EAST CLEVELAND — The police chief of a Cleveland suburb today told volunteers checking vacant houses in a neighborhood where three bodies were found wrapped in plastic bags that he believes there could be one or two more victims.
Police Chief Ralph Spotts told the searchers to be alert for smells of rotting and for trash bags that might conceal a body. He declined to elaborate on other possible victims. East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton said authorities have a lot of reasons to suspect there are more, but he refused to say why.
A 35-year-old registered sex offender arrested after a police standoff Friday is a suspect in the deaths, Norton said. The suspect, from East Cleveland, has indicated he might have been influenced by Cleveland serial killer Anthony Sowell, who was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to death, Norton said. The man has not been charged.
"He said some things that led us to believe that in some way, shape, or form, Sowell might be an influence," Norton told The Associated Press.
In the most recent case, one body was found Friday in a garage. Two others were found Saturday — one in a backyard and the other in the basement of a vacant house. The bodies, believed to be female, were found about 100 to 200 yards apart, and authorities believed the victims were killed in the last six to 10 days.
One woman said she was familiar with the suspect and had seen him walking through the neighborhood. She said she had told him to stop talking to her daughter and warned him after seeing him talk to her cousin.
"It's very scary, especially when he used to be talking to my daughter," said Nathenia Crosby, 48. "But I told him he was too old to be talking to my daughter because she was only 19. When I found out how old he was, I said, 'You need to move on, she's too young.' "
Sowell was found guilty in 2011 of killing 11 women and hiding their remains around his Cleveland home from June 2007 to July 2009. Police found their mostly nude bodies throughout the house after a woman escaped and said she had been raped in there.
Sowell's victims ranged in age from 24 to 52, all were recovering or current drug addicts and most died of strangulation; some had been decapitated, and others were so badly decomposed that coroners couldn't say with certainty how they died.
Prosecutors described him in court papers as "the worst offender in the history of Cuyahoga County and arguably the State of Ohio." He was sentenced to death.
In the East Cleveland case, the bodies were each in the fetal position, wrapped in several layers of trash bags, Norton said. He said detectives continue to interview the suspect, who used his mother's address in Cleveland in registering as a sex offender, the mayor said.
"The person in custody, some of the things he said to investigators made us go back today," the mayor said.
The police, FBI, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department went through yards and abandoned houses over about three blocks Saturday and used dogs trained to find cadavers. They planned to expand the search today.
The neighborhood in East Cleveland, which has some 17,000 residents, has many abandoned houses and authorities want to be thorough, the mayor said.
"Hopefully, we pray to God, this is it," he said.
The Cleveland area has had its share of gruesome news in recent years. In May, three women who separately vanished a decade ago were found captive in a run-down house. Ariel Castro, a former school bus driver, has been charged with nearly 1,000 counts of kidnap, rape and other crimes.
Castro is accused of repeatedly restraining the women, sometimes chaining them to a pole in a basement, to a bedroom heater or inside a van. The charges say one of the women tried to escape and he assaulted her with a vacuum cord around her neck. He also fathered a daughter with one captive, authorities said.
He has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.