The Other Serial Killer
| 1980s |
Even as a little girl, Susie Thomas was fearless.
She'd grab a magazine out of her big brother Lamont's hands just to provoke him into chasing her. She liked riding fast on her bike, so she'd get Lamont to run behind her and give her a push.
She crossed streets most small kids wouldn't cross. And if a dog rushed to its fence, barking at her, she would walk right up to it.
"She'd try anything," Lamont remembers. "She would never think twice."
Susie grew up in St. Louis, but moved with her family to East Cleveland in 1970 when she was 8 or 9. She lived with her mom, stepfather and most of her seven brothers and sisters in a big five-bedroom house off Shaw Avenue. Her mother, a nurse, worked a lot, and so did their stepfather, often leaving her oldest sister to watch the younger kids.
Susie's given name was Mary Michelle, but no one called her that. She liked looking neat, brushing her long, perm-straightened hair and dressing up in blouses, skirts and boots. She had a beautiful, dimpled smile and a playful way of drawing people to her.
"If you met her still today, you would like her," Lamont says. "But you would also say, 'Susie, why you gotta—? You gotta stop.' "
Early in her teenage years, Susie grew restless and reckless. She started staying out late, not coming home. While still a student at Shaw High, she started hanging out in after-hours clubs.
"You're too young to be going to those types of places," Lamont told her. She didn't listen. She started having sex with men 10 years older than her. One night, she and a friend brought a guy back to her mother's house and robbed him.
"I'd always say, 'Sue, be smart, girl. Do the right thing,' " Lamont says. But she was running with a wild, lawless crowd. "They had more control over her."
Susie dropped out of Shaw in the 11th grade. By 19, she was dancing at a strip club on Cleveland's Cedar Avenue. Guys started telling Lamont stories from the club: Susie was doing cocaine, they said. She was turning tricks. She was living in an East Cleveland hotel.
Lamont's phone would ring at 1 or 2 in the morning. It was Susie, calling from a friend's place or some man's house, just to talk. He'd see her at their sister's house, at birthday parties or at a bar in Cleveland Heights. She'd smile sweetly, like everything was OK. But she was always surrounded by shady friends, street people.
"It was always some type of static. Chaos always started in," he recalls. She and her friends were always cursing and talking about who'd done them wrong, who had money, who had cocaine.
"She'd say, 'Brother, I know it's wrong. I'm going to stop.' "
Twice, the cops caught her stealing. She pleaded guilty to theft charges in 1981 and 1984 and got probation each time. When crack cocaine swept into Cleveland around 1985, Susie and her friends went straight to it.
Lamont couldn't help. He got Susie a job as a maid at the Holiday Inn where he worked maintenance. She lasted one day, slipping away with a man into his room.
"Addiction, in my opinion, is stronger than the person," Lamont says. "Once you are sucked into that addiction, it's like a monster inside of you."
Even when she was high, even when their conversations no longer lasted more than a moment, Susie still hugged her brother, told him she loved him. He last saw her one night in March 1989, outside an apartment building. He was going to see a friend who lived upstairs; she was visiting her friend downstairs.
"What'cha doing?" she asked. "Going to Jesse's?"
"Aww, it's your girlfriend!" she teased.
"No, we're just friends."
"Brother, give me a few dollars!"
Lamont had $15 on him. He handed it over to her.
The call came the next night.
Two gas-meter readers had found Susie dead in the trash-filled courtyard of an abandoned apartment building. She was wearing a black cloth jacket and a white T-shirt, but she was naked from the waist down except for a pair of white socks. Bloodstained white jeans and a pair of purple underwear were lying next to her amid the wood, garbage, papers and glass. She'd been beaten over the head and strangled with a red ribbon. It was still tied around her neck.
At the morgue, Lamont helped his mother and sister identify Susie. It wasn't easy. The killer had beaten her so badly, her face was gone. "I told them to calm down, look at other features, and start to put her together."
Over the next two months, the East Cleveland police questioned more than 20 people, from Susie's friend to the dealer who sold her crack on the morning she was killed. But the detectives ran out of leads.
For eight months after Susie's death, after the official investigation had gone cold, Lamont walked East Cleveland's worst streets, looking for the killer, asking who had murdered his sister. No one knew.
| DECEMBER 2009 |
Twenty years after his sister died, Lamont's phone started ringing again.
Susie's picture was back on local TV news. The FBI was searching a house and yard on East Cleveland's Page Avenue, using dogs trained to sniff out human remains.
On Imperial Avenue in Cleveland, police had found the bodies of 11 women in Anthony Sowell's home and backyard. All had gone missing between 2007 and 2009. As they were identified, a pattern had emerged: all were black, all had histories of drug addiction, all were strangled and most were between the ages of 30 and 45.
Now, the East Cleveland police were re-examining the 1988 and 1989 murders of three women. Two of them, including Susie Thomas, had suspected histories of drug abuse. The police were looking for a link to Sowell, who had lived in East Cleveland from 1985 until 1990, when he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for brutally raping a woman in his Page Avenue house.
"He choked me real hard," the victim had told police. "I thought I was going to die."
Sowell had raped her in July 1989 — four months after Susie Thomas' murder.
"Every time they'd show the picture, [people would] call: 'Yeah, I seen your sister on the news,' " Lamont says. They wanted to talk about Sowell. "[They'd say,] 'I know he did it, because the places he was at, they was at.'
"I was almost hoping it was him, so it could bring closure to the family," Lamont says. But he wasn't convinced. "I said, 'You have to have some proof.' "
| JANUARY 2008 |
CUYAHOGA COUNTY CORONER'S OFFICE
A strand of hair in a paper envelope. Forty slides, each containing a tiny sample of fluid taken from the body of a murder victim. An electrical cord from an iron, used in a strangling.
On a sunny January day, an investigator for the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's cold case unit went to the coroner's office on Cedar Avenue and checked out the evidence from a dozen homicides. They were destined for the state's crime lab, which would test them for DNA, the genetic code that can reveal a criminal's identity.
DNA's double helix forms a ladder that can span time. An investigator can climb its rungs to visit long-ago crime scenes where a killer or rapist left some trace of himself. It can connect crimes committed years apart, in different cities. It can reveal patterns, identifying repeat offenders, even serial killers.
Among the evidence lay six swabs preserved from the autopsy of a murder victim named Tondilear Harge.
| OCTOBER 1996 |
Yolanda Cooke-Gillis hadn't seen her sister-in-law for more than a month. She had slipped away before, but not for this long, and not without calling.
So Yolanda stopped by her place in the Springbrook Apartments on Ansel Road, overlooking the Rockefeller Lagoon and Martin Luther King Drive. She took out some lipstick and scrawled a message on her door.
"Tiny, call us — we love you," she wrote.
Yolanda had grown so close to Tondilear Harge that she told people they were sisters, not sisters-in-law. They'd known each other for seven or eight years, since the day Yolanda was walking to the store and they said hello, started talking and hit it off. Tondilear started coming by Yolanda's place every day. That's how Yolanda met Tondilear's brother, Torieono, and hit it off with him, too. The two married in July 1990.
Tondilear had a daughter, Yolanda had sons, and both had a baby on the way. They started taking their kids to the park together — little playgrounds on Central Avenue or Gordon Park on the lake.
Tondilear — Tiny for short — had a prankster's sense of humor. One night, craving fast food, she and Yolanda walked to a Burger King. The dining room had closed early, and the drive-thru workers refused to serve them because they weren't in a car. "We're hungry! We're pregnant!" they shouted, and sat down in the driveway until the manager served them.
Tiny was big. Just 5-foot-2, she weighed 165 pounds. In her mid-20s when Yolanda met her, she had a round face and pretty, wavy hair that she kept down with gel and a ponytail. Yolanda remembers her laughing one night outside GE's Nela Park, when a family trip to see the holiday light display turned into a snowball fight, and Yolanda's sons (already in their early teens) started rolling their aunt in the snow.
Tondilear would always call on the holidays and birthdays, Yolanda recalls. But sometimes one thing mattered more than family: her addiction to cocaine.
She'd show up at Yolanda's house, "talking all fast, chewing on her fingernails, twirling her ponytail," Yolanda remembers.
"I'll be back," she'd say. "Watch the kids."
In 1994, Cleveland police twice arrested Tondilear, once for soliciting (attempted prostitution) and once for disorderly conduct. She pleaded no contest to both charges, received fines and probation, and was ordered into narcotics counseling.
Tondilear's addiction scared Yolanda, who'd done cocaine herself, but dropped it because she'd seen where it could lead. "You lose everything," she says. "You don't have nowhere to live, nowhere to go."
Yolanda says she found Tondilear living in a shelter, took her home and helped her get an apartment. She tried to convince her to spend money on herself, not on drugs.
"Tiny, you're better than that," she remembers saying. "Leave that stuff alone."
Tondilear took the advice for a while. She started buying nice clothes, getting her hair done and doing more for her kids. "She had turned her life around," Yolanda says.
Then, in mid-September 1996, around her 33rd birthday, Tondilear disappeared again. The night before Halloween, Yolanda and her husband saw a newspaper headline.
"Police seek identity of homicide victim," it read. Next to it ran a photo of a round-faced woman with her eyes closed.
"On September 30, at 9:30 p.m., the body of an unidentified Black female was found in a wooded area near 1904 E. 86th St.," the article began.
"I just kept staring," Yolanda remembers. "I said, 'That is my sister.' " She picked up the phone.
Police compared the murder victim's fingerprints with the prints from Tondilear Harge's soliciting arrest. They matched.
| SEPTEMBER 2008 |
The phone rang in the office of Mike O'Malley, the chief investigator for Cuyahoga County prosecutor Bill Mason.
O'Malley was 59, a retired Cleveland cop with piercing blue eyes, dark hair in a flattop, and a lean, craggy face. Between his eyes and his cheeks ran deep lines. During his 25 years on the force, 12 as a homicide detective, he'd dealt with 1,200 dead bodies: suicides, overdoses, natural deaths and more than 500 murders.
He knew the beat's frustrations: how leads often go sour after the first 72 hours as memories fade and fear grows; how detectives can be pretty sure they know who killed someone, but don't have the evidence to prove it; how new homicides crowd out the old after a week, month or year; how dated files grow cold on a shelf. That's why the new part of his job, heading up the prosecutor's cold case investigations, was so gratifying.
O'Malley's other tasks also had their rewards. He supervised investigators who served subpoenas, got witnesses to court, followed predatory lenders' paper trails and fleshed out police case files the prosecutors considered incomplete.
But when his regular workday ended at 4:30 p.m., O'Malley kept going, working cold cases after-hours. They called on his skills from Cleveland homicide: scouring police reports for leads, knocking on doors, getting reluctant witnesses to talk, interrogating suspects and watching for signs of guilt — fidgeting, a deep breath, a dropped head.
In 2006, Mason asked O'Malley to be the lead investigator in a new effort to tap DNA databases to help solve long-ago crimes. With a grant from the state Attorney General's office, Mason formed the cold case unit, made up of retired homicide detectives and current and former prosecutors.
Working closely with current Cleveland police homicide detectives, they began to re-examine more than 200 unsolved murders and sexual assaults, paging through old investigative files, looking for a line revealing that a biological sample had been set aside during an autopsy or that evidence from a crime scene might still be stored away.
If they found a lead, they headed to the coroner's office, the prosecutor's archives, the court of appeals' storage or the Cleveland police property room, hoping that the evidence might still be in a box somewhere and that it might contain DNA.
Since genetic analysis was first used to convict a criminal in the United States 25 years ago, DNA has become the most accurate and reliable of all crime scene evidence. Traces of blood, hair, seminal fluid or skin are often the key that locks or unlocks prison doors, proves guilt or vindicates the innocent. Almost every state now has a law governing prisoners' access to DNA tests. All 50 states have a DNA databank made up of forensic samples from some or all of its convicted felons. They're all compiled in a massive FBI database that contains 10 million genetic profiles.
Two years after the cold case unit reopened its first case, its work had started to produce matches in the DNA databases. Mason's prosecutors had just filed murder charges against two criminals that reached back 12 to 14 years. One of them was William Scott, who was charged with killing one Cleveland woman and raping two in 1994. The charges were brought one week before Scott finished a 12-year prison sentence for a rape. O'Malley had driven to Pennsylvania to interview Scott, get a DNA sample from him and inform him he was a homicide suspect.
"Prove it," Scott had dared O'Malley. The test of Scott's DNA confirmed that they had.
Now the cold case unit was about to identify another potential killer.
O'Malley picked up the phone. Ohio's Bureau of Criminal Investigation had tested the evidence from Tondilear Harge's autopsy, the voice on the other end said.
Twelve years earlier, the deputy coroner had examined fluids taken from Harge's body under a microscope and identified the presence of sperm. Now the same sample, preserved that day on the tip of a cotton swab, had produced a near-certain DNA match with an Ohio convict.
The man had at least four aliases: Joseph Harwell, Joseph Dwayne Perry, Joseph Ober and Joseph Oher. He was 48 years old, 5-foot-7 and weighed 245 pounds. In his prison photo, he had a beard just starting to gray, prominent eyebrows and an unnerving stare.
Harwell was serving 15 years to life in the Richland Correctional Institution for a murder in Columbus. He was up for parole in May 2012.
| MARCH 25, 1997 |
Mike McCann and Pat Barr, Columbus homicide detectives, got the assignment just before 9 a.m.: A woman had been found lying in the backyard of an empty house in north Columbus. Medics on the scene had pronounced her dead.
McCann and Barr pulled up to 982 Duxberry Ave. five minutes later. Officers led them to the end of the driveway, where the victim was lying face-down, next to a pinelike bush. Her blue denim shirt and blue Georgetown Hoyas jacket had been pushed up to the top of her back. Except for her socks, she was nude from the waist down. Her underwear and jeans were lying next to her. Bruises covered her face and neck; she'd been beaten and strangled.
Footprints surrounded her in the bare dirt. Her shoes were missing, but her white socks were clean.
A sergeant briefed McCann and Barr: A call came in at 8:33 a.m. The first officers to respond met the next-door neighbor, who directed them to the body. He told them he'd found it after hearing noises earlier that morning. The neighbor had identified himself as Joseph Ward, but later said his name was Joseph Oher.
The detectives went next door and sized up Oher. He was a big guy in his late 30s, about 250 pounds. His story sounded suspicious.
He said he was awakened at 6 a.m. by a commotion in the driveway next door. He went outside but didn't see anything. The noise had also awakened his girlfriend's 7-year-old daughter, so they started playing video games. After a few minutes, he asked her about the noise. She said it had sounded like glass breaking. That convinced him to check outside again. This time, he discovered the dead body.
Oher didn't have a phone, so he walked down to a neighbor's house and knocked, but she didn't answer. When his girlfriend got home from working a night shift and her kids went off to school, they went to another neighbor's, where she called the police.
McCann asked Oher why it'd taken him two hours to find a phone and call. He didn't have much of an answer.
The detective asked him about a pair of men's high-top leather tennis shoes sitting inside the house, freshly washed. Oher said he'd washed his clothes that morning, after he'd found the body.
Outside, a crime scene investigator, preparing to send the woman to the morgue, found a red and black lighter, an empty Newport cigarette pack and two Newport cigarettes under her.
That caught Barr's attention. He'd seen Newport cigarettes on Oher's coffee table.
Meanwhile, another detective interviewed the daughter at school. She said she'd been awakened by a loud knock outside her window. She'd seen Oher come back in the house, then leave again with a pair of Nike tennis shoes. He said he had to return them to a friend. She'd never seen them before.
A record check identified "Joseph Oher" as an alias of Joseph Ober, also known as Joseph Harwell. He'd done seven years in prison for trying to strangle a woman after consensual sex in East Cleveland in May 1989, and he was wanted in Cleveland for violating parole. The Columbus cops arrested him.
Fingerprints identified the victim as Teresa Vinson, a 29-year-old woman with several arrests for theft. A male friend of hers told McCann and Barr she had come by his house around midnight, then left an hour later to turn a trick and buy some crack. At 2 a.m., he'd seen her talking to one or two men in a red Chevrolet. She'd been wearing a blue coat, a plaid and denim shirt, blue jeans and white tennis shoes.
McCann and Barr went to a judge and got a warrant — not to search Ober's house, but his blood. They went to the jail with a police criminalist, who drew a vial of blood from Ober. They left him a receipt and a copy of the search warrant, but took the vial to the Columbus police crime lab.
Ober's blood was compared to scrapings of skin cells taken from the fingernails on Vinson's left hand and seminal fluid taken from her body.
The results came seven weeks later. DNA banding patterns in the skin cells showed Ober was a likely match; only one in about 9,824 African-Americans would show the same pattern.
The semen was a much stronger match. The chances it came from anyone but Ober were one in 9 billion. Five days after the test reports came back, while Ober (aka Harwell) was still in jail for violating parole, a grand jury indicted him on one charge of aggravated murder. To avoid a possible death penalty, he pleaded guilty in November 1998. He was sentenced to 15 years to life.
| NOVEMBER 2008 |
RICHLAND CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION
After 11 years in prison, Joseph Harwell no longer looked like his mug shot. His hair, once tightly curled, had grown ratty. Even more than most inmates, he'd grown unkempt. He smelled bad.
Harwell was outnumbered 4-1 in the interview room. Mike O'Malley and another investigator had come from Cleveland. An investigator from the Richland County prosecutor's office had brought the search warrant, signed by a local judge. A prison guard stood watch.
Yet Harwell seemed unbothered. He regarded Mike O'Malley with utter indifference.
O'Malley was good at getting suspects to talk. He'd once helped solve a 9-year-old murder by bringing the main suspect, a male co-worker of the victim, to the Cuyahoga County Jail. He'd walked him into a room filled with newspaper clippings about the woman's disappearance, a draft of how an indictment of him might read, and a photograph of the victim, blown up to about the size of a movie poster.
He kept the suspect in the room for less than a minute. Then he and police detectives ushered him into a bare interview room and started peppering him about the evidence.
Their ruse worked: It threw him off guard, got him thinking. After an hour or two of questioning, the suspect admitted to murdering the woman and hiding her body.
Harwell would prove tougher to crack — more stubborn and even more heartless.
O'Malley advised Harwell he was investigating a homicide and informed him of his rights. He asked Harwell his name, date of birth, parents' names, his former addresses. Then he asked about the murder of Tondilear Harge. Harwell didn't react to Harge's name. He denied knowing her or knowing anything about her death.
O'Malley showed Harwell a copied picture of Harge that an investigator had recently borrowed from her father. Still, it had no effect on Harwell.
It didn't surprise O'Malley. He figured Harwell didn't know his victims' names. Probably not even their faces.
O'Malley told Harwell he matched the DNA from the crime scene. "I'm going to execute a warrant for confirmation purposes," O'Malley told him, "to see if this is actually your DNA on this girl."
After that, Harwell refused to talk.
O'Malley took four large cotton swabs and stuck each, one at a time, into Harwell's mouth, sweeping two across the inside of Harwell's left cheek, two across his right.
The confirmation swabs went to the state crime lab for testing.
O'Malley and his investigators still had a lot of work to do. They had to explore every detail of Harwell's previous convictions, line up witnesses who knew Harge and Harwell, rule out any past suspects in the police reports and document the chain of custody of all the evidence — who had handled it, where and when.
Two weeks later, the tests of the confirmation swabs came back with the same results. Harwell was a match for the DNA from Harge's autopsy.
| NOVEMBER 2009 |
The first two bodies were found in a locked room on the third floor of 12205 Imperial Ave. The next was buried in a freshly dug grave in the basement. The police dug up the 35-foot-wide backyard and found five more women buried there. Then they discovered two more upstairs and a skull downstairs.
Anthony Sowell had made his Imperial Avenue home a black hole, and 11 of Cleveland's most desperate, addicted and vulnerable women had disappeared into it. Family members of missing women came to the crime scene, carrying pictures, wondering.
We don't have 'em all, Bill Mason remembers thinking. There's more out there.
The cold case unit had pulled 75 homicide files from Cleveland and East Cleveland, from 1979 to 2007. All 75 victims were women, most of them sexual homicides in which DNA evidence was more likely to be found.
Mason had the cold case unit draw two circles with a 2 1/2-mile radius, one around Sowell's house on Imperial Avenue, the other around his previous home on Page Avenue in East Cleveland. About half of the 75 murders fell inside the two circles. Mason told his staff to focus on those cases, to see if Sowell had killed any more women. The unit's lead prosecutor called their new mission "the surge," like the 2007 deployment of extra troops to Iraq: a temporary concentration of forces in response to a crisis.
O'Malley wasn't so sure the surge would turn up Sowell victims. "I didn't think he'd be out there leaving bodies all over the place," he says. "I felt he was bringing them back to his place."
One of the cases inside the circles was Susie Thomas' murder. In March 2010, a cold case investigator opened Thomas' 21-year-old file. He read the lists of physical evidence from the coroner's report and began typing:
One white piece of paper towel with blood.
One gold ring with a flat white stone.
One red ribbon.
One pair of Gitano white jeans, size 12.
| SUMMER 2010 |
With less than two years to go before Joseph Harwell's chance at parole, Mike O'Malley turned back to the Tondilear Harge murder. Scouring files for any further leads, he paged through the Columbus police report about the Teresa Vinson homicide.
He stopped at detective Barr's report about a 1998 conversation with Harwell's jailmate, Frederick Conner, who'd been serving time for passing bad checks.
"Mr. Ober told Mr. Conner that he had been incarcerated on a parole violation out of a violence incident in Cleveland," the report read.
O'Malley knew about Harwell's May 1989 felonious assault in East Cleveland. But to be thorough, he decided to talk to Conner, to hear for himself what Harwell had said.
It took months to find him. Conner was said to be living in Toledo or Dayton, but he had no permanent address. In May 2010, O'Malley heard he might be in Dayton again and was given the phone number of Conner's sister, who said she'd give him a message. Conner called the next day, saying he was in Georgia and couldn't talk because he was driving, but he'd call O'Malley when he got home to Dayton.
It took two weeks, but he called O'Malley back. When O'Malley said he was investigating a murder, Conner told him something that wasn't in the police report: One day in jail, Harwell had told Conner that he was on the run from a homicide in Cleveland, a murder similar to the one he'd committed in Columbus.
O'Malley called Columbus homicide. They still had the tape of the 1998 interview with Conner and sent O'Malley a copy.
"He had a killing or a beating out in Cleveland," Conner said on the 12-year-old tape, "but he didn't say a lot about it. He just said he has a violent history."
On July 13, in the Cuyahoga County Jail, O'Malley faced Harwell for a second time.
"Joseph, do you remember talking to me?"
"Yes, I do."
O'Malley read Harwell his rights. He reminded him that he was questioning him about a homicide and that some murders are eligible for the death penalty.
"When we met I took some swabs of your mouth, right?"
"That has been tested against the DNA that we got from the original homicide. That test confirms it is your DNA."
If Harwell was scared, he didn't show it. "Does that make me the killer?"
"The grand jury will probably allege that you are the killer, because of the time frame of the DNA — [you] slept with the victim — and the time frame of the homicide."
"I am going to say for the last time that I did not kill her, OK?"
The interview lasted 17 minutes. It ended with Harwell signing a paper agreeing he'd been read his Miranda rights and politely asking O'Malley for the day's date.
O'Malley had given Harwell a chance to confess and Harwell hadn't taken it. He was stubbornly clinging to a slender hope: DNA showed he'd had sex with Harge, but no one had actually placed him in the woods off Chester Avenue where her body had been found.
| AUGUST 2010 |
CUYAHOGA COUNTY CORONER'S OFFICE
The coroner still had the evidence from Susie Thomas' autopsy: a white bra, purple panties, a white T-shirt with green trim and a pair of white Gitano jeans, size 12.
In August 2010, a trace evidence examiner at Cuyahoga County's new crime lab took a look at the T-shirt, saw what looked like a bloodstain on the upper back, and cut off a 2-inch square with the stain on it. A chemical color test confirmed he'd found blood.
On her jeans, he found two dark stains on the back and a lighter stain on the bottom of the right pant leg. He cut the stains out of the jeans. Tests showed there was blood on the first two and seminal fluid on the third.
In 1989, when DNA testing wasn't yet widespread, the examiner's predec
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