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Murder scene, good location
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — Houses like the one Christopher Price bought three years ago can be found in neighborhoods across the country — ordinary houses not much different from those next door, except for the awful, abiding memories of what took place within their walls.
See that house over there? That's where ...
Neighbors on either side of Price's ranch-style house near Annapolis, Md. — old-timers who were there on that dreadful, long-ago morning when the bodies were discovered — never shared the history with him. Then, on a winter afternoon a couple of years back, Price found out that his perfectly lovely house has an unlovely past.
A man had been stabbed 17 times with a steak knife in the room that Price uses as an office. And in the room where he and his fiancée watch TV in the evenings, a woman was stabbed seven times before being bludgeoned with a wood-splitting maul. "It did keep us awake a couple of nights, thinking about it," Price said.
On suburban cul-de-sacs and city streets, they are houses that neighbors point to, the ones they don't forget. Long after the shock of murder wears off, long after the crime-scene tape comes down and life on the block resumes a peaceful rhythm, the memories linger, kept alive in whispers.
Real-estate professionals call them "stigmatized properties" — houses that are structurally sound yet "psychologically impacted."
To some who live in them, stigmatized houses are fascinating. "A conversation piece," Price calls his. Others are loath to discuss their houses' grim histories: They're hoping their children won't find out; they're worried about their equity; they're afraid that skittish relatives won't visit.
Some buyers knew the facts beforehand, though, and didn't flinch. Some used the stigmas to leverage discounts. As for buyers who heard the stories later — one man learned of a multiple murder under his roof only when his gardener brought it up — their reactions varied.
Some were uneasy, others blasé. Some took it as a spiritual challenge, a chance to bring joy to a house scarred by hate.
One couple talked openly about ghosts in their house.
The victims, Robert and Kathryn Swartz, had adopted their son Larry in 1973, when he was 6. Abandoned as a toddler, the boy had bounced from one abusive foster home to another before arriving in Cape St. Claire.
He was 17 when his anger exploded in parricidal violence on a January night in 1984, ignited, his attorneys said, by the repressive, demeaning discipline that the couple had imposed on him. He eventually pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, spent about a decade in prison and, at 38, died of a heart attack in Florida.
"The book goes on about the paramedics coming in, the police coming in, and they turned the corner and went down the stairs, and there was blood here and evidence there," said Price, who paid $220,000 for the property, becoming the third owner since the Swartzes were murdered. The husband and wife who sold it to him had lived in the house for two years, unaware of its history.
"I can walk around my house and I can picture it, which is interesting," Price said.
Bob Gneiser, 74, also has no qualms about living in a murder scene, although he wishes people would forget about his house, a brick-and-wood split-level in the Carderock Springs section of Bethesda, Md. Reporters and camera crews still show up occasionally, revisiting one of the most enduring mysteries in the annals of local crime. And Gneiser, a retired radio and TV newsman, grudgingly tolerates them.
"I know what they want," he said. "So I tell them, 'Go ahead and get it, and get the hell out of here.' "
On a night three decades ago, a charming, 39-year-old State Department foreign-service officer, William Bradford Bishop Jr. — a multilingual Yale graduate and former Army intelligence officer — went home from work and clubbed his family to death with a ball-peen hammer, police said.
They said he loaded the bodies in a station wagon (his mother, his wife, his three young sons), drove them to North Carolina, piled them in a shallow hole and set them on fire. Then he vanished. Why it happened, and what became of him, are anyone's guess.
Later that year, while house hunting, Gneiser and his wife, Carolyn, saw a Bethesda split-level that they loved. "I had covered the story like everyone else, but I had never been to the scene," Gneiser said. "So it didn't register with me."
Their real-estate agent broke the news: It was the Bishop place, put up for sale by estate lawyers. Carolyn Gneiser didn't care. "It wouldn't have mattered if you told her Ghengis Khan and Adolf Hitler lived there," Gneiser said. "She wanted that house."
They wound up paying $106,000, a stigma bargain. A smaller house next door had sold recently for $113,000.
"It's been a great home for 30 years," said Gneiser, now a widower. "I know some people get upset at these things," he said of the house's history. "In fact, my brother — he lives in Florida — he has refused to come up here and see me." But so be it.
"The only way I'm leaving," Gneiser said, "is in a box."
A person selling a house, and the seller's agent, can wind up paying civil damages if they lie to the buyer about a death or other calamity that occurred on the premises. But in most of the country, unless the buyer asks whether any traumatic events took place in the house, the seller isn't obligated to tell.
Many sellers of stigmatized houses choose not to volunteer the stories, real-estate professionals said. And because sellers' agents are bound by their clients' wishes, they tend to keep quiet, too.
On a shaded cul-de-sac in Silver Spring, a 3,200-square-foot brick house stood empty for two years, a pall hanging over it.
Mildred Horn, who was divorced, lived there with her 8-year-old son, Trevor, who had suffered brain damage and was kept alive by a respirator. On March 3, 1993, police said, an ex-con hired by the boy's father broke into the house, shot Mildred Horn and a nurse, then pulled out Trevor's breathing tube and smothered him.
Police said the father, Lawrence Horn, then 54, a former Motown Records engineer, wanted control of his son's $1.7 million trust fund from a medical-malpractice settlement. Now, he and the hit man are serving life in prison.
For years, "when March third came, we subconsciously knew we were depressed for a reason," said Eugene Sprehn, 65, who lives nearby.
The current owners, a husband and wife in their late 40s, first saw the empty house in 1995. They thought, "Oh, this seems nice," said the wife, a corporate recruiter who did not want her name published. Then, while she and her husband were waiting for the real-estate agent to arrive, they got to talking with a neighbor, who let on about the murders.
Their decision to buy wasn't easy, the wife said. But "tragic as it was, you move on."
She said a stigma price break "made it more affordable, and we could get into the market." In 1990, Mildred Horn had paid $388,000 for the place; her estate sold it for $315,000.
"For the first couple of years after we bought it, every anniversary, people would be showing up," the wife said. But no more.
Now she and her husband have a young son and daughter. There's a basketball hoop in front of the house; there are toys in the yard and flowers. The gloom has lifted.
It was "a nightmarish thing," she said. "But out of that often comes the ability to create some good."
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company