A Cleveland woman said Thursday that she was choked and threatened this year by the man now charged with murder after the remains of several people were found on his property and that she is racked with guilt for not speaking up earlier.
Tanja Doss told The Associated Press that if she had quickly gone to authorities, her best friend, Nancy Cobbs, might not be missing. She believes Cobbs might be among the 11 victims whose remains were found at Sowell's home.
Police have recovered 10 bodies and a skull from the home and yard of 50-year-old Anthony Sowell, a registered sex offender who moved back to his family's house in 2005 after serving 15 years in prison for attempted rape. He is being held without bond on five counts of aggravated murder.
Of the bodies found at Sowell's home, only one victim has been identified so far 52-year-old Tonia Carmichael of Warrensville Heights.
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Area pastors urged the families of missing people Thursday to provide DNA samples that could help the coroner's office identify the remains, claiming that nearly two dozen others are still missing in the community. The coroner's office, meanwhile, tried to calm concerns by promising DNA samples would not be shared with law enforcement.
Doss, 43, said she met Sowell in 2005, right after he was released from prison. He didn't tell her why he had done time.
In April this year, she said, he invited her over for a beer. They went to the third floor of his house and were talking.
"And then he just clicked," Doss said. "I'm sitting on the corner of the bed and he just leaped up and came over and started choking me."
Shocked, she said she lay back and tried not to struggle.
"He said, 'If you want to live, knock three times on the floor.' And I knocked on the floor," she said.
Still holding her throat, she said, he told her using profanities that she could be "dead in the street" and no one would care.
He made her strip off her clothes and lay on the bed but did not try to rape her, Doss said. She said she curled up in a ball and tried to talk him down, saying things like, "Why you gotta act like that?"
Then she prayed.
Sowell wouldn't let her leave, Doss said, so she fell asleep and awoke to him acting as if nothing had happened.
"He said, 'Hi, how you doing? You want something from the store?"' Doss said.
She picked up her cell phone and pretended to call her daughter.
"I said, 'Oh, wow, my granddaughter is sick. She's got the flu,"' she said. "He asked if I wanted to go to the store with him, but I told him I had to go home. He went to the store, and I went in the other direction."
Doss didn't immediately report the confrontation to police because she had done jail time on a drug charge and assumed they wouldn't take her seriously.
"Now, I feel bad about it, because my best friend might be one of the bodies," she said.
Doss last saw Nancy Cobbs on April 20, when they celebrated Cobbs' 44th birthday with a cake. The women grew up together, and Cobbs lived in the same neighborhood as Sowell.
When Cobbs vanished, Doss and Cobbs' daughters searched abandoned buildings. They posted fliers in stores and taverns, hoping someone had seen her, and filed a missing-person report April 24.
At the time, Doss said, she didn't think about what had happened with Sowell. She assumed he had just lost his mind for a few minutes. And Cobbs, she said, didn't know Sowell.
Now, it's all she can think about.
"It goes through my mind all the time," she said. "Every time I think about it, I start shaking. I can't get it out of my mind."
Doss said she finally reported the attack to police on Monday, three days after news surfaced of the discovery of bodies.
Another woman, who said Sowell attacked her on the street and dragged her into the home in December, told a Cleveland television station she would never forget the look in his eyes.
"It was like the devil, eyes glowing," Gladys Wade said in an interview on WKYC-TV. "He was demonic or something. You could see the demons in him."
Wade said she fought back as Sowell "kept twisting my neck, twisting it, twisting it. And I was gouging his face at the same time. I was trying to take his eyeballs out."
Police did not return calls seeking to confirm Doss' and Wades' reports, and a working telephone number could not immediately be found for Wade.
With the body count at Sowell's house now up to 11, relatives of the presumed victims are wondering how such a gruesome scene could have gone unnoticed for perhaps years, and they charge that police ignored their missing person reports.
No one is sure how long Sowell, a registered sex offender who would offer free barbecue to the neighbors, had been living in his three-story house with corpses lying around, many of them black women who had been strangled. Police have recovered bodies in the living room, crawl spaces and backyard graves from the home on Imperial Avenue. There was even a skull in the basement.
"They told us to go home, and as soon as the drugs are gone, she'll show up," said Markiesha Carmichael-Jacobs, whose 53-year-old mother, Tonia, a drug addict, vanished Nov. 10, 2008. Police identified her Wednesday as one of the victims, saying her body was found buried in the backyard with marks indicating strangulation.
"It's hard to imagine," Carmichael-Jacobs said as she stood shivering on a street corner across from Sowell's home Wednesday, "but that's what they told us to our face: 'She'll turn up."'
Cleveland police don't take missing-persons cases seriously if they involve people clinging to the lower rungs of society, said Judy Martin, a leading local anti-crime advocate.
About two dozen clergy members rallied Thursday at Providence Baptist Church, declaring the justice system broken and saying 22 other missing people, men and women, have yet to be found.
"There have been 11 bodies found on Imperial Avenue, but where are the other victims?" said the Rev. Eugene Ward.
City Councilman Zach Reed also said he wants people to stop stereotyping the victims.
"I want us to stop this conversation that they were crackheads, they were this and that," he said. "They were people."
After the rally, Police Chief Michael McGrath said police searched their missing-persons database a few days ago and found 14 missing black women between ages 25 and 60 in that neighborhood.
Investigators are cross-referencing those missing women with the remains at coroner's office, he said. Some of the cases date back several years.
The police chief said he had no idea whether investigators would find more bodies.
Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Brian Murphy has said Sowell could face the death penalty if convicted of the aggravated murder counts. Sowell also faces charges of rape, felonious assault and kidnapping after a Sept. 22 attack on a woman at his home.
A message left with the county public defender's office was not returned Thursday.
Sowell's street is lined with occupied homes sandwiched between vacant, boarded-up houses and scattered small businesses with a steady stream of customers.
"We're not talking about some desolate area, some abandoned barn," said Reed, whose mother lives a block away. "How did somebody get away with this in a residential neighborhood?"
It smelled like a dead dog, neighbors say. Like sewage. Like rotting meat.
"It was smelling so bad, horrible, putrid," said Kenneth Broader, a postal carrier who delivers mail to Imperial Avenue.
Sewage lines were replaced. Equipment was scrubbed. City utility officials even came to investigate, on more than one occasion.
But the stench lingered.