Grisly houses

Feb. 27, 2009

By Jacob Quinn Sanders
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

This is the first time anyone remembers seeing the small, white, ranch house stand empty for this long since it was built in 1940.

The house at 4910 Club Road sits behind a long front yard on a quiet, skinny street in Little Rock’s Heights neighborhood, with a little for-sale-by-owner sign flush against the street carrying only a handwritten phone number and secured with a brick.

One morning in October, this house became the epicenter of the city’s collective attention, reaching bloody prominence as the place where television news anchor Anne Pressly was sexually assaulted and beaten. She died in a Little Rock hospital five days later.

Dick and Debra Flowers first offered the rental house for sale a few weeks after Little Rock police investigators finished with it and after Pressly’s mother and stepfather turned in the keys.

“It’s not that we really wanted to be rid of it,” said Debra Flowers, who lives next door and has owned the house since November 1999. “It’s financial necessity. We just can’t keep it in this kind of economic climate.”

She and her husband, a state-licensed real estate appraiser, have not advertised the house. They just put up the sign out front with the phone number on it.

“It’s what we’ve done with all our properties we’ve sold over the years,” she said. “Always the same way. And, of course, this time, we really didn’t want the attention. I mean, Anne was a friend.”

Even when she rented out the house, people would often hear about it becoming vacant through word of mouth.

“Most of the time, I never even had to put the sign out,” Flowers said. “I can’t recall it ever being unoccupied, even before we bought it.”

Flowers declined to say how much she hoped to get for the house. It has 1,200 square feet, hardwood floors, plenty of windows, two bedrooms and maybe a tiny third, or maybe an office. She paid $124,000 for it. Pulaski County assessor’s records show it with an assessed value today of $236,340.

Real estate experts have a term for a property where something macabre occurred in its past: “Psychologically impacted.”

The term appears in Arkansas Code Annotated 17-10-101, which says specifically that no one must disclose whether a homicide, suicide or felony is even suspected to have occurred on a piece of property. Arkansas is one of at least 20 states that shield real estate agents from legal action for failing to disclose such information.

The National Association of Realtors has no national guidelines on the subject, citing differences in state laws, but recommends disclosure in general. California, for example, is rare in requiring such disclosure if the macabre event happened within three years of the offer to buy.

Such a history affects less the sale price than how long the house takes to sell. A 2001 survey of 102 real estate agents in Ohio published in the Journal of Real Estate Practice and Education found that houses with grisly associations sold for 3 percent less on average but sat on the market 45 percent longer. In Ohio, agents are not required to disclose such associations but are not protected from lawsuits on those grounds.

But even considering such data, there is no telling what could scare off a potential buyer.

“There’s a lot of gray area around the issue,” said Danny Been, a Little Rock real estate agent who on occasion researches disclosure issues for the Arkansas Realtors Association. “Under the law, I’m not required to disclose something like a murder. But I am required to disclose anything that I believe would have a material effect on the value of a home.”

Often, it comes down to a buyer’s tastes and personality.

“Some buyers, having something messy happen in the past would have no impact at all on them,” Been said. “Other buyers, it makes all the difference in the world. So it’s still better that they hear it from me than from their new neighbors when they move in.”

The stigma that some attach to a property can make it much harder to sell.

“Near impossible, sometimes,” Been said. “Near impossible.”

It isn’t every potential buyer, however, who minds the building’s past.

Tommy Farrell, a Little Rock custom furniture designer, bought the low, brick house across from Allsopp Park where Janie Ballard’s daughter stabbed her more than 70 times in September 2003.

“The first time I saw it, it still had the yellow tape around it,” he said.

It was after his divorce and he was living in the Rivercliff Apartments not too far away, on the other side of Cantrell Road, he said. He wanted a place where his children would have more space to play. Growing up in the borough of Brooklyn in New York City taught Farrell, 54, not to worry too much about a house’s history.

He paid $138,000, according to property records, which he said was the full asking price. He chose not to haggle, he said, because he knew the money would go to help care for Ballard’s ailing mother.

“Bad design and location are to me far more dire,” he said. “Look, people go to the hospital all the time, and I guarantee, if you’re in a bed there, someone probably had something go very wrong for them in the same bed. For me, if it’s a great house, it’s a great house. My kids still just love it.”

Amber Henson-Minton, 32, learned the history of the looming gray Victorian on South Main Street where she lives a different way.

“When I first saw it, there was nothing on the windows, very little furniture, and a whole lot to do,” she said.

Her husband, Paul Minton, bought the house for $44,000 in 1999 after a tornado ripped through the neighborhood. Henson-Minton painted, added curtains, put up wallpaper. Not long afterward, she started a company, A Party To Go Go, which rented out the house for special events.

“I kept calling it the Beach house, the Beach house, because the man it was built for in 1882 was named Beach,” she said. “But people started correcting me, saying, no, that’s the Markle house.”

On a thundering night in November 1987, a futures trader for Stephens Inc. named John Markle put on an old-man Halloween mask and used three guns and 14 shots to kill his wife, their two daughters and himself inside the house.

Markle was the son of Hollywood actress Mercedes McCambridge, who won a best-supporting actress Oscar for All the King’s Men and provided the demon-child’s voice in The Exorcist. Markle had been fired from Stephens the Friday before — the 13th — for mismanaging accounts.

“I asked my husband who the Markles were, and he wouldn’t tell me,” Henson-Minton said. “He knew. But he made me go look it up on the Internet.”

She and her husband moved into the house full time several years ago.

“It doesn’t bother me at all,” she said. “It was more my house already when I found out. And in a weird way, I think it helped with the party business. People knew and just wanted to be inside the house.”

Flowers has not seen such curiosity in the house she rented to Pressly. Of the dozen or two dozen people who have inquired about the house, she said, none seemed to want to get inside just to have been there.

“I am so grateful for that,” she said.

She said she tells everyone to whom she shows the house about what happened there in October. She doesn’t want to hide from it.

“The sticking point so far, actually, has been price,” she said. “Some people just aren’t used to Heights pricing.”

And though some attention is good — drawing possible buyers — she doesn’t want too much of it.

“I’m sorry we haven’t called you back,” she said, standing just inside her partially closed front door. “We just want things to get back to normal.”

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