The murder of a Beverly Hills real estate agent who was holding an open house in an affluent West Los Angeles neighborhood has triggered widespread concern about the dangers of the business--particularly the vulnerability of women agents.
From Beverly Hills to Brentwood to Newport Beach, brokers and sales managers have responded with fear and anxiety to realtor Elaine Siegel's being stabbed to death--and with stories of other crimes on the front lines of the residential realty industry.
In some cases, agents arrived home the night of the murder July 14 to find their answering machines filled with messages from unnerved colleagues. One Beverly Hills broker called the owner of a large, vacant house she was showing later that week to request a security guard. In an office in Newport Beach, women agents talked of arming themselves with Mace and of getting pocketbook-sized alarms.
While most realty agents said they had not heard of anyone canceling open houses, some thought there would be fewer showings during the next few weeks.
"But I think this will change," said Betty Lethe, vice president and sales manager of Fred Sands Estates in Beverly Hills. "You may not see as many open house signs with flags and directional balloons."
Lethe also speculated that the murder could generate another problem: sellers not wanting women agents to hold open houses for fear of potential liability.
Although some local real estate executives said they will hold safety seminars for their agents, the president of the California Assn. of Realtors said he does not believe such steps are needed.
"Believe me, an incident like this causes so much discussion about security and safety that the incident itself will do what is necessary," said CAR President Chuck Lamb, noting that his group has no plans for a safety program.
What has rattled many agents' nerves are the circumstances of Siegel's death. Siegel, a 48-year-old broker with Alvarez, Hyland & Young, was stabbed to death during the traditional Tuesday brokers' open house, a time when dozens of agents were scheduled to see the property she was showing--a ranch-style house listed at $795,000 in Coldwater Canyon.
Los Angeles police speculate that Siegel, whose body was found in a back bedroom by another agent, may have interrupted a burglary, although detective Lee Kingsford declined further comment. Police have identified a sandwich deliveryman, Anthony Pacheo, as the prime suspect in the slaying.
Among the half dozen women agents and office managers interviewed for this story, there remains a definite mood of unease. All said that Siegel's slaying would make them and other women agents they know more cautious in their work.
"I think it's a very dangerous situation these days because if somebody calls to see a house, how do you know who they are? Nobody knows," said Pat Hug of the Daleabout Co. in Newport Beach, and a realtor since 1963.
"I never did approve of open houses," she said. "And, after what happened there, I don't think anybody should ever go in an open house unless you have someone with you."
Even then, she said, she will still feel less safe.
One agent, after saying she didn't feel particularly scared about holding open houses in the murder's wake, called back a reporter to ask that her name not be used. Her husband, who was nervous about her safety even before the murder, was worried that something might happen to her.
"If somebody is reading the paper and they see there's this girl, 30 years old, and she's not concerned, then they might call the office and find out which house I'm showing," she said.
Some brokers, in coping with Siegel's murder, have been reassuring themselves and soothing their jitters by trying to view the crime as an isolated event--a matter of Siegel being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"There was some concern whether this was an attack on realtors, of whom a majority are women," said Gregg Pawlik, president of the Los Angeles Board of Realtors, "or whether this was just a random situation. And that seems most likely."
"Everyone was really horrified that one of our own was killed," added Lethe of Fred Sands. "But we all have to be aware in this society that this is just what life is. She was not the target."
Just how frequently crimes occur during open houses is difficult to determine. The LAPD does not keep such statistics. Neither do state and local realty trade groups because "there just aren't that many" crimes, said Pawlik of the Los Angeles board.
Still, despite the lack of crime statistics, nearly every woman agent interviewed knew of a colleague who'd been the victim of a crime while on the job. And one sales manager said she knows several agents who take their husbands or sons when they're showing a vacant house.
"I know that it has gone on (where agents have been assaulted or raped)," said one longtime broker, who asked that her name not be used. "One woman I know refuses to talk about it. Somebody came into an open house and she was there by herself. She was assaulted one time and raped another time."
Linda Berg, manager of the Prudential California Realty in Brentwood, mentioned several incidents: a woman in her office who was raped in an open house some years ago, a Brentwood agent who was held up at gunpoint and robbed of her jewelry three or four months ago.
Berg, who trains new agents in safety procedures, also said that 10 to 15 years ago, a woman agent was killed while showing a home somewhere in Mandeville Canyon. Although police could not confirm it because their records don't go back that far, "that doesn't mean it didn't happen," said detective Kingsford of the West Los Angeles Division.
Edie Anderson, public affairs director for the L.A. Board of Realtors, said that a few days after Siegel's murder a woman agent told her that it's not unusual to enter a vacant house and find vagrants. "She's opened up houses where there's sleeping rolls and cigarette butts all over," she said.
If anything positive has come of Siegel's death, some agents said, it may be that it has brought to light industry practices that some women charge expose them to danger.
Brokers typically know nothing about their clients, for instance, and aren't encouraged to ask. "It's the only business where somebody can come into your office and ask to see a . . . $3-million house and you have no way of verifying who that person is," said Cecelia Waeschle, an agent with Prudential/Rodeo Realty in Beverly Hills.
Waeschle recalled what she described as a "classic story" of a couple posing as potential buyers who wanted to be shown a large estate. "They said they were getting some inheritance from back east. They came, and the house was vacant. They asked if they could use the pool, so I called the owner who said it was OK. Then they ordered take-out because they wanted to see what it felt like eating by the pool."
When Waeschle tried to contact the couple later, the number they had given her was a pay phone at the beach in Santa Monica. "Many, many times we take buyers out that are really just looking at a house," she said. "They may have heard someone famous lives there. We see the kookiest people."
Police suggest that real estate agents need to take safety precautions. Rape awareness classes, self-defense courses, warning devices, walking around the house to see if there's evidence of a break-in and carrying a portable phone are a few of the things agents can do to protect themselves.
"But by far the best thing is having two people there," said Sgt. Christopher West, head of the LAPD's Crime Prevention Unit.
As for the impact Siegel's murder may have on behavior, most of the women say it will change how they do business. Some plan to do fewer open houses. Others won't show a house that is vacant or show it alone. "I will sit with someone now when I sit in an open house," said Waeschle, an agent since 1980. "That's for sure."