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REGIONAL REPORT : A Haunting History : Houses With Murderous Pasts Fail to Scare Away Buyers, Renters

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sometimes, in the dead of night, when Cecil Luna is stirred by strange noises, he stalks the shadowy yard outside his rented Glendale home.

Luna takes no chances at the tiny house with a murderous past.

One moonlit summer night in 1985, an elderly couple was slain inside the Stanley Avenue home. Maxson and Lela Kneiding were shot, stabbed and beaten by Richard Ramirez, the notorious Night Stalker, who was convicted of these and 11 other brutal slayings.

Six years after the Kneiding deaths, a wary Luna nervously occupies the house where murder has visited.

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“The killer may be in jail but there’s a lot of psychos in this city who might try to emulate him,” the forklift operator said.

Southern California, with its propensity for violence, is home to many abodes where murder has come calling--from 1920s-era Santa Barbara bungalows and glamorous houses in the Hollywood Hills to dusty dwellings in San Bernardino and mountain-view mansions in San Diego.

But in the real estate-crazy Southland, scores of would-be home buyers have proved willing to forgive a house for its deadly past--in return for a bargain. Often reduced in price to lure buyers, some “murder houses” have been snapped up at costs well below their market value, buyers and sellers say. Renters, such as Luna, also have found their share of deals.

“If the price is right, it doesn’t matter what happened at the house--whether it’s murder or there’s a train running through it--people will buy it,” said Randy Glick, a Santa Barbara realtor marketing a home where a 35-year-old man recently killed his elderly parents.

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Real estate agents say it is by no means a certainty that bloodshed in a home will lead to bargain-basement pricing. But they say price-slashing happens often enough that it has become a fact of doing business in the Southland.

Authorities estimate that residential murders account for more than a third of the Southland’s annual killings. With rising numbers of murders in many areas--Los Angeles experienced its second-worst annual homicide tally last year with 991--houses with troubled pasts are becoming more common.

Realtors say the price break on any murder house depends on its location and the nature of the crime. Most find no shortage of potential buyers, they said.

“Of course, people are more enthusiastic over a home that’s been scene to a deadly family feud than where a stranger hacked everybody up,” said one Beverly Hills realtor who requested anonymity.

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“Buyers see these homes as true bargains in a time where there aren’t many real estate bargains anymore. Some can’t believe they’re getting a break in price for something that happened in the past. It’s not like they’ll have to spend thousands replacing the plumbing.”

And realtors say that even squeamish buyers have found ways around their reservations--such as the East Indian couple who performed a seance to drive evil spirits from a Los Angeles house where a murder had occurred.

When offered a savings of $25,000, David and Elizabeth McDaniel of San Diego did not think twice about their 1987 home purchase--even after learning that the former owner had killed his wife there.

“We don’t look for ghosts,” said Elizabeth McDaniel. “I feel very comfortable in this house. I just look at it as another family’s tragedy. But I’m glad we were told about the history so we knew what we were getting into.”

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In recent years, California law has ensured that home buyers are supplied with information of a death or murder that might influence their enthusiasm for a property.

After a 1984 case in which a Nevada County woman sued a home seller for not informing her of a 10-year-old double-killing, a state appeals judge held that sellers have a legal duty to disclose murder if it can be established that the killing was material to the sale of a home.

But the decision left questions. How far back should sellers go in divulging the skeletons in a home’s closet, they ask. In 1987, a new state civil code was passed that has been interpreted as requiring sellers to disclose murders that occurred less than three years before.

“But some older killings are so heinous and so notorious that it’s crazy not to divulge them,” said Diana Brookes, a regional manager for the Jon Douglas Co., a Southland real estate brokerage. “We figure it’s best to be upfront with people.”

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Although pleased with their real estate bargains, some buyers of murder houses eventually find they got more than they bargained for.

Suspicious neighbors refuse to approach their door. Some are contacted by relatives of the victims--often sons and daughters compelled to return to the scene of a parent’s death.

“Not long ago, a woman who lived here as a child knocked on my door and asked if she could show her son the home where his grandparents died,” said Faye Cudeback, who lives in a Torrance home where a despondent realtor fatally shot his wife and then himself 20 years ago.

Many residents develop a morbid curiosity about the murders. But not Luna. “I don’t want to know any more details,” he said.

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Others have been discomforted by what they discover.

Elizabeth McDaniel admitted she knew few details of how David Swingle killed his wife. She learned from a reporter that the 57-year-old man had called police after attacking his 65-year-old spouse with an ax in the living room of the home.

When a dispatcher asked if the woman was dead, Swingle replied: “No, she moved. Can you hold on for a minute?” As the dispatcher waited on the line, Swingle struck his wife twice more with the ax and returned to the phone, according to police. “She’s dead now,” he said.

Swingle was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a psychiatric hospital.

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In an interview, after learning details of the killing, McDaniel said: “I shouldn’t have asked. But it’s better to know he’s in a mental hospital. It’s harder to get out of there than be released from prison, right?”

After 18 months, Brian Leonard has come to terms with the gory past of his murder house. The 35-year-old pool worker rents the former Wonderland Avenue home where four people were brutally slain in the so-called Laurel Canyon murders.

In 1981, the victims were attacked with pipes and a baseball bat in a mass killing authorities say exposed the ruthless side of the Hollywood drug world. Nightclub owner Eddie Nash, his bodyguard, Gregory DeWitt Diles, and the late porno star John Holmes were tried in the case and acquitted.

“Sometimes, I sit in my living room and imagine where so-and-so must have died,” Leonard said. “Frankly, it gives me the creeps. But I’m getting a $400 break in rent, so I’m staying put.”

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One day, Leonard was startled to encounter the body of a man lying on the front steps of his home. It turned out that the “body” was just a tourist posing for a snapshot in front of the infamous home, he said.

An Anaheim dentist and his wife own perhaps one of the most infamous murder houses of them all. Seven years ago, Irineo and Tina Yuvienco purchased the LaBianca house, site of one of the most gruesome killings in Southland history.

On the night of Aug. 10, 1969--in the Spanish-style home in Los Feliz--grocery executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, were hacked to death by members of the Charles Manson family cult. Leno LaBianca was stabbed 26 times with knives and a carving fork.

The killers stabbed his wife 41 times and scrawled messages on the walls and refrigerator with the couple’s blood.

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The Yuviencos knew the whole gory story. But they liked the sweeping view from the back yard. Besides, they got the place for $200,000, tens of thousands less than market value.

“Nobody would buy the home because of the killings,” Tina Yuvienco said. “We figured it was historical--like the Ambassador Hotel where Robert Kennedy was killed.”

She dismisses the maniacal violence that once took place in her living room. “We’re both in the medical profession so death and killing and suffering mean little to us--we’ve seen it all before,” said the former nurse.

The couple worries less about ghosts of yesterday than the thrill-seekers of today.

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Strangers wander onto the property to take pictures, peer inside windows, ask the same tired questions. Often, Tina Yuvienco feels like a tour guide.

“Former owners even changed the address to throw people off,” she said. “We’re building a gate to keep people out. These days, you can’t trust anyone--especially in this house.”


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