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The Cleveland Strangler

We Have Yet to Heal from the Murders of the Cleveland Strangler

There has been no support offered to the families of the 11 black women who were brutally raped and murdered on Imperial Avenue. This says everything you need to know about the role race and class play in the way we view victims.
November 6, 2015, 12:00am
12205 Imperial Avenue in 2009. Photo courtesy of Melvin Smith

For years, I was immersed in the heinous crimes of serial killer and rapist Anthony Sowell. I reported for the Cleveland Plain Dealer from the initial discovery of the first two bodies at his home in October of 2009 until his death-penalty trial in 2011. During those years, I came to know the 11 women Sowell slaughtered in that house through the intimate stories told to me by their relatives, spouses, and friends.

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I don't work as a reporter for the PD anymore, but I still keep tabs on what goes on in the city and check in regularly with old sources. Last year, almost five years to the day Sowell was arrested, I returned to 12205 Imperial Avenue, the address of the empty lot where Sowell's "house of horrors" used to stand. I was there to attend a memorial service hosted by local community leaders to honor the "Imperial 11."

I had expected a somber ceremony. At previous anniversaries, the cold and wind often pounded away at the small coalition of community groups, and most of the relatives of the victims didn't even show up. Many of the women's relatives whom I interviewed in the past about the vigils said they didn't want to be put in the middle of shouting activists, broken-promise rhetoric from local politicians, and members of the media asking them about the most gruesome crime investigation in Cleveland's recent history. They simply wanted to grieve.

12205 Imperial Avenue in 2014. Photo by Stan Donaldson

But in 2014, I was surprised that most of the families came to the memorial service. They attended the ceremony with the belief that better days were on the horizon. I was amazed by the sense of optimism many of them shared about the future. And I was inspired by the sense of family they developed among each other in the midst of such sadness.

Community leaders, some clergy, politicians, and civic groups helped add sugar to this flavor of Kool-Aid, too. They proposed turning the empty, trash-filled lot that represented so much pain and anguish into a positive and contemplative space with grand horticultural landscapes and stone walkways. They said visitors would walk under a brick overpass toward a reflective pool. They urged the community to donate and said they were seeking the help of private investors to complete the project. The families believed them as well. The memorial service really felt to me like the beginning of something special for the families of the women who suffered and the city as a whole. Of course, I was wrong.

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Now, six years after the the bodies of Tonia Carmichael, Tishana Culver, Nancy Cobbs, Diane Turner, Kim Smith, Amelda Hunter, Crystal Dozier, Telacia Fortson, Michelle Mason, Janice Webb, and LeShanda Long were finally discovered at Sowell's home, the healing has been stymied. The nicely manicured lot has turned back into a space where litter and other debris collect. The fresh mulch placed on the ground has blown away. The nonexistence of the proposed $200,000-plus memorial that a group of city and community leaders said would be constructed there through public and private donations says a great deal about the values of the city and its citizens.

Due to the lack of national concern, the broken local community, the dearth of unity among clergy and community groups, it looks like a proper memorial for the Imperial 11 will never come to fruition.

The Reverend Jimmy Gates, pastor of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church and coordinator for the Mount Pleasant Ministerial Alliance, a coalition of about 40 churches within the east side neighborhood of more than 200 parishes, says fundraising for the project has been underwhelming.

"Our cries have fallen on deaf ears," Gates said this week. "The families are disenchanted about the progress, and so am I. I didn't think we would run into these sorts of obstacles, but I won't stop trying."

Gates said when the women were found in 2009, the alliance and several funeral homes helped pay for the funerals of 10 of the 11 women. But public participation has been minimal. He said the Imperial Memorial Fund only has a couple thousand dollars in the account and that a GoFundMe page he created last year has zero dollars, but hundreds of negative comments from readers.

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According to Gates, the alliance has been in conversations with the St. Luke's Foundation about donating funding to the project and has also talked with other philanthropic organizations to get the memorial under construction.

"I'm not saying getting this built will be a cure-all, but it would be a great step in the direction of healing."

The condition of 12205 Imperial Avenue earlier this year

Seven miles away from Imperial Avenue, on the west side of Cleveland, another infamous lot in the city's history sits on Seymour Avenue with its manicured grass and shrubs. If a visitor were just passing by, it looks like nothing happened.

Yet, in the house that once stood on that lot, Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight lived in hell for more than a decade after they were kidnapped, chained, and brutally raped for years by Ariel Castro. In May 2013, the women who were rescued by authorities became heroes, and deservedly so.

The women and their families received a collective hug from the City of Cleveland, all of Ohio, and across the world. The Cleveland Courage Fund, designed to help the women recover from years of abuse and neglect, received $1.4 million in contributions within one year. The funds were dispersed equally amongst the women.

Throngs of specialists, support agencies, and abuse experts volunteered services to help the women cope and their families' transition. I always wonder how the relatives of the Imperial Avenue victims would fare if they received the same kind of support.

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There's no doubt the women on Seymour Avenue deserved this help. But in my opinion, so do the adolescent children, adult children, and immediate families of the Imperial Avenue women and survivors who escaped Sowell's sadistic trap.

Castro's home on Seymour Avenue was demolished within 180 days. Sowell's home on Imperial took two years to be destroyed, as tourists drove by the residence on a regular basis to take photos and freaks dug up dirt outside of the home and tried to sell it online.

So why did the women on Seymour Avenue get the support the families of Imperial Avenue victims still seek? Well, I think Charles Ramsey alluded to it best in this 2013 YouTube video.

"Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty while girl ran into a black man's arms, something is wrong here," Ramsey, the "hero" who helped rescue Berry from Castro's home and alerted police to the other women, said to a reporter in 2013.

"Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway. De-ad giveaway," he said. "Either she is homeless, or she got problems. That's the only reason why she'd run to a black man."

Earlier this year, Cleveland was ranked as the country's most segregated city, according to a study by 24/7 Wall Street . The study stated that of roughly 100 zip codes in the area, 63 are predominately white and home to 70 percent of Cleveland's white population. The study said the city's African American population is also segregated with around 30 percent of population living in six zip codes.

What Ramsey and the families of Imperial Avenue victims have said is that racism and classism are still well and alive in Cleveland. For Cleveland's middle class African-American community, they remain too docile and the groups who have influence don't work together to address crime, educational disparities, and programming for the less fortunate. Well, usually not unless it involves a big grant, media opportunity, or election seat. For whites, it's easier for many of them to move to a gated community in the suburbs where their day-to-day interaction with people of color is kept at a minimum.

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For both segments of the population, I believe it is easy to dismiss poverty and the power of addiction. It's forceful and ugly grasp is not easy to stomach. The destruction is visible and right in your face. That's why it's easy to chalk it up by using phrases such as "self-accountability" or "I made it out of the hood, why can't they make it out?"

The problem is that addiction is actually a disease and poverty is a result of a host of factors, but the main elements are education and industry. Unless these problems are addressed, the crimes Castro, Sowell, and Sowell copycat Michael Madison were arrested for are likely to happen again.

It's easy to dismiss Sowell's victims because they were flawed. They engaged in drug abuse and some committed petty crimes. Some lived as prostitutes to fund their addiction. Some brought kids into the world and completely abandoned their parental responsibility because of drugs.

And I don't think money is the only answer for the families. There isn't a dollar amount that could bring their loved ones back or absolve the mistakes the victims made in the past, but I do believe the families should have access to funding that will support family and grief counseling, along with education.

Tonia Carmichael. Photo courtesy of Stan Donaldson

As you watch the recent VICE documentary, you will hear about the psychological and physical impact the crimes have had on one of the minor children of the victims.

But he isn't the only one. Tonia Carmichael's eldest daughter died after her mother's discovery. Her sister, Donnita Carmichael, believes she died from a broken heart. Her grandmother, Barbara Carmichael, had a stroke less than a year after Tonia was found. Barbara said the stress from the situation was overwhelming.

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Kim Smith's father, who experienced severe depression after learning about her death, passed away months after Sowell was convicted. Donald Smith, who was wheelchair-bound and had health issues, told me in a 2010 interview that he wanted to stay alive so he could watch Sowell be brought to justice. He did.

The families deserve to be supported. If the families never get a dime from the city or county, they deserve, at the very least, stipends to support grief counseling and wellness. The minor children definitely need counseling and opportunities to camps, mentoring programs, and creative outlets so they can truly heal.

Tishana Culver. Photo courtesy of Stan Donaldson

Just imagine if you were a child and only lived steps away from where your mother was murdered.

Tishana Culver's mother, Yvonne Williams, still lives on Imperial Avenue. Her home is just short walk from where Sowell killed her daughter. She can see Sowell's lot from her living room window.

She and her younger daughter, LaTonya Irby, raised four of Tishana's children. The two minor children who are still in her care, now young teenagers, go to school in the neighborhood. They purposely avoid walking by the site of where their mother's body rotted in a crawl space. Williams said she and other relatives from other families have grown tired of the broken promises from politicians and the community. She said no one cares about the children.

"My grandkids don't pass there at all, they will walk around the block," Williams said. "It affects all of us. I know my grandkids think about it every day."

Williams, 56, said she doesn't think anything will ever happen to the lot, and she doesn't trust many of the people who say they support the families. Though she is happy the Seymour Avenue victims received support from the community, she is bothered that little has been done to help the families of the victims and survivors of Sowell.

Williams said she would like to move from Imperial Avenue in the future, but she doesn't have the resources.

"All I can do is remember my daughter and the good times," she said, "and do the best job that I can to help take care of her children."

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