Anthony Sowell methodically targeted the most vulnerable residents of his destitute Cleveland neighborhood. In large part, his eleven known victims lived on the fringes of a society plagued by drug addiction and economic instability. If they existed under more affluent and privileged circumstances, their tragic fate would have likely been avoided. Thus lies the theme of The Cleveland Strangler, a gripping new documentary that provides the kind of narrative that will attract all true crime buffs, but also offers a valuable and sobering social commentary as well.
Handsomely produced by VICE, the film follows former Cleveland resident Wilbert Cooper as he retraces the events which led to the rape and strangulation of eleven women, and the role that race and poverty might have played in law enforcement's sluggish response.
Cooper paints a vivid portrait of his hometown at the time of the murders, and it's an environment laced with despair, gang violence, and the menacing grip of a growing crack epidemic. This proved the perfect breeding ground in which Sowell could operate. Preying upon the desperate and anonymous, he lured each of his victims into his apartment, and disposed of their bodies within the confines of his living space or through burial nearby.
The warning signs were there, but were largely ignored. The film argues that each announcement of a new missing woman would inspire little investigative effort. In a sense, given their precarious day to day existence, these women were unfairly viewed as the architects of their own demise. Had certain leads and clues been followed more doggedly, Sowell's two-year reign of terror might have been thwarted much earlier.
The film offers a series of chilling and deeply emotional interviews with many key figures surrounding the event, including the lead investigators who assumed control of the case once the bodies were discovered, the store owner who complained of the stench of death from across the street to no avail, and the rape victim who barely escaped Sowell's apartment with her life.
In the end, justice was served as Sowell was convicted for his horrific crimes and placed on death row. As The Cleveland Strangler so devastatingly illustrates, the journey to justice was characterized by far too many missed opportunities and costly prejudices.