Anthony Sowell
Most Notorious Serial Killers

The Cleveland Strangler

Early Life

Anthony Edward Sowell was raised in East Cleveland, one of seven children born to single mother Claudia "Gertude" Garrison. Seven other children belonging to Sowell's sister also lived in the household, having moved in after the death of their chronically ill mother. According to Sowell's niece, Garrison subjected the siblings to physical abuse while her own children watched from adjacent rooms. In one incident, Garrison forced her to strip naked in front of the other children, then whipped her with electrical cords until she bled. Sowell himself began raping his niece on an almost daily basis for two years, starting when she was eleven.

Victims

In 1989, a woman who was three months pregnant went to Sowell's home voluntarily. When she tried to leave, he bound her hands and feet with a tie and belt, then gagged her with a rag. The victim told police: "He choked me real hard because my body started tingling. I thought I was going to die." Sowell was charged with kidnapping, rape and attempted rape. He eventually pleaded guilty to the charge of attempted rape, and as a result he served 15 years in prison. He was released in 2005.

Sowell worked in a factory until 2007 when he began collecting unemployment benefits. Neighbors said he earned a living selling scrap metal. They complained to the health department of a foul smell in the neighborhood. He was a member of an online dating service, where he stated that he was a "master" looking for a submissive person to "train".

Lori Frazier, a niece of Cleveland Mayor Frank G. Jackson, began a relationship with Sowell shortly after his release from prison and resided in his home. She claims to have smelled the stench of decaying bodies and that she was told the smell was coming from Sowell's stepmother. When she moved out, she claimed that the smell was from Ray's Sausage Shop, located next door to the Sowell residence. There is some confusion about when Frazier stopped living in Sowell's home. In a video interview she mentions moving out in 2007, but in a published article she is said to have been living there until 2008. Another article quotes a friend of Frazier's stating that Frazier stopped spending time at Sowell's home in 2008.

Arrest

In September 2009, Sowell invited a woman he knew to his home for a drink. On September 22, 2009, she reported to police that after a few drinks, he became angry, hit her, choked her and raped her as she passed out. On October 29, police arrived at his home with a warrant to arrest him for the alleged rape. He was not there, but they found two bodies on the floor in the living room. He was located and arrested two days later.

The bodies of four other women were found throughout the home, buried in a shallow grave in the basement and in crawl spaces in the house. After digging in the backyard, investigators found three more bodies and the remains of a fourth. Police also found a human skull in a bucket inside the house, which brought the body count to eleven. Most of the victims were killed by manual strangulation and others were gagged or had ligatures on their bodies when they were discovered. Sowell also had at least three more rape victims that he had actually let live. All three never reported the attacks, due to their prior drug history or other personal reasons. Many victims were led to his property with an invitation to smoke crack cocaine with him. He was a known drug user throughout his neighborhood.

At the time of his arrest, Sowell was 50 years old. He had been living at that location for four years. He was held on $5 million bond. His trial was originally supposed to start on June 2, 2010 but was repeatedly delayed: first to September 7 to allow Sowell's attorneys more time to prepare, then to February 14, 2011, then to May 2 at the request of Sowell's defense attorneys who needed more time to comb through thousands of records and hours of surveillance video footage shot from the property next door to Sowell's Imperial Avenue home, where the remains of 11 women were discovered in 2009 and later to June 6 at the request of the prosecution due to scheduling conflicts. The trial eventually began on June 6, 2011.

Sentencing

Sowell was charged with eleven counts of aggravated murder and over 70 counts of rape, kidnapping, tampering with evidence, and abuse of a corpse. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity but later changed his plea to simply "not guilty." On July 22, 2011, he was convicted on all but two counts against him, including the murders of the eleven women whose bodies were found in his house in 2009. On August 10, jurors recommended the death penalty for Sowell. On August 12, Judge Dick Ambrose upheld the jury's recommendation. Since September 14, 2011, Sowell has resided on death row at Chillicothe Correctional Institution.

In November 2011, Sowell's lawyers, Jeffry F. Kelleher and Thomas Rein, filed a Notice of Appeal with the Supreme Court of Ohio. Sowell's execution was set for October 29, 2012, but in March 2012, a Motion for Stay of Execution was filed; the motion was granted in April, pending final disposition of the appeal. In October 2012, Sowell's new lawyers, Jeffrey M. Gamso and Erika Cunliffe of the Cuyahoga County Public Defender's office, appealed to have his conviction and death sentence overturned on 21 points, with the main three being:

  • that Sowell did not receive a fair trial because of the extensive media coverage. The "media attention was overwhelming, generating thousands of news stories, and...local coverage was 'both frenzied and sustained.'"
  • that the courtroom had been closed to the public "during an evidentiary hearing and while a jury was picked"
  • and that he had received "lousy legal representation." "Sowell's trial attorneys should have had their client plead guilty to killing the women and then focus their efforts on preventing Sowell from getting the death penalty."

In September 2014, the court asked both parties to address three issues.

On April 5, 2016, the Ohio Supreme Court heard arguments from Sowell's appellant attorneys and the Cuyahoga County D.A. representing the State of Ohio regarding the merits of the closed pre-trial Suppression Hearing prior to Sowell's trial, and the defendant's right to a fair and public trial. The attorneys representing Sowell argued that Sowell's Sixth Amendment right was violated by closing the Suppression Hearing to the press, and that the Court should commute his Death Sentence to Life-In-Prison as a remedy to the structural error that resulted in the violation. They also argued that counsel had made errors, and "urged the Ohio Supreme Court to send the case back to Cuyahoga County for a retrial. 'Frankly we blew it,' attorney Jeffrey Gamso told the Ohio Supreme Court."

The State argued that if Sowell's Sixth Amendment right was violated via the closed pre-trial Suppression Hearing it would not have affected the outcome of the trial, as the evidence was overwhelming, and that "Sowell's attorneys were the ones who asked multiple times in his presence for the jury selection to be done privately, without cameras in the courtroom." The State also asserted that Sowell has never denied his guilt, and that the heinous nature of his crimes-coupled with little mitigating evidence to deny imposing the death penalty-warrants affirming the death sentence.

On December 8, 2016, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected an appeal from Anthony Sowell, affirming his aggravated murder convictions and death sentence. In May 2017, Sowell appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In October 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court said that it would not review Sowell's appeal. Sowell is currently scheduled to be executed on Wednesday, November 18, 2020.