In death, victims of serial killer stir their community

Marcia McCoy, 47, at her home in Cleveland. McCoy, is one of the many people who has helped family's cope with 11 murders that alleged serial killer Anthony Sowell committed in the Ohio city.
Marcia McCoy, 47, at her home in Cleveland. McCoy, is one of the many people who has helped family's cope with 11 murders that alleged serial killer Anthony Sowell committed in the Ohio city. (Madalyn Ruggerio/special to the Washington Post)

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By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

CLEVELAND -- The Imperial Eleven is what the city calls the women.

Their decomposed bodies were found in the home of alleged rapist and serial killer Anthony Sowell in October, and police believe he had been living with the corpses for months, some maybe even years. His victims were black, homeless, drug- or alcohol-addicted women, existing in the shadows, invisible even to the community in which they lived.

Like so many in Cleveland, activist Marcia McCoy has been haunted by the discovery at the house on Imperial Avenue.

Here in a neighborhood where some of President Obama's "Hope" signs still sit in the front windows of houses, the gruesome crimes have brought critical issues into focus: a need to reach out to the living, to those invisible women who live on the margins, and a desire to rebuild a sense of community and responsibility for one another.

McCoy has one of those "Hope" signs in her window, and she and other residents have been consumed by one question: How could this happen?

Beyond Cleveland, the story has been discussed on black radio and blogs with a different question: Where was all the media attention when these women first went missing? Name one missing black woman or child who has received national attention, wrote one blogger on the black women's issues Web site Cocoa Chicks Critiques.

In Cleveland, they are finding enough anger, blame and regret to go around.

Some families of the victims filed police reports. Others, so used to long, unexplained absences, didn't bother. Authorities didn't investigate Sowell, a convicted sex offender, even when a woman -- raped and bloodied after escaping his alleged attack last year -- flagged down a police car. She had an assault case pending against her and was labeled an unreliable witness.

In recent weeks, McCoy and others -- including Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio) and Constance "Connie" Harper, the editor of the city's black newspaper -- have joined forces to try to reach out to troubled women.

"There is the perception that if you are black and you live in an urban area, you are not important," Fudge said.

It is a perception that permeated even the community itself, McCoy said.

The dead women ranged in age from 25 to 52. Some were mothers, who rarely went more than two days without calling a relative. Others had become detached from family.


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