When tragedy knocks on the same door


It is a two-story red-brick Colonial with green shutters and a large pot of yellow flowers, a cozy home at the edge of a wooded suburb of winding streets and low crime.

Only the yellow “Police Line — Do Not Cross” tape tied from tree to tree around the house at 9337 Columbia Blvd. suggests the horrors that took place inside.

In the summer of 2002, a man came through a kitchen window and beat and shot 9-year-old Erika Smith. Her father, George Russell, was shot eight times as he tried to save her. Their killer, who made off with $3, was sentenced to life in prison.

The house sat empty until middle school teacher Brian Betts bought it for $234,000 a year later. When a neighbor mentioned the grisly murders, Betts called his real estate agent, Therese Cox.

“He said he couldn’t live there; it was too horrible,” she said.

So Cox arranged for two ministers to perform an exorcism, her first in 24 years of selling homes. Betts remodeled the kitchen, hosted barbecues on his new deck and settled in.

Betts won accolades and awards for his creative teaching programs, and his star rose. Two years ago, he was named principal of a middle school in a mostly poor urban community in Washington, D.C. By all accounts, he was beloved there.

On April 15 of this year, Betts didn’t show up for work. A co-worker went to the house and found the 42-year-old educator shot to death inside. Police have arrested five suspects, and say the motive appears to have been robbery.

The only link with the earlier deaths is the location. But that raises a question: What do you do with a notorious house?

Some are demolished. O.J. Simpson’s former Brentwood mansion was bulldozed and replaced. The bungalow above Bel-Air where Charles Manson’s “family” butchered Sharon Tate and four others was torn down. So was the apartment building in Milwaukee where serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer lured and stored his victims.

Cox, the real estate agent, said the law in Maryland, as in most states, bars her from telling a potential buyer of murders, suicides or other incidents that might lower a property’s value unless the client specifically asks. Few do, she said.

“Once you clean up the house, and get rid of the evidence, and make it sparkle like any other house for sale, you move on,” she said. “It’s over.”

But Patrick Grace, another local agent, said he wouldn’t handle the murder house.

“With the stigma attached to it, and the fact it’s happened twice, I’d be afraid to touch it,” he said. “The chances of getting sued over whether you did or didn’t disclose are just not worth it.”

So is the house cursed? Helen Bowers, a high school student who knew Betts, considered the question as she peered over the fluttering police tape and knee-high weeds on the once neat lawn.

“Cursed? No,” she said. “Unlucky? Maybe. Sad? Definitely.”

Dan Kelly, a financial salesman who lives next door, figures the worst is probably over.

“I have to hope that a third time is just not a possibility,” he said. “But you never know.”

Indeed, not long after Betts’ slaying, Kelly found a drug-addled man had stumbled into his living room, where his young children were having a party. The man was eating a Pop-Tart.

“I called the cops,” he said. “I didn’t even hang up the phone and they were on the front porch because of the address.”