CLEVELAND — In this east-side Cleveland neighborhood, where gunfire and drug use are part of the landscape, there are no strangers to tragedy.
But what police discovered inside a cream-hued duplex on Imperial Avenue was horrific even here: the bodies of six women -- two stuffed into crawl spaces, some decayed beyond recognition -- in the home of a convicted rapist.
On Sunday, a day after police arrested Anthony Sowell, 50, the Cuyahoga County coroner declared what most people had surmised: All six were homicide victims. The bodies have not been identified, and Sowell has not been charged in any of the deaths.
The shocked community is grappling with self-recrimination.
"One of my neighbors has been missing since May, and now I wonder if she was in there," said Teresa Brown, 54, an usher at the nearby Perfect Peace Baptist Church. "If I'd done something, called someone, would it have made a difference?"
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, November 05, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 Metro Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Cleveland bodies: Articles in Section A on Sunday and Monday about the discovery of several sets of human remains at a Cleveland home said that suspect Anthony Sowell is a convicted rapist. Sowell has been convicted of attempted rape.
Cleveland police found the bodies almost by accident.
Officers arrived at the property Thursday to arrest Sowell on a separate rape charge. He wasn't there, but the smell of decay was so thick that officers headed upstairs.
They found two bodies on the living room floor.
As the days passed, investigators found another body in a freshly dug grave underneath a set of stairs in the backyard. Two more were crammed into a crawl space inside the house. The sixth was in a shallow grave in the basement.
"The stench of decay was overwhelming," said Lt. Thomas Stacho, spokesman for the police department. "The closest I got was 15 feet from an open door, and it was more than bad enough. I can't figure out how the neighbors didn't know something was wrong."
For months, they said, they gagged whenever they walked past the wood-framed house, with its listing porch and neatly mowed lawn. Some recalled that Sowell's clothing smelled bad enough to make their eyes water.
"He came into my store last week and reeked so bad, I had to open the front and back doors," said Eli Tayeh, who owns the Amira Imperial Beverage convenience store across the street. "I asked why he stunk. He shrugged, bought his beer and walked out."
Neighbors blamed the smell on mundane causes: body odor, the garbage bins Sowell picked through for scrap metal, the raw meat next door at Ray's Sausage Shop.
No one called the authorities. No one, they said, even thought to do so. After all, in Cleveland these days, help can be hard to find.
The city has been reeling from the foreclosure crisis for several years. Its unemployment rate was 10.3% in September, and it has one of the nation's highest poverty rates. Hard hit by the collapse of the steel and auto industries, Cleveland has seen its population fall by half since 1960.
On Sunday, as police guarded the property, locals and the morbidly curious walked past and took pictures. Some stopped to pray. They stared at the upper floors, where investigators had left the windows and porch door open.
Standing across the street, Tamica Pierceton wrinkled her nose in disgust.
"We kept away from him and he kept away from us," said Pierceton, 26, who lives in the predominantly black area. "We should have said something to someone. I wish I had."
Sowell moved into the duplex's upstairs unit in 2005 after serving 15 years in state prison for choking and raping a woman, investigators said. The property was owned by family members, but only his stepmother lived in the house, local media reports said.
Neighbors said Sunday that Sowell had told them his stepmother was having difficulty walking up stairs and had moved to a nursing home about a year ago.
Investigators say they are trying to find her. Police learned that she had tried to kick Sowell out after he refused to pay rent, and had not been heard from recently, Stacho said.
Sowell registered with the state as a sex offender, as required by state law, investigators said.
On Sept. 22, deputies with the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department did a spot check on him to confirm that he was living at the address where he was registered, officials said.
Later the same day, a woman contacted police and told them Sowell had choked her with an extension cord and raped her inside the home.
On Thursday, police arrived to serve a warrant for his arrest and made their discovery. Officers located and arrested Sowell on Saturday.
Only two victims were intact enough for the coroner to determine that they were black. At least four were found to have died from strangulation.
Some of the bodies were so decomposed that investigators called in an entomologist from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History to gather evidence to help narrow down when the victims were killed.
Since police asked the public for help Saturday, three people have come forward with information about missing loved ones.
"I haven't seen my sister for a year," Denice Patton told local media, holding a crumpled photocopy of the missing woman's picture.
"She lived in the neighborhood. It's aggravating, it's stressful. I just want to know where she is."