On Death's Doorstep

Crime scenes find new life as someone's home sweet home

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  10/27/2005

If Jeremy Parker once had a feeling that ghosts exist, that feeling hardened into a belief after living in a house where a former medical student murdered a man and his dog and then allegedly carved the words ''THIS PLACE IS CURSED" into the wood porch.

Over the three months he rented an apartment in the sallow triple-decker in Jamaica Plain, Parker hated to be home alone.

The wind sometimes blew the door shut, and he would shudder. He would hear a creaking sound, and the hair on his skin would rise.

''A lot of it was just a gut feeling, like when you feel someone's watching you, that there's a presence, that you're not alone," said Parker, a mechanical engineering major at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, where the murder victim also attended. ''It was really creepy."

After a grisly tragedy strikes inside a home, when the yellow tape from the crime scene has been removed, the blood mopped up, and the original owners or tenants are gone, the property is often sold, rechristened, and reoccupied. Families eventually replace murdered families, students take over the rooms where students had been killed. Life goes on, like grass growing over a grave.

But the stain of what happened rarely disappears, even if the horror remains solely in the minds of those who have taken over the lease or mortgage -- the grim memory transmitted by word of mouth from neighbors or previous tenants.

How can anyone live in a home where they know something horrific happened?

Consider the Berggrens. Seven years ago, they moved into an old, brown house on Clayton Street in Dorchester. The paint was peeling and the front steps looked rickety, but the family of six soon learned of something else that had made the two-story, three-bedroom home unappealing to other prospective buyers.

On a hot night in the summer of 1973, in what became one of the city's most notorious crimes, George O'Leary, a Korean War veteran who had been awarded a Purple Heart, went from room to room firing his 38-caliber revolver into the heads of his wife and five young children. He killed them all, leaving pools of blood throughout the house, and police later found him slumped over a bureau next to his bed, dead from a cocktail of sleeping pills, rum, whiskey, and brandy. Pictures of the small brown house surrounded by police cruisers appeared in local newspapers and on TV.

The house didn't sell for several years until eventually it found a buyer. Over time the house had several other owners, and 25 years later Michael and Alma Berggren moved in.

The Berggrens, who now have four boys, didn't learn about the murders until well after paying $70,000 for the house. But Michael Berggren wasn't angry about the lack of full disclosure. It was so long ago, he says, it wasn't really relevant.

''It was definitely a strange thing to find out -- we were all kind of freaked out at first," he said. ''But after a while, the memory fades. At this point, it's really forgotten."

The Berggrens' oldest son, Chris, 20, doesn't dwell on it much now, but he says the home's past affected him. ''The more I learned about it, the more it seemed really weird," he said. ''It kind of freaks you out to think about what happened in the home where you've been living. There was so much sadness here."

It isn't always difficult to sell a home struck by violence, particularly in a hot real estate market. In the spring, around the first anniversary of when 26-year-old Joshua Fine took out a 9mm handgun and shot his mother's boyfriend at their dinner table and then turned the gun on himself, James Fine, the killer's father, says the four-bedroom home on Woodledge Lane in North Easton sold quickly.

''It was no problem at all," he said. ''It didn't seem to matter to anyone that there had been a murder there."

In Woburn, Singh Kaur and his wife, Sitvinder, weren't bothered by the stigma of moving into a home where there had been a double murder. They actually watched cleaning crews scrub blood from the floors of the three-bedroom home where Joanne Presti, 34, was raped and then she and her 12-year-old daughter, Alyssa, were stabbed to death in January 2004.

''We did a prayer ceremony for their departed souls," said Singh Kaur, 39, a graduate student at Boston University, soon after he, his wife, and their 7-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter moved in to the attached clapboard home.

In their case, they came to help the owners of the home, who rented to Presti. The owners are his friends, Kaur says, and they were in ''extreme shock" after Presti was killed; Michael Bizanowicz, a sex offender, is accused of the crimes. They had trouble renting after the slayings, and they began mulling putting the house up for sale.

''We came here and stayed with them, to console them," Kaur said. ''It all started off with us trying to share their grief, and then one thing led to another."

It occurred to Kaur that his family might benefit from a bigger place, and the backyard offered a nice perk for the kids. So after watching new wood floors be installed, windows replaced, walls repaired, and a coat of paint applied to cover the macabre stains left behind, they said prayers and began paying their friends rent.

''All my other friends thought I was crazy," Kaur said. ''They couldn't believe their ears and eyes."

Kaur and his wife began sleeping in the room where Presti was raped and killed. ''We don't have any problems with it," he said. ''We don't buy the whole notion of the place being spooky. We haven't had any ghost sightings yet," he said.

Jeremy Parker, who learned about the 2001 murders in his Jamaica Plain triple-decker a month after moving in, wishes he could say the same. For Parker and other residents of the house on Hyde Park Avenue where Daniel Mason, a fourth-year medical student at Boston University, shot and critically wounded Gene Yazgur, 28, and murdered his roommate Michael Lenz, 25, and his dog Sampson, the creepiness lingers. Particularly up the creaky staircase, in the third-floor apartment, where Mason went on his rampage and now new students live, with a dog.

When she moved into the apartment a few months ago and then learned about the murders, Laura Vineyard, 22, kept the windows shut, in fear the house's history meant the neighborhood might be dangerous. But the more she learned about the crime, and how it wasn't a case of random violence, the more another feeling came -- the creepiness, the sense she was living in a haunted place.

Her roommate for the summer, Carlin Singer, 22, began wondering why her Shepherd mix, Teddy, seemed to suddenly ''freak out" for what seemed like no good reason. He seemed to be acting differently than normal, she said.

And then there was the special greeting on the porch, the one about the house being cursed, It's hard to read now, but it still appears that it was carved with a knife.

''All I can say is this has been an interesting experience living here," Singer said. ''It's too spooky if you think about it too much."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

They don't have to tell you, unless you ask

Title 15, Chapter 93, Section 114 of state law states that the circumstances of ''psychologically impacted" property needn't be disclosed to prospective buyers or tenants. It defines the phrases as ''an impact being the result of facts or suspicions including:"a) that an occupant was thought to have or have had AIDS or other diseases.b) that the property was the site of a felony, suicide, or homicide.c) that the property has been the site of an alleged parapsychological or supernatural phenomenon.

The provisions do bar ''a seller, lessor or real estate broker, or salesman [from making] a misrepresentation of fact or false statement," which means that agents whose prospects specifically ask about potential stigmas must tell all they know.

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