By Andrea Simakis
The Plain Dealer
CLEVELAND, Ohio - In the documentary "Unseen," directed by Laura Paglin, the title emerges from wisps of smoke - no doubt, we are to imagine, from a crack pipe.
Crack cocaine, after all, was the drug that swept through the Mount Pleasant neighborhood where serial killer and rapist Anthony Sowell hunted for his victims, laying waste to whole families.
"It was like Hurricane Katrina," says Vanessa Gay to Paglin's camera. She's one of the few women who met the ex-Marine and lived.
"It came though and ravaged my whole life."
As Gay tells it, it was her addiction to that drug that brought her to Sowell's door at 12205 Imperial Ave., a bland white duplex that no one realized was the source of the sickening stench that dominated the area for years, baffling health inspectors and residents alike.
If you lived in or around Cleveland in 2009, you know about the bodies found there - 11 in all, some discovered in the attic and basement and more in the backyard.
Convicted of those murders, Sowell was sentenced to die in 2011. Today, he sits on death row and is back in the news. The Ohio Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments in his latest appeal beginning Tuesday, April 5.
Sowell's crimes have inspired a lurid cottage industry of paperbacks, cable specials and docu-series that dwell on corpses and severed body parts.
But for Paglin, the shocking tale of the Cleveland strangler wasn't the narrative she wanted to follow. It was the victims' stories.
As the title implies, many were ghosts in their own neighborhood, adrift and unnoticed amidst the wreckage that crack had wrought in Mount Pleasant. Whole families were addicted, across generations. Sowell capitalized on the women's disposability, luring them with drugs and counting on their transient lifestyles to conceal their final disappearance at his murderous hands.
As Paglin's lens frames Sowell's clapboard double-decker, a chilling phrase is superimposed on the screen: "...Until the bodies were found, the eleven victims' disappearances had not been investigated by police."
In 2016, heroin has replaced crack as a national scourge.
"Now, because it's affecting middle-class people, everyone is calling for compassion and calling it a public health problem and not a criminal problem. It's like, where was that compassion for these women or for these families?"
She started thinking about the drug in a different way. Crack, she says - "that's a serial killer, too."
In "Unseen," Paglin speaks to the people closest to the victims and mines harrowing stories from the handful of women who got away, including Latundra "Lala" Billups whose to report police - that Sowell had raped her and strangled her with an extension cord - finally brought investigators into the home of the known sex offender.
"The idea of telling it from the victims' perspective is to make the horror up close and personal," continues Paglin. "Because I think people tend to distance themselves from a crime like this and say, 'That could never happen to me. I'm not that kind of person.'"
"But if you hear these women speak, they talk about how they never thought they would be that kind of person. They had hopes and dreams and aspirations."
Labeling the murdered women as "crackheads," as many did, says Paglin, is a way to objectify people and distance yourself from their suffering.
She recalls an interview with Assad Tayeh who, at the time of the killings, owned Imperial Beverage, a concrete block grocery store across the street from Sowell's house. In what is sure to become one of the most talked-about moments of "Unseen," Teyeh says he wishes there were a million Sowells, because "he cleaned up the garbage."
Paglin was so startled she says she stopped filming, sure he couldn't have meant it.
She showed Teyeh a recent photo of Billups, her days of addiction long behind her. "I said, 'What about Latundra? She's in college now.'"
The shopkeeper was unmoved. In the editing room, she debated using his comment, worried people would fixate on it and cast Tayeh as the villain of the piece.
She decided to include the line "because I think what he says is something that a lot of people may feel but know better than to articulate in public."
Some neighborhood residents expressed similar sentiments to her, though not on-camera. And she's seen equally odious comments online.
Below a February cleveland.com story announcing that the Ohio Supreme Court would hear Sowell's appeal, a commenter named "EmbraceDiversity," wrote:
"let the guy go...he was doing a great job!"
Just as she didn't want the film to become a discussion of the toxic feelings of one person, "I didn't want it to be a finger-wagging film," Paglin says.
"I think it's a much bigger problem." Sowell, she says, took advantage of the perfect storm - endemic poverty and indifference, misogyny and despair.
"I know some neighbors called the police or called the health department to report the smell," she says. But it persisted, as Sowell did, month after month, year after year.
"That couldn't happen on my street. If there were such a smell in the air, there'd be an outrage, and there'd be petitions and meetings. Some people did do what they could, but... there's almost an acceptance of bad things being normal."
"He wasn't careful," Paglin continues. "He didn't try very hard to conceal himself."
In one unbelievable sequence in "Unseen," a naked Sowell, captured by a video surveillance camera at a nearby business, is seen searching in the bushes for something. Soon, he finds what he is looking for - a woman, also naked.
The woman the world would later know as Shawn Morris seems dazed as he helps her to her feet. She'd landed there after tumbling from an upstairs window trying to get away from Sowell. A passerby called 911, but Sowell convinced authorities he was her husband and even caught a ride with her to the hospital.
Owners of the local pizza joint told another woman, Gladys Wade, who'd also escaped Sowell and burst through the door begging for help, to leave because she was bleeding on the floor.
"Someone falls out a window or runs out of a house naked - as of the neighbors told me, 'It's Imperial Avenue. You expect that kind of thing,'" says Paglin.
But survivors, like Billups, are determined to make themselves visible.
"I heal from this by helping others," she says toward the end of "Unseen." She is dressed in bright fuchsia and her eyes are alive. She looks and sounds like a woman you'd want to have coffee and swap gossip with.
Nearly seven years ago, Sowell almost killed her, choking her until she passed out. When she came to, he seemed surprised, she says. She seized that opportunity to head for his front door. She was a different woman then, one who wouldn't believe all that Billups has accomplished.
"You could have never told me, or told anybody, that in two and a half to three years, [I'd] have an associates' degree," Billups says.
Or her kids would be with her, not farmed out to relatives or in foster care. Or she would be clean and sober.
You couldn't have told nobody that," she says. "They'd be like, 'What?'" she says, laughing.
More words are superimposed on the screen, and this time, they are hopeful. "Latundra Billups earned her masters degree in social work at Cleveland State University in 2015."
"These were real people," says the Rev. Larry Harris, pastor of the neighborhood's Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church, as images of a candlelight vigil for the lost flicker across the screen.
"These were women that belonged to mothers and fathers. These were women that had family - cousins and uncles and aunts. They had children. These were women that would be greatly missed."
Paglin's film reminds us of that.