My dad was the first person to tell me about the horrific murders on Imperial Avenue. It was the fall of 2009, and I was in my senior year of college, ready to break out into a fresh new world. Dad, on the other hand, was in his last couple years on the Cleveland Police force, ready to go hide somewhere dark and quiet and cold. He was burned out, and this case represented everything that had left him dispirited about American law enforcement.
At first, the story sounded like something out of a true crime novel. When he put it on my radar that October, the cops had only found the remains of two bodies in the home of convicted sexual assailant Anthony Sowell. The full scope of the atrocity was not yet clear, but the story was already hitting close to home for my old man.
Dad spent his childhood in the 60s growing up in Mount Pleasant, the neighborhood where the murders took place, when it was still a prime spot for the burgeoning black middle class. With close proximity to Cleveland's thriving steel industry, it was a mixed area that attracted many families like my own during the Great Migration of blacks from the South in search of opportunity and security. But as James Baldwin wrote in Go Tell It on the Mountain, "The North promised more [than the South, but] what it promised it did not give, and what it gave, at length and grudgingly with one hand, it took back with the other."
By the the time of the Sowell murders, my dad was a sergeant on the force and Mount Pleasant was one of the roughest neighborhoods in his district. Wracked by the housing crisis and still recovering from the crack epidemic, it no longer looked like the idyllic place he'd played in as a kid. It was more like a set for the Walking Dead.
Eventually, we would find out that Sowell murdered at least 11 women at 12205 Imperial Avenue. They were all raped and strangled to death. He buried five of them in shallow graves in his backyard, while the other six festered and decomposed inside his home. But even before the death toll had reached double digits, before people started to take to the streets in protest over the killings, and before the Mayor Frank Jackson ordered an internal review of the local police, my dad was connecting the dots. He thought he knew the story—the real story—and he's been trying to get me to tell it ever since those 11 bodies were pulled out of the dark.
To my dad, from the very beginning this was about more than just a nut with a penchant for butchering women. This was about race, class, and a dysfunctional police department in the City of Cleveland. But it took me a while to see it that way.
When the Sowell story made headlines, I was still basking in the effervescent glow of the election of the first black president and all the possibilities that came with it. This was before Trayvon Martin was gunned down by George Zimmerman while carrying a bag of Skittles and before Eric Garner repeated the words "I can't breathe" as a horde of NYPD officers crushed him against the cement. This was before Sandra Bland and Tanisha Anderson died in police custody and before we saw videos of girls like Dajerria Becton being manhandled by crazed officers. This was before wearing a hoodie became an act of solidarity, Black Lives Matter became a movement, and Kanye West became a black skinhead.
Back then, I couldn't fathom the extent to which racial inequities were entrenched in our society, which meant I couldn't see fully understand the Sowell story. My mother and father, on the other hand, had lived through the eruption of righteous protests and frustrated riots that swept the country between the 60s and the 90s. Watching an unarmed black man get throttled by the police for no discernible reason was not novel for them. They saw it as outsiders in their youth, and I'm sure they saw it as insiders when they worked as police officers. They had no illusions about the system in which they served, nor its power to act on—and even destroy—the black body. They certainly had no illusions as to the value the black body holds in a society that once proclaimed us to be three-fifths of a person.
I'd been insulated by my parents, who made enough money to raise me on the West Side of Cleveland—far from where they spent their childhoods, far from where they worked as cops, and far from Imperial Avenue. I spent my youth in one of the whitest suburbs imaginable, where the only cop I knew was the DARE officer who hooked kids up with chocolate treats for pledging to say no to drugs. And many of my early interactions with police were colored by the fact that I was a part of the police family. I'd still get pulled over for driving while black, but I could always flash my "SERGEANT'S SON" badge and immediately change the dynamic of the confrontation from, "What are you doing in this neighborhood?" to, "Drive safe…"
I'm very thankful for these privileges, but they also made it easy for me to avoid asking tough questions about these murders. Looking back now, the right question is a pretty simple one: How?
How could so many lives have been taken away so brutally by Sowell without law enforcement intervening? I couldn't imagine something like that happening in the mostly white, upper middle-class community I was from—unless the serial killer was some kind of evil genius. There's no way that, in the west-side suburb where I grew up, a registered sex offender could have kept the rotten corpses of dead victims in his house while the entire neighborhood complained to the city about the smell. There's no way that if one of the white girls who went to my high school accused a local registered sex offender of rape, that they'd be discounted by authorities as a "not credible" witness. There's no way that if one of my childhood neighbors tried to file a missing person's report for that girl, that they'd get told she'll be back when the drugs run out.
I finally started to ask the "how" question after patently outrageous incidents like the "137 shots" police shooting of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams in 2012 and the police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice last year. It was in these moments, when headlines of blue bullets bludgeoning black bodies took over newspapers, that my father would go back to Sowell and remind me of the ignored missing person reports filed by the families of Sowell's victims, the ignored rape accusations that survivors of attacks by Sowell made to the police, the ignored community complaints about the horrible smell around Imperial Avenue.
After hearing dad go on for more than five years, I had to understand it all for myself.
What I've come to realize is that Sowell killed and raped with impunity in the city of Cleveland not because he was some psychotic mastermind, as local law enforcement tried to convince me during my reporting for this story, but because no one in power gave a damn about the people he slaughtered. Unlike Tamir Rice and Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, these women were all murdered by a black man who didn't have a badge. But before their deaths at 12205 Imperial Avenue, they were already casualties of three of America's time-honored mass murderers: race, poverty, and addiction. Sowell may have committed these murders, but to say he did so alone is to miss the underlying reality.
When we look at the role race and class played in these atrocities, I'm sure some will point out that Sowell was a black man who exclusively killed black women, and that several of the officers who enabled his atrocities at key points were also black. These are undeniable facts. But it's also an undeniable fact that all of these people, from the victims to the detectives, live in a country with a long history of devaluing black life—especially when it comes to law enforcement. There's been strife between the institution of policing in America and the black community since this country's inception. Some criminal justice experts actually trace some of the foundational DNA of our country's organized law enforcement back to slave patrols that were formed by white men in the 1700s to stop blacks from rising up.
The Cleveland Police Department has upheld their end of this tradition through the ages. The shootings of unarmed black people that have recently captivated the media have been happening in my hometown pretty much forever. It was the suspected police shooting of Joyce Arnett, a mother of three, that helped spark the 1966 Hough Riots in Cleveland—which led to the political awakening of my parents. And it was the police shooting of the child Tamir Rice last year that helped bring young black people back out into the streets to protest many of the same issues we were facing 40 years ago. It's atrocious that we still need to be reminded that black life actually has value.
After years of toiling within a system that is both institutionally racist and dysfunctional, my parents see that although they may have impacted people on an individual level, the system itself is just as discriminatory as ever.
In addition to its problems with race—which are far from unique—the Cleveland Police Department is also incredibly dysfunctional. It has been judged time and time again by the Department of Justice to have clear systemic failures in its treatment of citizens, and is currently under a consent decree, meaning it's being pushed by the feds to make reforms at every level. I learned about many of these failures as I examined this case, as there were numerous opportunities to stop Sowell. For example, had Sowell's DNA been on file—it wasn't, but it should have been, considering he did 15 years for "attempted rape" (he pleaded guilty in a bargain with the prosecutor for a lower charge)—then the rape kit one woman filed in April 2009 could have led to an arrest that would have saved the lives of several women. Of course, the rape kit that woman filed was never even tested until after Sowell was arrested. Instead, it joined the whopping backlog of nearly 4,000 untested rape kits that sat idle in Cleveland at the time.
Blatant fuck-ups like these kept this story at the forefront of my dad's mind, even when it was left behind by the city at large. Although it happened in his district, he was never directly involved in investigating the murders. Dad never heard a woman accuse Sowell of raping her before deciding that she wasn't a credible witness; he never told a distressed father who was trying to file a missing person's report for his daughter that she'd show up when the drugs ran out; he never went down to visit Sowell's "house of horrors" for a routine sex-offender checkup when the smell of rotting flesh was emanating from inside. And yet, this case still burdened his mind, even years after the perpetrator was caught and placed on death row. It was like he felt some kind of responsibility for what happened there, if only tangentially.
This responsibility is probably the greatest gift I was ever given by my parents. It's the same responsibility that drove them to join the police department after the turmoil of 60s with the the hope that they could advocate for their community from the inside. My mother cut school in her teens to see Martin Luther King, Jr. speak. My father can recite the words of Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey at will. It is with these beliefs and a commitment to fighting oppression that they took their badges. And after years of toiling within a system that is both institutionally racist and dysfunctional, they see that although they may have impacted people on an individual level, the system itself is just as discriminatory as ever. In fact, some argue that it is even worse—that we're living in a new era of Jim Crow when it comes to the lack of protection poor blacks get from our justice system, and that blacks are in fact its primary targets.
Along with the broken world that all parents give their children, my father gave me this story and all the ugliness that it exposes about injustice in America.
As galvanizing as exploring the Sowell murders has been for me, I know that these women didn't chose to be martyrs and sacrifice their lives to bring about any kind of social change. Instead, they died brutally in the shadows, and their deaths leave behind a wave of pain that will be reverberating throughout the city for generations. The important thing to remember is that much of this actually didn't have to happen. But it did happen, and how it happened has so much to do with all of us and what we're willing to accept from the people we empower to protect us.
My father is no longer one of those people. He hung up his guns and his badge when I graduated from college, and along with the broken world that all parents give their children, he gave me this story and all the ugliness that it exposes about injustice in America. It's now our turn to ask how. It's on us to demand justice, to pick up that burden and carry it as far as we can in the other direction, so that maybe our kids won't have to do the same thing.
Follow Wilbert L. Cooper on Twitter