Another Cleveland neighborhood—site of city’s last gruesome crime—struggles to recover

Jeff Stacklin
The Lookout

CLEVELAND—The neighborhood around the dilapidated home where three women were held prisoner for a decade continued to bustle with police and media activity on Friday amid a steady stream of curious onlookers.

Police stand guard over the vicious crime scene on Seymour Avenue, where the women—Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Gina DeJesus—were allegedly raped, beaten and held against their will by its owner, Ariel Castro.

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Photo: Fawcet Bess stands outside his boarded up restaurant on Imperial Avenue. (Jeff Stacklin/Yahoo! News)

Meanwhile, across town in an eerily similar, lower-income neighborhood of rundown homes and a patchwork of vacant lots, property owner Fawcet Bess just scoffs. He warns the Seymour Avenue residents not to expect their neighborhood to return to normalcy for a long time—if ever.

Bess knows firsthand. He has the misfortune of owning three properties and a business next to Cleveland’s other notorious crime scene—12205 Imperial Ave., the address where convicted serial killer Anthony Sowell strangled 11 women to death and buried them in his house and backyard.

The Sowell case attracted widespread media attention, much as the Castro case does today. Neighbors had complained for months about a horrific odor coming from the area. Police eventually went to Sowell's home in October 2009 with an arrest warrant for assaulting a woman and and found decomposing bodies on the floor.

Eventually, the bodies of 11 women would be found on Sowell's property. The women had all gone missing for a couple of years.

It’s been almost a year-and-a-half since the Sowell home was razed and nearly two years since he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. And while gawkers don’t visit much anymore, neither does anyone interested in living in the neighborhood.

Bess said the notoriety around the case has driven people away.

“If you got a house, you can’t even rent it,” Bess said. “As soon as people hear the name ‘Imperial Avenue,’ they don’t want it.”

Bess once owned a chicken and pizza restaurant across the street from the Sowell property. “I tried to keep it open, but it just didn’t work," he said.

Now the business, like most of the homes up and down the street, is boarded up and vacant. The sides of street are dotted with vacant lots.

“The only thing that’s happening now is demolitions,” Bess said.

From Sowell's arrest until the home was razed in November 2011, police monitored the home 24-7. A police officer was stationed outside the property, which was enclosed in by a chain-link fence.

Another Imperial Avenue neighbor, Tim Williams, said demolishing Sowell's house was a turning point for the neighborhood.

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Photo: Tim Williams stands in front of the vacant lot where the home of convicted serial killer Anthony Sowell used to stand. (Jeff Stacklin/Yahoo! News)

“That’s when the healing began,” Williams said. “As long as that house was standing, it just brought back a lot of bad memories.”

Still, he said, he doesn’t expect the neighborhood to spring back from a very dark moment in history.

Back on Seymour Avenue, the scene is strikingly similar. There are boarded up house and vacant, over-grown lots where houses used to sit. The street itself is narrow, with broken asphalt and cracked concrete sidewalks.

Here, though, the notoriety of a horrific crime is just taking root. The size of crowd has dwindled somewhat, but police and the media still scrutinize the area, looking for clues to what happened there.

Police are expected to remain at the home for the foreseeable future. A spokeswoman for Cuyahoga Prosecutor Timothy McGinty confirmed that once all evidence has been collected from Castro’s home, the scene will be secured much like the Sowell property was prior to the killer’s trial and eventual conviction—with constant police surveillance and a fence.

But the question remains of whether the Seymour Avenue neighborhood will survive. Over on Imperial Avenue, the neighbors are still waiting.