“Oh, I’ll tell you a bizarre one!” Randall Bell says. His tone is so cheery that I half expect him to launch into a recounting of his fondest childhood memory, or a ranking of his favorite Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavors. But instead, he tells a story about a property he appraised where a family who had recently moved in discovered a bullet hole in the daughter’s closet. The father followed the trajectory the bullet would have taken, only to stumble on a gruesome crime scene in the basement.
While such a scene would permanently scar most people, it’s not that unusual for Bell, a PhD in sociology who for the past few decades has worked as an appraiser of “stigmatized” real estate properties — murder, crime and disaster sites around the world. He’s consulted on the house where Nicole Brown Simpson was killed, the Flight 93 crash site, the Heaven’s Gate mansion, and the site of the Manson family murders; his clients range from insurance companies to lawyers to federal governments to “families around the kitchen table. Basically, whoever’s going through a tragedy.” He’s not into the macabre, he insists — just driven by the need to help people when they’re going through difficult times.
“For some reason, I’m able to handle a high level of trauma,” he says. “I look at my whole career built around helping people through really tough situations.”
Rolling Stone caught up with Bell to discuss Satanic worshippers, the creepiest part about the Heaven’s Gate mansion, and what, exactly, makes the Jeffrey Dahmer property so special.
So how exactly do you get into this line of work?
Well, the short answer is I was appraising commercial real estate for years here in SoCal and quite honestly it got a little routine. I applied to law school and miraculously was admitted and I was in my backyard in the pool the weekend before classes started, and I thought, “You know what? I don’t know if the world needs another lawyer.” I thought “What if I apply my skill set on what creates value and how to measure value, and I turn it upside down and I look at what creates losses in value?” I thought it would be fascinating, because I think I have adult ADD, and I like interesting, challenging things. I thought, “I’m gonna go for it.” Back in those days we had these things called fax machines, and I faxed my resignation to law school, and I told all my clients I would only do real estate that had been damaged in some respect. I had no idea that my future would involve O.J. Simpson and the World Trade Center and the Flight 93 crash site and JonBenét Ramsey. None of that was foreseen. Frankly, it was just dumb luck of all the cases that came along after I made that decision.
What was your first big case?
Ironically, it was O.J. Nobody knew who I was or cared until O.J. came, and that was so funny because I knew the guy [George Ryon] who did the Menendez brothers’ house in Bel Air, and his wife [Ruth Ryon] wrote for the Los Angeles Times, a column called Hot Properties in the real estate section. I’d been out to dinner with them and I knew them both, and I was asking George about the Menendez property and Ruth called me up and said, “Hey, I heard you’re working on the OJ thing,” and she put one or two sentences in the newspaper with my name, and what I told her was pretty benign, but i swear to you the whole world called and I’ve never looked back since the O.J. Simpson case.
How did you get involved with the O.J. Simpson case?
[Nicole Brown Simpson’s father] Lou Brown is in the neighborhood, and we have some mutual friends and he asked me to do the appraisal work [of Nicole Brown’s house]. I had the delicate task of telling Lou — Lou is a really cool guy, but he thought the property would be more valuable because it was famous. I had the delicate task of sitting with him over lunch and saying, “Hey, just because something is well-known doesn’t mean it’s necessarily more valuable. I hate to tell ya, but there’s good news and bad news: the bad news is that the property value has gone down, but over time it can be somewhat restored. So we got a renter in there to pay the bills, and he sold it later.
What was Lou Brown’s attitude like? I can imagine it would be quite an emotional experience, because it’s the place where his daughter was killed.
Well, you’re right, but what I’ve learned is that every disaster has a practical side and an emotional side. Everyone gets the emotional side intuitively, but on the practical side Lou had bills to pay. So he’s dealing with the trauma of losing his daughter, but he also had to maintain this real estate. You know, he was a WWII veteran. He was of the Greatest Generation. He was a guy that was accustomed to being under fire and so he had a very calm demeanor about the whole process.
“I had no idea that my future would involve O.J. Simpson and the World Trade Center and JonBenét Ramsey.”
Generally speaking, how much does a murder or a major crime cause a property value to plummet?
You’re not gonna like my answer, but here it is. It’s a remarkably wide spectrum. I’ve seen properties that sell at full value. The Jeffrey Dahmer property in Milwaukee actually sold for a premium, and there’s a backstory for that. Generally it’s 10-25 percent in terms of a loss in value.
What’s the backstory for the Jeffrey Dahmer property?
When he was arrested, at the same time, coincidentally, there was a group called Campus Circle, and they were trying to buy up all the housing in the area that was crime-ridden where Dahmer lived and create more student housing in Marquette University. They were really upset for a lot of reasons, but one of the reasons was having a bunch of investments right next to Dahmer’s property really was messing up their plans. So they went to the Dahmer property, and the owner of the apartment complex knew they were highly motivated and he held out for a premium. But that is really highly unusual. The typical thing I’ve seen over and over again is the 10-25 percent drop.
[With] the Lizzie Borden house in [Massachusetts], that property, they monetized that crime, if you will. They have bed and breakfasts and you can sleep in the room where Lizzie Borden’s mother was murdered with an ax for hundreds of dollars a night. But as a general rule, those kinds of things don’t happen. Heaven’s Gate, JonBenet Ramsey, O.J. — there’s literally hundreds of cases people haven’t heard of, and those typically fall into the 10-25 percent pattern, but there are some unique one-off circumstances.
Is it just the stigma or is there actual damage done to the house that reduces its value?
That’s a great question, because with the Heaven’s Gate mansion there was a lot of physical damage because — I don’t want to be graphic or anything, but —
You’re welcome to be as graphic as you want.
Oh, OK, then I’ll be really graphic. By the way, I don’t have any morbid curiosity. I don’t want to see bodies or crime scene photos, I’m not into that. With Heaven’s Gate, I waited till after they finished taking out the bodies. But when I went in, I just wanted to barf because it smelled so bad. There had been bodies decomposing for three days, and there was blood all over the place — blood on the carpet and the marble, all throughout the house.
Why blood? Didn’t they take phenobarbital?
Yeah. The reason why — they call their bodies vehicles, and when you have a decomposing vehicle for three days, when the bodies are picked up and put on gurneys, the vehicles leak. That’s the way I guess I could put it. So it was odd, but there was blood coming out from various orifices, and it smelled so bad. So we actually got a biohazard company to come in and test the porous surfaces, the vents and the carpet and the drapes. There was biological contamination and all that stuff had to be ripped out. So that’s an extreme example, but I did a house last year that was on the front page of People magazine, and there were bullet holes in the windows and stuff like that.
What house was it?
It was the kid who drove down from college in San Juan Capistrano and he shot his parents and his little brother, who was disabled. But I’ve seen lots of bullet holes and blood and chipped marbles from gurneys, that kind of thing. I’ve seen where they had to rip out the floorboards because the blood soaked through the carpet, that kind of thing. So you do see some damage.
If the house is damaged in that sense, what can you do to make the property value go up and to fix it?
The first rule I got is you gotta be realistic. Trying to make the value go up is tough. With Neverland, that’s never gonna turn into Graceland because it’s simply too remote. You look for any opportunity, but generally speaking, a crime scene is not gonna become a museum or tourist attraction. What I’m trying to do is mitigate the damage. I’m trying to make the best I can out of a bad situation, recognizing that it’s not gonna be normal or have a normal return. You’re just trying to minimize the losses. We divide everything into 3 categories: cost, use and risk. The costs are the cleanup costs of the blood or the bullet holes or what have you. In one case, Satan worshippers were coming into the house and they started a fire inside the garage in a Satanic ritual, so those all have costs. The second element of use means the house isn’t being normally used, so there’s a way to calculate the loss of use. And the word “risk” is synonymous with stigma, which means there’s a resistance on part of the market to pay full value. So that’s how we do every case.
Are there examples of people who actively seek out stigmatized properties?
Oh, yeah. One thing that a lot of people don’t know: after a murder or some horrible event there’s a segment of society — which I honestly don’t get — they try to break in and have Satanic rituals. It’s a big problem. I’ve spoken to clients about it and police about it, and there’s certain techniques to get rid of them.
Spotlights, security guards, video. My approach is to take a no-nonsense, very hard-ass approach. These people are like cockroaches: they will sneak in in the dark, but the minute you turn on the lights or you pump a shotgun or whatever you do, they just scram. So I’ve been in houses with flashlights and guns because we’ve had this problem, and they can destroy your property. I shut this down in a second.
What kinds of houses attract these Satanic worshippers?
Lots of them do. There was a case I worked on and I think there were a lot of Satanic rituals. It was a reputed mob murder house, but I hadn’t heard of it before I got the phone call.
What are the properties you get asked about the most?
The strangest case was Heaven’s Gate. It was just so bizarre on so many levels. I was really fascinated by the brainwashing techniques that [Heaven’s Gate leader] Do used, and the way he rigged the house to control his followers was generally not known in the media, but it was bizarre. There was a whole process — he would entice people who were actually very bright, who were academically smart people, with a new, magical world kind of pitch. Once he had them in the house, he controlled all the thinking. In fact, I was walking through the house with a reporter, and everything in the house was labeled. I’m not exaggerating: every light switch, every drawer, every cupboard, every shelf, every jar, every single thing you saw was labeled. And she said, “That was because he was trying to eliminate the need to think for yourself about anything.” Even the most mundane detail, the thinking was already done.
The other thing he did: literally there were wires going through the chimney. There were wires everywhere. It was fanatically wired. Every square inch of that house was bugged. You could not go anywhere and have a private conversation. I remember the phones — they had these folding tables, like phone banks, and every phone was rigged, so if you were on the phone somebody was listening in on your conversation. He eliminated any private moments or any ability to think for yourself or reason to think for yourself. Nobody slept in the room by themselves. Nobody went to the bathroom by themselves. Through this process, people who were otherwise intelligent were believing the craziest stuff they’ve ever heard. And that’s how he did it.
“Generally speaking, a crime scene is not gonna become a museum or tourist attraction. What I’m trying to do is mitigate the damage.”
What are some of the more under-the-radar properties you’ve appraised?
A couple weeks ago, I was in the house of — there’s a famous mansion in Los Feliz where in 1959, a doctor murdered his wife. For 60 years nobody got inside that house and I just got inside that house for the first time and was free to take pictures. That was pretty crazy because I knew about that house, and it was just kind of this forbidden property that no one could go into for decades. It was in the hands of people that didn’t want anybody in the house. For whatever reason, these families that owned it – that was their agenda. It went into probate, and it went into the kids’ hands, and they had the same attitude. It was an architecturally beautiful property, but obviously it had been neglected for decades. It had the wood on the wood frames, the single sheet glass. It was like taking a step back in time. I’m not into seances, but there were some people with me that conducted a seance, and I just kinda watched. It was bizarre to me just to get access to it or be invited to it.
Now I’m trying to think, under the radar…a story where the husband goes crazy, shoots the wife, then shoots himself — I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen that. Those happen all the time.
Oh, I’ll tell you a bizarre one! Here in southern California, in Mission Viejo — this family bought a house, and they move in, and the daughter is putting her clothes away in the closet, and she notices a hole in her closet floor. So she gets her dad and says there’s a hole in the closet floor and sure enough, it’s a bullet hole and then the dad looks around and sees one in the ceiling and lines up the trajectory and goes downstairs, and behind the water heater up on the ceiling was a bunch of blood and brain matter. The family had not been told the house had belonged to a guy who committed suicide in the garage and the people that sold it failed to disclose it, and failed to cleaned up the blood and the brains. So that was really pretty disturbing for this family, and I saw it myself, it was disturbing to me. They filed a lawsuit against the broker and the seller, because legally, in New York and California, you have to disclose that stuff.
Can you tell me about the properties you’ve looked at with paranormal activity? I know you said you didn’t believe in that, but I know you’ve been called to appraise those properties.
I haven’t see any ghosts. I’ve seen some weird things, but I haven’t seen ghosts. I’ll tell ya one interesting story about Heaven’s Gate: the owner of the property put me in charge of everything basically, and I took the media through the house on a tour, and every single person I took through the property, I would take them through the house and we saw where the bunk beds were, and at the end of every single tour I said, “What’d you think? Were you OK with that?” Because a lot of people were nervous or creeped out about the whole thing. And I swear to you every single person said the same thing: “Oh, I was fine with it, except for this one room where I felt creepy.” And everyone identified the same room. I kept that to myself, but the room everyone was referring to was a room where there were four bodies, two bunk beds with four bodies. There was no blood in the room, there was nothing — you gotta understand, there were 39 bodies in the house, so there were bodies in every single room, so there wasn’t anything special about that particular room, but everyone said that who I took through the house.
Why are these properties not just razed?
That’s s a question that comes up all the time. The answer is when you bulldoze a property, you have not bulldozed the stigma. The stigma is attached to the land. I’ll give you an example: Megan Kanka, the little girl in Megan’s Law — [the law requiring sex offenders to register for a public database] house was bulldozed, now it’s a park. Jeffrey Dahmer’s property was bulldozed and that land — I was just there two months ago and it’s still vacant. Think of it this way: have you been to a Civil War site around the country? You go there and you don’t see any bodies or cannons or swords, but because what happened on that land is so profound and important, the land is considered sacred to so many people. It’s the same with crime scenes. The stigma is attached to the land: you can bulldoze, but you can’t get rid of the stigma.
Is that the case even in cities like San Francisco or New York, where land is at a very high premium?
That’s a good point, because you have different effects in the rural, suburban, and urban markets. In New York, Chicago, L.A., there are lots of properties where crimes have been committed and they don’t bulldoze and life goes on. But in cases where people have bulldozed the property — I’ll give you another example. I worked on the Sharon Tate property. That property was bulldozed, and I’m telling you, tourists still go by that property to this day. So bulldozing doesn’t accomplish anything, really. The Heaven’s Gate mansion was bulldozed completely — the fences, the driveway, every tree — and they rebuilt on it, and people point to the property to this day, and say, “That was the Heaven’s Gate mansion.” O.J.’s house was bulldozed, but when I was there they had the tennis court and the guest house was left. So I’m generally against bulldozing, because it doesn’t get rid of the stigma.
What do you think you’ve learned about the human condition as a result of doing this work?
I’ve thought a lot about that. I started my career in the 1980s as a numbers guy. I can do the research and calculate the numbers well. But I’ve gotten to know the people behind the statistics, and that’s really had a life-altering effect on me, and frankly, the people behind the statistics are more interesting.
“I’ve gotten to know the people behind the statistics, and that’s really had a life-altering effect.”
What do you mean by that?
Well, I worked on the Bikini Atoll weapons test sites, where the U.S. government detonated bombs, and in that case I got an award for my clients for $2 million so they could rebuild their community, so that’s pretty fulfilling. I think Buddha had it half right. He said life is suffering. And I think life is really better described as a blend of joy and suffering, and we need to learn to embrace both of them. Because then your quality of life will suffer as a consequence.
You said before you weren’t really a macabre guy, but talking to you…I mean, you’re very cheerful for someone who sees the byproduct of so many horrific crimes. What would you say you’ve learned about yourself as a result of doing this job?
I have a high threshold for drama, for some reason. I really do. I volunteer with prisoners at San Quentin and at Orange County jail. For some reason, I’m able to handle a high level of trauma. That being said, I don’t look at the macabre. I look at my whole career built around helping people through really tough situations, because while people are freaking out and are in total shock and their lives are destroyed, I can walk in and because I’m acclimated to this, I’m able to give them sound advice and sound information to help them through it, at least in part, and in some way make their life a little bit better and take some of the stress off them. I’m not there to gawk at the murders and suicides, but I love helping people through really tough times. It’s kinda like a fireman helping people in horrible auto accidents. I’m there to help. I’m not there to gawk and stare and be a voyeur.
Correction: This article previously stated that Lizzie Borden’s house is in Rhode Island. It is in Fall River, Massachusetts.