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Cleveland abductions a chilling reminder of 'House of Horrors'

MGN
Tuesday, May 7, 2013 - 8:59am

Like Amanda Berry, who ran to freedom Monday after years in captivity, Tonia Carmichael was abducted and held by a male captor not far from her Cleveland home.

Berry, whom police took to safety along with two other women they rescued from a home at 2207 Seymour Ave., could be seen healthy and beaming in a photo snapped Monday at an area hospital. She endured 10 years of confinement, but her life will go on.

Carmichael was less fortunate.

Her life and those of 10 others ended just over five miles away in the notorious "House of Horrors," at 12205 Imperial Ave., at the hands of convicted sex offender Anthony Sowell, who had moved to the address after serving 15 years in prison for attempted rape.

Many of their bodies were exhumed in October 2009 from shallow graves on Sowell's property.

When news of the serial killing broke back then, the investigation revealed that all of the victims had ties to the neighborhood where they died.

Things in common

At that time, the grisly graveyard at Sowell's Cleveland home made Berry's aunt think of her lost niece.

"She's got to be around (her neighborhood) somewhere then," Gale Mitchell told CNN's Anderson Cooper on Monday.

Indeed, Mitchell was onto something.

Berry and one of the other women, whom police say Ariel Castro held captive, disappeared from the same neighborhood, within five blocks of each other, starting in 2003. The third one was last seen about two miles away from the neighborhood, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Berry was 16 when she vanished on April 21, 2003, after she left her job at a Burger King just a few blocks away from home, the FBI said then.

Mitchell never gave up hope that Berry was still alive. "Me and my daughter -- neither one did," she said.

She was ecstatic when she heard her niece is free and still alive.

"I'm just happy and excited," she said. "It's just so great!"

Unfortunately, Berry's mother, Louwana Miller, died in 2006. She did not live long enough to share in the joy.

"She went with a broken heart," Mitchell lamented.

Berry and the two others had something else in common: They were teenagers at the time of their abductions. Georgina DeJesus was 14, when she went missing. Michele Knight was 19.

House of Horrors

The House of Horror victims also had a common profile: They were all African-American mothers who had hit upon hard times. Almost all of them struggled with drug addiction at some time in their lives, and many turned to prostitution and stealing to support their habits, according to court records.

Carmichael, who was 52 when she vanished, had routinely left home for days or weeks at a time. So, on November 10, 2008, when her children heard she was missing, it seemed, sadly, like nothing new.

She was gone. Four women had fallen victim to Sowell before her. Six more followed her. Most of them were over 40.

They all disappeared in the same neighborhood, and their bodies lay on one man's property. Apparently no one noticed.

Carmichael's body was the first to be identified. Her remains were unearthed from a grave in the backyard, decayed beyond recognition, except for plastic jewelry falling off her skeletal fingers.

Police believe the women were easy prey for Sowell.

Nobody cared?

Criminologists say serial killers often target people whose lives may be messy or off the grid -- prostitutes, runaways and drug users -- because their absences might not raise red flags, even for their families.

After pleading not guilty by reason of insanity, Sowell was convicted in July 2011 of 11 murders, a few rapes and other related charges, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The court sentenced him to death.

After the bodies were discovered, other women came forward, alleging Sowell attacked them.

His home was in a neighborhood that care forgot.

His two-story house sat in a dilapidated neighborhood known as Mount Pleasant, where one in five homes were in foreclosure and at least a third of the residents receive food stamps, according to a study by Case Western Reserve University's Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development.

Neighbors and even a councilman had failed to realize that a stench wafting in the area around Sowell's home was rotting human flesh.

Some in the neighborhood complained then that another factor may have been in play: No one cared when 11 destitute African-American women died.

Trend: escaping alive

More and more people who were abducted escape alive, a spokesman for a nonprofit organization that tracks missing children told Anderson Cooper.

"We are seeing more of them being found as survivors like the three women in Cleveland," said John D. Ryan, CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

But years in captivity can turn into decades of confinement.

"We actually celebrated this past summer the longest recovery of a missing person," Ryan said.

A boy kidnapped at age 2 was found 41 years later and reunited with his mother.

Despite the proximity of the House of Horrors and the similarities between these two grim cases, there is one difference that many were cheering Monday.

The girls who were allegedly abducted and held at 2207 Seymour Ave. made it out alive.

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