CLEVELAND — For the past few years, neighbors assumed the foul smell enveloping their street corner had been coming from a brick building where workers churned out sausage and head cheese.
It got so bad that the owners of Ray's Sausage replaced their sewer line and grease traps. Now they know the odor was coming from a three-story house next door where the decomposing bodies of six women were found.
A city councilman on Tuesday said he and other community leaders want an investigation into whether police and health inspectors missed any signs that could have tipped them off to the bodies inside the house where convicted rapist Anthony Sowell lived.
Councilman Zack Reed, whose mother lives a block from the area, said he called the city health department on more than one occasion.
"What happened from there, we don't know," he said. "It was no secret that there was a foul odor. We don't want to point fingers, but clearly something could have been done differently."
Police discovered the bodies Thursday after a woman reported being raped at Sowell's home. The 50-year-old Sowell is being held in jail on an arrest warrant, but he hasn't been charged in the rape investigation or in connection with the bodies.
He is a registered sex offender and required to check in regularly at the sheriff's office. Officers didn't have the right to enter his house, but they would stop by to make sure he was there. Their most recent visit was Sept. 22, just hours before the woman reported being raped.
Reed said he can't imagine how police officers and sheriff's deputies could have missed the smell. His office records show that he called the health department in 2007 after a resident told him about an odor that "smelled like a dead body," he said.
One of the bodies was found in a shallow grave in the backyard. The rest were inside the house - one in the basement, two in the third-floor living room and two in an upstairs crawl space, said police spokesman Lt. Thomas Stacho.
The bodies could have been there anywhere from weeks to months to years, said Powell Caesar, a spokesman for the Cuyahoga County coroner.
All the victims were women and five were strangled.
On Tuesday, detectives brought in cadaver dogs and digging equipment to scour the home and backyard, looking for evidence to connect Sowell to the bodies, Stacho said.
Authorities also were searching vacant homes within a few miles of the home, which sat in a crowded inner-city neighborhood of mostly older houses. Police did not say Tuesday why they were searching the vacant homes or indicate whether they believe more bodies could be found.
Neighbors are bracing for what could be inside a boarded-up home across the street and a shuttered school a block away.
"We hope they don't find anymore," said Renee Cash, whose family has operated the sausage company for 57 years.
About four years ago, she and other workers started noticing a smell that was so bad on some days that it forced them to leave their office.
"In the summertime, it was gross," Cash said. "You could always smell it. It smelled like something rotten."
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They poured bleach down the sewer in the basement and eventually had it replaced. Health inspectors thought the meat processing was to blame, she said.