Before the Lutz family made the house famous in The Amityville Horror, Ronald DeFeo Jr. shot and killed his entire family while they slept in their beds.
Meet the man who helped sell the Heaven’s Gate mansion, Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment building, the Sharon Tate property, and other notorious real estate.
Randall Bell shows a bloodstain at the mansion of the Heaven’s Gate cult
Randall Bell, known as the “Appraiser of Doom” and the “Master of Disaster,” spent years evaluating commercial property in Southern California in the 1980s when the routine started to get dull. That’s when he decided to work on more interesting properties. That decision has lead him to work on some of the most infamous crime scenes in the country, including the mansion where 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed suicide in 1997 to hitch a ride with the alien spacecraft hiding inside the Hale-Bopp comet.
“With Heaven’s Gate, I waited till after they finished taking out the bodies,” Bell recently told Rolling Stone. “But when I went in, I just wanted to barf because it smelled so bad. There had been bodies decomposing for three days, and there was blood all over the place — blood on the carpet and the marble, all throughout the house.”
Over the years Bell and his firm Landmark Research has been called in to appraise a variety of damaged real estate such as Bikini Atoll, where the US tested nuclear weapons in the 1940s and 50s, the World Trade Center, the federal building bombed by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City, Hiroshima, Columbine, Chernobyl, and all manner of natural and man-made disasters.
As far as crime scenes go, Bell has helped determine the value of property carrying the stigma of the country’s most well-known murders. Bell has worked on Sharon Tate’s house where the Manson Family murdered her and her guests in 1969, the JonBenét Ramsey house, the OJ and Nicole Brown Simpson crime scene, the Menendez house, Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment building in Milwaukee, and numerous other lower profile cases.
Bell was even among the first people allowed in the Los Feliz murder mansion 50 years after a doctor murdered his wife there. The group he was with conducted a seance while inside the home.
The Loz Feliz murder mansion
Bell says a crime scene generally sells for 10-25% loss of value.
“The Lizzie Borden house in Rhode Island, that property, they monetized that crime, if you will,” Bell says. “They have bed and breakfasts and you can sleep in the room where Lizzie Borden’s mother was murdered with an ax for hundreds of dollars a night. But as a general rule, those kinds of things don’t happen.”
So how does he determine value?
Bell uses a list of over 400 items in 10 classifications known as the Bell Chart. Items which may devalue a property include zoning changes, terrorism, contamination, landslides, and crime.
“The first rule I got is you gotta be realistic,” Bell says. “Trying to make the value go up is tough. With Neverland, that’s never gonna turn into Graceland because it’s simply too remote. You look for any opportunity, but generally speaking, a crime scene is not gonna become a museum or tourist attraction. What I’m trying to do is mitigate the damage. I’m trying to make the best I can out of a bad situation, recognizing that it’s not gonna be normal or have a normal return. You’re just trying to minimize the losses. We divide everything into 3 categories: cost, use and risk. The costs are the cleanup costs of the blood or the bullet holes or what have you. In one case, Satan worshippers were coming into the house and they started a fire inside the garage in a Satanic ritual, so those all have costs. The second element of use means the house isn’t being normally used, so there’s a way to calculate the loss of use. And the word ‘risk’ is synonymous with stigma, which means there’s a resistance on part of the market to pay full value.”
In the case of Dahmer’s apartment building, however, Bell says the property actually sold for a profit.
The empty lot where Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment building once stood in Milwaukee
“When he was arrested, at the same time, coincidentally, there was a group called Campus Circle, and they were trying to buy up all the housing in the area that was crime-ridden where Dahmer lived and create more student housing in Marquette University.”
Bell says the Dahmer building was throwing a wrench in Campus Circle’s plans, so they bought the property. “The owner of the apartment complex knew they were highly motivated and he held out for a premium.”
Today, the building is a vacant lot surrounded by a fence. Sharon Tate’s home and the Heaven’s Gate mansion were also razed. But the locations still draw curious visitors.
Sharon Tate’s home being torn down in 1994
“I worked on the Sharon Tate property. That property was bulldozed, and I’m telling you, tourists still go by that property to this day,” Bell told Rolling Stone. “So bulldozing doesn’t accomplish anything, really. The Heaven’s Gate mansion was bulldozed completely — the fences, the driveway, every tree — and they rebuilt on it, and people point to the property to this day, and say, ‘That was the Heaven’s Gate mansion.'”
While Bell doesn’t believe in ghosts, he says there was something strange at the Heaven’s Gate estate. While conducting tours with the media, people always said they felt unease in one particular room.
“Everyone identified the same room,” Bell says. “I kept that to myself, but the room everyone was referring to was a room where there were four bodies, two bunk beds with four bodies. There was no blood in the room, there was nothing — you gotta understand, there were 39 bodies in the house, so there were bodies in every single room, so there wasn’t anything special about that particular room, but everyone said that who I took through the house.”
Bodies being removed from the Heaven’s Gate estate
For more about Randall Bell’s experiences, how to appraise a crime scene, and how to scare off Satan worshippers read the Rolling Stone interview right here.