One family hoped their new home might bring a fresh start.
But the house held secrets that would cause them years of heartache.
In the spring of 2006, following a long illness, Frank Milliken died in his home. His family—his wife, Janet, and their two children, Ryan and Kendra—took the death hard. For three years, they’d watched Frank slowly waste away from pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable disease that causes the lungs to thicken and scar, blocking the flow of oxygen to the blood. In the last months of his life, the illness had confined him to his bedroom. After his death, the character of the Milliken house seemed to change. Physically, it was the same: a big, comfortable rambler in Concord, California, with a red-tile roof and a copse of fruit trees in the backyard. But the house felt different. After Frank passed away, the memory of his death lingered. Janet took the kids to a hotel for a few days, but when they returned it was no better.
Months went by, and their grief persisted. Ryan, who was 14 years old at the time, was a talented baseball player, but he quit the team and began failing classes. Kendra, a vibrant, popular girl two years her brother’s junior, drew into herself. Janet began to worry that her children would be unable to heal in a place that reminded them constantly of their loss.
A year after her husband’s death, Janet Milliken flew to Pennsylvania to look at properties. Her sisters lived on the East Coast, and a new house on the other side of the country, Milliken reasoned, would offer her family a fresh start. Eventually, she settled on a stately four-bedroom colonial in Thornton, a small town outside Philadelphia. She made an offer of $610,000, and the sellers accepted. On a warm, late-summer day, the Millikens moved into 12 Pickering Trail.
Milliken was proud of her new house. It sat at the apex of a cul-de-sac in a quiet, affluent subdivision, a suburban arcadia where residents kept their doors unlocked and their lawns flawless. The house had a beautiful new kitchen and a large backyard, bordered by woodland where Ryan and Kendra could play.
A few days after moving in, the previous owner, a local man named Joseph Jacono, dropped by to ask Milliken if she needed anything. Milliken had been having trouble with the hot water, so Jacono helped her adjust the water heater in the basement. As they walked back upstairs, Jacono made a strange comment. (A comment, Milliken would recall some years later, that seemed to come out of nowhere.) Jacono said that the people who had owned the house before him had had a terrible accident. A firearm had been involved, and now three children, he told her, were orphans. Milliken felt the hair rise on the back of her neck. She thought about asking for details but didn’t.
One afternoon, not long after, Milliken introduced herself to an older woman who lived in a nearby house. The neighbor shook Milliken’s hand warmly, welcoming her to the neighborhood.
“We were all surprised that you bought it,” the woman said, giving Milliken an odd look. As the woman walked into her house, her comment hung in the air.
Milliken noticed that the house attracted a strange sort of attention. On Halloween night, she was standing on her front steps when she spotted a group of girls in costumes rounding the sidewalk outside her house.
“That’s where that thing happened,” one girl giggled. The group moved on without stopping for candy.
Milliken was growing increasingly anxious. Around this time, her family began to experience a series of strange, unsettling events that defied easy explanation. The first incident, as Milliken would later testify in a deposition, came several weeks after moving in. One afternoon she was visiting her sister Jill a few towns over when she received a call from Ryan, insisting that she come home immediately. He was still upset when she arrived. Ryan said he’d been doing homework in the kitchen when he felt someone breathing on his neck. He’d turned around and seen a man’s dark shadow move in the hallway. He had searched the house but found no one. Milliken hugged Ryan and told him that what he had felt was probably just air from the vents. Privately, she resolved to find out what was going on.
Soon after, Milliken knocked on the door of a neighbor, a divorced mother of two named Yolanda Gary.
“Did something happen in my house?” Milliken asked.
Gary started to cry. “We thought you knew,” she said.
The two women sat down on Gary’s front lawn, and Gary told Milliken the story of the last family to live at 12 Pickering Trail.
The Koumboulis family, Gary said, were good neighbors, though they kept to themselves. They declined to participate in the neighborhood’s Labor Day parade and watched the fireworks display from their front steps, apart from the crowd. Konstantinos, a restaurant owner, and his wife, Georgia, had been 12 Pickering Trail’s first occupants. They had purchased the house in 1993, just after it was built, and raised three children in it, two boys and a girl, as well as nine cats and three dogs. The children rode bikes in the cul-de-sac. Yolanda and Georgia grew close, and Georgia confided that her marriage was troubled. By the end of 2005, the couple were sleeping in separate rooms, and Georgia was speaking with an attorney about divorce.
On the morning of February 11, 2006, neighbors awoke to the sound of gunshots. When police arrived, they found Georgia and Konstantinos dead in the master bedroom. Georgia lay on the floor, shot in the face and back. She was fully clothed but barefoot, suggesting that she’d been attacked while dressing. Konstantinos lay on the bed, a pistol in his right hand. Yolanda walked outside to find news trucks and police cars filling the cul-de-sac. After a brief investigation, police ruled the deaths a murder-suicide. (The Koumboulises’ 11-year-old son, a police report noted, had walked in and witnessed the incident.) The children were sent to live in a Greek Orthodox orphanage. The animals went temporarily unclaimed. For days neighbors heard them howling in the vacant house.
Over the next six months, the property sat empty. The deaths had traumatized the neighborhood, and residents were eager for a new family to move in. Finally, in September 2006, the house went up for sale at auction. It was purchased by a local family, the Jaconos, for $450,000, significantly less than the price of comparable homes in the area. The Jaconos spent nine months renovating the house and put it back on the market at a 40 percent markup. Several weeks later, Milliken came from California and placed her bid. Gary was still mourning the loss of her friend Georgia when the Millikens moved in. She had hoped new neighbors would help her move on.
The night after Gary told her what had happened, Milliken lay awake in her bed thinking about Ryan and Kendra. She had taken them 3,000 miles across the country to escape a house haunted by death. Her new home was supposed to be a refuge. Instead, she had delivered them into a house with an even more difficult history. The only thing to do, she decided, was move.
At first, Milliken was hopeful that she would simply be able to give the house back. After all, when she showed her home in Concord, she was legally required to inform interested parties of her husband’s passing. One buyer, in fact, backed out shortly after making an offer, citing the death as a deterrent.
But when she contacted the Jaconos, they refused. Milliken consulted a local lawyer, Timothy Rayne, who specialized in personal-injury lawsuits. Rayne thought that Milliken had a pretty good case. What jury couldn’t feel sympathetic toward a grieving widow raising two children? Moreover, Rayne knew that Pennsylvania law requires sellers to disclose a property’s major defects. Failure to do so would mean that sale of the house could be rescinded. In November 2008, Milliken filed a lawsuit against the Jaconos in the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas. Her request for a jury trial was denied, meaning Milliken would not be allowed to take the stand in court. Arguments would be heard only by a judge.
Meanwhile, in preliminary motions, the Jaconos’ attorneys pointed out that Pennsylvania law requires the seller of a house to disclose only “material” defects—things like water damage or termite infestation. What was material about the memory of a murder, they asked. And what proof was there that a grisly past could even affect a house’s present value? Surely lots of old houses had had deaths occur in them—the Koumboulis property was no different. What the Jaconos had failed to disclose, essentially, was a ghost story.
In early 2010, when court proceedings had dragged on for a year and a half, Milliken received a phone call from Rayne, who said that he knew of someone who could help them. He had found a real estate expert with an odd kind of specialty: appraising properties where murders and other horrific incidents had occurred. He had worked on cases like this before and was willing to fly out to advise them. His nickname, Rayne said, was the Master of Disaster.
In 1992, a young real estate appraiser named Randall Bell bought a house in Laguna Niguel, California. Shortly after Bell and his family moved in, the house—a spacious four-bedroom Tudor with sweeping views of the San Joaquin Hills—began suffering a series of minor domestic catastrophes. First the soil under Bell’s home expanded, fracturing the foundation. Next the slope on the west side of his property began a slow, gravitational creep, pulling down the hillside. Environmental hazards sprang up: a nearby sewage-treatment plant announced that it would expand its foul-smelling facilities, while the local military base proposed a plan to accept commercial aircraft, creating a new flight path for jumbo jets directly over Bell’s house. Finally, one morning, Bell was awoken by a small earthquake and walked outside to find a large crack in the shallow end of his pool.
Bell was not alone in his distress. Around that time, all of Southern California, in fact, seemed to be under assault. From his front steps, Bell watched wildfires incinerate the El Dorado National Forest and Laguna Beach. Up the coast, in Malibu, heavy rain caused rivers to overrun their banks and flood homes. In the orchards of Bakersfield, a cold snap wiped out the citrus harvest. Earthquakes rattled the San Fernando Valley. A landslide in Anaheim Hills forced dozens out of their homes. A sinkhole even swallowed a well-trafficked swathe of Hollywood Boulevard.
For several years, Bell had worked at a small appraisal firm, where he evaluated mostly single-family homes and subdivisions. He was planning on moving into real estate development, where friends were making fortunes. As the damage piled up, Bell, a tall, handsome man with sandy blond hair, tan skin, and an almost pathologically easygoing disposition, began getting calls to appraise some of the properties disfigured by these disasters. Rather than abandon his profession, Bell decided to stake out a new specialty.
“I called all my clients and told them that I wasn’t going to appraise normal stuff anymore,” Bell recalled. “It had to be damaged.”
Bell found that he enjoyed the challenge of putting a price on deeply imperfect things. As he traveled around the region, he marveled at the abundant variety of misfortunes that could befall buildings and land. In addition to natural disasters, he inspected properties crippled by subtler threats like groundwater contamination, asbestos, oil spills, landfills, power lines, dam failures, and freeway expansions. To aid his appraisals, he searched for an authoritative book on the evaluation of damaged real estate. When he discovered that the topic lacked a definitive text, he decided that he would write his own.
An obsession took hold. For months, Bell made a routine of tucking his three young children into bed and retiring to his office, where he compiled a long list of every bad thing that could sap a piece of real estate of its financial value. He then organized these hazards, which he termed “detrimental conditions,” into categories. Within a year, he had created a rubric that placed each type of mayhem into one of ten classifications. These ranged from Class III Market Conditions (like a recession) to Class VIII Environmental Conditions (like the presence of mold) to Class IX Natural Conditions (like earthquakes). Each bore its own unique methodology for valuation. This way, an appraiser confronted with a damaged property could refer to the chart and find the means to properly assess it. Senseless chaos could now be organized and, more importantly, priced.
In the summer of 1993, Bell unveiled the list at a conference for real estate appraisers at Disneyland. He summed up his findings in a simple chart that he called the Detrimental Conditions Matrix. The appraiser community found Bell’s innovation immensely useful but disliked the title: they called it, simply, the Bell Chart. Bell’s client roster multiplied, and his name soon became synonymous with the strange field of study that he had effectively created.
A few months later, Bell was able to leave his job and start his own appraisal firm. Not long after, he received a phone call from a man named Lou Brown, who needed help with a condo in West Los Angeles. Brown’s daughter, Nicole, and her friend Ronald had been stabbed to death on the condo’s front walk. Nicole’s ex-husband, O.J. Simpson, stood accused of the murders. Bell, like the rest of the country, had watched the trial coverage for months. He had seen the condominium on the news so many times that he could picture its facade in his head. Brown wanted badly to sell the property, but all the media attention had made it toxic, and he couldn’t find a buyer. He needed Bell’s advice.
Soon after, Bell and Brown drove to the condo, ducked under the yellow police tape, and inspected the grounds. Bell found the scene surreal. He was struck by ordinary household objects that the sensational nature of the case had invested with a bizarre aura. On a ledge near the garage, he noticed a ring left by an ice cream cup Nicole had eaten on the night of her death. Beside her bathtub, he saw half-melted candles. He stood for a time on the walkway, scrutinizing the tiles. The condominium was unlike any property Bell had ever evaluated. There was nothing physically wrong with it—it was, by all appearances, an attractive, well-maintained residence in an exclusive neighborhood. And yet, walking through the home, Bell could think only of the murders. The property’s damage couldn’t be seen or touched, but it was real. The idea of someone living there seemed impossible.
When Bell sat down with Brown, he could see that the condo was a painful reminder of his daughter’s death. How, Brown wanted to know, could he get it off his hands? Bell thought about what made a property repellent to buyers. He realized that most people had developed a negative impression after seeing the condo in countless stories about the murders. If he could alter the condo’s appearance, thus blurring its picture in the mind’s eye, that connection might diminish. So, at Bell’s suggestion, Brown replaced the building’s much photographed facade, added trees, planted flower beds, even swapped out the street number. It was the same location, but the small aesthetic differences rendered it unrecognizable. It took another two years, but the condo eventually found a buyer, though one who paid well below the asking price.
After the condo sold, Bell parked near the property and spent several happy hours watching perplexed tourists walk up and down the street, trying and failing to find the house they’d seen so many times on TV.
The real estate industry had a term for properties with histories that make them difficult to sell: “psychologically stigmatized.” Bell realized that these kinds of properties must be everywhere. A well-publicized murder—a mass shooting, a bombing, a group suicide—would almost always taint its surroundings. An appalling act adhered itself to local architecture, clinging to surfaces like an odor. It transmuted schools and homes and businesses into mnemonics for trauma. If a memorial is a place where death is collectively recognized, a stigmatized property is a place where death remains raw and unprocessed. Looking at the world, Bell began to map a dark archipelago, scattered across the planet, to which new islands of violence were added every day.
Bell’s work on the Brown condo was mentioned in the Los Angeles Times, and the national press, desperate for a fresh angle on the Trial of the Century, pounced. News stations from all over the world contacted him for interviews. Soon he was receiving calls from other people trying to sell houses that had been the site of murders, which in turn led to requests for more interviews. The media was fascinated by Bell’s work, and Bell’s laid-back charm played well on television.
Over the next 15 years, Bell traveled all over the world, dividing his time between massive disasters and lurid scenes of tabloid horror. He examined such famously stigmatized properties as JonBenét Ramsey’s house, the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, the nuclear-weapons test sites of the Bikini Atoll, businesses looted and burned in the Rodney King riots, the California estate where actress Sharon Tate was killed by followers of the Manson family, Chernobyl, the Rancho Santa Fe mansion where 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed suicide, the field in Pennsylvania where United flight 93 crashed, and the World Trade Center. For around $400 per hour, Bell would advise sellers on how to price their stigmatized property or make it more attractive to prospective buyers.
Bell’s firm of three partners is based in a 1930s beach cottage located at the base of a vertiginously steep canyon that suffers regular cave-ins and dry-weather fires—an intersection Bell calls a “disaster paradise.” On his desk, he keeps a coffee mug emblazoned with the words “Master of Disaster.” Behind him hangs a large black-and-white photo of a mushroom cloud blossoming over the Bikini Atoll, between pictures of Bell’s kids.
One morning, in 2010, Bell was in his office drafting a report for one of his appraisals when the phone rang. The call was from a lawyer in Pennsylvania, asking Bell if he could consult on a house.
After moving in, Janet Milliken began having a recurring dream. She was at the family’s old vacation home, on the shore of a lake near Yosemite National Park. Her husband was there, too. He’d look at her and say, Where have you been? I’ve been looking for you. And she’d say, I didn’t know you’d be coming back. I never would have moved if I knew you were coming back. Then she’d wake up.
On a brisk morning in the spring of 2010, Milliken sat across from Randall Bell at her kitchen table. Milliken didn’t know what to make of him. For a world-famous expert, he seemed very casual. He’d just flown in from California and wore a button-down shirt, khakis, and a pair of Ray-Bans hanging from Croakies. But he exuded an optimism she found reassuring. If she had any chance of winning the case, Bell would need to prove, definitively, that the murder had created a “material defect,” a condition that negatively affected her house just as surely as any physical damage.
“Janet,” Bell said gently, “why don’t you tell me about your house.”
Milliken spoke slowly, in measured sentences. At times, her voice cracked with emotion. Her first impulse upon discovering the house’s history, Milliken said, had been to hide it from her kids. As long as Ryan and Kendra didn’t know about the deaths, she figured she could probably live with it. She wanted to make their transition into a new neighborhood and a new school as easy as possible. But a girl in Kendra’s eighth-grade homeroom who also lived in the subdivision asked her about it.
“How could you live there?” the girl asked.
Kendra asked what she meant.
“There was,” the girl said, “an incident.”
During the first weeks of school, Ryan, too, had been hearing whispers from classmates about a death in the house. Together they confronted their mother. Wanting to protect them, Milliken initially denied knowing anything. When Ryan and Kendra persisted, she relented and told them the whole story.
When she finished, the kids were seething. Ryan and Kendra had never wanted to move east. (“We were so against it from day one,” Kendra recalled later. “You could’ve given us candy and 100 dollars and we still would’ve said, ‘This place is awful.’”) They resented their mother for taking them away from their friends.
“How could you do this to us?” Ryan asked.
Milliken had wanted to make the move perfect for her children. She’d read everything she could about the area, checked out the local school systems, even searched for sex offenders. And yet there was one thing she hadn’t thought to check. She felt like she had failed them.
Milliken had difficulty explaining to family and friends what it was like to live in a house that constantly reminded her of violent death. She found it more depressing than scary. The memories associated with the property seemed to exert a subtle, pernicious effect, like a low-pitched hum. More than anything, though, the house felt heavy, a burden she could not cast off.
Occasionally, the stress of living there built up and registered itself in strange ways. One afternoon that fall, for example, Milliken and Kendra were upstairs when they heard Ryan shout. They ran downstairs to find him standing in the kitchen, pointing at a purple marker on the counter. The marker, he said, had rolled across the counter by itself, as though pushed by some invisible force. Not long after, Kendra stayed home sick one morning from school. She was soaking in a hot bath just as Milliken left to drive Ryan to school, and she started feeling uncomfortable. “It felt like there was someone in the next room,” she recalled. Suddenly, the door to the bathroom swung open. Kendra froze. Eventually, she got up the nerve to get out of the tub, wrapped herself in a towel, and walked through the halls: There was no one in the house. “Mom,” Kendra said when Milliken got home. “We have ghosts.”
Milliken tried to calm her children. But she, too, was beginning to have unusual experiences. One night she awoke from a deep sleep with the distinct sensation that someone was poking her in the back. She sat up in bed but found no one. On another night, she felt someone sit down beside her on the mattress. When she looked around, she was alone. This was not the first time Milliken had had experiences of this sort. After Milliken’s mother died, she cut a lock of her hair as a keepsake. Several nights later, as she slept, she felt someone pulling her own hair in the exact same place. And back in California, after Frank’s death, she would wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of a printer printing in Frank’s home office. When she walked down the hall the sound would stop, and the office would be empty.
Hardly a week passed at 12 Pickering Trail without an unsettling encounter of one kind or another. As Kendra described it, there was often a sense of walking into a room and feeling as though someone had just walked out. On some nights, Milliken would wake up and hear a child’s voice calling out. She’d go out in the hall and find the house quiet. Or late at night, Kendra would hear footsteps on the stairs; she’d open her bedroom door to see that everyone was asleep. Once, Ryan burst into Milliken’s room in a panic, saying he’d heard a gun being cocked. Another time it was a shadow passing through his room. Milliken once heard loud, insistent knocking on the front door: when she rushed downstairs, the stoop was empty. Even their dogs seemed to react badly. Their black lab, Onyx, who’d been well behaved in California, began flying into barking fits.
Milliken didn’t believe that vengeful spirits dwelled in her home, but the house felt haunted. When she walked into her bedroom, she still involuntarily imagined the Koumboulises. Even if it was all in her head, these were not ghosts that could be ignored. Her family’s reaction to the house seemed to feed on itself. It became hard not to see a supernatural motive behind every negative event. One morning, not long after she learned of the Koumboulis tragedy, Milliken returned home to find firefighters at her house and the ground floor full of smoke. The blaze was put out before it caused significant damage. It had started, the firefighters said, when a pan of brownies on the stovetop had caught fire. Milliken explained that she had left the brownies to cool overnight, but that no one had touched the stove that morning.
“Mom!” Ryan and Kendra shrieked. “It’s them! They’re telling us to get out! They don’t want us here!”
Milliken tried to reassure them—Onyx had probably tried to jump up for the brownies and accidentally turned on the stove with his paw. Yet the house seemed cursed. On one evening, not long after, the family went out to a restaurant to celebrate Kendra’s birthday. When they came home, they found Onyx in the living room, dead. Somehow he’d gotten stuck in a bag of dog food and suffocated.
Milliken saw her children struggling. On afternoons when Milliken couldn’t pick up Ryan and Kendra from school, they’d stay late to avoid being in the house alone. She found herself making frequent trips to the principal’s office to talk about Ryan’s behavior. A counselor diagnosed him with arrested bereavement. Kendra, meanwhile, found it hard to make friends because she was ashamed to invite them over to her house. “My grades, family and sanity are falling apart, as is my life,” Kendra wrote in her diary around the time. Milliken worried constantly, while lack of sleep left her feeling exhausted.
The final straw came on the night of February 11, 2008, the two-year anniversary of the murder-suicide. Shortly before midnight, Milliken woke up to Ryan screaming. He had been sleeping on the floor of his bedroom—he preferred not to sleep in the bed—when he saw a dark shadow in the corner of the room. Then he saw a menacing figure with flashing green eyes. When he rolled on his back, he looked up at the digital display on his clock radio, which read “11:34.” But upside down, as Ryan saw them, the digits read H-E-L-L. He woke his sister and rushed into Milliken’s bedroom. “We have to get out of this house now,” said Ryan. They all put on coats over their pajamas and piled into the minivan. Milliken drove through the quiet streets, hoping the kids would calm down. After an hour, she pulled into an empty parking lot. Ryan and Kendra begged her to check them into a hotel. Milliken tightened her grip on the steering wheel and shook her head no. They were just letting their fear take over, she told them. They were going to go back.
It was around then, Milliken told Bell, that she decided to fight the Jaconos in court. Whatever the time and expense, her family needed to get out of that house. Bell nodded. He knew from other clients about the stresses of living in a stigmatized property. It was common, he said, to feel vulnerable.
After she finished, Milliken felt a sense of relief. She’d avoided talking about her experiences with Ryan and Kendra, for fear of deepening their anxiety. When she brought up the incidents on the phone with her sisters, they would gently change the subject.
Bell, a practicing Mormon, does not believe in ghosts—or, rather, he has never seen one. He does, however, believe in the caprices of human perception and the power of illusion. (He holds one of the world’s largest collections of Houdini memorabilia, second only to the magician David Copperfield.) “A haunted house is a perception,” Bell once explained. “If a property is perceived as haunted, it’s haunted. If you don’t think it’s haunted, it isn’t.” Traces of violent death, Bell knew, frequently linger long after the blood is scrubbed away. Some people, Bell had found, were more susceptible to feeling this than others. Over the years, he had come to see this sensitivity not as an irrational delusion but as a kind of empathy, a deeply felt connection to the dead.
Bell began at the Millikens’ as he did all his appraisals, by inspecting the house and taking notes and photographs as he went. He made his way through each room, pausing in the master bedroom. No evidence of the crime remained, but he couldn’t help picturing Georgia Koumboulis bleeding on the floor inches from where Milliken’s bed now stood. He saw that after several years of occupancy, the space didn’t seem lived-in. The walls were bare of decoration or family photographs. It was clear that Milliken refused to accept this house as a home.
Stigma, like most psychological phenomena, does not lend itself to precise measurement. Yet Bell had found that it reliably expresses itself economically. To determine an event’s effect on property value, Bell takes the price of a comparable, unstigmatized property and, using case studies drawn from his own research, calculates a percentage of depreciation. The exact percentage depends on the severity of the stigma, the elasticity of the local real estate market, and a host of other factors that can intensify or diminish the impact. Suicides, according to Bell, create less stigma than murders, but both create more than sexual assaults. Unsolved crimes create more stigma than those for which a suspect is apprehended. A murder that happens indoors creates more stigma than a murder that occurs outdoors. A murder involving a child is especially bad. Widely reported crimes create dramatically more stigma than those that are ignored. Peaceful deaths and nonviolent crimes carry little to no stigma. Murders in low-crime neighborhoods tend to attract more stigma than murders in high-crime areas. On average, most stigmatized properties, Bell estimates, sell at a discount of between 15 percent and 25 percent and take significantly longer to find a buyer.
Some houses can be effectively destroyed by stigma. Such “incurable” properties—Class X on the Bell Chart—are almost invariably demolished. The most stigmatized residence Bell has studied was Jeffrey Dahmer’s Milwaukee apartment. Dahmer, who murdered and defiled 17 men and boys, didn’t just pull down the value of his apartment or his apartment building, but that of the entire neighborhood. After he was apprehended, occupancy rates in adjoining buildings plummeted. Residents of the neighborhood finally pooled their money, bought the building, and tore it down. In 1997, Bell consulted the owner of the San Diego mansion that was the site of the Heaven’s Gate suicides. For a time, it was impossible to open a magazine without seeing images of the bodies draped in purple cloaks and wearing matching black Nikes. When the property was finally sold after sitting on the market for two years, the new owner chose to raze everything within its borders—mansion, trees, lawn, gardens, tennis court, and driveways—reducing the site to a dusty patch of earth.
Bell says, though, that even the worst stigma eventually fades. A house is usually unsellable immediately after a crime. But within three to seven years, most properties recover nearly all their value. Forgotten violence loses its power to haunt. Were this not the case, of course, many more properties would be stigmatized. In the 1800s, it was common for people to die in their own homes and even have funerals there. (The architectural term coffin corner, denoting a niche in a steep staircase, refers to the idea that the stairs would one day be used to transport a casket.) Many houses built before 1900 have, at one point or another, contained a corpse.
As Bell walked through Janet Milliken’s house, he noted that the Jaconos had followed much of the advice he usually gave clients trying to sell a stigmatized property. Joseph Jacono had renovated large portions of the interior and caught up on years of deferred maintenance. The only advice he did not follow was to be transparent about the house’s history: Bell always advises clients to make a full disclosure.
At the end of the day, he flew back to California. In his office, he spread out the notes and photographs from his visit and set to work assembling the report that, he hoped, would help rescue the Millikens from their home.
Every culture has its own rituals for cleansing a place of bad energy. The Cherokee burn sage, filling the afflicted space with fragrant smoke. Daoist priests perform a ritual in which they drop rice liquor into a wok of boiling oil, creating a great flame that expels unwanted ghosts. Japanese Buddhist shamans shake a shakujo—a stick threaded with metal rings—producing a loud rattling sound intended to frighten away bad spirits. While she was stuck living in the house, waiting for the lawsuit to run its course, Milliken, who is Catholic, called nearby St. Maximilian Kolbe Church and asked for a priest to perform a blessing in her home. The church sent Monsignor Carroll, who read a prayer from the Book of Blessings and sprinkled holy water around the living room. Milliken had felt hopeful as he spoke, but when she walked the priest to his car, she began to cry.
Milliken knew that she couldn’t cleanse the house of its old memories, but maybe she could fill it with new ones. For Thanksgiving, she invited two of her sisters, her brother-in-law, and her nieces and nephews over for dinner. She worked in the kitchen for hours. But as soon as the kids broke off from the adults, Kendra and Ryan’s cousins started playing a game where they’d creep up the stairs to the master bedroom, peek in, and run down the stairs screaming and giggling. At the dinner table, the conversation turned to the murder-suicide and the strange experiences her family had been having in the home. Milliken worried that the memories of the house would never fade.
One morning, while Ryan and Kendra were at school, Milliken went into her bedroom and closed the door. She kneeled on the floor at the foot of her bed with a rosary in her hands. “Whoever you are, this is not your home,” she said, timid at first, then raising her voice. “This is my house. These are my children. You’re scaring me. You’re frightening my children.” Her voice echoed in the sparsely furnished room. “Get out now.” She opened her eyes, found herself in her empty bedroom, and felt faintly embarrassed.
A few weeks after his visit, Bell sent Milliken a copy of his report on her house. When Milliken saw the numbers from Bell’s appraisal, she realized that the house wasn’t just a psychological burden but a financial one. After comparing it to other houses in the neighborhood and other stigmatized properties, Bell determined that, due to the lingering stigma of the Koumboulis tragedy, Milliken’s house had depreciated 10 to 15 percent from its value when she purchased it. Were she to sell the house, she would likely have to accept offers between $61,000 and $91,500 beneath what she paid for it in 2007. (Of course, she noted ruefully, that was only if she disclosed the murder.) Its value, in fact, was even lower, as the housing market was still depressed from the recent crash. The only way she would be able to leave the house without losing much of her investment would be to have the sale rescinded.
Courts have been grappling with the legal ambiguities of stigmatized real estate since the 1980s. One of the earliest cases involving haunted property was brought in New York in 1989, by a bond trader named Jeffrey Stambovsky. Shortly after he placed a deposit on an 18-room Victorian mansion in Nyack, Stambovsky learned that his new home was reputed to be possessed by poltergeists. Its seller, Helen Ackley, had, in fact, actively publicized the haunting for years and even offered walking tours of the property and published articles about her three spectral tenants: a young girl, a Revolutionary War–era naval lieutenant, and “an apple-cheeked old man” whom Ackley once watched steal and eat an entire ham sandwich. “Our ghosts have continued to delight us,” she told Reader’s Digest in 1977, calling them “gracious, thoughtful—only occasionally frightening—and thoroughly entertaining.” Stambovsky and his wife, uncomfortable with the house’s reputation, declared themselves victims of “an ectoplasmic fraud” and sued to rescind the sale.
A lower court initially sided with Ackley, applying the rule of caveat emptor—buyer beware. An appellate court, though, disagreed. In a pun-filled decision, the presiding judge stated that he was “moved by the spirit of equity” to rule in favor of Stambovsky, arguing that there was no way for the buyer to know that the house was haunted, as experts in paranormal phenomena were rare. (“Who,” the justice wrote, “you gonna call?”) Moreover, the judge argued, Ackley had advertised that the house had ghosts, so she couldn’t deny this fact later. Thus, he concluded, “as a matter of law, the house is haunted.” Because Ackley failed to disclose the haunting, the court ruled in Stambovsky’s favor and ordered the sale rescinded.
Twenty-five years later, statutes regarding the sale of “haunted” houses are still relatively rare. Real estate law is made at the state level, and very few state courts have set hard-and-fast rules regarding a property’s history. Of those that have, only a handful require a seller to disclose a death. Milliken v. Jacono would offer the first major court decision regarding stigmatized property in 25 years. The decision could ultimately affect the disclosure rules for millions of properties in Pennsylvania and likely influence future rulings in other state courts.
Milliken v. Jacono was an exceptional case, not least because a court was being asked to perform a task more suited to a seminary: to weigh our relationship to the dead. That a place can be affected by the abiding presence of the deceased—which is to say, haunted—is one of humanity’s most universal ideas. From the ancient Assyrians to Australian Aborigines, people have long believed that bodies decompose but spirits linger on. In much of the world, the existence of specters, poltergeists, and ancestral phantoms remains a fact of daily life, as self-evident as the ground underfoot. In the modern West, our philosophy is inconsistent. Rationalism leaves little room for ghosts. To sense their presence in a place is to tread into dubious, unscientific territory. And yet the latent dead continue to command reverence. No one would dare claim that Gettysburg is just a field in Pennsylvania, that Treblinka is just a forest in Poland. As the court examined the evidence, it was forced to interrogate these cultural incongruities, to conduct a rational assessment of irrational faiths.
In the Pennsylvania legal system, the legacy of ghosts was to be measured with the most unsentimental of yardsticks: the price paid in the free market. Finding that psychological stigma tangibly affected the value of a property would mean that our relationship to the remembered dead had to be taken seriously. It would mean that ghosts, considered in these terms, were real.
In the spring of 2011, the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas gathered to review the evidence submitted by the parties in Milliken v. Jacono. The two sides had been trading motions and arguments for several years. The central facts of the case, though, were not in dispute. Both parties acknowledged that the Jaconos had known about the Koumboulises’ deaths before the sale and declined to share this information with Milliken. The disagreement, then, was whether the Jaconos had been legally obligated to do so.
Joseph Jacono claimed in his deposition that he, like Milliken, had not known about the murder when he purchased the house. Despite living just a few hundred yards away, on the other side of a thin grove of trees, Jacono said he was not aware of the tragedy. According to Jacono, in September 2006, he was driving through his neighborhood when he saw a sign advertising an estate sale. He ended up at 12 Pickering Trail, where he found an auction in progress, in which the house’s contents were being sold off, lot by lot—furnishings, clothing, a TV, even the car. The last thing auctioned that day was the house itself. Jacono, an industrial contractor, had long thought about buying a property, fixing it up, and flipping it. When Jacono asked one of the attendees at the auction why the house was being sold, the person said the previous owner had committed suicide. (Jacono claimed in the deposition that the attendee had mentioned only a suicide, not a murder, though he could not recall when or how he eventually learned about Georgia Koumboulis’s death.) After a short visual inspection of the premises, Jacono entered the minimum bid of $450,000 and, being the only bidder, won.
However, unlike Milliken, Jacono said that the house didn’t seem stigmatized. When he did find out about the murder-suicide, he stated, it “did not bother” him. At one point, he even considered giving the property to his daughter, who was soon to be married. She did not move in, explained Jacono, because he ended up spending too much on renovations. (Though the house sold for $160,000 more than Jacono had paid for it, factoring in renovations, interest, and fees, Jacono stated that his profit was only about $40,000.)
Jacono made a good-faith effort to ensure that he was not breaking the law when he advertised the property. Before listing the house, he consulted with the Pennsylvania Real Estate Commission, which, echoing his broker, told him that disclosure of the death was legally unnecessary, as a murder in the house was not considered a “material defect.”
Yet Jacono specifically instructed his broker not to tell buyers about the house’s past unless asked—an inconsistency that Milliken’s attorney, Timothy Rayne, emphasized in his arguments. However Jacono might feel about the murder-suicide, Rayne pointed out, he made a deliberate choice, knowing that a stigmatized property is inherently less valuable than an unstigmatized one. (In Jacono’s version of events, he did not believe he was receiving a stigma discount when he bought the house—he thought it was cheap only because it was in bad shape.)
To support his claims, Rayne submitted Randall Bell’s report, which laid out how the memory of the deaths had tangibly hurt Milliken’s property value. The report represented a summation of Bell’s life’s work. It assessed the Milliken house alongside ten case studies, based on Bell’s own appraisals of properties where violent crimes had been committed, including the Nicole Brown Simpson condominium, the Benedict Canyon house where Sharon Tate was murdered, and the mansion where Lyle and Erik Menendez shot their parents. Bell’s argument was simple: stigma had caused each of these properties to lose value for many years. The passing of time may help restore some of the value, but this can take many years, even decades. The real estate community, he wrote, often term these “brake-light properties,” as they often see the brake lights of the prospective buyer’s car driving away after disclosing the property’s history. He pointed to the 10 to 15 percent depreciation he’d estimated on Milliken’s home. This financial loss was specific and measurable, Bell argued: It was the very definition of a “material” defect.
To punch holes in Bell’s report, the Jaconos’ counsel enlisted another attorney, Stanley Lieberman. Lieberman, who had nearly 50 years experience as a real estate attorney and 35 as a broker, argued that Bell’s report was irrelevant. Lieberman was unimpressed by Bell’s methodology, calling his estimate of the percentage by which death depreciates a property “blatant speculation.” Furthermore, the examples included in the report, Lieberman contended, were inappropriate for comparison. Only one of them, a house where a woman had handcuffed and shot her husband, was a suburban house, and it had not yet sold, so it could hardly serve as a measure of lost value. The rest, he pointed out, were businesses, schools, and government buildings. Bell’s theories on the power of stigma, therefore, did not apply to the Milliken property.
The Court of Common Pleas was not moved by Bell’s argument, either. On August 9, 2010, the court unanimously ruled in favor of the Jaconos. In his opinion, Judge George Pagano provided a list of 16 physical attributes of a house that must be disclosed by sellers of real estate in Pennsylvania, including: roof (3), termites/wood-destroying insects (5), and soils and drainage (13). Psychological stigma simply did not apply. When Milliken received word on the ruling, she was despondent. It seemed she would never escape her house.
However, for the sake of her children, Milliken persisted. She filed an appeal, which landed before the nine judges of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. On the day after Christmas 2012, the court came down with a split decision in favor of the Jaconos. The majority opinion came from President Judge Emeritus Kate Ford Elliot. “The fact that a murder once occurred in a house,” she wrote, “falls into that category of homebuyer concerns best left to caveat emptor.”
How recent must the murder be that the seller must inform the buyer? What if the murder happened 100 years ago? What if numerous owners have lived in the house in the interim? … How can a monetary value possibly be assigned to the psychological damage to a house caused by a murder? The psychological effect will vary greatly from person to person. There are persons for whom no amount of money would induce them to live in such a house, while others may not care at all, or even find it adventurous.
To call psychological stigma “material,” she went on, would require “the seller to warn not only of the physically quantifiable but also of utterly subjective defects.”
Judge John Bender, along with two other justices, filed the dissenting opinion. Bender wrote powerfully in Milliken’s defense. Evoking the horror of her discovering the Koumboulis incident, he quoted Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: “Truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long.” He condemned the Jaconos: “The financial penalty Mrs. Milliken has suffered was entirely avoidable had the sellers from whom she bought her home merely exercised a little more integrity and a little less greed.”
Citing Bell’s report, he argued that the damage did indeed constitute a material defect: “Whereas the Majority would consign the stigma of murder/suicide to the ethereal realm of ‘psychological damage,’ the statute recognizes it for what it is—documented economic loss.”
Bender cited a case from California, Reed v. King, which closely resembled Milliken v. Jacono. In 1983, Dorris Reed sued to rescind the sale of her home when she discovered that it had been the site of a mass murder ten years earlier. A lower court initially ruled against her, but a higher court ruled that Reed had the right to rescind the sale if she could prove, to another court, that the murder negatively affected the value of the house. However, before Reed could do so, the two sides settled, and the issue went undecided. Several years later, the California legislature ruled that sellers had to disclose any death that had occurred on the premises within the previous three years; Milliken herself had complied with the statute when she sold her home.
When Milliken received word from Rayne of the court’s decision, she was disappointed but also heartened. Bender’s dissent had given her hope. Even though she’d lost again, she felt closer to escaping 12 Pickering Trail. She consulted with Rayne and decided to file another, final appeal, on the same basis as the first—a misreading of the term “material defect.” A new set of judges, she hoped, would understand her plight.
On November 19, 2013, the lawyers from both sides presented arguments before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Harrisburg. Timothy Rayne—an earnest man in a red bow tie—spoke first.
“What happened in the house was extreme,” he said. “A reasonable buyer—not this buyer, not a subjective buyer, but a reasonable buyer—would consider that to be material.”
The judges took turns peppering Rayne with questions about the varieties of stigma. There were, the justices pointed out, an infinite number of hypothetical situations which may make a person uncomfortable. What if, for example, someone died of AIDS in the house, asked Judge Max Baer. Or a gay couple lived nearby and a member Tea Party objected to that. What if a child was abused in it, asked Correale Stevens, or an animal murdered. “There are lots of things in a buyer’s mind that might ultimately affect his happiness in the house or even the value,” Justice Debra McCloskey Todd said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s a material defect that entitles them to legal recovery.”
What test, the judges wanted to know, determines whether stigma rises to the level of defect? “Are all stigmas defects?” Justice Michael Eakin asked.
“You have to draw the line somewhere,” Rayne said. A stigma became a defect, he said, when it began to affect the property value. In the case of Milliken, he said, Randall Bell’s report proved that stigma had a deleterious impact on the price of the house.
The judges seemed skeptical but also curious about the implications. Justice Seamus McCaffery noted that they were arguing the case on the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg. What if Lincoln had stayed overnight at a farmhouse nearby after the address? A seller would surely note that. If a seller is going to disclose the good, he offered, shouldn’t they be required to disclose the bad, too?
“That’s my argument exactly,” Rayne said. “That to pretend that psychological things don’t affect value is not reality.”
When Rayne had finished, Abraham Reich—a silver-haired man in a black pinstripe suit—rose to argue on behalf of the Jaconos. He urged the court to revisit the language of the disclosure laws. The Jaconos, he said, had complied with every statute. “There is no duty for the seller to disclose this kind of defect,” he said.
Justice Eakin peered down at Reich. “Is there to be a laundry list of things—stigma things—that now a buyer must ask?” he asked.
“If something is material to a buyer, they should raise it,” Reich replied.
Eakin shook his head.
“There are some things that are so fundamental, like a mass murder,” Eakin said. “I shouldn’t have to ask to be told.”
On July 21, 2014, six years after Milliken first filed suit, the seven justices of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania issued their decision. Justice Eakin wrote the opinion. It was, legally speaking, a curious document.
“It is safe to assume,” he wrote, that murders, suicides, and other tragedies “are events a majority of the population would find disturbing, and a certain percentage of the population may not want to live in a house where any such event has occurred.” But ultimately,
the varieties of traumatizing events that could occur on a property are endless. Efforts to define those that would warrant mandatory disclosure would be a Sisyphean task. … Does a bloodless death by poisoning or overdose create a less significant "defect" than a bloody one from a stabbing or shooting? How would one treat other violent crimes such as rape, assault, home invasion, or child abuse? What if the killings were elsewhere but the sadistic killer lived there? What if Satanic rituals were performed in the house?
In effect, Eakin acknowledged that the dead leave a lasting effect on certain spaces, one that persists long after they’re gone. At the same time, the court disagreed with Randall Bell’s assertion that stigma could be easily identified and evaluated. In the end, psychological stigma is too capricious and strange to measure, too messily human to plot on a chart. It was, at least, beyond the ken of the court. To confront head-on the way our memories, like ghosts, linger in a place would “lead down a slippery slope—a slope we are not willing to descend.”
“Regardless of the potential impact a psychological stigma may have on the value of property,” Eakin concluded, “we are not ready to accept that such constitutes a material defect.”
The justices ruled in favor of the Jaconos.
When Randall Bell heard about the ruling, he was disappointed. He thought that the justices had been unwilling to tackle the implications of psychological stigma. “They’re in over their heads intellectually,” he said. “They didn’t take on the issue.” But the Milliken ruling didn’t affect his steady stream of work. His office phone in Laguna Beach continued to ring: people from all over the world, summoning him to places where the residue of tragedy was still palpable.
When the ruling came down, he had just returned from Newtown, Connecticut, where he had consulted on the house in which 20-year-old Adam Lanza had shot his mother in her bed before walking to Sandy Hook Elementary and murdering 20 children and six adults. Standing in Lanza’s basement bedroom, among his toys and posters and video games, Bell felt sick to his stomach. “That’s a place where very evil thinking was born,” he said. “You wouldn’t have a pulse if you didn’t sense the sadness.” Bell had met with community leaders, and they’d decided to raze the structure and let woodlands take over the lot.
The loss was devastating to Milliken. After six long years, she and her family would not be able to leave. Nothing had changed per se, and yet some things seemed different.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, the Milliken family gathered in the kitchen of 12 Pickering Trail. Kendra, 20, was home visiting from college; she was still in her sweatpants and was waking up from a nap on the couch, after a night out with friends. Ryan carried a ladder from the garage to the kitchen. He lived with his girlfriend in an apartment nearby and had dropped by to paint the front hall for his mother. Milliken sat at the table, sipping a cup of coffee. Their two dogs—Roscoe, a Yorkie, and Baby, a pit bull—tumbled back and forth in the kitchen.
Milliken had slowly come to realize that, in fits and starts, her family had begun to heal. Even as the lawsuit wound its way through the courts, the kids had stopped avoiding the house; Kendra had even hosted a sleepover there for a birthday.
With time the family had reentered the world. Kendra was a junior at the nearby University of Delaware, where she majored in communications and became president of the ballroom-dance team. Ryan was planning to study to be an electrician and general contractor. Milliken was working full-time as the financial manager of a local nursing home. Strange disturbances in the house were a thing of the past.
When Milliken looked back on the preceding years, she realized that the move from California had been a mistake, and not just because of her unfortunate selection of a house. She’d failed to give her family—and herself—the time and space to grieve.
Life wasn’t perfect. Twelve Pickering Trail would never feel like the house back in California, full of people and activity and Frank’s happy energy. Milliken still saw her husband in her dreams. But they were through it. The kids were talking about going into real estate together. “The kind of thing where we get in and buy foreclosed houses,” said Ryan. Kendra would sell the houses after Ryan, who was apprenticing with a local contractor, fixed them up.
And yet, from time to time, Milliken would still feel the old chill. Not long after, Milliken replaced the carpet in the master bedroom. After the workers pulled up the old carpet, she went upstairs to look at the bare floor. In the middle of it, she noticed a patch of white paint. Maybe it had been applied to cover one of the bloodstains from the Koumboulis incident, she thought. But then her memory went back to the day that she had knelt at the foot of her bed and, gripping her rosary, asked the bad energy to leave her family alone. The patch, she thought, was exactly where she’d knelt.