CLEVELAND, Ohio -- A cold case squad exploring possible links between decades-old cases and serial killings suspect Anthony Sowell instead uncovered the trail of a killer who may have stalked impoverished women in the Cleveland area during the 1980s and 90s.
Joseph Harwell, 50, was indicted Tuesday on multiple counts of aggravated murder, rape and kidnapping in connection with the deaths of 27-year old Mary Thomas in 1989 and 33-year-old Tondilear Harge in 1996.
Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason said his office will seek the death penalty for Harwell, who is serving 15 years to life in prison for killing Teresa Vinson in Columbus in 1997. He is eligible for parole next year.
Mason's cold case unit, which has been investigating unsolved rapes and murders since 1996, took on a special project on Cleveland's East side in November 2009, after the remains of 11 women were discovered at Sowell's Imperial Avenue home.
Sowell, 51, is charged with the aggravated murder of the women and attacks on three others. His trial is scheduled for June 6, and he faces the death penalty if convicted.
Certain that Sowell had other victims, Mason ordered his investigators to pull 75 unsolved homicides of women whose bodies were found within 3 1/2 miles of the two houses -- one on Page Avenue in East Cleveland -- where Sowell had lived.
Of that batch, 46 cases yielded DNA evidence, though the DNA was too degraded to test in about a dozen of those, Mason said. Thirty of them are still awaiting analysis.
In November, the cold case squad got a hit -- but it wasn't what Mason expected.
DNA discovered on Thomas did not belong to Sowell, but to Harwell. The team already had flagged the convicted killer in 2008 after matching his DNA to evidence found while revisiting Harge's cold case.
Harge's case was not a part of the investigation spurred by the Imperial Avenue slayings. Her body was found in a wooded area between East 86th and East 87th Streets, farther away from Sowell's residences. Harge's cause of death was listed as undetermined.
Thomas was found March 28, 1989, by two East Ohio Gas men working in an alleyway on First Avenue in East Cleveland. She was four months pregnant when she had been strangled with a cord and beaten to death, the coroner ruled.
Both women were sexually assaulted, Mason said.
The timeline of Harwell's life, Mason said, reveals a man who has divided his time between prison and violence attacks against women.
Harwell's criminal history began in the late 1970s with theft, vandalism and aggravated robbery convictions. In 1989, after Thomas was found dead, Harwell was convicted of felonious assault for attempting to strangle a woman who survived the attack. He was in prison until his parole in 1996. Within five months, Harge's body was found, and Harwell was still at large.
He then went to Columbus, where he killed Vinson. Harwell was apprehended and pleaded guilty.
Harwell is expected to be brought back from the Richland Correctional Institution in the next two weeks for an arraignment in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, Mason said.
The cold case unit has reviewed 438 cases in the past five years, with 149 submitted for DNA analysis, Mason said. Forty-eight have yielded DNA profiles, and 15 have matched with criminals already in the system.
Mason said his cold case investigators will continue combing through the evidence they have yet to test in search for links to Sowell -- or possibly Harwell.
Mason said he still believes the team will find evidence that Sowell's handiwork was not limited to his Imperial Avenue home.
"It just seems so unlikely that everybody he killed, he stuffed in that house, when in that same neighborhood, women are missing who would fit the prototype of his victims," Mason said. "I believe they're out there. We just haven't discovered them. And who knows? We still have 30 cases that could come back his way."