By Thomas J. Sheeran
EAST CLEVELAND: With two high-profile cases of multiple missing women still haunting Northeast Ohio, Cleveland-area authorities continued to search Sunday for bodies that may have been stashed away by a possible copycat killer.
About three dozen volunteers helped police comb through a poor neighborhood where three bodies were discovered over the weekend after police responded to a report of a foul odor and arrested a registered sex offender.
East Cleveland Police Chief Ralph Spotts said Sunday that searchers should be prepared to find one or two more victims, but he declined to elaborate. Mayor Gary Norton said the suspect has indicated he might have been influenced by Cleveland serial killer Anthony Sowell, who was convicted in 2011 of murdering 11 women and sentenced to death.
One body was found Friday in a garage. Two others were found Saturday — one in a backyard and the other in the basement of a vacant house. The bodies, believed to be female and all wrapped in plastic bags, were found about 100 to 200 yards apart, and authorities believed the victims were killed in the last six to 10 days.
Searchers rummaging through vacant houses in the same neighborhood Sunday were warned by Spotts to brace themselves for the smell of rotting bodies and to look for trash bags that might conceal a body.
Norton said authorities have “lots of reasons” to suspect there are more victims, but he refused to say why.
A 35-year-old man in police custody is a suspect in the deaths, Norton said. The suspect, who was arrested after a police standoff, “said some things that led us to believe that in some way, shape, or form, Sowell might be an influence,” Norton said.
In 2009, Sowell was arrested after a woman escaped from his house and said she had been raped there. Police found the mostly nude bodies of 11 women in garbage bags and plastic sheets throughout the home.
Another recent case returned an unwanted spotlight to Cleveland. In May, three women who separately vanished a decade ago were found captive in a run-down house. Ariel Castro, a former school bus driver, has pleaded not guilty to nearly 1,000 counts of kidnap, rape and other crimes.
Foul order reported
A report of a foul odor emanating from a home led East Cleveland police to the discovery of the first body, found in a garage, and to the suspect. Two other bodies were found nearby Saturday.
The bodies were each in the fetal position, wrapped in several layers of trash bags, Norton said. He said detectives continue to interview the suspect, who used his mother’s address in Cleveland in registering as a sex offender, the mayor said.
“The person in custody, some of the things he said to investigators made us go back today,” the mayor said Saturday.
Cuyahoga County medical examiner Dr. Thomas P. Gilson said Sunday that the bodies were in advanced stages of decomposition and that it would take several days to identify them and how they died.
About three dozen volunteers, including community anti-crime activists, fanned out Sunday morning across yards, through vacant houses and along a railroad to help police search.
The chief advised them to watch for missing floorboards as they looked inside houses. One young searcher crawled under a board screwed across a door to go inside a house to search.
“The MO of each body we’ve found so far was wrapped up in a lot of garbage bags, so if you see anything … and it might not look like it’s a body, but it could be — because each bag, the way he had each person was in a fetal position,” Spotts told searchers before they began. “It didn’t look like a person could actually fit in the bag.”
Pam Butcher, 55, said she came out to help search her neighborhood because she was disturbed by the death and said she knew other volunteers were, too.
“They are concerned because it could have been one of their family members,” she said. “It could have been one of their kids. It could have been one of their nieces. It could have been one of their aunts.”
One neighbor, Nathenia Crosby, said she was familiar with the suspect and had seen him walking through the neighborhood. She said she had told him to stop chatting with her daughter and warned him after seeing him talk to her cousin.
“It’s very scary, especially when he used to be talking to my daughter,” said Crosby, 48.
The neighborhood in East Cleveland, which has some 17,000 residents, has many abandoned houses and authorities want to be thorough, the mayor said.
“Hopefully, we pray to God, this is it,” Norton said.