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

From Rachel Garrett, CNN
The residence of 50-year-old alleged serial killer Anthony Sowell is sealed off with police tape in 2009.
The residence of 50-year-old alleged serial killer Anthony Sowell is sealed off with police tape in 2009.
  • Anthony Sowell has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity
  • Investigators unearthed the remains of five women in his backyard
  • Neighbors failed to realize the stench in the area of the home was from human flesh
  • The disappearance of 11 women went largely unnoticed for almost two years

For more on this story, see CNN affiliate WKYC

(CNN) -- The trial of Anthony Sowell, who is accused of raping, killing and dismembering 11 Cleveland-area women between 2007 and 2009, began Monday with opening statements and the questioning of the first witnesses.

Prosecutors spoke for over an hour, detailing each woman Sowell is charged with killing, and gave a play-by-play of the steps police took to obtain warrants to arrest Sowell and gather evidence at his house. Pictures were shown to the entire courtroom to further illustrate the scene SWAT team officers and Cleveland police encountered.

The defense spoke for just a few minutes, stressing that the state of Ohio has the burden to prove that Sowell committed the murders. The defense argued that there is no DNA, fingerprints, or evidence to prove Sowell committed the killings.

The defense also focused on Sowell's character and claimed that he has suffered mentally and physically since a heart attack in 2007 led to the loss of his job.

After opening statements, there was a brief recess before the prosecution's first witness took the stand. Richard Butler is a member of the SWAT team that worked with other Cleveland police to arrest Sowell and gather evidence at his house. Butler is the officer who found the first two bodies in a small room on the third floor of Sowell's house.

Sowell has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to the 85 counts he faces.

The case against Sowell is grounded in his Cleveland backyard.

Jurors tour alleged killer's home
2009: Serial killing suspect in court
2009: Ohio victims' families speak out

Investigators at Sowell's home unearthed remains in October 2009 of five of the 11 women -- ages 25 to 52.

Since then, other women have come forward alleging that Sowell attacked them too.

In April 2010, prosecutors handed down a 10-count indictment against Sowell in connection with the alleged rape of a 34-year-old woman in his 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.

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 was 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 from 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.