By Claudia Taller
I didn’t want to know what happened in the house on Imperial Avenue, but it was no accident that I met Rob Sberna at a party. Despite my reluctance to read the book, once I started reading House of Horrors: The Shocking True Story of Anthony Sowell, the Cleveland Strangler by Robert Sberna, I felt I was in good hands as a reader. I trusted the narrator’s voice. Intelligent and thoughtful reporting, good word choices, and the experience of discovering the story with the author make for a good true crime book.
In Cleveland, Anthony Sowell’s story is one of the greatest crimes on record. The tale of gruesome killings in a southeast Cleveland home where an ex-military man turned ex-con lured eleven women into his house over several years, assaulted them, killed them, then buried them in shallow backyard graves or within the walls of his house or left their bodies on the floor of a third-floor bedroom is horrifying. It is especially horrifying because it took us so long to figure out what was wrong on Imperial Avenue.
Rob Sberna’s KSU-published book House of Horrors received ForeWord Reviews’ 15th annual Book of the Year Award in the true crime category. Librarians and booksellers judged it as being the best work from independent, university, and small press publishers. The book has been well received by the Greater Cleveland community, including the families of Sowell’s victims.
Why would a freelance journalist choose a serial killer as a subject he wanted to write about? As a human being, Sberna was curious as to how this could happen. As a reporter, Sberna wanted to tell the story in a way that would help our entire community understand how crimes of this proportion could happen, over and over again, without discovery.
Sberna was at the crime scene on October 29, 2009, the day on which two skulls were found. The victims, the crime, and the accused were all in one place when the murders were discovered. While at the scene, Rob became convinced he had to write the story. “I talked to mothers randomly, they were real people. These were good girls until they got hooked on crack,” he said in a Cool Cleveland interview.
He spent a year interviewing family members of the victims and members of the community while the police gag order was in place. “The family members had become wary of the media and writers, in general, so it took a while for me to gain their trust and present my case that I was writing a book that would depict their loved ones in a fair, objective, and compassionate manner,” he said.
Once the gag order was lifted, it took time to get authority from the Police Chief’s office to speak with the officers who were directly involved in the case. “But eventually,” reports Sberna, “I was able to speak with the police — and I think it was well worth it in order for me to present a balanced story.” The author also interviewed Sowell and corresponded with him after the murderer became incarcerated, and the contents of letters are in the book.
As he investigated, the Strongsville writer put together the pieces of a complex character who was abused in childhood and saw himself as a war hero yet enjoyed engaging in perverse and violent sexual acts with women he hardly knew. He used his famous strangle-hold that would eventually cause his victims to suffocate. He didn’t seem to have a problem with dead bodies lying around his house.
What should we learn from these crimes? “We need more education,” Sberna says. “We need to allocate resources for drug intervention, do some work before people go down. We need a national policy, a war on drug addiction.” He blames society for not saving the women who died on Imperial Avenue. As for the work of the police, he concluded, “They concentrate on looking for missing children, and expend no resources looking for adults.” They dropped the ball on the smell emanating from that house, but they weren’t getting the information they needed from the streets.
Once you read this book, you’ll never be able to believe people are who they are again, and for that reason alone, you should read this gruesome and truthful account of a man who had something the women he encountered wanted. Hopefully, you’ll also start to think about how people’s lives are changed by drug addictions and want to be an instrument of change.
Meet Rob Sberna and buy a copy of his book, House of Horrors, at a Local Authors Exhibition Sat 10/5 from 1 – 4pm @ Mayfield Library – 500 SOM Center Rd., Mayfield Village. Find other appearances at http://RobertSberna.com.