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DEATH IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY

House Could Overcome Stigma of Deaths, Experts Say

Property: If handled properly, dwelling will soon fade from public consciousness, according to realty agents.

March 29, 1997|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR and GREG KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Milwaukee apartments where Jeffrey Dahmer killed and ate his victims had to be demolished--and the lot is still vacant. There is a new house, even new topsoil, on the site of the Benedict Canyon villa where Charles Manson led a murderous rampage. Nicole Brown Simpson's murder site was assessed recently at far less than its purchase price. The Menendez home sold at a reported $1.2-million loss.

Now there is the Rancho Santa Fe estate where 39 cult members left their "human bodies" in a quest for enlightenment.

Real estate brokers are already turning down low-ball offers from prospective speculators offering as little as $500,000 for the cult's rented luxury "temple," which was on the market for $1.6 million.

In the parlance of the specialists who trade in a decidedly post-modern alchemy of human tragedy, psychology and marketing, such scandal-branded venues are "distressed properties," seen as suffering from "tragic stigma" or what is euphemistically termed a "diminution in value."

It is a real estate nether world in which the whiff of scandal has, in the words of one professional, replaced "location, location, location" with "perception, perception, perception."

Should property be tainted suddenly, there is a crucial damage control etiquette that must be followed from the moment the news gets out. If not, property values could spiral uncontrollably, and temporary loss could become near-permanent, experts say.

Some places, such as the Oklahoma City federal building lot, are what assessor Randall Bell calls a Class 10--the host of a tragedy of such dimensions that rebuilding seems unthinkable. Class 10s can even become liabilities, costing owners for taxes, maintenance or cleanup, as with Three Mile Island, with no hope of resale.

The Rancho Santa Fe residence, Bell said, is more like a Class 4--the magnitude assigned to a high-profile murder.

It can recover in time, given the attention span of Southern Californians, who are bombarded regularly with headline-grabbing tabloid infamy.

"People will say, 'Hey, I'll live in Rancho Santa Fe and save a couple of hundred thousand dollars. I don't care if a bunch of nut cases went on a 'Star Trek.' They didn't mess up the tennis court, and that's where I'll spend most of my time,' " said Bell, head of Bell & Associates of Santa Monica and Laguna Niguel.

"There's a lot of people who have that attitude."

Ill-starred venues have earned Bell the nickname "Master of Disaster" among colleagues. He recently assessed the loss in value to the Bundy Drive residence for the family of Nicole Brown Simpson. He surveyed the Manson murder site for the current owner of the property. He has copyrighted his disaster ranking system and conducts seminars nationwide on the expertise he has gained with his Southern California cases.

"We live in California," Bell said. "In another three or four weeks, there will be another disaster that will take the focus of public attention somewhere else."

Other appraisers agree.

"I think time will take care of this," said Joan Cheynne, who owns her own appraisal company in Laguna Niguel.

"Even though this was a mass suicide . . . perhaps the biggest in the country's history, it is probably not going to be as difficult to deal with as a brutal murder," she said. "It was not like somebody coming stealthily in the night committing the murders."

Tom Pike, an appraiser in the south Orange County community of Coto de Caza, said: "It's a problem now, but a year from now, many buyers just won't care. It's like a death in the family--time heals all wounds."

In the opinion of Randall Bell, there is a right way and a wrong way to handle an unforeseen mishap.

The right way, he said, was demonstrated by Luby's CEO Pete Erben in the wake of the 1991 massacre of 24 people by a California man at the firm's Killeen, Texas, restaurant. He flew to the site within hours and oversaw efforts to help wounded survivors. Luby's came up with an immediate $100,000 for the victims and their families. When the inevitable proposal came to tear the restaurant down, the city fathers petitioned Luby's to keep it open. Today people eat there.

Less well-handled, he said, was the 1984 massacre of 21 people at the McDonald's in the San Diego County community of San Ysidro, where the families of victims were denied closure by a protracted dispute over the fate of the site among the survivors, franchise owners and the city.

McDonald's bulldozed the structure and donated the property to the city. The city tried to sell it for $425,000 and then for $300,000, but there were no takers. Finally, six years later, a seven-foot monument to the victims was erected on a community college satellite facility built at the location.

The wrong way to handle the uproar, he said, is denial and hiding out.

And by all means, never leave the place empty, even if the owner has to move. The longer it is unoccupied the deeper the stigma.

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