The soul-searching has begun in and around Cleveland — again — as the chilling details emerge from the latest missing-women case to send a shiver through the metropolitan area.
A registered sex offender was charged Monday with murder and kidnapping in the slayings of three women whose bodies were found in plastic trash bags in a run-down East Cleveland neighborhood. It is the third major case in four years of multiple killings or abductions to haunt the Rust Belt metropolis.
“I do think we have to ask ourselves as a community the larger question: Why here, and what can we do to better understand the conditions that fostered this savage behavior?” said Dennis Eckert, a political and urban- policy consultant and former Cleveland-area congressman.
Some civic leaders say the explanation lies in the disintegration of neighborhoods and people’s connections to one another, plus a general mistrust of police — conditions that make it easier for a predator to kill without others noticing anything or reporting their suspicions.
Cleveland was a robust steel town for generations but has struggled for decades, ever since manufacturing went into a decline in the 1970s. Today, it regularly ranks among the poorest big cities in America.
Per-capita income is just $17,000 in Cleveland and even lower, at $16,000, in next-door East Cleveland, where the bodies were found Friday and Saturday.
Greater Cleveland lost more jobs than other big cities in the U.S. between May 2012 and this past May, at a time when hiring was finally picking up again in many parts of the country.
Last year, Cuyahoga County, home to both Cleveland and East Cleveland, topped the list of foreclosures in Ohio with 11,427, according to Policy Matters Ohio, a Cleveland think tank.
A walk down almost any street in East Cleveland brings the crisis home. Boarded-up houses and ramshackle apartment buildings are a common sight.
On Sunday, volunteers scoured 40 of those homes, looking for any additional victims of Michael Madison, the man charged in the latest slayings.
In May, Cleveland was electrified by the discovery of three women who authorities say had been held captive for a decade in a house in a rough neighborhood dotted with boarded-up homes on Cleveland’s west side.
Ariel Castro, a former school bus driver, has been charged with nearly 1,000 counts of kidnapping, rape and other crimes and has pleaded not guilty. Many questioned how he could have held the women for so long without someone noticing something wrong.
Four years ago, Cleveland was shocked by the arrest of Anthony Sowell, who stalked and killed 11 women on Cleveland’s east side and hid the bodies around his house and yard. He was found guilty in 2011 and sentenced to death.
Many of Sowell’s victims were drug addicts who were never reported missing. Law-enforcement authorities were accused of fostering an environment that made residents, many of them black, reluctant to call police.
That mistrust led to the creation of insular islands in poor neighborhoods that make it easy for predators like Sowell to operate, said James Renner, a Cleveland investigative reporter, film producer and author of “The Serial Killer’s Apprentice,” about 13 unsolved crimes in Cleveland.
“Human predators work very similarly to predators in nature,” Renner said. “They will go to the place that they have the highest rate of success, where they can stalk without being caught or seen or reported.”
The crimes are affecting the image people have of Cleveland, said East Cleveland resident Ali Bilal.
“They’re thinking it’s one of those places that you don’t want to go,” he said.
Yet ask other people in East Cleveland about the long-term effect of this latest tragedy, and many return to the same thing: At least it’s bringing people together.