City of Cleveland named in sex offender lawsuit

Discovery of 11 bodies after release of Anthony Sowell in 2008 leads five families to claim wrongful death

Published December 8, 2010 9:15PM (EST)

More than a year after the decomposing bodies of 11 women were discovered in a sex offender's home, families of five of the victims are suing the city of Cleveland, claiming they would have lived had the suspect remained in custody.

A wrongful death lawsuit filed Wednesday also names several police officers and an assistant prosecutor.

Authorities released 51-year-old Anthony Sowell after he was arrested and held for two days in December 2008. The five victims all disappeared sometime after he was released.

On Dec. 8, 2008, a bleeding woman ran from Sowell's house and told a police officer that Sowell had punched her, choked her and tried to rape her, the lawsuit says. Police have said Sowell was released without being charged because a detective felt the woman was not credible.

The lawsuit alleges police never checked to see whether Sowell was a registered sex offender or realized that he had been released from prison in 2005. It also claims that police had "more than sufficient evidence of probable cause" to hold and charge Sowell.

Filed in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, the lawsuit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief on behalf of the families of Janice Webb, Amelda Hunter, Diane Turner, Telacia Fortson and Nancy Cobbs. It does not seek monetary damages.

The defendants include the city's law director, four city police officers and an assistant prosecutor. The lawsuit also lists "unknown detectives" on the city's police force.

The lawsuit claims the city acted "recklessly, wantonly and willfully" by releasing Sowell back into the community.

The mayor's office and the police department did not immediately return phone calls and e-mails from The Associated Press seeking comment on the lawsuit.

Sowell has pleaded not guilty to killing the women and hiding their remains in and around his home in an impoverished neighborhood. Since the bodies were found last year, he has been charged with attacking five other women who survived. He is scheduled to go on trial in February.

Prosecutors say Sowell lured vulnerable women to his home with the promise of alcohol or drugs. Police discovered the first two bodies and a freshly dug grave after officers went to investigate another woman's report that she had been raped there.

Terry Gilbert, attorney representing the families, said the families want the city to change what he called its "straight release and indict later."

"They would arrest somebody but they wouldn't do the legwork to get the case together," Gilbert said. "They would just release them without charging them and bringing them to court."

In the wake of public outrage over the murders, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson formed a panel last year to analyze the police department's internal policies. The panel recommended a complete overhaul of the city's handling of missing person and sex crime investigations, saying it should adopt better practices currently used in other cities.

Many of the women found in Sowell's home had been missing for weeks or months, and some had criminal records. Some victims' families believe police didn't take their disappearances seriously.

By Meghan Barr

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