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New Film Explores the Personal Stories of Anthony Sowell's Victims

by David C. Barnett

Convicted Cleveland serial killer Anthony Sowell is due back in court, next week, to appeal his 2011 death sentence for the murders of 11 women over a three year period.  A new documentary, called Unseen, debuts at the Cleveland International Film Festival, this weekend.  It tells the personal stories of Sowell's victims. 

In the fall of 2009, stories about the bodies found buried in and around Anthony Sowell's house on the east side of Cleveland started appearing on TV news reports.  Filmmaker Laura Paglin was fascinated, but had questions of her own.

"You know, even when I heard about this, you think, 'Why would you go into a stranger's house?'"  

Over the next few days, stories about Sowell's victims started to come out; stories about prostitution and drug addiction --- outcasts who flew under society's radar.  

"You'd hear, 'Oh, well, they were just a bunch of crack heads,'" she recalls.  "You think, 'That could never be me.''  And what I found out from doing this film is that that's what these women thought, too, at one point. They had hopes and dreams and aspirations."

"I wanted to be a cosmetologist," says Vanessa Gay.  "Either that or a welder (she chuckles).  Or an 18-wheel truck driver.  That was my vision."

Gay was one of the few women who were able to escape from Anthony Sowell.  But, even before she met him, she was a victim ---  gang-raped as a child, and later becoming addicted to crack cocaine.  It was because of that addiction that Sowell was able to lure her into his home where he repeatedly assaulted her. But, Gay says she never bothered to file a police report.

"People don't believe anything you say when you're on crack.  So, I just stayed high, you know?"

Sondra Miller is executive director of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, ans she says that's a very common sentiment among her clients.

"Predators are smart about who they choose to prey on.  They're looking for someone who, when they come forward, are not going to be believed.  Or maybe ignored.  Or who may not come forward at all, because they don't know who to talk to, or are simply afraid."  

Kenna Quinet is a criminal justice researcher at Indianapolis and Purdue Universities. She notes that Anthony Sowell previously served 15 years in prison for a sex offense without getting treatment.  She calls his story a textbook case in both system failure and society failure.

"This case is a long list of social service agencies that didn't follow-up, neighbors that didn't do anything, rape victims who didn't report their rapes because of their own issues of substance abuse or prostitution. These are multiple generations of families that are totally broken apart by drugs."

Locally, the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center has stationed a victim's advocate in the Division of Police's Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Unit, in an attempt to soften the, sometimes, impersonal experience of reporting a sexual assault.  The advocate gets a copy of every reported sexual attack and makes phone calls to the victims and survivors.  Sondra Miller says it's a way to help them navigate the criminal justice process. 

"So, I do see signs of progress," she says.   "At the same time, it's still so much easier for society to pretend that this doesn't happen and kind of sweep it under the rug, because it's just so uncomfortable to talk about.  And I think that stigma keeps us from even greater progress on this issue."

Vanessa Gay says she's now drug free and in a stable family relationship.  But, she adds she'll never forget walking away from Anthony Sowell's house, bruised and bleeding, passing people on the way to church who looked the other way.

NOTE: ideastream's Rick Jackson will be hosting a discussion about Laura Paglin's documentary, " Unseen", after the 11:15 screening, Saturday morning, at the Cleveland International Film Festival.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.