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Schultz: Cleveland’s story doesn’t fit the headline

In the same week that three women’s bodies were found in East Cleveland, Ohio, my husband and I bought a home in the city of Cleveland, a few miles away.

I mention this upfront not to solicit praise or to hold us up as back-to-the-city pioneers. We should have made this move from the suburbs years ago.

I just want to make clear my faith in this town that, once again, is being identified around the world as a place where women disappear and die.

There is no denying that Cleveland has earned this sad reputation because of horrific high-profile crimes against women that were too often ignored by police. But this is only part of the city’s story. Like every major city in America, Cleveland is a combustible mix of broken promises and second chances. We have yet to see which side wins.

A major turning point for Cleveland came in 2009, after the bodies of 11 women were found at the home of registered sex offender Anthony Sowell. All of his victims were black and living in poverty.

Most of them were estranged from families worn-out from trying, which made these women easy marks for Sowell, who lured them with promises of drugs, alcohol and shelter.

Sowell was convicted for the murders and sentenced to death. Public outrage over his crimes led Mayor Frank Jackson to appoint an independent commission composed of all women. Slowly but steadily, real change has come to Cleveland’s police department.

However, there is no quick fix for decades of the economic decay that has chipped away at communities once known for their diversity and civic pride. When neighbors become strangers, shadows grow long.

In May of this year, three young women held captive for years finally escaped the Cleveland home of Ariel Castro. It is impossible to believe you’ve not heard their names -- Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight. It is just as hard to accept that not one neighbor suspected anything, but that appears to be the ugly truth.

Castro faces 977 criminal charges, including two counts of aggravated murder – related to accusations that he punched and withheld food from one woman until she miscarried – and hundreds of counts of kidnapping and rape. Two weeks ago, the three women released a video, in which they thanked the public for its support and asked for privacy. For a few days, a lot of us allowed ourselves to feel hopeful because one sad Cleveland story had a happier ending than we had dared to imagine.

Then last weekend, another registered sex offender, Michael Madison, was arrested in another inner-city neighborhood.

This time, it was in East Cleveland. Three women’s bodies were found in or near a garage he rented. They were wrapped in garbage bags, and all of them were curled in a fetal position. By Wednesday, they were all identified: Angela Deskins, Shirellda Terry and Shetisha Sheeley.

Officials warned over the weekend that more bodies may be found, so about 100 volunteers joined the police and FBI in the search. Both Cleveland and East Cleveland are in Cuyahoga County, which had the highest number of home foreclosures in Ohio last year, a total of 11,427. This gruesome statistic played out in photos of the volunteers – virtually all of them black, many of them women – posted by The Plain Dealer.

They weren’t knocking on a lot of doors. Instead, they were chopping through overgrown yards and prying plywood off the windows and doors of abandoned homes. Not the picture of an ideal neighborhood but an irrefutable demonstration of community – and one that has had it with our collective neglect.

East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton told The Plain Dealer that Madison “said some things in questioning that led [authorities] to believe he was influenced by Sowell.”

Police Chief Ralph Spotts pushed back on Norton’s account, insisting that Madison never indicated admiration for Sowell.

But it’s out there now – this gruesome prospect of a serial killer’s enduring legacy – and there’s no grabbing it back. Once again, Cleveland is swarmed by news organizations from somewhere else.

The headlines bray: What’s wrong with Cleveland?

It’s not the right question or a fair one, but it’s a convenient one for people who want to pretend it’s none of their concern which side wins.

• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “...and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.

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