RYE, N.H. (CBS) The Anthony Sowell case, in which a convicted sex offender who's black is charged with killing 11 black women, raises some interesting questions about the role of race in homicide investigations.
Was race a factor in Sowell's alleged "success" as a serial killer, allowing him to perpetrate his crimes without anyone in law enforcement being onto him, or even interested in him? What's more, is there a chance that the standard notion of a serial killer--the familiar profile of "white males, 30-40 years old"--blinded authorities to Sowell?
To answer the first question--the Cleveland police, as far as I can tell, didn't know they had a serial killer murdering women until they went to Sowell's home to arrest him on a rape charge and found two bodies on his living room floor. So, no, race couldn't have had anything to do with his being "successful."
It also answers the second question. If the Cleveland police didn't know they had a serial killer operating in their city, they couldn't have been blinded by a "familiar profile" of white and middle-aged. The idea that serial killers are white has long been disproved. Remember Wayne Williams, the Atlanta child killer, convicted almost thirty years ago? He was black. And there have been a number since. Serial murderers are, in this day and age, an equal opportunity employer. As far as age, I think "30-40 years old" is another one of those misconceptions, probably perpetuated by the movies and TV. The serial killer Benjamin Atkins, who I helped capture in Detroit (and, coincidentally was also charged with raping and strangling eleven women), was twenty-three when he started. Jeffrey Dahmer was seventeen at the time of his first kill, and the prolific Russian serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo, started at the age of forty-two and killed his last victim when he was fifty-four.
The Sowell case, however, raises at least one more question focused on race. Do homicide cases with poor, minority victims sometimes get short shrift?
On that point, let me offer a further example from my personal experience. It happened when Benjamin Atkins was finally found guilty in Detroit after a lengthy trial in which the media gave very sparse coverage, at times almost ignoring the case. A reporter came up to one of the detectives when the verdict was announced and asked him if the police had failed to give the case the attention they should because the victims were black. I guess the reporter couldn't see the irony in the question.
No police agency, big or small, wants to admit they have a serial killer operating in their city. I'm not saying they don't work the individual homicides just as diligently, but "serial killer" brings a whole new set of problems on many different levels. The Atkins case, after the eighth victim was found, caused a U.S. congressman to call the director of the FBI who then had to call the special agent in charge of the Detroit FBI office who called me. Pressure starts coming from everywhere. Once the media locked onto the case, we couldn't bring witnesses back to the police department because TV camera crews would be waiting. No one was going to talk to us under those conditions.
The truth is that most of the detectives that were involved in the Atkins case were black and ninety-nine percent of the murders they investigate have black victims. The detective who was asked the question about minority priorities was the only white lead detective in the case. I had four months left until I retired and should have been finding ways to burn off leave days but instead worked the case seven days a week for two of those months until we caught him. Homicide detectives endure the stress and frustration of what they do because they feel that whether the victim is black or white, a prostitute or a CEO, murderers need to be removed from society. So, if minorities do get short shrift, in thirty years of doing this, I haven't seen it.
MORE ON CRIMESIDER
November 12, 2009 - Mayor's Niece Lived With Alleged "Cleveland Strangler" Anthony Sowell and Rotting Bodies
November 9, 2009 - Anthony Sowell: Case Against Accused Cleveland Serial Killer Could Expand Overseas with FBI Interest
November 5, 2009 - Anthony Sowell Offered Free Barbecue To Neighbors, As Corpses Rotted in His Home
November 5, 2009 - Family of Anthony Sowell Victim Tonia Carmichael: Police Said "Go Home"
November 4, 2009 - Harry Smith on Anthony Sowell and His Cleveland House of Horrors
November 4, 2009 - Skull in Bucket Found in Anthony Sowell's Home, Say Cleveland Cops
November 3, 2009 - Anthony Sowell Home "Smelled Like a Dead Body" for Years; How Did Cops Miss Victims?
November 2, 2009 - Anthony Sowell House of Horrors: Who's Buried There?
November 2, 2009 - Anthony Sowell Cruised Sex Fetish Site While Dead Bodies Rotted in His Cleveland Home
November 2, 2009 - Six Died Violently at Anthony Sowell's Cleveland Home, Say Police
Paul Lindsay was a Marine Corps infantry officer in Vietnam. He joined the FBI in 1972, serving 20 years with the Bureau in Detroit. He specialized in tracking down serial killers, including the Highland Park Strangler. He also worked the Green River murders case in Seattle. In 1993, Lindsay became the only agent to write a book while still active with the FBI. Threatened with suspension, he got into more trouble for criticizing his boss in a magazine article. He retired from the Bureau that same year. Lindsay has written seven novels, most recently The Bricklayer, under the pseudonym Noah Boyd. When he's not writing, he works on cold cases.
Click Here to Read an Excerpt of "The Bricklayer"