Tracey Hawkins, a.k.a. "Tracey, the Safety Lady," is founder and CEO of Safety and Security Source. She is a former real estate agent who, for more than 24 years, has been a national speaker, educator and real estate safety expert. She has created the country's only real estate safety designation, the Consumer Safety and Security Specialist (CSSS) program, as well as the Broker, Manager, and Owner Certification Workshop with an Office Safety Policy Handbook.
How Agent Deaths Spawned REALTOR® Action
Tragedy can turn into opportunity to influence safer work practices in the real estate industry. In four high-profile cases involving agent homicides, REALTORS® used the moment to effect positive change.
February 19, 2019
The death of a real estate agent, particularly when foul play is suspected, leaves a hole in the industry and the hearts of friends, colleagues, and loved ones. But while it’s a time of mourning, it’s also an opportunity for associations, brokerages, and individual agents to re-evaluate safety protocols and renew their commitment to working more mindfully.
High-profile murders of practitioners, though tragic, have leant urgency to reforming the way pros do their jobs. We take a look at four cases spanning more than a decade and how tragedy spawned action in the REALTOR® family.
Sarah Anne Walker, a sales representative for homebuilder D. R. Horton, was beaten and stabbed to death inside a model home in McKinney, Texas, in 2006. Her killer, Kosoul Chanthakoummane, was given the death penalty, but his execution was stayed in 2017.
Stay Safe Out There!
Since Walker’s death, the Colin County Association of REALTORS® in Plano, Texas, has used her story in new member orientation classes when introducing safety advice and tips. Jonna Fernandez, CCAR’s chief operating officer, says most agents are familiar with Walker’s murder—even nearly 13 years later.
CCAR also communicates safety protocols through e-newsletters and social media and on its website. The association also teams up with local police departments to offer safety classes on a regular basis. Keeping the content of safety programs fresh and relevant, rather than using boilerplate material, is crucial to keeping members engaged, Fernandez says. She recounts a recent safety class that went over well: “We had an active shooter training class that was well-attended because it’s relevant.” Fernandez says the association alternates between onsite safety training and videos.
Ashley Okland, a sales associate with Iowa Realty, was shot and killed in 2011 while showing a brand-new townhouse in West Des Moines. Her murder remains unsolved.
Following Okland’s death, the Des Moines Area Association of REALTORS® developed a safety pledge, encouraging its members to never show a home to a prospective buyer they haven’t met or identified first. The pledge, which the Iowa state association later adopted, requires sellers’ signatures so clients can be involved in fostering a safe environment when their homes go on the market, says Amanda Nagle, DMAAR’s director of industry relations.
Jennifer Stanbrough, a friend of Okland’s and managing broker at RE/MAX Concepts in West Des Moines, became the founding member of DMAAR’s safety committee after Okland died. The committee developed an alert program to notify members of safety threats to real estate professionals in the area. DMAAR shares the warnings on its Facebook page. Stanbrough says she wants to keep Okland’s story alive in order to help more practitioners work safely, but she doesn’t want them to operate out of fear.
Stanbrough says the association’s safety pledge, which is required in every listing packet, has been the most impactful tool for members. “This is forcing us to have that conversation with sellers before signing the form,” she says. “Sellers had no idea that we were not requesting information from prospective buyers before allowing them in their homes.”
Beverly Carter, a broker with Crye-Leike in Little Rock, Ark., was kidnapped from a vacant home in a rural area in 2014. Her body was found days later, buried in a shallow grave near a concrete factory. A couple who posed as prospective buyers and met Carter at the property was convicted of her murder.
Safety Tech to Consider
- FOREWARN enables real estate professionals to screen clients before meeting them. The program matches phone numbers to user information such as property ownership, residency, and criminal and civil history, such as sex offender registries, arrest warrants, bankruptcies, liens, and traffic records.
- The most effective safety apps allow users to speak to a live call center if they are in danger. One such product, KATANA Safety, has GPS capabilities to help law enforcement determine the user’s location. It attaches to the back of a smartphone and has an audible alarm that triggers the alert to law enforcement.
Immediately after Carter’s death, the Arkansas REALTORS® Association created a safety task force, which included Susan Vaught, Carter’s former broker-manager. Vaught, now an executive broker with RE/MAX Homefinders Realty in Jacksonville, Ark., says Carter was her best friend. Vaught says the task force prompted a major shift in local real estate professionals’ safety awareness. The state association’s task force has become a full association committee, and the Arkansas Real Estate Commission has begun mandating one hour of continuing safety education each license year.
Vaught advises that agents practice professionalism and proper vetting of clients before meeting with them in the field. “Agents need to focus on being professional,” she says. “Make appointments and get a commitment to come into the office. You don’t call a doctor and say, ‘Meet me now; I’m sick.’ You have to make an appointment. Real estate agents should be just as professional.”
Cameron Kuhn, the Arkansas association’s director of communications and staff liaison to the safety committee, says Carter was well-known as an involved member of the association, and that may help explain why her death sent shockwaves through the real estate community. “I communicate with the liaisons two to three times per week,” he says. “We are actively testing and researching safety apps. As part of our Beverly Carter Safety Certified Office Program, we encourage speaking about safety at every sales meeting, the use of our best safety practices guidelines, the viewing of our videos, conducting an annual safety quiz, as well as appointing an office safety leader.” Kuhn says that the association’s goal is to increase the number of real estate offices participating in the program from about 30 to 60 this year.
In 2016, David Abbasi, a principal with real estate investment and management firm RockPoint Capital, was found shot to death inside an abandoned property in Woodstock, Ga., outside of Atlanta. He reportedly was considering buying the home. His murder remains unsolved.
Because Abbasi’s death was not a media spectacle, many local real estate professionals to this day haven’t heard of the incident, says Rebecca Fletcher, executive director of the Atlanta REALTORS® Association. Lack of awareness of these types of attacks may be one reason why members don’t show enough interest in the association’s ongoing safety programs, Fletcher adds.
To draw more attention to real estate safety issues, the Atlanta association has created a series of videos called “Stay Safe in 5,” a project made possible after the association won a safety grant from the National Association of REALTORS®. The videos, which feature local police detectives, offer safety tips in five-minute snippets.
The videos have helped agents like Lindsay Levin, a sales associate with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Georgia Properties in Dunwoody, Ga., who is also Fletcher’s daughter. Levin, who says she wasn’t aware of Abbasi’s murder, requires proof of funds or a prequalification letter before working with buyers. She says new agents need more safety education. “Surprisingly, not as many agents discuss safety as one would think,” Levin says. “Many new agents are hungry for business and seem to make the mistake of meeting people at homes without fully qualifying them to ensure they are not put in a compromising position.”