The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

December 16, 2013

Award-winning authors’ book chronicles true story of Anthony Sowell, aka the ‘Cleveland Strangler’

Staff Writer

ASHTABULA — An award-winning author from Strongsville got his start at the Star Beacon.

Robert Sberna, author of House of Horrors: The Shocking True Story of Anthony Sowell, the Cleveland Strangler recently won ForeWord Reviews’ 2012 Book of the Year Award for True Crime.

Sberna said that ForeWard Reviews picked House of Horrors as the Book of the Year at the American Library Association’s Annual Conference in June.

“It felt good because I put a lot of work into it. It made me feel good that they appreciated the work and the writing of the story,” he said. The book was released three years to the day from the discovery of the crime.

The book summary explains, “Sowell, a sexual sadist, had lured his victims to his personal House of Horrors with promises of drugs and alcohol.” Sowell killed 11 women, and attacked five others who survived.

The crime scene was discovered on October 29, 2009 when a SWAT team entered Sowell’s Imperial Avenue home to arrest him. “Unlike most serial killings where you find one body, and then another a year or so later, this was more like a mass murder because the killer, the bodies, and the crime scene were all discovered at once,” Sberna said.

“I have a friend who lives in Shaker Heights about a mile from the crime scene. We saw the coverage all over the news and CNN, so we decided to take a walk down there,” he said. “I started talking to the people on the sidewalks, the mothers, friends and families of the victims. All of the women I talked to, their intuitions were right, and their daughters were found in the house.”

The community didn’t report anything to police, even when half-naked women ran out of the house screaming that he tried to kill them, Sberna said. He said they didn’t want to deal with police. The reports of a horrible smell was blamed on a sausage factory that was next-door to the house.

“Anthony Sowell was in a strangely fortunate position to live next to a sausage factory and in a community that didn’t care what was going on,” Sberna said.

Sowell was convicted previously for sexual assault and served 15 years in prison but never received sexual predator rehabilitation counseling because, Sberna said, he would then be labeled a sex offender which would put him at risk in prison. He said there needs to be a way of rehabilitating prisoners without putting them at risk.

Sberna interviewed Sowell in prison several times while writing House of Horrors, and he said, “He was extremely narcissistic and showed no remorse. He was very intelligent and a decorated Marine. He did well in a structured environment.” He said Sowell was manipulative enough that he convinced his psychologist that he wasn’t a danger, so he was not even required to notify neighbors that he was convicted of a sex crime.

His psychologist reported that there was only a 6 percent chance Sowell would reoffend. Sberna said that Sowell was only required to register yearly and the sheriff did yearly checks to confirm his address. “The day he was caught, the sheriff’s deputies were there earlier, and didn’t notice anything,” he said.

“He was charming and manipulative. I asked him if there was a reason why he did it, and he said four words: abused children grow up.” Sowell said his mother was very strict and to discipline them, she would strip them, tie them to a banister, and whip them with an electrical cord.

“We’re not giving him an excuse, but he’s repeating a pattern. I believed him when he said that because everything else he said I took with a grain of salt, but when he said that, he seemed sincere,” Sberna said.

Sberna said that abusive children are at a greater risk of being abusive, and that when he met with Sowell’s sister, their mother was in the room and was crying when she said, ‘I think I could have been a better mother.’ “The house he grew up in was a house of horrors, too,” Sberna said.

He added that the county had about 3,000 rape kits waiting to be processed, and that Sowell was very generous with his drugs. “He said that there were so many women going to his house day and night that he had to disconnect his doorbell.” One woman he attacked tried to do the right thing and reported it and did a rape kit.

Sowell was arrested but told the city prosecutor that the woman had tried to steal from him and the prosecutor released Sowell, believing him over the victim. He went on to kill six more women after that. Sberna said that rape kits aren’t processed if the victim doesn’t follow through with a case. “If they would have processed it, they would have matched it with the results already on file from when he was in prison. They could have prevented a lot of deaths. We have to rethink these policies.”

He called it another example of how Sowell was able to wiggle through the cracks.

He speculates that the reason Sowell went on the killing spree was because of a failed relationship. Sberna said the girlfriend had a crack problem and Sowell worked hard to support her habit. He had a heart attack while shoveling a neighbor’s driveway, lost his job, and shortly thereafter, Frazier left him. Soon after that, the first of his 11 victims went missing.

The Sowell trial is the most expensive publically-funded case in Cuyahoga County history, at $750,000. Sowell was convicted of the aggravated murder of 11 women, and the attempted murder of three others. He is currently on death row awaiting execution. Sberna said Sowell tells him he does a lot of artwork, returns letters, and reads the Bible in prison. “He’s very casual. He doesn’t have the capacity for empathy. The world revolves around him and he can rationalize anything he does.”

House of Horrors is published by Kent State University Press. “I went with Kent State University Press because it allowed me to address some of the social issues in there. The deck was stacked against these women from very early on,” Sberna said.

“I’ve never thought of myself as a crime writer, it wasn’t my cup of tea, but once you do one, your publisher wants you to do more and develop your brand,” Sberna said. He is currently working on a book surrounding the Ariel Castro case.

Sberna graduated from Ohio University, and said his first job out of college was at the Star Beacon covering Geneva and Geneva-on-the-Lake. “When I got out of college, it was very hard to get a job in the journalism field. It took me a year to get a job, and the Star Beacon gave me a break.” After the Star Beacon, Sberna went on to covering the crime and police beats in other Midwestern newspapers, and is currently freelance writing for magazines and newspapers.

More information on Sberna and House of Horrors is available at