POSTED: 12:19 a.m. HST, Jul 21, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 10:28 a.m. HST, Jul 21, 2013
EAST CLEVELAND, Ohio >> Searchers rummaging through vacant houses in a neighborhood where three female bodies were found wrapped in plastic bags should be prepared to find one or two more victims, a police chief said today.
Police Chief Ralph Spotts told the volunteers to brace themselves for the smell of rotting bodies and to look out for trash bags that might conceal a body. He declined to elaborate on his comments about the possible additional victims.
When asked about Spotts' remark, East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton said authorities have "lots of reasons" to suspect there are more victims, but he refused to say why.
A 35-year-old registered sex offender in custody is a suspect in the deaths, Norton said. The suspect, who was arrested Friday after a police standoff, has indicated he might have been influenced by Cleveland serial killer Anthony Sowell, who was convicted in 2011 of killing 11 women and sentenced to death, Norton said.
"He said some things that led us to believe that in some way, shape, or form, Sowell might be an influence," Norton told The Associated Press.
The man hasn't been charged.
A report of a foul odor emanating from a home led police to the discovery of the first body, found in a garage, and to the suspect. Two other bodies were found Saturday — one in a backyard and the other in the basement of a vacant house. The bodies, all female, were found about 100 to 200 yards apart, and authorities say the victims were killed in the last six to 10 days.
The bodies were each in the fetal position, wrapped in several layers of trash bags, Norton said. He said detectives continue to interview the suspect, who used his mother's address in Cleveland in registering as a sex offender, the mayor said.
"The person in custody, some of the things he said to investigators made us go back today," the mayor said.
Cuyahoga County medical examiner Dr. Thomas P. Gilson said Sunday that the bodies were in advanced stages of decomposition and that it would take several days to identify them and how they died.
About three dozen volunteers, including community anti-crime activists, fanned out Sunday morning across yards, through vacant houses and along a railroad to help police search. The chief advised them to watch for missing floor boards as they looked inside houses. One young searcher crawled under a board screwed across a door to go inside a house to search.
"The MO of each body we've found so far was wrapped up in a lot of garbage bags, so if you see anything .... and it might not look like it's a body, but it could be — because each bag, the way he had each person was in a fetal position," Spotts told searchers before they began. "It didn't look like a person could actually fit in the bag."
Pam Butcher, 55, said she came out to help search her neighborhood because she was disturbed by the death and said she knew other volunteers were, too.
"They are concerned because it could have been one of their family members," she said. "It could have been one of their kids. It could have been one of their nieces. It could have been one of their aunts."
One neighbor, Nathenia Crosby, said she was familiar with the suspect and had seen him walking through the neighborhood. She said she had told him to stop chatting with her daughter and warned him after seeing him talk to her cousin.
"It's very scary, especially when he used to be talking to my daughter," said Crosby, 48. "But I told him he was too old to be talking to my daughter because she was only 19. When I found out how old he was, I said, 'You need to move on, she's too young.' "
The police, FBI, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department went through yards and abandoned houses over about three blocks Saturday and used dogs trained to find cadavers.
The neighborhood in East Cleveland, which has some 17,000 residents, has many abandoned houses and authorities want to be thorough, the mayor said.
"Hopefully, we pray to God, this is it," he said.
It's the third recent high-profile case in the Cleveland area that involves missing women.
In May, three women who separately vanished a decade ago were found captive in a run-down house. Ariel Castro, a former school bus driver, has pleaded not guilty to nearly 1,000 counts of kidnap, rape and other crimes.
In 2009, Sowell was arrested after a woman escaped from his house and said she had been raped there. Police found the mostly nude bodies of 11 women in garbage bags and plastic sheets throughout the home.
Prosecutors described him in court papers as "the worst offender in the history of Cuyahoga County and arguably the State of Ohio."
He was found guilty in 2011 and sentenced to death.
Associated Press writers Andrew Welsh-Huggins in East Cleveland and Peggy Harris in Philadelphia contributed to this report.