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Gruesome Discovery In Cleveland Suggests Societal Flaws

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Gruesome Discovery In Cleveland Suggests Societal Flaws

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Gruesome Discovery In Cleveland Suggests Societal Flaws

Gruesome Discovery In Cleveland Suggests Societal Flaws

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The decomposing remains of at least 11 women have been discovered in a Cleveland home of convicted sex offender Anthony Sowell. But many wonder how so many women in the same city could go missing with no apparent investigation into a possible trend or common link. Some say the profiles of the victims made their disappearances less troubling — all were African-American, many of whom struggled with substance abuse. Cleveland Councilman Zack Reed, who represents Sowell's neighborhood, says the case is example of what's wrong in the criminal justice system. Reed is joined by Cleveland journalist Bill Rice, of NPR member station WCPN-FM, who offers an update on the investigations.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now, to another difficult story. The remains of 11 women were discovered last week at the Cleveland, Ohio home of convicted sex offender Anthony Sowell. Police entered his home after an arrest warrant was issued for the alleged attempted rape of a woman in September.

Since the arrest, additional women have come forward claiming Sowell raped or tried to rape them. But one question that continues to nag is how so many murders could occur without anyone noticing 11 women had disappeared?

City Council member Zack Reed of Cleveland's third ward which includes Sowell's neighborhood is one of the people asking that question. Reed thinks the way former offenders are tracked needs to be overhauled. Reed joins us now in our studio in Washington, D.C. He's joined by Bill Rice who's been covering this story as an Associate Editor at member station WCPN in Cleveland. Thank you both for being here. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. ZACK REED (City Council Member, Cleveland): Thank you for having me.

BILL RICE: Thanks for having me also.

MARTIN: Bill, could you, could you start us off by telling me what's the latest.

RICE: Well, the latest is that they've identified seven of the victims, the last three over the weekend. So there are now seven people who have been identified out of 11 sets of remains that have been discovered at Sowell's home, and the seven that have been identified are people who resided right around the general vicinity of Sowell's residence.

MARTIN: So Councilman, what about that? How is it possible that so many people could be missing and nobody noticed it? Did anybody notice? Were people calling the police to complain?

Councilman REED: Because when you look at the aspect that one characteristic that seems to be a continual fiber in this thing, is that they're all African-American, they're all female, they're all addicted, and the mostly all of them are not - don't have very good means.

And when you combine the addiction, you know, people want to continue to talk about race, but their race didn't lure them into that house, their addiction did. And when you look at the way that we treat individuals who are addicted, and especially poor individuals that are addicted, they're throwaways to our society.

You know, where - in our families we don't like the aspect that they come around because we know they steal. We know that they do things that we don't like. When they go missing, they go missing sometimes for three or four days because they're out looking for their addiction tools.

MARTIN: Can I just check with that with Bill Rice? Bill Rice, is that your understanding? From my reading of some of the news accounts, one of the family members of one the missing victims says that her sister was an addict, but that was 10 years ago and that she was no longer. She had been clean for some time. So does that comport with your understanding of who the victims are so far?

Mr. RICE: You know, I don't know about the details of that particular person. My understanding was just what Councilman Reed relayed to you, was that all of these women were drug addicted or had some kind of substance abuse problem and were really easy targets for the accused victimizer, Anthony Sowell.

MARTIN: So did residents complain, councilman, to you about the resident? Did neighbors complain about the residents at all? One of the things that's also come through in news reports is that apparently there was a really palpable stench around that property. Did anybody ever complain about it?

Councilman REED: I know in 2007 I received a phone call from one of my residents that said councilman, I quote, "there is an odor in the neighborhood and it smells like a dead person. Not the rotten meat from the sausage factory across the street, not a dead animal, a dead person." And that was in 2007.

I was just there last week before this whole incident blew up and I was talking to the store merch. And when I looked over I man, I said Ray has got to fix that - because it's called Ray's Sausage. I said Ray's got to fix that sidewalk. That sidewalk has been like that for two years.

And the gentleman in the store said to me, he said councilman you've got to come out here in the morning. The smell is so bad. So - and we talk about it as just being a smell, but understand, it wasn't just a smell. And this is why I say that I'm calling for this thorough independent evaluation of this system. It wasn't just a smell. It was the smell of rotten, decaying, decomposing dead people.

MARTIN: Did you ever convey that complaint to anybody?

Councilman REED: To the Health Department. As soon as we got the call in 2007, we immediately called the Health Department and explained to the Health Department the phone call that we received. Ray is constantly, when I talk to Ray, I went up to him on election night. As you know, I just got elected.

MARTIN: To your third term.

Councilman REED: And I went up to him and I said Ray, I'm sorry. And before I can get my words out he knew exactly what I was apologizing for because he knows I am - the public have been on him to fix this stench. But it was not him. He spent $10,000 on trying to fix the smell.

MARTIN: If I just, as a point of clarification, we called the Cleveland Health Department. We spoke with its Director Matt Carroll. He says the department doesn't have a record that your office made a complaint about the - as you describe - that there was a specific smell of decomposing body and he says that previous complaints about the area had been checked out but nothing was found. I just feel I need to convey that you.

Councilman REED: Well, I mean first of all, I don't think - I've had my assistant for a number of years, I don't think that she could� I mean, she got the right address, she's got the right name. When I went up to the door to speak to the lady, the lady remembered that she spoke to me.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Councilman REED: So, I mean we can either go back and look at and try to evaluate how we got 11 dead bodies into that property, or we can circle the wagons and we can say that it wasn't us and that we did this and we did - Ray didn't spend $10,000 on trying to fix this...

MARTIN: For nothing.

Councilman REED: ...this smell for nothing.

MARTIN: Well, let's go back and I'd like to ask each, you Bill and Councilman Reed, what is being discussed now going forward? Is there any - are there any set of lines of inquiry opening up to say what could be done differently or what should be done differently going forward? So Bill, I'll start with you and then Councilman, if you'll pick it up.

Mr. RICE: Well, I think the matter of the smell, that's going to be debated for a long time. Matt Carroll, the Public Health Director was on our air last week, on our sister television station, and he said that the Health Department did receive a call about odors but that was concerning an area nearly a mile a away from the residence that we're talking about.

Sure, we've heard the odor discussed since this broke, and nobody disputes that people in the general neighborhood smelled something foul. Now, whether that could be confused with you know, rotting byproducts of sausage making or a dead animal versus a dead person, I'm not sure, you know, that's going to be debated for quite a while.

But I think what's being debated now the most is why these people disappeared? Why missing persons reports were not filed on many of them in a very timely fashion and in some cases not at all? And why the ones that were filed weren't followed up after it became evident that they were not coming back and concerned family members, obviously, would say well gee, this person has been gone for two months now or three months, where are they?

MARTIN: Councilman, final thoughts from you. I just want as a point of clarification; at least two of the victims were never reported missing. There are no missing persons reports filed on two - at least two persons. So Councilman, going forward?

Councilman REED: Well, the bottom line is the system's broken. I mean let's look at a system that says okay, when you get out of prison you're classified one way, which is the least restrictive when we talk about sexual offenders. Then last year you got reclassified again to the highest tier.

Now when you got out of prison, notifications were sent 1,000 feet from that house. But when you were reclassified to the highest one that said that you may do this again, the law says they don't have to send them back out because he or she did not move. Now don't you think if I went from the lowest to the highest that the law should say we should send those notices out again?

And this is what I'm saying. I mean the system is broken and therefore, it's not a time to circle wag. It's not a time to point fingers. It's time to look at and evaluate the system that's clearly broken.

MARTIN: Very, very, very briefly councilman, how are people in the community responding to all the...

Councilman REED: Oh, they're mad. They're mad as hell. They're mad for a number of reasons and they have every reason in the world. They're sad for a number of reasons and they have every reason in the world and we're going to get this thorough investigation going so that we can just get something resolved.

MARTIN: Zack Reed is a councilman representing Cleveland's Third Ward. He was kind enough to join us in Washington, D.C. studios where he's on a personal trip. Bill Rice is the associate editor at member station WCPN in Cleveland. He joined us from his station.

Gentlemen, thank you so much for being here.

Mr. RICE: Thank you. Happy to do it.

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MARTIN: Coming up, DeMaurice Smith the new head of NFL Players Association. Never played football beyond high school and he tells us how he persuaded the players to make him their executive director.

Mr. DEMAURICE SMITH (Executive director, NFL Players Association): If you believe that your fundamental challenge is how to structure yourself, not only as players but businessmen in the business of football, then let's get there.

MARTIN: That conversation is just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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