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The Killer History of Cleveland

The Killer History of Cleveland

The infamous Torso Murders didn’t just add more victims between 1935 and 1938. Apathy was on the rise too. What was once a front-page sensation was merely backpage commentary by 1938. One columnist from The Plain Dealer, Philip W. Porter, wrote, “[T]he outstanding feature about these victims is that there is nobody looking for them or caring about them. In short, they are presumably bums… Frankly, aside from a few hundred morbidly curious ones, the public is generally indifferent.” The killer was never found.

Seventy-five years later and four miles east of Kingsbury Run, the bodies of four women were found along East 93rd Street. These crimes echo the events of the 1930s. Not only are they in the same neighborhood; their killer(s) is still at large.

It’s been six years since the first body on East 93rd Street was found. In that time, the Cleveland Police Department formed the Homicide Review Task Force and The Murder Accountability Project, a nonprofit that compiles information about homicides, speculated that Cleveland may have as many as three active serial killers. Despite this, we don’t seem to know any more than we did in 2013. 

This comes as no surprise to James Renner, the author of True Crime Addict and former investigative journalist for Cleveland Scene Magazine. While the CPD believes it is a lack of community cooperation that leaves so many homicides unsolved, Renner has other ideas. 

“I don’t understand how the public is at fault at all,” Renner says. “Their leaders need to change first. Put the community above themselves. How dare they blame victims for the crimes? That’s passing guilt and taking the easy way out.”       

The Department of Justice’s findings in 2014 agree. The DOJ wrote to Mayor Frank Jackson that investigators found evidence of police using deadly force in violation of the Constitution. Alarmingly, investigators also found that, “[CPD] supervisors’ analyses of use of force incidents is superficial at best and, at its worst, appears to be designed to justify their subordinates’ unreasonable use of force.”        

The DOJ findings aren’t the only factor making Cleveland a prime place for killers. 

“Over prosecution of petty crimes has made people fearful of police, too,” Renner suggests. “This created the perfect killing fields for Ariel Castro and Anthony Sowell. [They knew] even if someone saw something, they’d stay quiet because there was a warrant out for them for petty drug use.”

It’s not uncommon for individuals who call the police for help to wind up getting arrested. Derek Szeto learned that the hard way when he let the woman assaulted by Kareem Hunt use his phone to call 911. Szeto was arrested for disorderly conduct when he refused to give up his phone to the officers that arrived on the scene, while Hunt was not.

“Cleveland needs to rebuild trust between its citizens and the police in order for these real crimes to be reported in a timely manner, in order to stop more Anthony Sowells,” Renner continues. “This should start with the reduction in prosecution and sentencing for petty drugs offenses.”

It isn’t just the relationship between the community and the CPD that factor into Cleveland’s history of serial killers, Renner explains. It is important to look at what creates a killer. “Several people have to fail a child first before he grows up to be a monster,” he says.

He seems to be right. Michael Madison’s mother abused him until he was taken by child services at the age of three. Madison would eventually be placed back in her care but continue to be frequently hospitalized. Child services was alerted again, yet he remained in her care until the age of sixteen. 

“If we really wanted to make this a better place to live, we would embrace restorative justice, which gives pride and support back to the criminal so that when he goes back out into the world he can contribute to society,” Renner explains.

Restorative and rehabilitation programs in other states have shown positive results. They’ve found intensive therapies done by professionals have reduced the rate of repeat offenders. Unfortunately, once the Lake Erie Correctional Institution became for-profit, it began cutting its rehabilitation programs, including a Kent State University education program.

“Again, I think this speaks to our retributive system,” Renner says. “We get to think of criminals as others, as something less than us. They get what they deserved. Why should we waste resources trying to understand them–that’s the mentality we’re up against.”

While Renner cannot change the prison system, he can start a non-profit. The Porchlight Project  connects families with missing loved ones to media resources. He believes media attention will keep the search for victims and their killers alive.

But what can the average Clevelander do to help our city? Renner encourages us to get to know our neighbors. He believes fear and isolation only feed the problem. 

“If everyone really got to know the person living beside them, we’d quickly discover the real Ariel Castros and Ted Bundys of the world,” he explains.

Visit to find out ways you can support families with missing loved ones in Cleveland.

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