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Schenecker home sold, but other tragic scenes pose problems

TAMPA — Tampa Palms Beauty! the ad said. Move-in ready. NOT a short-sale.

Can close quickly.

But the house at 16305 Royal Park Court, behind the gates of Ashington Reserve, had a sad history told only in crime stories:

A year ago this month, two children died there. Police charged their mother, Julie Schenecker, with murder.

The house was cordoned off and photographed for evidence.

Then quietly, last fall, it sold for $385,000, just over its estimate on real-estate site Zillow.com.

Some landmarks of tragedy do not change hands so easily. Real estate agents consider them stigmatized.

The homes draw unease and superstition. Long after police have left and families have gathered personal effects, strangers remember.

• • •

The problem is not as rare as one might think. In 2010 alone, according to the FBI, 14,748 people were murdered in America. A year earlier, 15,241. A year before that, 16,272.

A man in California makes a living consulting on stigmatized sites — from those of lesser known deaths to some of the country's most notorious. Randall Bell is known for his specialty in damage economics. They call him Dr. Disaster.

Bell has calculated that a public, traumatic event like a murder can take 10 percent to 25 percent off a home's value. But not always. The Schenecker house, which sold for $63,000 less than its 2008 purchase price, seemed no more affected than any Florida property in a down market.

Urban homes suffer less, Bell says, the bustle of city life diluting the trauma; rural homes are hit hardest, because memories linger in quiet places.

To help with the damage, he typically suggests "mitigations."

The O.J. Simpson condo got a new facade.

The JonBenet Ramsey house got a remodeled basement and an address change.

The mansion where 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult committed suicide met a much more drastic fate.

Bell had the opportunity to buy it, he said. Cheap. His wife looked at him as if he was out of his mind. "She just thought it had too much baggage," he said.

So, apparently, did the owners. The mansion eventually came down. Every blade of grass was ripped out of the ground.

Sometimes, people call Bell for help, saying they didn't know a house had a history until after they bought it. One family in New Jersey said neighborhood kids refused to come inside for a birthday party.

Those situations end up in court, Bell said. "My number one rule is to always be up-front and honest. Don't try to conceal things, because that tends to amplify problems."

Laws vary from state to state about whether real estate agents are required to disclose a murder on a property. In Florida, they must do so only if directly asked.

The question didn't exactly cross 28-year-old Chris Galbraith's mind when he decided to rent the charming Seminole Heights bungalow at 213 W Powhatan Ave. He learned of its history when a Tampa Bay Times reporter showed up last week with a news article calling it a "torture scene."

Steven Lorenzo drugged and tortured nine men at that home. At trial, federal prosecutors said two men were killed there. The "torture room" was toward the back. Investigators removed floorboards, where they found a victim's DNA.

Galbraith wasn't happy about the revelation. "Just put yourself in the situation," he said. "You go in the back garage, it doesn't have a floor in it.

"Well, now I know why … "

"There's no question about it. We would've kept looking."

The woman who owns the house did not return a message left by the Times, and the leasing agent declined to comment.

Others, too, shy away from the subject, including the families who bought the Carrollwood cul-de-sac house where Valessa Robinson and her boyfriend murdered her mother in 1998.

Parker Schenecker, who has a pending wrongful-death suit against the mother of his children and is monitoring her death penalty case, wasn't interested in discussing his home sale. The buyers, Anthony and Christine Betts, did not answer messages left by the Times. The sales agent, too, was uneager to talk.

Not surprising, Bell said.

"It can be a very touchy topic."

• • •

They're just buildings, right? Cement, and brick, and tile?

Or are they vessels of sadness?

Maribet Balestena is certified to practice feng shui, the art of the physical and the unseen. She believes energy flows like water and wind, but bad energy gets stuck. Being in a negatively charged space can make one feel uneasy, or depressed, or even sick, she said.

"Every house has some energetic footprint," she said. "We impregnate these houses. These spaces in which we live absorb our energy, and the spaces affect our energy as well. When all these awful things happen, the energy becomes accumulated in there. All that negativity … It's necessary, then, to make a shift."

For a $270 fee, Balestena performs three-to-four-hour cleansings, which incorporate forms of prayer and remedies like incense, music and the intentional placement of objects to facilitate flow. She customizes the ceremony for the family and concludes with a lengthy report, with suggestions to foster peace and harmony in the home.

She has been consulted for a cleansing at the scene of two suicides.

Dr. Disaster's thoughts?

"Whatever people are into," he said. "If that provides peace of mind, they should do it. Some people aren't bothered, and that's fine, too."

In 2003, the Guardian tracked down an owner of a London building in the heart of Jack the Ripper's onetime haunt. Ron Harley said he knew about the woman poisoned with nitric acid on the second floor of 16 Batty St. He said that one of his friends claimed to get a funny feeling about the place, and that in the winter, the old walls creaked. "But," he added, "it is just wood."

• • •

Sometimes, a house's very existence must be extinguished.

That was the case for the Homosassa mobile home once occupied by child murderer John Couey, where he raped 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford and held her for three days, according to his confession.

Nine days before what would have been the four-year anniversary of the abduction, the trailer was burned to the ground.

Citrus County fire officials labeled the blaze "suspicious."

Also destroyed was the house where two St. Petersburg police officers were killed last year, and where shooter Hydra Lacy Jr. was found dead. Police began tearing holes into the house hours after he barricaded himself in the attic. After Lacy's body was removed, Mayor Bill Foster ordered the demolition.

Apart from what Foster called a "health-safety issue," the mayor gave this justification:

"I didn't want my community to have this constant reminder of extreme loss."

Across the bay, another reminder lasted only half a month.

Sheriff David Gee called it one of the most horrifying crime scenes they'd ever encountered — a woman, her two children and the family dog, mutilated in the mobile home at 1918 Mobile Villa Drive S in Lutz. Live-in boyfriend Edward Covington was charged.

Neighbor Tim Kelly heard a scream the morning of May 12, 2008. He rushed to the home. The woman's mother had discovered the scene.

Two weeks later, Kelly heard the commotion of machinery outside. He saw the giant, metal claw. "They took everything," he said. Neighbors lined the street, watching. Kelly stood among them.

"I was happy to see it gone."

It was the choice the victim's mother had made with her husband after losing Lisa, 26, Zachary, 7, and Heather Savannah, 2. Barbara Freiberg could not return to see it come down. She stays away today. "I know exactly where it happened," she said.

One day, she said, she will sell the land. Until then, her husband mows the lawn. And she waits for the market to improve.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354.

Schenecker home sold, but other tragic scenes pose problems 01/07/12 [Last modified: Saturday, January 7, 2012 10:52pm]
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