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Cleveland official questions handling of complaints about death house

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11th body found; family speaks
  • NEW: Authorities have identified three of the 11 bodies pulled from the house
  • City Council member says he got complaint of odor from house in '07
  • The latest on the investigation on "Nancy Grace" 8 p.m. ET Thursday on HLN

Cleveland, Ohio (CNN) -- A Cleveland City Council member is calling for an independent investigation into whether police and health authorities in recent months and years should have spotted signs of foul play at a house where 11 bodies were found.

This development reflects the concerns of residents who wonder how authorities in the blue-collar Ohio city could have missed a stench that wafted across the neighborhood and how they could have neglected to pursue signs of problems at the house of Anthony Sowell.

The council member, Zach Reed, said on Wednesday he received a call about the stench in 2007.

"We received a phone call from a resident that said a foul odor came across the street and it smells like a dead person, not dead meat, not a dead animal. A dead person," Reed said.

Video: Serial killer suspect in court
Video: More bodies in backyard

The entire council also issued a statement saying the "top priorities at this time must be to discover the full extent of the tragedies and to bring forth justice."

"We acknowledge the issues being raised by the community and the media and will examine the case at the appropriate time but we will do nothing to impede the ongoing investigation," it said.

Authorities have identified three of the 11 bodies pulled from the house. On Thursday, the Cuyahoga County coroner's office identified remains as those of Telacia Fortson, 31, whose family said they last saw her around June 1, and Tishana Culver, 31, who had not been reported as a missing person.

Authorities on Wednesday identified the remains of Tonia Carmichael. She was identified using DNA.

Arrested Saturday, two days after police discovered the first bodies inside and outside the home, Sowell, a registered sex offender, faces five counts of aggravated murder, rape, felonious assault and kidnapping, police said. He was denied bond at a hearing Wednesday.

Authorities arrived Thursday at Sowell's home to continue their search using a cadaver dog. They were expected to search the home's walls for additional evidence.

Frank Miller, Cuyahoga County coroner, told reporters that seven of the victims died from strangulation by a ligature, which can include a string, cord or wire. He said all seven still had something tied around their necks.

An eighth victim died from manual strangulation, strangulation by hands. Two other bodies were too decomposed to determine the cause of death, although Miller said he believes they were victims of "homicidal violence." Autopsy results on the 11th victim are pending.

"It's most likely strangulation in all cases," Miller said.

Cleveland Police Chief Michael McGrath said some of the victims could have been missing for up to five years.

"We've heard a lot of feedback on what the character may or may not have been of some of these victims," Phyllis Cleveland, City Council majority leader, told reporters. "And that really doesn't matter. No one deserves what happened to these women. No one deserves that. These were women who were mothers and grandmothers, aunts, nieces ... sisters of someone. They were loved and valued by someone, and their lives should be valued by all of us."

Many in Sowell's neighborhood wonder how authorities could have missed the signs of problems at the house, particularly the smell. Nearby Ray's Sausage Co. replaced a sewer line and grease traps, trying to rid the area of the stench, but it stayed until police found the bodies.

But you smell these smells, and ... oh, these smells would just be horrible.
--Neighbor of Anthony Sowell

Six of the victims were found inside the home and five outside, including a skull, wrapped in a paper bag and stuffed into a bucket in the basement, police said. Authorities said they had no information about the smell before the bodies were found.

But some in the neighborhood disagreed. "You could smell it," said another neighborhood woman. "I came around the corner and I smell it. You could smell the dead bodies. How are you going to tell me people in the neighborhood couldn't smell that?"

Police initially went to Sowell's home last week to follow up on a rape accusation. A week earlier, neighbors reported seeing a naked woman fall from the second floor, but no charges were filed.

Neighbors called 911 after the October 20 incident. Firefighters and paramedics responded, and later notified police. The woman told officers that she was at the home and "partying," when she fell off the roof. "They were doing coke, drugs, getting high," McGrath said. A man described as her boyfriend, Sowell, told police the same story.

Carmichael was last seen on November 10, 2008. She was 52 when she disappeared from Warrensville Heights, a Cleveland suburb near Sowell's home, and her vehicle was found in Cleveland.

In the missing persons report, Carmichael's mother, Barbara, told police her daughter was addicted to crack and had previously disappeared for several days at a time. But she said she believed something had happened to her because she had not picked up two paychecks.

The news of the death was especially tragic for the victim's mother.

"As you can imagine, it's heartbreaking for the whole family, but this was her child," said Donnita Carmichael, the victim's daughter. "This was her daughter, her angel, her princess, and now we will never see her again. She's gone."

Fortson was born on March 21, 1978, and lived in the city of East Cleveland, authorities said.

Although her family said they'd last seen her several months ago, authorities said she was only reported missing on Saturday.

Sowell had been charged with a 1989 rape and pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted rape under a plea agreement, court records show. Police said he was imprisoned from 1990 to 2005. Since his release from prison he was listed as living at the Cleveland home where the bodies were found, McGrath said.

Authorities from the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Office checked on Sowell regularly, with the most recent check on September 22 to confirm his address, McGrath said. They found no problems, he said.

Police began to get suspicious of Sowell about a month ago, after a woman accused him of rape and assault, said Cleveland Police Lt. Thomas Stacho. Investigators obtained the warrants that set off the search after getting the victim's cooperation, he said.

During his hearing Wednesday, Sowell showed no emotion. His public defender, Kathleen Demetz, requested that he undergo a psychiatric evaluation and said that Sowell, an ex-Marine, has a heart condition and wears a pacemaker.

Sowell has told authorities he had been collecting unemployment payments since being laid off from his job two years ago. It wasn't immediately known what that job was.

Stacho has said Sowell had been making his living as a "scrapper." "He walks around and picks up scrap metal and takes it to junk yards to make a few pennies," he said.

Police said authorities in Coronado, California, also were checking to see if Sowell might be tied to a rape case there.