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The Ongoing Failure of Cleveland Police to Take Violence Against Women Seriously

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We’re pleased to present this guest post from Stephanie Liscio, who writes well about the Cleveland Indians and has a lot of valuable background about the chilling abduction case in her fair city. –SL

I used to live in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood, less than a mile from the west side Seymour Avenue home where three women – Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight – were held hostage for years. I’d see the missing person fliers up around the neighborhood; back in 2007 when I lived there, and even when I’ve visited the area in the past six months. Like most people around the country, I was shocked and ecstatic to learn that they were found alive this past Monday. Once some of that initial elation started to die down, people started to question how Ariel Castro and his brothers Pedro and Onil* were able to keep the woman in the Seymour Avenue home for so long without detection. Even I paused to think about the fact that this was going on within walking distance of where I lived at one point. It did not take long for stories to surface that neighbors had noticed something was amiss at the home on numerous occasions. If these reports are true, the lack of police action seems disturbing and will hopefully receive scrutiny in the coming weeks and months. What’s important to remember is that this isn’t the first time the Cleveland Police Department dropped the ball, especially when it comes to stopping violence against women. In the past four years, there have been several other disturbing occasions where the police made mistakes and innocent victims paid the price.

When serial killer Anthony Sowell was arrested at his Imperial Avenue home on Cleveland’s east side in 2009, people asked many of the questions they’re now starting to ask about the Castro brothers. How did Sowell pull this off without anyone noticing? The bodies of the 11 women he killed were stashed in his house and buried in the yard; you’d think that may be something that neighbors may notice. Actually, neighbors did notice that something was up – they called authorities numerous times. In fact, people had complained about the smell from the decomposing bodies as early as 2006. Even though the police visited the area numerous times, the odor was wrongly attributed a neighboring sausage factory. Sowell had been arrested for rape and served 15 years in prison; upon his release in 2005 he registered as a sex offender.

In 2008 a woman by the name of Gladys Wade was attacked by Sowell – he punched her, and tried to choke and rape her. She managed to escape and went to police to report the crime. Even though police arrested Sowell, and he was a registered sex offender, they released him due to insufficient evidence. A CBS News investigation showed that police believed Sowell over the woman making the complaint. After Sowell’s release, he murdered six more women. Those were six lives that could have been saved if police would have taken action after Wade reported the attack. With the 11 women that Sowell murdered, he targeted people that were troubled, or down on their luck. He raped numerous others that managed to get away; some attempted to go to the police with their story. When one woman tried to report her rape to police, they seemed to blow her off and told her come into the police station in order to file a formal report. The woman, who had been brutally raped by Sowell over the course of several hours, was physically unable to get to the police station. A year later (not long after Sowell’s arrest), the same woman was arrested by police for an open container violation, and once again she tried to report the rape. The police laughed at her and made a joke about her wanting to have smoked crack with Sowell. The woman wasn’t taken seriously until she testified in court against Sowell, and the judge ordered police to take her statement.

Many of the women that Sowell attacked or killed had problems with drug addiction; in fact, he was able to lure many of them to his home with the promise of drugs. All of his victims were African American, and none came from an affluent social status. Sowell likely targeted women like this because he thought that police wouldn’t ask a lot of questions about a junkie, or they’d assume the women just skipped town. Even when families reported some of these women missing, authorities seemed to imply that they probably just left the area of their own free will. Many of the women that Sowell assaulted that survived felt like the system had failed them; they were less likely to push the issue with police. After the house of horrors was uncovered on Imperial Avenue, citizens optimistically hoped that things would change, that this terrible event would at least keep complaints from being ignored in the future, especially when they concerned violence against women.

Just six months after Sowell’s arrest, though, Cleveland police once again came under heat for essentially ignoring a claim of violence against a woman. (Although to be fair, for all they knew it was a woman or a man). Before dawn, a man traveling on Interstate 90 on Cleveland’s west side called authorities to report what appeared to be a dead body by the side of the highway. Officers were dispatched to the scene to investigate the claim, and they eventually reported that it was a dead deer and that the Ohio Department of Transportation should be called to take care of it. Apparently, the officers never even got out of their car and left to go on their break after they investigated the call. About an hour later, another person called to report the body by the side of the road. Fifteen minutes after that call, came yet another call. The dispatcher told one of the callers that it had already been investigated and was just a dead deer. The caller emphatically stated that it was definitely a dead body; he was standing next to it. It turns out it was a mother of three named of Angel Bradley Crockett, dumped naked by the side of the road after she was killed.

To return to the case of the three missing women, several neighbors have stepped forward to say that they called police on multiple occasions. Israel Lugo, his family, and several neighbors reportedly called the police three times during 2011 and 2012 to report suspicious things they saw at the Castro home. One person supposedly saw naked women on leashes, crawling along on all fours in the back yard of the home. Others saw women banging on windows as if they were trying to escape, or a woman and a young child looking out of the windows. In some cases, the neighbors claimed that police never even came when called. In other cases, they came and did a very basic, cursory search and left without further investigation.

The Castro brothers were good at maintaining a façade of normalcy. They would attend vigils for the missing women, and one brother even stopped to comfort one of the missing girl’s mothers. The brothers were very brazen at times; in addition to attending vigils, they would often take a young girl out of the home (later believed to be Berry’s daughter) to play in the yard or at local playgrounds. Other neighbors had no idea that anything was amiss, and even Ariel Castro’s own son (now estranged) once wrote a story on the missing women for a community newspaper. He had no clue that his father and uncles were somehow involved in the case.

And yet, despite the brothers’ attempts to fool everyone, there were numerous clues; clues that police often ignored or did not take seriously enough. After the Sowell case, it’s hard to believe that someone would be able to get away with another house of horrors in Cleveland. Yet here we are, not quite four years later, and we’re learning that there was a house of torture on the west side. Even though these women were fortunately found alive, how many years of torture did they endure that could have been prevented if police would have further investigated some of these claims? Cleveland has had more rapes per capita than any major city in America over the past several years, and roughly 2/3 of them are never even prosecuted. It’s abhorrent to think that the police could continue blowing off obvious warning signs, particularly in cases that involve violence against women. While one hoped the Sowell case would lead to obvious changes and improvements in the system, if these preliminary reports on Castro’s Seymour Avenue house are true, they’ve learned absolutely nothing from their mistakes of the past.

*UPDATE [SL] As several commenters note, as of now only Ariel Castro has been charged with respect to the abduction. His brothers have not been charged and there seems to be no evidence that they were involved. I should also note that Stephanie submitted this post yesterday evening, before this information was available.

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