Our new house (pictured here) is two blocks away from the scene of a Dateline murder.
By Tara Cushing (@TheBravoBlonde)
Since my youth, and here you thought it started with this blog, my life has intersected and overlapped with the events and personalities I’ve seen on television in the most unusual ways. This past summer I had an experience that managed to shock even myself when I was inside, and nearly purchased, a Dateline murder house.
The real life murder/mystery docu-series that airs on NBC is one of my favorite programs. Its appearance on my screen means the end of another exhausting work week and beginning of the weekend. I call Fridays “Dateline and wine night” because that’s exactly what goes on here (usually wine knocks me out before the show even finishes). Several months ago I was surprised to see a local story make the series, after all, not many murders occur in our quiet town. Prior to this one there were only two others I was aware of. I knew nothing of the tragic story about a beloved grandmother and local activist who had rose to the top ranks of the business world in a time when most women were stay at home moms, to have her life end over the fortune she had amassed.
To protect the identity of the home and the woman’s family I will omit names (strange I feel this way even with the whole story having had so much press), but the victim was brutally bludgeoned to death late one night by her own daughter-in-law. The motive, as in many of these cases, was money. There was, I believe, a four million dollar inheritance at stake. Together with a friend, the daughter-in-law drove to New York from Florida where her trusting mother-in-law let her inside and the rest is a sad unfortunate history.
Fast forward a couple of years, I’m deep in a search for a new home. After nearly a year on the market my townhouse finally has a buyer…a very eager to move in buyer…and I am scrambling to find a house before September when school starts, the market slows, and we are all just generally too busy for the moving process. So far my search had been discouraging. I’d seen a lot of overpriced homes with not enough living space and even less land. Homes that screamed for involved kitchen and bath renovations that, having already lived that pain in the ass, I had absolutely no desire to do. I began to think that I would have to settle for something I really didn’t love…and then I saw it.
On the corner of a quiet street in a picture perfect suburban neighborhood she sits on nearly an acre of land overlooking a lake. There are generous front and back porches and a little incline that’s just perfect for safe sledding in the winter. Inside there’s a welcoming entry with stairs lined up horizontally in front. To the left is a dining room, to the right a living room, and behind the stairs a generous eat in kitchen and family room that leads out to the backyard. Upstairs there are four bedrooms. Alas a center hall colonial, with land, in my price range.
Even though she needed a little nudge into the year 2015, the kitchen and baths weren’t unlivable. Reminiscent of the house in Sixteen Candles, if you can remember that kitchen, this was something I could live with for a few years. 80s nostalgia gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling all over. I could delay my visions of granite and stainless steel to feel like I’m living in a John Hughes film. The only thing that my husband, myself, and my realtor can’t figure out, is what the story behind the house is. With clothes neatly hung in the closets and pills in the basket on the counter, it appears that somebody lives here, but the refrigerator is empty except for a lonely half drank Gatorade.
“It looks like somebody lives here,” my realtor says, “but the listing says it’s vacant.” We wonder if the owner recently passed, or was placed in a nursing home. The faint odor of mothballs in the master bedroom’s closets suggests the owner was an elderly person. The Gucci belts and sleek black turtlenecks suggest this elderly person had impeccable, and expensive tastes. The house was immaculate, but something was off…very off…and the listing’s offer of a “$5k cash bonus to the agent who can execute a sale,” was our first clue.
Still, I had the feeling that this was “the one.” I had convinced myself I found my dream house and when my mother looked through the listing online she too agreed that I couldn’t let this one go…until she recognized the owner’s name. “Oh, no…I’m sorry…that’s the house where the murder happened.” Murder? Which murder? Then she went into the details and the episode of Dateline came back to me. I like the idea of a home with history…but THAT kind of history? I was crushed. Then my mind started working and I started to really research my options. Is it really that big of a deal to buy, for lack of a better title, a murder house?
First I polled my friends on Facebook, many of them open minded people. I posted the detailed situation and posed the question “Would you, could you, buy a murder house?”. The comment section exploded. Everybody seemed to want to weigh in on this one. The frugals said to “go for it” so long as I could use the home’s history to negotiate a rock bottom price. The neurotics said “hell no” as it would always give them “the creeps” and they feared their children experiencing teasing from other kids at school. The practicals worried (as I did) about resale. The romantics thought it would be beautiful to bring a loving family’s positive energy back into the home.
I became mildly obsessed with the prospect of owning the home, partially because I was so in love with it and partially because, as a writer, I imagined the history and the stories I could write about it. I watched the Dateline episode on You Tube, and read countless articles about people who had bought murder houses. The stories were less American Horror Story, and more “I got this place for a song.” What I gathered was that stigmatized properties, as they are referred to in the real estate and legal worlds, aren’t necessarily haunted by ghosts, they are haunted by the tragedies that occurred within their walls and these hauntings manifest themselves as decreased market value and inability to sell.
The same day I first saw the famous house, I had also looked at another one two blocks away. Not a center hall colonial, which I wanted, it was still comparable in size and was move in ready with beautiful updates throughout. I went back to both homes one more time. Now knowing the story behind the colonial I wanted to see if it felt any eerier to me. Once inside I still felt the same as when I first saw it, that it would be a wonderful place to raise a family. Now, however, I was comparing it to the updated house down the street, the one with the magnificent kitchen, clean history, and lower price tag. In the end practicality won out and two months ago we moved into what turned out to be our dream house. Shortly after I made my decision, images of the house were once again all over local news when the daughter-in-law and her accomplice were sentenced. The story was everywhere, in every local paper and on every local station. Justice had been served and the price of the crime scene was lowered once again.
It’s been quite a few months now and the Dateline house still sits vacant at the end of the block two streets away. My children refer to it as “the brown house” and often ask to drive by it, as they too visited it and remember us asking “do you like the brown house or the blue one better.” Sometimes I will walk passed it when out with my dog. I stop in front, I wonder “what if”, and then I pray that somebody else comes along and loves it as much as I did…enough to breathe new life into it. Anybody want to be neighbors?
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