Remembering the Imperial Avenue Victims

October 22, 2019

A decade after Cleveland’s Imperial Avenue tragedy, it’s not too late to enact change.

When tragedy happens, it can be hard to find hope in the midst of grief, anger, loss and suffering.  Sometimes, the best we can hope for is to learn from the past to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future.

Ten years ago, on October 29, 2009, the world’s eyes turned to Cleveland with the discovery of 11 murdered women, all who died by the hands of convicted rapist Anthony Sowell.  This was not the first time the Cleveland Division of Police learned of Sowell’s brutality.  Long before that day, they had received multiple reports from survivors that he had raped them.  Because the survivors weren’t believed, and their cases did not receive thorough investigations, this predator was left free to harm and kill others. 

Tonia Carmichael, Nancy Cobbs, Tishana Culver, Crystal Dozier, Telacia Fortson, Amelda Hunter, Leshanda Long, Michelle Mason, Kim Yvette Smith, Diane Turner, and Janice Webb were not just cases, victims or names.  They were mothers, daughters, sisters and cousins.  They left behind families and friends who loved them – who still mourn them. 

In the aftermath of unthinkable crimes, the City of Cleveland convened the Special Commission on Missing Persons and Sex Crimes Investigations to make recommendations about how to improve response.  Further, an external audit by the Police Executive Research Forum produced a report that included 13 recommendations related to the Division’s Sex Crimes & Child Abuse Unit. Each effort was rooted in hope that a catastrophe like this would never happen again. 

Yet, after some initial momentum the efforts of these groups and their related recommendations were largely forgotten.  Public attention moved to other areas of concern.  The City failed to dedicate additional resources to sex crimes investigations, and rape survivors continue to face an inadequate response when they report crimes.

This is especially concerning because we know that women and children are the most vulnerable to rape and sexual abuse, as are people of color, those who live in poverty and those who suffer from addiction or mental illness.  These same factors seem to make it more likely for our criminal justice system to re-victimize survivors by not believing them, not fully investigating their cases and not helping them find a path to healing and justice.

A special series in The Plain Dealer last month, Case Closed, profoundly chronicled the systemic failures of our criminal justice system. When Sandi Fedor, a grandmother who was raped by a serial sex offender, reported to the Cleveland Division of Police, her case was not investigated adequately; the perpetrator remained free and he raped yet another woman.

Ms. Fedor’s experiences – and the experiences of countless other survivors – demonstrate that we have not learned or acted enough to prevent violence, similar to the Imperial Avenue tragedy, from happening again in our community.

We cannot go back to erase the past or the pain and suffering of any of the Imperial Avenue victims or their families and neighbors, but we can honor each of them by enacting meaningful change that prevents others from being harmed in the future.

We must believe survivors when they come forward.  We must ensure that the professionals who investigate their cases have the resources they need to do their jobs well.  And, we must hold every offender accountable to the fullest extent of the law.  Doing so reduces the chance that another woman, man or child will be harmed.

Now is the time for us to acknowledge that we can – and must – do better, commit the resources required and enact the radical change needed in our criminal justice system.

We have an opportunity every day to continuously improve.  At Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, we are ready to collaborate to find solutions. 

Let’s work together now.  To honor the memory of those we have lost.  To help survivors find the healing and justice they deserve.  And to prevent similar disaster from striking our community ever again.

We Remember.

Sondra Miller
President & CEO
Cleveland Rape Crisis Center



# # #

About Cleveland Rape Crisis Center

The mission of Cleveland Rape Crisis Center is to support survivors of rape and sexual abuse, promote healing and prevention, and advocate for social change.  In 2018, the Center provided counseling, advocacy and crisis intervention services to 10,000 rape and sexual abuse survivors and reached 54,000 people through its prevention, education and training programs in Cuyahoga, Ashtabula, Geauga and Lake counties. 

24/7 Crisis & Support Hotline

Call or text (216) 619-6192 or (440) 423-2020 or chat online.