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‘Murder houses’: The haunting final chapter in true-crime stories

The Washington Post The Washington Post 8/11/2015 Roxanne Roberts
The home where three members of the Savopoulos family were killed, along with their housekeeper, is now on the market. © Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post The home where three members of the Savopoulos family were killed, along with their housekeeper, is now on the market.

A chain-link fence surrounds the stately brick mansion at 3201 Woodland Dr. NW in Woodley Park. Most of the windows are covered with plywood. Cars sometimes drive past slowly, with passengers leaning out to take photos. Since a moving truck was spotted in June, no one has been seen coming or going.

In May, Savvas and Amy Savopoulos; their 10-year-old son, Philip; and their housekeeper, Veralicia Figueroa, were brutally killed inside. Now, less than six months after the shocking quadruple homicide that horrified Washington, the house is for sale.

Asking price? $3.25 million.

Home of Savopoulos slayings is for sale

The mansion is what real estate experts call a “stigmatized property” — jargon for a listing with a grisly back story. There’s an entire industry dedicated to the afterlife of what are indelicately referred to as “murder houses.” They are found in both the poorest neighborhoods and exclusive enclaves and can be modest ramblers or multimillion-dollar showpieces. Some are resold, some are leveled, and some enter into American folklore.

They combine two of America’s great obsessions: Real estate and true crime.

Georgetown real estate agent Nancy Taylor Bubes walked through the townhouse on Q Street NW and ticked off its strengths and weaknesses. Pros: good location but maybe a little too close to Wisconsin Avenue; three spacious bedrooms; 21/2 baths. Cons: outdated kitchen, old-fashioned furnishings and the murder.

“It’s going to be really hard to overcome this story,” she said to the sellers.

The Georgetown townhouse where Viola Drath,91, was murdered in 2011. The cream exterior was repainted a blue-gray to make the home less recognizable. © Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post The Georgetown townhouse where Viola Drath,91, was murdered in 2011. The cream exterior was repainted a blue-gray to make the home less recognizable.

The “story” was the 2011 death of 91-year-old socialite Viola Drath, who was strangled in her upstairs bathroom by her husband, Albrecht Muth. She was 71 when they married in 1991; he was 26. Twenty years later, he killed her in what prosecutors called a drunken rage. Muth was convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Drath’s daughters, who inherited the home, contacted Bubes. The crime scene had been cleaned up, but the house felt old and dated. Bubes offered them two options: sell the house “as is” and price it at $799,000 or spend $75,000 for a new kitchen, fresh paint and modern furniture so that she could list the house for $995,000. Both options were priced well below comparable houses in the neighborhood — but were designed to get potential buyers in the door.

The daughters made the improvements, including repainting the cream exterior a peaceful blue-gray, and the house went on the market in July 2013. The first open house attracted plenty of curious neighbors who wanted to see the exact spot where Drath had died. But it also attracted lots of people looking for a bargain in one of Washington’s most expensive neighborhoods.

“When you deliver a product that doesn’t feel like a murder happened inside, buyers look at it with fresh eyes,” Bubes says. “You’ve washed away the sadness.” She told every serious client that a murder had occurred in the house, which turned out not to be an issue. “The buyers who were really interested weren’t fazed.”

Bubes said she had several offers after the first weekend; the low price launched a bidding war, and the house sold for more than $1.2 million — about what it would have sold for without the stigma.

Many people, of course, are creeped out at the idea of living in a house with a violent past. But some decide that, as long as the property itself poses no actual threat, getting a good deal trumps superstition.

Take, for instance, the ­two-story brick house on North Gate Drive in Silver Spring. To a pragmatist, the property on a quiet cul-de-sac was a great deal: In 1995, it sold for $315,000, about $35,000 less than the previous owner had paid five years earlier. But it is better known as the site of a horrific triple murder: In March 1993, Millie Horn, her disabled 8-year-old son, Trevor, and Trevor’s nurse, Janice Saunders, were slain by a hit man — the women were shot, the boy was suffocated. The police investigation determined that the person behind the murder-for-hire scheme was Lawrence Horn, the boy’s estranged father, who stood to inherit his son’s $1.7 million trust fund from a medical malpractice settlement. Horn was found guilty on three counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.

The Silver Spring home where District school principal Brian Betts was killed in 2010. After Betts bought the house seven years earlier, he tried to back out of the deal when he learned that two people had been killed there during a robbery attempt. © Daniel Morse/The Washington Post The Silver Spring home where District school principal Brian Betts was killed in 2010. After Betts bought the house seven years earlier, he tried to back out of the deal when he learned that two people had been killed there during a robbery attempt.

Or consider the Dupont Circle rowhouse on Swann Street NW, where lawyer Robert Wone was found stabbed to death in 2006. The crime was never solved, and no one — including the three men living in the house at the time — was ever charged. The four-bedroom, 31/2-bath house was purchased in 2005 for $1.2 million and has been sold twice since Wone died there: once in 2008 and again in 2011, each time for just under $1.5 million. The buyers? Real estate professionals.

In 2003, Brian Betts paid $324,000 for a cute four-bedroom brick Colonial on Columbia Boulevard in Silver Spring. Within days of his moving in, a neighbor shared something that his agent had not: A year earlier, Gregory Russell and his 9-year-old daughter, Erika, had been shot and killed during a robbery in the house.

Betts, hysterical, called his agent. He couldn’t live there, he told her, and he wanted out of the contract. But the deal was done, and Betts was stuck. He asked two ministers to bless his new home and began renovating it.

In fact, his agent was under no obligation to disclose the home’s tragic past, even if she knew every detail. The District and most states (including Virginia and Maryland) have laws that shield real estate professionals from personal liability for failing to share “non-material” facts — such as anything that doesn’t deal with the home’s physical structure or improvements — with a prospective buyer. In fact, some agents contend that disclosing that information would further stigmatize the property and lower its market value, and they say they can’t answer even a direct question without the seller’s permission.

In April 2010, Betts — then a beloved middle-school principal — was shot and killed during a robbery in the house.

Slain principal’s house site of unrelated double murder

Betts’s family wanted the cursed house leveled, but there was still a mortgage on the property. The bank foreclosed on the property and listed it at $530,000 in May 2011. It didn’t sell. The price dropped to $515,000. Still no offers. It finally sold in early 2012 — for $330,000.

The new owner tried to “flip” the house immediately — after changing the street address by one number so that an Internet search wouldn’t turn up the news reports of the murders. The asking price started at $549,900 and dropped month after month. The house sold in January 2013 for $379,000; a similar home in the neighborhood is now worth $650,000.

For many home buyers, a morbid or criminal history is something they want to know about before moving in. In 2013, an enterprising software engineer created DiedInHouse.com, which allows anyone willing to pay $11.99 to search a database created from millions of police reports and news accounts for murders, suicides, methamphetamine labs and arson at an address they’re interested in.

The historic Lizzie Borden house in Fall River, Mass., where Borden’s father and stepmother were killed in 1892. The house is now a popular bed and breakfast. © Charles Krupa/AP The historic Lizzie Borden house in Fall River, Mass., where Borden’s father and stepmother were killed in 1892. The house is now a popular bed and breakfast.

Some crimes, of course, are too sensational to hide.

Randall Bell, a.k.a. the “master of disaster,” is the head of Real Estate Damage Economics and the country’s leading expert on stigmatized properties. Only 5 percent of his work involves crimes, but he has been involved in some world-famous cases: Nicole Brown Simpson, JonBenet Ramsey, the Newtown, Conn., shootings. “I look at myself as trying to help people find practical solutions,” he says. “I’m into recovery, not disaster.”

Bell’s agenda is how, if possible, to get people back into a house. Nobody wants to see a deserted property; a boarded-up house, especially one with a violent past, is not a selling point for a neighborhood. Expensive houses are harder to sell, because millionaires have a lot of options and don’t like problems. Anything that looks like a crime scene prolongs public curiosity and makes it harder to move forward. Even so, it can take up to seven years for a “murder house” to regain market value — the longer it sits vacant, the longer it takes.

Bell’s advice is mostly common sense. Make sure the property is properly cleaned: Crime scenes typically contain bodily fluids that federal regulations classify as biohazards and that require professionals to remove. And he thinks that agents should always disclose violent acts. “Treat other people kindly and tell the truth,” he says. “I think it’s pretty shabby to conceal these facts.”

Bell helped Simpson’s father sell the condo where she and Ron Goldman were killed in 1994. He advised him to change the address and the façade to prevent tourists from lingering out front and to steer away families with small children. “My suggestion is don’t have little kids live in a house like this,” Bell says. “The neighborhood kids can be cruel.” It took more than two years to find a buyer, even when the property was listed below market value, but the older couple who bought the place for $590,000 were very happy with the price and lived there for many years.

More recently, Bell worked with officials in Newtown, Conn. The broken-hearted town razed the school where 26 people, including 20 children, were shot and killed in December 2012. Then they faced the painful question of what to do with the home of mass murderer Adam Lanza. Bell negotiated the deal: The bank gave the $523,000 property to the town, and the citizens voted to tear it down. But before it was demolished in March, Bell made sure that everything left inside was removed and burned: “We didn’t want any macabre memorabilia showing up on eBay.”

As with most things, time heals. Michigan lawyer Steve Lehto took a dark ride through the country while researching “American Murder Houses: A Coast-to-Coast Tour of the Most Notorious Houses of Homicide.” He visited the sites of 29 famous crimes — some historical, some more recent.

Author Truman Capote in the living room of the Clutter house in Kansas in 1967. The house was the setting of his bestseller “In Cold Blood.” © AP Author Truman Capote in the living room of the Clutter house in Kansas in 1967. The house was the setting of his bestseller “In Cold Blood.”

“I found, generally speaking, there’s a period immediately following the murder where the house almost becomes a tourist attraction,” he says. It’s traumatic and frightening — neighbors don’t answer the doorbell; strangers drive down their streets taking pictures. After a few years, especially when there’s no one left in the neighborhood who knew the victims, “it becomes less personal and more historical.”

The current owners of a secluded farmhouse in Holcomb, Kan., used to greet cars that slowed at the end of their long driveway. Inevitably, it was someone looking for the Clutter house, the setting for Truman Capote’s true-crime bestseller “In Cold Blood.” The couple never advertised the fact, but they would give gawkers a tour of the interior for $5. That reportedly ended after they became tired of keeping the house neat in case someone showed up.

The Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast in Fall River, Mass. — the original site of the 1892 double murder immortalized in a children’s rhyme — is now a popular tourist destination. The bedroom where Lizzie’s stepmother was bludgeoned to death is the most requested room. The gift shop offers souvenir hatchet key chains, earrings, T-shirts and more, but the best-selling item is the Lizzie Borden bobble-head doll.

Most of the original owners never go back. Too many memories, too many ghosts.

But Hollywood talent manager Rudolph Altobelli returned to his Beverly Hills mansion just three weeks after the Manson Family group killed actress Sharon Tate and four others there in 1969. Altobelli, who bought the house for $86,000, had rented it to the then-pregnant Tate. He lived in it for 20 years after the sensational crime and sold the property in 1989 for $1.6 million. The new owner razed the house a few years later and built a new mansion with a new street address.

And Irma Goff never blamed her Potomac home for the terrible tragedy that took place there. In July 1995, a painter’s assistant killed her husband, her three daughters and the head painter during a nine-hour rampage. Irma happened to be away that day, visiting her teenage son in Ocean City, Md.

She moved back in — with the carpets removed and newly painted walls — four months after the murders, a choice that astonished friends and neighbors. “That house did not do anything to me,” she told them. To Goff, it was full of good memories: holidays, family dinners, happy times. She stayed on Twining Lane for six years until she remarried and moved to Annapolis.

“I cried so bitterly the day I left,” she told Bethesda magazine last year.

The comfortable serenity of upscale Woodley Park was shattered by the Savopoulos killings. Neighbors who can’t stop talking about it don’t want to talk to reporters, but the house has sat empty, a grim reminder of the tragic day in May.

Purchased in 2001 for $2.9 million, it was worth an estimated $4.5 million before the crime. It quietly went on the market Thursday night, listed at $3.25 million by Bill Moody of Washington Fine Properties. Moody declined to comment.

An investigator walks out of the fire-damaged Savopoulos mansion a week after the killings. © Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP An investigator walks out of the fire-damaged Savopoulos mansion a week after the killings.

The interior, which was damaged in a fire set after the killings, is no longer a crime scene but has not been repaired. D.C. police confirmed that they had released the house back to the Savopoulos family. The two surviving daughters have no interest in returning to the home; the family also declined to comment on the sale.

The property’s best selling point? It’s located in one of Washington’s most desirable neighborhoods. There’s a house down the street listed for $7.7 million; another two blocks away is asking for close to $9 million.

The probable buyer would be someone looking for a bargain who plans to live in the house. It would take up to $1 million to repair and renovate, a risky investment for a developer without a guaranteed sale.

The first step would be changing the exterior: Get rid of the chain-link fence, replace the windows, add new landscaping and paint the brick façade a different color. “Get it back to a normal house outside,” said one real estate agent. “Everyone stops talking about it then. It’s no longer ‘that house.’ ”

Another scenario has a buyer snapping up the property, tearing down the house and building a new one. It’s almost impossible to find new construction in an established, highly desired neighborhood, especially on a corner lot that allows for a garage on the side. The real value is the land, and many prospective owners would rather start with a clean slate. Even if a buyer bought the property at list price and spent $2 million more on renovating, their total investment would still be less than $6 million — the average value of neighboring properties.

Interested parties (and ghoulish onlookers) can’t just wander over for a look-see. Like many high-end listings, this one requires prospective buyers to register and be qualified before getting a tour.

Who will buy? That’s the $3.25 million question.

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