cleveland home and backyard. "And I'd be like, 'Damn, where'd you go?'"
Sowell was convicted Friday of killing 11 poor, drug-addicted black women whose remains were found in his home and backyard in late 2009. He now faces the death penalty.
During the trial, prosecutors painted Sowell as a man jilted by an ex-girlfriend who made other women pay for his fury. His ex-girlfriend Lori Frazier, the niece of Mayor Frank Jackson, testified that he grew violent when he smoked crack. After she moved out of his home, she often saw him with bloody injuries on his face and neck. Once, she saw him dumping the contents of a bucket into a hole in his yard.
In the police interrogation video, which was played for jurors, Sowell told officers that he would grow angry when a woman told him — while they were smoking crack — that she had children at home.
"One thing that always made me mad was they had kids," Sowell told detectives. "That's a big thing in my head."
Asked by a detective when he started losing control of his anger, Sowell said 2008 or 2009. The last victim vanished in September 2009.
During the trial, several women gave grueling testimony of attacks by Sowell, all telling similar stories. They'd be smoking crack, they said, and suddenly Sowell would punch them in the face or choke them and say: "Bitch, take off your clothes."
Prosecutors say Sowell, an ex-Marine, began running out of room in his backyard after he buried the bodies of four women there. That's when he began leaving them to rot on the third floor of his home. Sowell, 51, was convicted of aggravated murder, kidnapping, tampering with evidence and abuse of a human corpse in the deaths.
Denise Hunter, whose sister, Amelda, was found buried in Sowell's backyard in plastic garbage bags, said the victims "deserve this justice."
"I'm so glad that finally, on July the 21st, that all of our families can rest assured — and all of our loved ones can rest assured — that peace has come to our families," she said.
The jury deliberated for just over 15 hours before announcing the verdicts.
Sowell closed his lips tightly, looked straight ahead and barely moved as the first aggravated-murder verdict was read before deputies immediately handcuffed him. Then he sat down, his chest heaving as he pushed himself back in a chair.
Most jurors avoided looking at Sowell while the judge read the verdicts. Two jurors wiped away tears, and others swiveled in their chairs to look at sobbing relatives of victims.
When the jury left the room, Sowell raised his clasped, cuffed hands high in the air.
None of the attorneys commented afterward because a gag order remains in place until after Sowell is sentenced. The sentencing phase will begin Aug. 1.
The discovery of the bodies at Sowell's home was an embarrassment for the city's police force, which was accused by victims' families of failing to properly investigate the disappearances because most of the women were addicted to drugs and lived in an impoverished neighborhood. In the wake of public outrage over the killings, a panel formed by the mayor recommended an overhaul of the city's handling of missing-person and sex crime investigations.
Several victims' families filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city last year.
The jurors sat through weeks of disturbing and emotional testimony as the prosecution made its case against Sowell. They saw photographs of the victims' blackened skeletal corpses lying on autopsy tables and listened to police describe how their bodies had been left to rot in Sowell's home and backyard.
Hunter said some of the testimony was "very gross and, you know, devastating to hear."
"But I already accepted peace when we found out about the murders," she said. "Some of it I didn't want to know, but peace was already settled in my heart."
The women began disappearing in 2007, and prosecutors say Sowell lured them to his home with the promise of alcohol or drugs. Police discovered the first two bodies and a freshly dug grave in late 2009 after officers went to investigate a woman's report that she had been raped there.
Many of the women found in Sowell's home had been missing for weeks or months, and some had criminal records. They were disposed of in garbage bags and plastic sheets, then dumped in various parts of the house and yard. All that remained of one victim, Leshanda Long, was her skull, which was found in a bucket in the basement.
Most of the victims were nude from the waist down, were strangled with household objects and had traces of cocaine or depressants in their systems.
All the victims were black, as is Sowell. He was acquitted of only one count in the 83-count indictment: a charge of aggravated robbery connected to one of the women he was convicted of attacking.
Sowell also was convicted of rape, attempted murder, kidnapping and felonious assault in attacks on two other women who survived. He was convicted of attempted murder, attempted rape, kidnapping and felonious assault in an attack on a third woman who survived.
During the taped interrogation with detectives, Sowell let out a cry of anguish and buried his head in his hands as two detectives pressed him to explain how the bodies ended up in his house in a drug-ridden neighborhood on the east side of town.
"It had to be me," Sowell said in the video, rubbing his head with his hands. "I can't describe nobody. I cannot do it. I don't know. But I'm trying to."
Sowell told detectives during the interrogation that he heard a voice that told him not to go into a third-floor bedroom where two bodies were found. He also told them about "blackouts" and "nightmares" in which he would hurt women with his hands.
When one detective described a body that was found in the basement, Sowell became visibly upset in the video.
"I guess I did that, too," Sowell said. "'Cause nobody else could've did it."
The defense declined to call any witnesses.
When the bodies were found, police concluded that a nearby sausage shop wasn't the source of the lingering stench of rotting meat, as many neighbors had believed. The family owned shop had spent $20,000 on plumbing fixtures, sewer lines and grease traps in futile attempts to get rid of the odor.
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