Laura Strickler is an investigative producer based in Washington, DC.
I was trying to track down all of the surviving victims of Anthony Sowell. The police said there was an alleged Sowell rape victim from 20 years ago who never pursued prosecution.
But I wanted to hear that from her myself.
The police report said the victim met a man that night with a friend. The friend left the house and she said the other man choked and raped her repeatedly.
After the attack the man fell asleep and the victim escaped. She hailed down a police officer and asked for help. The patrol officers went to the house and quickly arrested the man and identified him as one Anthony Sowell.
After they read him his rights, police say Sowell responded, "If the bitch said I raped her, she's lying."
I called every person in Cleveland with the name matching the victim leaving voice mails in half dozen places and moved on. Hours later a relative called back and within minutes I was on the phone with the victim. I said I wanted to ask her about a police report from twenty years ago.
But I paused, conscious I was about to unearth demons from the past. "I understand from the report here that you were attacked by Anthony Sowell," I said.
Silence. Then, "No, I don't know him," she said. The information matched but I didn't push. I offered to send her the police report and we hung up. But within minutes she called back.
"Are you saying that the man who raped me was Anthony Sowell?" she asked.
"Yes I am," I said, "the report says Anthony Sowell."
"Oh my God, oh my God," she said, "I had no idea, I could be dead," she said.
She told me she did not call the detectives back after she filed the police report because she was afraid of Sowell and worried that if she had any more interaction with the police that they would snag her for a parole violation, "I didn't want to go to jail," she said. In recent years she has not had any interaction with the police.
As of November 18, 2009, her case is still listed as "Open".
Sexual assault experts tell me this scenario is very common: a rape victim afraid she will get caught on minor legal matters doesn't follow up with detectives to prosecute a major crime.
Cuyahoga County Judge Tim McGinty says rapes of vulnerable women should always be aggressively pursued even if the victim hesitates.
"They are the ones you should most enthusiastically pursue not ignore," McGinty said, "not treat them like an underclass not deserving of the full attention of the suburbanite rape victim."
He said the men who rape vulnerable women are probably inclined to rape again, "When you get the fellow who raped them you get the person who has raped others or who will rape others," McGinty said.
This was certainly the case with Anthony Sowell.
Other prosecutors have told me that it's up to the detectives and prosecutors to convince victims that deals on minor violations can be worked out if the victim is reporting serious crimes.
And sometimes victims change their minds.
According to the FBI, Minneapolis has a high rate of rape per capita like Cleveland. But in Minneapolis, prosecutor Steve Redding is tracking down "uncooperative" rape victims from ten or fifteen years ago who did not want to prosecute and asking them to reconsider. Redding says many now say they want to prosecute especially if they have gotten their lives back together. He sends their rape kits in for testing and has already found cases where DNA from suspects in old cases match a perpetrator in more recent crimes.
Redding says there's a reason why the DNA from these rapes of vulnerable, potentially drug addicted women are now being re-examined in Minneapolis.
"I think there's been an attitude change," he said," previously prosecutors and police - if the victim didn't express complete willingness to cooperate with the prosecution- that case would not be completely investigated," he said.
If the Cleveland Police Department had tested the DNA from this victim's rape kit or if they called her to see if she would reconsider prosecution years later like Minneapolis, Sowell's story today might have been very different.
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