The Mansion that Nobody Wants

When something truly bad happens, people never quite forget.  The trauma, the dread, the revulsion:  these things never really go away. Wise men know enough to acknowledge what happened. Fools hope it’ll all blow over.

I thought about that the other day.  In the context of Santa Cruz real estate.

There it was, on a local social media board: “Unique Midcentury Home for Sale.” The link led to a high-end sales video that easily cost a couple of grand to produce.

And gentlemen and ladies, when you’re asking four million for a house, a couple of grand for the pitch video is chump change.

For your four million, you get an eleven-acre hilltop estate out in the hills above Soquel with free-form salt-water pool on a stone terrace; a tennis court and impeccable gardens and glades; top flight ocean views, and of course a mid-century Prairie School mansion.

The mansion offers 4000-plus square feet of rough-cut stone and natural wood beams and open-plan goodness. And glass.  Lots and lots of glass. And maybe, down in the wine cellar, the words “Frank Lloyd Wright was here” chiseled in the wall.  And if not, they should have been. Check it out.

And yet: it won’t sell.  It won’t sell in the world’s white-hottest real estate market, a black hole of a market that crushes the hopes and dreams of plebes like you and me and spits out ever-higher prices.

It wont’ sell despite the fawning feature stories planted in the big regional newspapers. Or all the well-heeled professionals from the big city with cash to buy other estates around here.

It won’t sell in a place where a tiny two-bedroom by the freeway just might break 900K. Priced-out renters are literally demonstrating in the streets — and it won’t sell.

It’s been two years on the market.   The sellers eventually cut the price by ten percent while all around it home prices shot for the stars.

And it still won’t sell.  It was a puzzle. But for me, the answer came from the address: 999 North Rodeo Gulch Road. The address rang a bell. A very, very faint bell from fifty years ago.  But I have lived in Santa Cruz more than half that long.  I called up a search engine and searched “999 North Rodeo Gulch,” Soquel and “murder.”

And there it was, at the top of the results: a terse account of quintuple murder out of the archives of a big east coast newspaper.

Today you might call it a home invasion: a wealthy doctor, his wife and children, and an employee were taken hostage at home by a man with a .45.  The man tied up each family member as they came home.

He raved at them all about materialism and a war to save the environment — aside from the house itself, a Rolls and a Lincoln sat in the driveway. Then he shot them all and threw the bodies in the pool. He paused to set the house on fire, and left.

Some say that the murderer heard voices in his head; others blamed LSD and radical politics. The jury found him sane and sent him to Death Row, but the state abolished the death penalty soon after and commuted his sentence to life in prison.  He died in his cell 30-odd years later, by his own hand. A more complete, if sensationalist, account of the matter can be found here.

A few years after that, the house went on the market.  And it won’t sell.

In this state, any death on a property in the past three years must be disclosed to prospective buyer.  Any earlier, and the seller need not volunteer the information. But they must still answer honestly if asked: “Anybody ever die here?”

Yet the murders really shouldn’t matter now — should they?   After all, 50 years have passed. The damage has been repaired; the blood, long scrubbed way; the pool, cleaned and cleaned again. The murderer is dead.

New owners purchased the place. Life went on.  Drive by 999 North Rodeo Gulch Road today and all you’ll see is a metal gate and an elegant stone wall.  Stylish steel letters spell out the street number and name.  Nothing suggests sadness, or madness, or death.

But people are funny.  Superstitious or not, most of them still don’t want to live in the memory of evil. Certainly not while paying $4 million for the privilege.

So they turn their back on this midcentury Mount Olympus and go inspect a remodeled tract home over by the wastewater treatment plant.

Sure, the real estate guys might keep their mouths shut. But every real estate broker and salesman in town knows about that house by now.  They can’t say they don’t. They are going to tell their buyers, law or no law.  Maybe they’ll give them a little time to fall in love with the place, but they’ll surely disclose long before the buyer picks up the pen.

Because, law or no law, not disclosing is not an option. The stain on that house will never go away. If this buyer doesn’t find out, the next one will, down the line. And lawyers exist for a reason.

And the outraged homeowners would howl “‘My broker Honest Bob Greedy let us buy a murder house WITHOUT TELLING US.”

It’d be tweeted and Facebooked and Yelped and Reddited and YouTubed and memed until Bob Greedy changed his name and fled town with an Internet lynch mob on his heels and an angry hashtag branded on his forehead in bloody red letters. Shameful truths want to be known.  They do not like to be concealed.

Whether the subject in question is a mansion with a bloody history, or a Supreme Court justice who just might be a rapist, concealment is the major evil here, beyond even the acts being concealed. Concealment puts a buyer’s treasure in the hands of a criminal; it potentially puts the law of the nation in the hands of a man whose character may, just may, be that of a criminal and brute.

It is all very expedient to rush someone like Brett Kavanaugh through a quick, orchestrated hearing and a perfunctory investigation and say, “See, this is now settled. The letter of the law is obeyed.”  And then airily opine, as Republican Senate Leader McConnell did, that “these things always blow over.”

But it is not settled simply because the letter of the law says it is.  As the real estate guys know, what you do within the letter of the law can still destroy the process’s integrity. It can still destroy the trust that the brokers need to stay in business.  And there are always lawyers.

And for politicians who rush through a flawed nominee, there may well be further disclosures from the nominees victims to contend with.  If more such victims are there, they will arise.

And there will be distrust, and revulsion, and demonstrations, anger and strife.  The hot-house subversives in the GOP underestimate just how fragile civil society is, while they swing sledgehammers at its foundations.

It could be that the thing to “blow over” will be Mitch McConnell’s oligarch-friendly Senate majority.  And perhaps even the legitimacy of the Supreme Court itself, and the White House beyond that.  I am not eager for that.  Legitimacy given up is not easily regained.

All this, because the character of their new Supreme Court judge is being concealed, glossed over. Again, this concealment is the real crime against America. Because without men of good character America’s law is just a dry set of rules to be manipulated for the benefit of the greedy and power-hungry.  As we have seen, and may well see even more of thanks to Justice Kavanaugh.

And that definitely won’t sell.  They will be shown that.

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