Cops, Victims Say Real Estate Can be Hazardous to Your Health

June 1, 1997

Maria Garcia was preparing a foreclosed house for a showing when she made the mistake of her life.

She was alone at the house in Brentwood, a New York suburb, on a chilly December day in 1995, when Donny Ray Batts, a paroled convict with a history of mental illness, approached her. He later told police he'd asked whether she could look at his house because he was considering selling it.

Garcia, a salesperson with ERA-- Quality Homes, Brentwood, walked to Batts' home. And in a matter of minutes, she was dead. Batts beat her, then slit her throat with a knife.

"Her only mistake was that she was anxious to make a deal," says Laurie Bloom, communications and marketing manager of the Long Island Board of REALTORS®. Instead of telling him to come to her office and make an appointment, she went with a stranger to a strange house. "Everyone who heard about it said, 'I probably would've done the same thing,' " Bloom says.

Although law enforcement officials don't keep numbers on crimes specifically against practitioners, the Washington, D.C.--based National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that about 70 real estate practitioners were killed on the job between 1980 and 1992, the latest available statistics. If you don't believe you're at risk, read about the crime that occurred in Dallas in March.

Despite a heightened sense of alarm in and around Brentwood, not more than four months after Garcia's slaying, Norberto Ruivo, of Host Real Estate in nearby Central Islip, N.Y., was robbed when showing a foreclosed property.

The robber came to Host on a Sunday and made an appointment to see foreclosed homes the following Tuesday. "I went alone," Ruivo says. "And although I asked for his name, address, and employer, I didn't check him out."

When Ruivo took the prospect into the basement of the house, the man put a gun to his head, handcuffed him to a pipe, and robbed him of his wallet and cellular phone. After several hours, Ruivo's cries for help summoned a neighbor who rescued him.

Ruivo made the mistake of turning his back: He went into the basement ahead of the prospect. That's a place "where a person can get cornered," says detective Fred Galey of the Las Vegas Police Department. Let the prospect go in ahead of you. Ideally, you should stay in the doorway at the top of the stairs, experts advise.

Lt. Detective John J. Horan of Suffolk County, N.Y., who presented a safety seminar for the members of the Long Island Board in the wake of the Garcia murder, also warns against wearing expensive jewelry and advises that you carry a cellular phone in plain sight.

"I'm doing things differently now," Ruivo says. "I ask for a driver's license before I show a property." His advice to colleagues around the country: "Screen everybody, no matter how much you think you can trust a person. Tell people in your office where you're going and when you'll be back."

Safety Isn't Taken Seriously, Cops Say

Real estate professionals and police officers in small towns and big cities say criminals often see salespeople as easy prey. "Too many salespeople don't take their safety seriously," says Mark Galvan, a former police officer and currently director of community relations for Landover, Md.--based Vector Security. "Crimes are committed against salespeople of both genders and of all ethnic backgrounds at all times of day, at all types of properties. The common denominator is that all the victims were showing properties."

Assumptions Get You Hurt

Galey is currently investigating a February 1997 Las Vegas incident in which a salesperson was beaten and robbed by two men and a woman. The salesperson, who didn't want to be interviewed for this article, went alone to the property but wouldn't enter the house because she was met by two men.

When she wouldn't go in, "one of the men said, 'Will you wait? I'll get my wife,' " says Steven D. Baird, chief operating officer of Coldwell Banker--Premier Realty, the injured salesperson's company. Within minutes, the man returned with the woman he identified as his wife. The salesperson told police she then felt safe enough to go into the house.

One of the men drew a gun, beat her, and demanded jewelry and money. In hindsight, Baird says, there were a number of signals the salesperson missed. The man's car had an out-of-state license plate; the salesperson hadn't met the attacker's female accomplice before; and the salesperson hadn't asked for identification from any of the three.

The three took the salesperson's jewelry, but she was able to grab a grill from a stove, hit one of the assailants on his head, and run out the back door. She ran across the backyard, scaled a six-foot cement wall, and called police from a nearby house.

Get Street-Smart

Inexperience may have been the reason a 26-year-old salesperson in Columbus, Ohio, fell victim to a man last summer. He called himself Jack Martin and said he was a nuclear physicist from Tennessee. He was, in fact, Thomas H. Chappell, a local commercial cleaning service operator and a convicted rapist.

The salesperson met with Chappell several times at her office, Century 21--Roger C. Perry Ltd., but didn't ask for identification. He told her that he wanted a high-end residential property and would pay cash for it.

After developing a casual rapport with the salesperson, Chappell called her to come take a look at a property.

Just before she left her office, she asked a colleague, Claudia Perry-Vance, a 19-year veteran in the business, to come along. "The only reason I went with her was that she felt a little nervous," Perry-Vance says. Chappell met both women at the house. During the tour, he was able to separate them and attacked the younger with a stun gun. She didn't lose consciousness and struggled with her attacker.

"She let out the most horrible scream I've ever heard," says Perry-Vance, who was in another room when the attack occurred. The scream sent Chappell running to his van, but the salespeople got his license number and called police.

When he was caught, police found an MLS book in the van with the young salesperson's photo circled in ink.

"If she'd checked out his license number beforehand, she would have known he wasn't using his name," Perry-Vance says. "But she was new and fell for his line."

Since the incident, the brokerage where Perry-Vance works has all prospects come to the office before showings. Prospects must fill out a personal profile, which an office secretary verifies.

Perry-Vance, who was also once robbed while standing with a customer in front of a listing, no longer shows properties. "I do property management. But if I did do sales again, I'd probably carry mace."

To her colleagues, she says: "Don't be stupid. Make sure you think about safety all the time. It's my first thought."

Safety Important, But Not Critical, in Lockbox Choices

In any discussion about real estate safety, lockboxes inevitably come up.

When members of the Arizona Regional MLS decided to move from manual to electronic lockboxes, part of the debate centered on how to provide access to appraisers, home inspectors, and pest-control businesses, while making sure properties and salespeople remained secure.

Members were impressed that the programmable devices store data that provide information about who and how many people visit a property and when they arrive and leave. But what was more important was that "the lockboxes would provide more security for consumers, salespeople, and others," says Ellen Olive, broker-owner of ABC Professional Realty, Glendale, Ariz.

The ancillary service providers not only need private identification numbers assigned to lockboxes but also a call-before-showing code that listing salespeople control and can change as often as necessary. But with manual lockboxes, the metal keys can stay for years in the hands of home inspectors and appraisers.

About 60 percent of practitioners use electronic boxes, estimates Dan Ostlund, director of marketing for Supra Products, a lockbox manufacturer in Salem, Ore. Joel Ford, vice president of development for Multacc Corp., a Torrance, Calif., lockbox maker, says most associations with more than 1,000 members are the main users of electronic boxes.

Among those that don't use electronic boxes is the Lincoln (Neb.) Board of REALTORS®, which doesn't primarily because of cost, says Mike Elgert, board president and managing broker of Home Real Estate. "We still consider our part of the country relatively safe," he says. "If we were to go to electronic boxes, it would be to better serve customers and salespeople."

But even the electronic boxes aren't used without risks. Last fall a New Jersey con man was arrested and charged in a series of burglaries that the police said occurred when the man used his girlfriend's lockbox access codes to get into houses.

The girlfriend sold property in an area of northern New Jersey with high-priced homes. The police said the woman wasn't an accomplice but a dupe befriended by the con man, who may have burglarized as many as 60 homes. He fled the state and was later caught in Ohio, where, according to the police, he was working the same con on another salesperson.

Dallas Salesperson Attacked by Would-Be Buyer

It's one of the latest incidents to serve as a warning about the dangers inherent in this industry.

One minute, last March, Joan Malone was showing homes to a prospective buyer in suburban Dallas. The next minute, she was fending off her buyer, who'd become a knife-wielding assailant, trapping her in a home and stabbing her repeatedly before fleeing in her black Mercedes.

Joan Malone, a salesperson with RE/MAX-DFW Associates near Dallas, dragged herself through two rooms to a telephone on that March day. She called for help and was taken to the hospital in critical condition.

"He left her for dead," says Mark Wolfe, president of RE/MAX-DFW Associates. "He threw her to the floor and attempted sexual assault, but she fought so hard she injured him. He then choked her into an unconscious state. When she came to, he was stabbing her."

Several days later, after tracking down the alleged attacker through an informant, police arrested Carl J. Raspante in Springfield, Mo. He is awaiting trial on attempted murder charges.

Malone has since been released from the hospital and is recovering at home.

Raspante, says Wolfe, was no stranger to Malone. She'd taken him, his fiancé, and his fiancé's mother and brother to look at homes just before the attack.

Now Wolfe and his 65 salespeople are leaving nothing to chance. He says he's established a voice mail hot line that salespeople can call "to say whom they're showing what property to and what car they're in. Everybody's much more cautious."

Carole Fleck is a former senior editor for REALTOR® Magazine.

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