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There’s a Stigma to His Job, Which Proves Profitable

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Randall Bell is a master of disaster.

He doesn’t create catastrophes; he just studies their aftermath.

In the first moments after an earthquake, flood, fire, high-profile murder or suicide, Bell’s brain is shifting into overdrive as he begins calculating the financial--as well as the physical--damage to a home.

Small wonder that some friends and associates have christened him Dr. Disaster.

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A real estate analyst, Bell, 38, has spent the past few years carefully crafting a niche for himself as a stigma specialist.

His clients have included the owners of the mansion where 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed suicide; the condominium where Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered; the house where 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was killed; and the estate where the Charles Manson gang murdered five people.

Bell’s job is to do what he can to erase the negative images or memories so that the owner can sell the tainted property for something close to its original price.

That can mean a major make-over, such as replacing carpeting, tile, wallpaper. Or it can be as simple as getting the house temporarily occupied so that it looks lived in.

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“I don’t want to get graphic here,” Bell said. “But you have to remember that in some of these cases, we’re talking about crime scenes in which there has been a lot of property damage, blood all over the place, other things people don’t want to know about. Even just the smell of death. You’re talking about quite a stigma there.”

In some cases, he has gone so far as to suggest that a client change the address of the home, to make it harder for the public to ascertain whether it is the same property that they saw in news reports.

The field, he says, is virtually untapped.

“There was a time period not very long ago when I was taking on assignments that had to do with the L.A. riots and the Northridge earthquake, and I was trying to find an authoritative body of literature that would address the spectrum of issues surrounding incidents like these,” Bell said. “There was no such body of work.”

He said there wasn’t even a name under which to classify the incidents. And that’s when he hit upon an idea.

“I figured, hey, I’d just give them a name myself, write up my own charts, do research,” he said. “I decided to call them detrimental conditions.”

Then he went a step further and published “Bell’s Guide, The Comprehensive Real Estate Handbook.” He devoted one chapter to detrimental conditions, listing 255 categories, including volcanoes, earthquakes, toxic waste and faulty foundations. He copyrighted his disaster ranking system and conducts seminars nationwide.

His consultant fees average about $250 an hour.

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“Randy’s work is not cheap, but he’s worth it,” said Sam Koutchesfahani, a real estate investor and the owner of the Heaven’s Gate mansion.

“After the situation that took place in my home, there was nobody else out there who seemed to know what to do with the property,” which Koutchesfahani wants to sell. “He had the foresight I desperately needed.”

Bell’s advice included telling Koutchesfahani to move into the home while it is on the market.

Bell said his work is never tedious.

“I can honestly say that what I do for a living is absolutely fascinating,” he said.

After years of working for himself, Bell recently took an analyst job with Price Waterhouse. But this analyst has one trait that may make him a standout in his circles: He won’t accept fees from clients who have been victims of crimes.

“No,” he said, shaking his head emphatically. “I could never accept money from people who have had their hearts ripped out.”

He’s reluctant to discuss one of those clients, Lou Brown of Dana Point, the father of Nicole Brown Simpson. But he will say he did some consultant work on the home after her death and accepted no fees for it.

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“Out of respect for the Brown family, I don’t talk much about the work I did,” he said.

Only two pieces of property he has worked with probably will never have buyers, Bell said: the land where Jeffrey Dahmer’s now razed apartment building once stood and where he killed and ate his victims, and the Boulder, Colo., home of JonBenet Ramsey, who was killed one year ago this month.

“There is an empty lot now where Dahmer’s apartment once was” Bell said. “I’ve stood across the street from that property and watched people literally walk across the street from that side, go a few steps and then walk back across the street so that they don’t have to even touch their feet to that soil.

“As for the Ramsey house, any time such a horrific act is committed against a child, it will be extremely difficult to sell that property.”

Bell is booked solid for 1998 and turns down several jobs a week.

But he’s pretty confident that the work will always be there.

“Well, at least as long as I’m living in this state, there will be plenty of work,” he said. “You know, California is just a disaster heaven.”


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