EAST CLEVELAND, Ohio — The soul-searching has begun in and around Cleveland – again – as the chilling details emerge from the latest missing-women case to send a shiver through the metropolitan area.
A registered sex offender was charged Monday with murder and kidnapping in the slayings of three women whose bodies were found in plastic trash bags in a run-down East Cleveland neighborhood. It is the third major case in four years of multiple killings or abductions to haunt the Rust Belt metropolis.
“I do think we have to ask ourselves as a community the larger question: Why here, and what can we do to better understand the conditions that fostered this savage behavior?” said Dennis Eckert, a political and urban-policy consultant and former Cleveland-area congressman.
Some civic leaders say the explanation lies in the disintegration of neighborhoods and people’s connections to one another, plus a general mistrust of police – conditions that make it easier for a predator to kill without others noticing anything or reporting their suspicions.
Cleveland was a robust steel town for generations but has struggled for decades, ever since manufacturing went into a decline in the 1970s. Today it regularly ranks among the poorest big cities in America.
Per-capita income is just $17,000 in Cleveland and even lower, at $16,000, in next-door East Cleveland, where the bodies were found Friday and Saturday.
Greater Cleveland lost more jobs than other big city in the U.S. between May 2012 and this past May, at a time when hiring was finally picking up again in many parts of the country.
Last year, Cuyahoga County, home to both Cleveland and East Cleveland, topped the list of foreclosures in Ohio with 11,427, according to Policy Matters Ohio, a Cleveland think tank.
A walk down almost any street in East Cleveland brings the crisis home. Boarded-up houses and ramshackle apartment buildings are a common sight.
On Sunday, volunteers scoured 40 of those homes, looking for any additional victims of Michael Madison, the man charged in the latest slayings.
A foul odor reported by a neighbor led to the discovery of the bodies and the arrest of Madison, 35, who served four years in prison for attempted rape and a drug offense.
At a court hearing Monday, Madison was ordered held on $6 million bail. He did not enter a plea.
The medical examiner has yet to establish the victims’ cause of death; two were too badly decomposed to identify.
Authorities over the weekend said the victims were killed six to 10 days earlier. But the charges read in court specified a wider time frame for the alleged crimes – days or months before the bodies were found.
In May, Cleveland was electrified by the discovery of three women who authorities say had been held captive for a decade in a house in a rough neighborhood dotted with boarded-up homes on Cleveland’s west side.
Ariel Castro, a former school bus driver, has been charged with nearly 1,000 counts of kidnapping, rape and other crimes and has pleaded not guilty. Many questioned how he could have held the women for so long without someone noticing something wrong.
Four years ago, Cleveland was shocked by the arrest of Anthony Sowell, who stalked and killed 11 women on Cleveland’s east side and hid the bodies around his house and yard. He was found guilty in 2011 and sentenced to death.
Many of Sowell’s victims were drug addicts who were never reported missing. Law enforcement authorities were accused of fostering an environment that made residents, many of them black, reluctant to call police.
That mistrust led to the creation of insular islands in poor neighborhoods that make it easy for predators like Sowell to operate, said James Renner, a Cleveland investigative reporter, film producer and author of “The Serial Killer’s Apprentice,” about 13 unsolved crimes in Cleveland.
“Human predators work very similarly to predators in nature,” Renner said. “They will go to the place that they have the highest rate of success, where they can stalk without being caught or seen or reported.”
This week’s news comes at a time when Cleveland is in many ways reinventing itself.
The city just opened a $465 million convention center and exhibit hall. The Horseshoe Casino has opened in a former department store, bringing scores of visitors. And parts of downtown are bustling with a vibrant restaurant scene and the first new apartments in decades.
Across the street from the new convention center, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is hosting an exhibit on the Rolling Stones. The Cleveland Indians are in second place in the American League’s Central Division.
And next year, the city hosts the Gay Games, expected to attract 30,000 visitors.
This week, the city is filling up with 11,000 older athletes competing in the National Senior Games. But the lead headline in The Plain Dealer that greeted many participants Monday was: “Discovery of three bodies again raises issue of violence against women here.”
The crimes are affecting the image people have of Cleveland, said East Cleveland resident Ali Bilal.
“They’re thinking it’s one of those places that you don’t want to go,” he said. “It’s like a horror show.”
Yet ask other people in East Cleveland about the long-term effect of this latest tragedy, and many return to the same thing: At least it’s bringing people together.
“Maybe after all this, maybe this will bring a change to East Cleveland,” Vanessa Jones said Sunday as she watched investigators search a vacant lot near where the bodies were found. “Hopefully. Pray for that.”