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Trial set for Ohio man accused of killing, dismembering 11 women

By the CNN Wire Staff
Anthony Sowell faces 85 counts related to the deaths of 11 women between 2007 and 2009.
Anthony Sowell faces 85 counts related to the deaths of 11 women between 2007 and 2009.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jury selection starts Monday for the trial of accused serial killer Anthony Sowell
  • He will be tried on 85 counts for the alleged rape and murder of 11 women
  • Police say the convicted sex offender killed the women over a span of two years
  • Authorities allege Sowell hid their remains in and around his Cleveland home

Read more about this story from CNN affiliate WKYC.

(CNN) -- The case against Anthony Sowell is grounded in his Cleveland backyard.

There, in October 2009, investigators unearthed remains of five of the 11 women -- ages 25 to 52 -- found on Sowell's property.

On Monday, jury selection for Sowell's trial begins in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. Sowell faces 85 counts related to his alleged rape, murder and dismembering of the women between 2007 and 2009 -- charges to which he's pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

Since the bodies were discovered, other women have come forward alleging that Sowell also attacked them. In April 2010, prosecutors handed down an 10-count indictment against Sowell in connection with the alleged rape of a 34-year-old woman in his Cleveland home.

Sowell's lawyers have declined previous requests by CNN to explain their case, and the suspect has not been interviewed. But in January 2010, attorney John Parker told The Plain Dealer newspaper in Cleveland that he felt police violated Sowell's Miranda rights as he was being interrogated.

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But those likely to decide Sowell's future have already had their first opportunity to take a measure of the man.

About 200 prospective jurors were introduced to the accused serial killer Friday morning at the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court in Cleveland, county court administrator Greg Popovich said. They also met Judge Dick Ambrose, the presiding judge in the case, as well as the defense and prosecution teams.

Dressed in a polo shirt and khaki pants, and unencumbered by handcuffs or shackles (even though he was escorted by six deputies), Sowell addressed the jurors simply by saying, "Hello."

Popovich described the event as "unusual" but necessary to "ensure the integrity of the process in the interest of justice" -- though he didn't elaborate on how it did. Following the meeting, the potential jurors went through an hour-long orientation and then were asked to fill out a 32-page questionnaire.

Should they be tapped for the jury, they will sit through what Popovich estimates will be a six-to-eight week trial documenting the gruesome case against Sowell.

Sowell grew up in East Cleveland, joined the Marines at age 18 and traveled to California, North Carolina and Japan, authorities said. People who interacted with him after his 2005 release from prison, where he had served 15 years for attempted rape, said he appeared to be "a normal guy," known locally for selling scrap metal.

His inconspicuous two-story home sits in a dilapidated neighborhood known as Mount Pleasant, where one in five homes were in foreclosure and at least a third of residents got food stamps, according to a 2010 study by Case Western Reserve University's Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development.

Neighbors and even a city councilman had failed to realize that the stench wafting in the area around Sowell's home was human flesh, not a byproduct of a nearby sausage factory.

Moreover, the disappearance of the 11 women -- many of whom lived nearby -- went largely unnoticed for almost two years, with only four of them even being reported missing. Many of his alleged victims struggled with drug addiction at some point in their lives, with court records showing that many resorted to stealing and prostitution to support their habits.

In late 2008, Gladys Wade told police that a man in a gray hoodie offered her beer, and when she declined, punched her in the face several times. Wade said that he then tried to rape her, dragging her toward his home, adding that she got out only after "gouging his face."

Police investigated Wade's complaint, with one police report noting blood droplets on Sowell's walls and steps. But officers told CNN affiliate WKYC that the case was dropped after Wade declined to press charges.

After Wade's complaint, six more women would disappear.

Then, on September 23, 2009, a 36-year-old Cleveland woman told police a story eerily similar to those of Wade and the woman whose 1989 account led to Sowell's first conviction for attempted rape. She said he'd invited her into his home for beer, punched her in the face, then began performing oral sex on her -- releasing her only after she promised to return the next day.

Sowell was then arrested. More than a month later, police entered his house and found two bodies rotting in his attic. These were the first of the 11 bodies they'd eventually discover, in various states of decay, on his property.

Most of the women whose remains were found in and around Sowell's home were strangled by ligature -- which can include a string, cord or wire -- and at least one was strangled by hand, officials said. Seven still had ligatures wrapped around their necks. A skull is all that remains of one victim. It was found wrapped in a paper bag and stuffed in a bucket in the home's basement.

While the prosecution will press its case against Sowell in the coming weeks, this may not be the end of his story -- even if he is eventually given a death sentence.

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason has said that his cold case unit is reviewing unsolved murders that occurred during the time Sowell lived in Cleveland and East Cleveland to see if there are any connections. Mason said the group is working its way through 75 cases.

InSession's Chris Perry and CNN's Stephanie Chen contributed to this report.