Cleveland — Authorities say Anthony Sowell lured women into his home in a busy neighborhood, killed them — most by strangulation — and scattered their remains throughout the inside and buried some in the backyard.
Such brazenness defies logic, but experts identify a narrow subcategory of serial killers, including the 1893 Chicago Fair killer, Dr. H.H. Holmes, and Milwaukee cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, who hunt from home.
“These types are so rare that you can’t make a summary estimation as to why or what went wrong or anything,” said Robert Keppel, a national serial-killer expert who investigated serial killer Ted Bundy in Washington state in the 1970s.
“There’s just not a whole lot of these folks running around the world,” he said.
Sowell had the perfect lair.
His home and backyard — a burial site for five victims — were shielded by an empty home to the left and the windowless brick wall of a sausage company on the right.
Anytime the stench of decaying bodies blew over the street, neighbors blamed the meat processing next door.
His house stood out only because it was one of the nicest on a block dotted by homes with peeling paint and broken windows, some of them vacant.
It looked safe.
Sowell often sat on the front steps, sipping beer out of a bottle and greeting residents passing by on their way to the corner store that was just steps away for alcohol, snacks and cigarettes.
Neighbors say he’d offer a few the chance to get high.
Sowell’s alleged approach reflects an obvious point, said forensic psychologist N.G. Berrill: the potential role of mental illness in such unusual behavior.
“The fact that they would dirty their own nest, as it were, is peculiar to me and suggests a level of mental illness or sickness,” said Berrill, director of the New York Center for Neuropsychology and Forensic Behavioral Science.
Tanja Doss told The Associated Press that when she went up to Sowell’s third-floor bedroom for a drink last April, he attacked her. “I’m sitting on the corner of the bed and he just leaped up and came over and started choking me,” she said.
She said she escaped the next morning when he left for the store.
Past serial killers
When people think of serial killers, they imagine predators like Bundy, who stalked women and killed women in Washington, Oregon, Utah, Idaho, Colorado and finally Florida.
Or Gary Ridgway, dubbed the Green River killer, who pleaded guilty to the deaths of 48 women, many of them found in or near Washington State’s Green River.
But some of history’s most notorious serial killers literally worked close to home.
Holmes, born Herman Webster Mudgett, built a “World’s Fair Hotel” he used to lure women to their death during the 1893 World’s Fair, a series of crimes recounted in the 2004 best-seller, “Devil in the White City.”
While Holmes confessed at one point to killing 27 people, the true number of victims is unknown; some authorities placed it as high as 200.
In Houston, Dean Corll, Elmer Wayne Henley and David Owen Brooks killed 27 boys and young men in a torture-murder ring in Houston from 1969 to 1971. Police found a plywood “torture board” in Corll’s home used to torment many of his victims before they were killed.
In Illinois, John Wayne Gacy, a building contractor and amateur clown, was convicted of luring 33 young men and boys to his Chicago area home for sex and strangling them between 1972 and 1978. Most were buried in a crawl space under the home; four others were dumped in rivers. Gacy was executed in 1994.
In Milwaukee, Dahmer, a former candy factory worker, confessed to killing and dismembering 17 people since 1978, some of whom he mutilated and cannibalized. His victims included 11 males whose remains were found in his apartment.
Dahmer was serving a series of life sentences when he was killed by another inmate at a Wisconsin prison in 1994.
The crimes that Sowell is accused of put him in the same category as Gacy and Dahmer, said Jack Levin, a Northeastern University criminologist.
At the same time, the Cleveland murders resemble the more general portrait of a serial killer who doesn’t stray far from his comfort zone.
“They never leave town. They never travel to another state. They stay close to home, where they’re familiar with the victims and escape routes and dump sites,” Levin said.
Hunting from home may have been easier because of the marginal lives led by Sowell’s alleged victims. All four of the Cleveland women identified until now battled addiction in their lives.
It wasn’t unusual for some of them to disappear for a week or two and then return.
Naticia Duncan, who lives a few houses away from Sowell, fears that her friend, Kimberly Sharp, may be one of the victims. Sharp would often stay at Duncan’s house, do her laundry and then leave when she met a new man.
“I’d see her a month later, then she’d do it again,” Duncan said. “Then I never saw her again.”
Police remain at Sowell’s house for now, but investigators say they have no immediate plans to search for more remains.
Sowell, 50, remained in jail Saturday on a $5 million bond on charges of rape and aggravated murder.