If there's something strange in your neighborhood, like 39 people committing mass suicide, you're probably going to call Randall Bell.
Bell, a Laguna Beach real estate appraiser, specializes in properties suffering from "detrimental conditions." In layman's terms, that means he works in real estate disaster porn, helping sell homes where the grisliest of crimes have taken place.
His repertoire includes Nicole Brown Simpson's Brentwood, California condo; the LA house where actress Sharon Tate was stabbed to death by members of Charles Manson's "family;" the South Beach mansion where Gianni Versace was shot dead on his steps; the family home of slain child beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey; and the aforementioned Heaven's Gate property where 39 cult members poisoned and asphyxiated themselves believing their souls would be transported to outer space.
VICE asked Bell about some of the craziest shit he's seen in his line of work.
VICE: So why did you decide to go into damaged real estate?
Randall Bell: I was swimming in the pool the day before law school and I literally had kind of an epiphany where I just thought it'd be really interesting if I took my skill set with real estate and valuation and flipped it upside down, instead of looking at valuation I looked at devaluation. It was a really bold, risky decision coupled with really great timing. We had the Malibu firestorm, the firestorms in Laguna Beach, the Northridge earthquake, the LA riots, OJ. We just had this whole rash of Southern California problems and I was just inundated with work.
Do property values go down a lot when a crime has taken place?
I've seen things where you actually have an expected increase in value. Take an extreme case like [accused axe murderer] Lizzie Borden house in Rhode Island. They actually rent that property out as a bed and breakfast and they've monetized that whole situation. There's other situations where you can't give the property away, that was the case with the McDonald's massacre site in San Diego. This guy went in and mass murdered a bunch of people and the McDonald's corporation literally had a hard time giving that land away.
What properties stand out the most in your mind?
The Heaven's Gate mansion. The leader of the cult was into mind control and brainwashing. That was pretty insane being in that house seeing how he controlled people right down to the smallest little detail. Everything was labelled, every light switch, every drawer, every cupboard, every jar, every container. It eliminated the need to think for yourself. There were wires going throughout the house everywhere, literally up the chimney. He was basically a control freak where he listened in on every conversation, you were never by yourself. And the Andrew Luster house—he was the [heir] of Max Factor and used a date rape drug and raped a number of women in one particular bedroom in the house. That was very, very sad.
You helped JonBenét Ramsey's parents sell their home—what was that like?
It's a very sad situation. A homicide is a horrible situation but when it involves a kid it's far worse.
How soon after something bad happens are you called in?
With the Heaven's Gate mansion, I was called in right away. I have no morbid curiosity so I waited until they cleared the bodies out of the house and then I went in the next day. I've seen lots of bullet holes and lots of blood but I have no interest in seeing any bodies or anything like that. I don't want to see crime scene photos.
You're not into that at all?
A lot of people think, because I have this particular career, I want to see this stuff, and the reality is I don't. Philosophically, I look at what I do as I'm trying to help people. I'm not into disasters, I'm into recovery. That's kind of what floats my boat.
Have you ever noticed any paranormal activity?
I've never seen a ghost, I don't want to see a ghost. I'm more concerned with actual people. I've had to go into some properties with flashlights and a gun to protect myself against these crazies that break into these properties. I had a client who had a house where there'd been rumors about it. Some Satan worshippers broke in and they had a ritual—they caught the house on fire.
Have any of your clients seen paranormal activity?
What I hear a lot about is the dogs start acting bizarre, and [people having] nightmares, and creepy feelings, and [hearing] sounds, and that kind of stuff.
Do you ever hire a psychic or priest to cleanse the home?
I try and be respectful of different points of view and if it makes you feel more comfortable, by all means do it.
Are there things sellers can do to mitigate the stigma of their homes?
When there's a crime involved, obviously you have to make sure that it's completely restored and repaired. I've actually seen people that were too lazy and unethical to make repairs and people bought the house and found out there was a crime because they found unrepaired bullet holes in the kids' bedrooms. That's just a bad idea.
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.