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Principal did what few would: He bought a murder house

When I learned this morning of the death of Shaw Middle School principal Brian Betts, I immediately recalled the times I'd interviewed him -- his extraordinary energy, his eagerness to smash through the barriers to achievement among his inner-city students. He was the rare principal who was happy to talk to reporters, parents -- anyone who could help him spread his sense of optimism about turning around the District's troubled schools.

What I didn't immediately recall was that I had written a column about Betts' house. Back in 2003, when the house on Columbia Boulevard in Silver Spring was on the market because its previous owner had been murdered in the house, I used the fact that the house wasn't selling as the opportunity to explore the phenomenon of murder houses -- places that generally are a hard sell because of the horrific events that have happened inside them.

Here's that column from July 1, 2003:

The house on Columbia Boulevard, just off Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring, came on the market as a standard listing -- your basic prewar red-brick Colonial, three bedrooms, central air, $340,000, previous owner and his daughter shot to death upstairs.

Actually, that last bit didn't make the listing. The house where George Russell and his 9-year-old daughter, Erika Smith, were killed last summer went up for sale last month, days after a Montgomery County grand jury indicted Anthony Q. Kelly in the shooting of Russell and his child.

Kelly, paroled from a District halfway house in March 2002 after serving six years on assault and auto theft convictions, is in jail, charged with raping two women since his release.

You wouldn't expect real estate agents to trumpet the fact that this house has a devastating past. One study in Ohio found that a publicized murder case can lower a house's value by 15 percent to 35 percent. And it's illegal in many states, including Maryland, to tell potential buyers what happened in "stigmatized properties."

Federal law prohibits agents from telling if a previous owner had AIDS, and many states let agents remain silent about murders, suicides or other stigmas that could diminish the value of a house. But in some states, courts have been pushing sellers and their agents to disclose more about a property's past -- not only structural problems, but perhaps how passing buses make the place rattle, or what chemicals are buried down the block, or whether a previous occupant was ax-murdered.

My friend Pam Smith O'Hara, a syndicated food columnist, lived in a murder house with her husband, Tom, when they worked at the Miami Herald in the 1980s. They knew there'd been a particularly gruesome crime on the pretty little island in the middle of Biscayne Bay, but when a kindly old agent told them she had a lovable house coming on the market, Pam didn't connect the two facts.

Tom went to see the place and asked the agent about the murders. She came clean. Next, Tom called his wife. "You're going to love this house," he said. "There's just one thing . . .

Pam was repulsed at the thought, but her husband assured her, "Oh, it's all cleaned up."

On the theory that at some point it would become impossible to find a house in Miami in which no major crime had occurred, they bought the place. Thereupon began two very strange years, beginning with the walk-through, at which Tom found a dead cat floating in the swimming pool.

The O'Haras had bouts of rats in the house and walls suddenly covered with swarming flies. A beloved dog died. Severe illness invaded their lives. A visiting friend swore the sliding glass door operated on its own.

"We are the least superstitious people you could find," Pam says, "but that was pretty strange."

Back then, in a somewhat less litigious time, agents had fewer qualms about talking about a property's past. The transaction was simple: The agent was straight with the O'Haras, and they went for it, especially after Pam learned that the murderer, who had been killed in a prison riot, wouldn't be returning to the scene of his crime.

But some murder houses prove too troubled to survive. O.J. Simpson's infamous Brentwood estate sold quickly but was promptly torn down and replaced. Sharon Tate's bungalow, where Charles Manson's followers committed their gruesome acts, was also demolished; the new house on the site sold at full market value. But occupancy dropped from 80 percent to 20 percent in the Milwaukee apartment building where Jeffrey Dahmer committed his vile acts, and eventually a public agency bought the place -- at above market value -- and tore it down.

I asked several Washington agents how they'd handle a murder house. All agreed they'd volunteer nothing. But if customers ask, answers vary. One agent said she wouldn't lie; if asked, she'd come clean. Another said she'd politely decline to talk about it.

The National Association of Realtors suggests saying it's policy "not to answer inquiries of this nature. . . . If you believe this information is relevant to your decision to buy the property, you must pursue this investigation on your own."

In the Silver Spring case, agent Tammy Thomas says her client, representing the Russell family, asked her not to discuss the house. The open house, she says, drew lots of interest. And plenty of whispers.

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By Marc Fisher  | April 16, 2010; 3:11 PM ET
Categories:  More on the story  | Tags:  Brian Betts, Erika Smith, Marc Fisher, Murder, Shaw Middle School, murder house  
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Hi, its okay if you delete this comment after reading---I just wanted to say that you got the name of Erika's father wrong. Its Greg.

Posted by: dahlia27 | April 19, 2010 9:25 AM | Report abuse

Correction to my previous post: I didn't realize that he went by his middle name. I apologize. If these comments are moderated, can you delete my previous post?

Posted by: dahlia27 | April 19, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

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