Houses where killings occurred take on new life

REMSEN, Iowa – Never mind the $250,000 worth of restoration work, period-style furnishings and upscale comforts Dave and Chris Sonnichsen have lavished on their Remsen home.

“Everybody wants to see the basement” of the colonnaded two-story house in the 600 block of Fulton Street, Chris Sonnichsen said.

That’s where the blanket-wrapped body of a 10-year-old boy, Timothy Boss, lay concealed beneath the floor for two years.

His adoptive parents tied the special-needs child to a metal folding chair and beat him to death Feb. 23, 2000, then buried him in an attempt to hide the crime.

In time, however, concerned relatives in Michigan contacted authorities, and in 2002, Timothy’s father, Donald Boss, was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder. His mother, Lisa, who divorced Boss and took the surname Green when she married a fellow jail inmate, pleaded guilty in 2003 to attempted murder, voluntary manslaughter, child endangerment and willful injury and agreed to a 50-year prison sentence.

Although the Sonnichsens knew about the murder – they lived across the street when it happened – people shopping for a home in much of Siouxland might not be so well-informed if their dream house has a ghoulish history.

South Dakota law mandates disclosure, but laws in Iowa and Nebraska don’t require the same level of transparency.

Judgment call

In the Sioux City area, two homes where killings occurred went on the market in recent months. One sold quickly. The other is still for sale.

To date, no one has bought the house in the 500 block of 39th Street Place, where James Kroll bludgeoned Jeffery Moravek, 54, to death with a crowbar June 13. The nighttime attack also severely injured the homeowner, Mary Tope. The couple were asleep when Kroll snuck into the house, where he had formerly lived as the boyfriend of Tope’s daughter.

Police wrote in court documents that Kroll was distraught over the end of the relationship but have not discussed a motive for the crimes. Kroll watched the home for several hours before climbing in through a window about 3 a.m., the documents say.

Kroll pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and attempted murder in January and was sentenced Thursday to up to 75 years in prison.

The 62-year-old four-bedroom home is listed for $125,000. Tope, who survived the attack but whose condition has not been made public, bought the 2,700-square-foot ranch house for $97,500 in 2006, according to online property records.

In Iowa, real estate agents are required to disclose facts that could adversely affect a home’s value, but that doesn’t necessarily include telling prospective buyers a crime was committed on the property. According to Paul McLaughlin, legal counsel for the Iowa Association of Realtors, it’s a judgment call.

Particularly gruesome murders, such as those that involved children or that generated a lot of publicity, should be disclosed in the immediate aftermath of the crime, McLaughlin said. As time passes and the shock subsides, that information has less effect on the home’s value and doesn’t necessarily need to be disclosed, he said.

“It depends on the unique circumstances of the death,” he said.

South Dakota law requires incidents be disclosed within one year of the date of the crime. Nebraska law does not.

A quick sale

In South Sioux City, the title to a house in the 300 block of East 23rd Street transferred about four months after the former owner, Kelly Alspach, 47, was slain there.

Alspach’s live-in boyfriend, John Baker, killed Alspach on Oct. 19, 2011, and hid her body underneath a window seat in the home. Baker concocted a story in an attempt to throw police off his trail and fled to North Dakota but was captured and returned to South Sioux City. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and concealing the death of another person. He was sentenced to 11-16 years in prison.

The two-story house sold for $130,000 the same amount Alspach paid for it in 2010, property records show.

Like Alspach, who a neighbor said had long admired the house before she bought it, new owner Odessa Meyer said she had always loved the charming bungalow one block from E. N. Swett Elementary School.

She and her husband, Randy, closed on the house in February 2012. They and their 16-year-old son moved in almost immediately.

Its history hasn’t caused the family any grief.

“I lived in South Sioux City growing up, and it was always a home that I had my eye on,” Odessa Meyer said. “It’s a beautiful home.”

Chilling effect

Although not in all instances, murders can have a chilling effect on the saleability of a house, said Morningside College Professor Jeffrey Zink.

“These houses sell at a lower price and stay on the market longer than comparable houses even in the same neighborhood,” said Zink, an assistant economics professor.

Professor Bennie Waller, of Longworth University in Farmville, Va., said such properties can be especially stigmatized in a small town.

A house in Villisca, in southwestern Iowa, is an example. The white frame house likely will always be known for the savage killing of eight people within its walls a century ago. Although current owner Darwin Linn’s restoration efforts have since secured a state Preservation at its Best award and a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, to this day, the so-called Villisca Ax Murder House is said to be haunted.

The crime has never been solved, and Linn has said the victims’ spirits make their presence known. He said he’s comfortable believing Sarah Moore, who was murdered with her husband, their children and two young guests in June 1912, is still in charge.

An ethical obligation

Experts say buyers who don’t want to live in a house where a murder or other violent crime occurred should tell their broker, regardless of whether state law requires voluntary disclosure of such information.

If asked, the broker is ethically obligated to answer truthfully and should take steps to find out if homes have a tragic history, said Ralph Holden, legal counsel for the National Association of Realtors.

“Otherwise, your broker is entitled to assume you view things in the ordinary sort of way,” he said.

That’s how Vicki Adams, of Sioux City, regards the former funeral home at 1113 Morningside Ave., where she lives and operates Adkins Tax Service. The business’ parking lot is the site of an unsolved murder: Freta Bostic, 24, who was four months pregnant, Ernest Isom, 27, and Jesse Hanni, 26, were shot to death with a handgun Dec. 3, 1974, inside a rental home that once stood there.

Investigators believe the murders may have been drug related and that Hanni either brought the killers home with him or was followed, Sioux City police have said. The case is still open.

It was the second time bodies were discovered in the house at 1117 Morningside Ave. Two years earlier, the bodies of former owner Ture L.B. Larson, 74, and his wife, Olive Larson, were found inside. They had died several days earlier of natural causes.

The house was razed in 1975.

Adams, who said her building had been vacant for a few years before she bought it, is unfazed.

“Doesn’t bother me,” Adams said from her office in what was once the funeral home’s chapel. “Obviously it bothered somebody at some point, because it was a parking lot.”

‘It’s a home’

The Sonnichsens’ home in Remsen also stood empty for several years, falling into disrepair. They made an offer on it days after it went on the market in 2004 and snapped it up for $24,500

They have painstakingly restored the woodwork and chosen furnishings to reflect the house’s age – estimated at 100 to 110 years – but also added such modern touches as heated tile in the bathroom.

The Sonnichsens say they haven’t been troubled by ghosts or strange happenings, but as they did at their previous home, they had their minister bless the house.

People shouldn’t be put off by a house’s violent history, Dave Sonnichsen said. In his case, a tragic landmark has been transformed not only by hard work but also by day-to-day family life.

“It’s where we raised our kids,” he said. “It’s a home.”