Sunday, May 26, 2024

Tales of real estate and murder - Guest post by Dawn M. Barclay (aka D.M. Barr)

Dawn with friends

Dawn M. Barclay is an award-winning author who writes fiction as D.M. Barr and nonfiction under her own name. Her novels involving real estate, which has been her career for the past 25 years, include Expired Listings, Revenge Begins at Home, The Queen of Second Chances, and the soon-to-be-released Deadly When Disturbed, all set in the tumultuous world of Rock Canyon Realty. In 2025, Level Best Books will release the first volumes of her multi-book true crime travel series, Vacations Can Be Murder. She also recently co-edited her second Sisters in Crime - NY/TriState's anthology, New York State of Crime. Dawn is the past president of Hudson Valley Scribes, a former VP of Sisters in Crime-NY, former board member and newsletter editor for MWA-NY, and a member of  ITW.

In today's guest post, Dawn tells us why being a Realtor is a really dangerous profession, and how that can be exploited to write exciting thrillers!

I started writing fiction because as a Realtor, I knew what a dangerous profession it was and wanted to convey that to others.

 As real estate office manager Deborah Lee Decker explains in my first novel, Expired Listings: “Think about it. Most agents are women, usually very attractive women. We post glamour shots on our signs and business cards and then list every possible way to reach us. Then, how’s this for brilliant, we advertise that we’re going to be alone in an empty house for hours on a Sunday afternoon. We have strangers join us in our cars, or we ride in theirs... If we’re not asking for trouble, then I don’t know who is.”

Surprisingly, many reviewers mentioned that before Expired Listings, they’d never read a mystery or thriller set in the world of real estate. Yet, while I was writing the second draft (or was it the third?), stories flooded newspapers about the murder of 49-year-old Arkansas Realtor, Beverly Carter. And she was far from the first: in 2011, an Iowa agent named Ashley Oakland was murdered while showing a home. She was 27. And five years earlier, agent Sarah Ann Walker (40) was stabbed repeatedly in a McKinney, Texas model home.

The truth is that real estate sales—which require agents to go to properties that are often empty, accompanied by “prospective buyers” whom they may never have previously met—embody the very essence of mystery and horror books and films.
I’ve been an associate real estate broker for 25 years, and of the nine books I’ve written or edited since 2015, three involve real estate agents. In the aforementioned Expired Listings, a psychological thriller that’s also satiric, a serial killer is murdering all the unethical agents in the small town of Rock Canyon (meaning all of them), and no one is too concerned. The other agents are happy, believing it means less competition; the townspeople view it as a public service. The only one who’s even slightly perturbed is Dana Black, a kinky agent who uses her empty listings for erotic S&M interludes, and she’s only concerned because someone is trying to pin the murders on her.
And the murders are more ironic than gory—like the agent who’s tied to a hot water heater in an overpriced listing and ends up dying of dehydration because no other agents show the home with its inflated price tag. Or another broker who dies when a pile of boxes collapses on her in a hoarder’s home. The novel overflows messages to sellers, like Price the Home Right! and Declutter!
Unfortunately, while I was writing the book, two New Jersey agents got caught “doing the deed” by an owner who’d installed hidden security cameras in his empty home. Apparently, the agents had overpriced the property to keep it empty, so they’d have a cheap venue for their steamy trysts. I say “unfortunately,” not only because I thought the story further damaged the reputation of Realtors in general (at least my books are fiction), but because it made my novel seem less original. I wrote it before their story hit, I swear!

My other two real estate novels involve crime within the profession but without serial killings. The Queen of Second Chances features Carra Quinn, the stepdaughter of Bea, the mobile home queen. Bea hires Carra, who’s desperate for work, to infiltrate a Rock Canyon senior center as an aide and convince seniors to sell their homes. And in the third novel, Deadly When Disturbed, which will debut in January of 2025, Rock Canyon’s top Realtor, Dara Banks, hires an assistant named Merry Rafter who turns out to be something other than what she originally claims. Along the way, Dara pulls a few unethical stunts, like getting a listing by subtly mentioning to a seller that the agent they had initially chosen is undergoing dialysis and may not be available when they need him to be. They end up choosing to list with her instead. This was actually based on a true story of an agent I knew who refused to let competing agents know oncologists were treating her for breast cancer, lest they use that information to steal away her clients. Sad but true.

I’m not the only one writing real estate mystery fiction. My fellow sister in crime, Nancy Good, will release Killer Condo through Level Best Books this coming June. Emily Page and Patti Benning both have cozy real estate mystery series. New York Times bestselling author Marshall Karp tackles real estate in his inimitable and humorous way in Flipping Out. And Chevy Stevens’ debut novel, Still Missing, involves a Realtor. (Chevy was a Realtor, I still am.)

Now I’m writing nonfiction, specifically a series of true crime travel guides called Vacations Can Be Murder. And what I’ve learned is that real estate agents play a role in true crime, just as they have in fiction.

Sure, you have Realtors murdered on the job, like the aforementioned agents. But don’t forget Edna Therrel Macdonald, who was discovered strangled in the basement of a house on Heritage Road in Barrington, Rhode Island. Her suspected killer was counterfeiter, kidnapper, rapist, and sadist James Mitchell DeBardeleben, though authorities never prosecuted him for that particular crime. Edna was not the only real estate agent he allegedly murdered, either. In 1982, DeBardeleben reportedly kidnapped real estate agent Jean McPhaul, and left her hanging in the attic of a new home, lashed to a rafter. Her heart had two puncture wounds.
In an excellent article in Psychology Today by fellow Level Best Books author Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., titled, Realtor Murders: Some are Predators and Some are Prey (July 27, 2019 (, Ramsland details several other real estate-related murders.
One involved Rosalba Contreras, a broker in California. She induced an elderly couple to sell investment properties to her associates for below-market value and then resold them for top dollar. The difference cost the couple around $2 million. In 1998, when confronted, Contreras attacked the husband with a hammer, bludgeoning him to death. She then slashed the bedridden wife with a razor and set their beach house on fire. The couple both perished in the blaze.
When another agent, Ann Nelson, asked a buyer why he was looking at homes he couldn’t afford, he answered by strangling her with a scarf and beating her to death with a fireplace poker. He tried to destroy the evidence by setting the house on fire. And the carnage apparently doesn’t end at the closing table. For example, once in his new home, Robert Johnson was clearly upset that the property he’d purchased through Troy Vanderstelt had lost value. He showed his displeasure by scheduling a meeting with Vanderstelt during which he shot his former broker to death.
So, it’s clear that buyers and sellers can be murderers. But how about the agents themselves? Through my research, I’ve uncovered real estate agents who were killing it—and I don’t mean in a good way.
Todd Kohnhepp of South Carolina hid his sex offender past (and the fact he’d already killed four people) when he applied for a real estate license in 2006. This guy actually had the audacity to review murder weapons like chainsaws on Amazon, albeit not under his own name. And the murders and rapes he committed (that we know of) didn’t involve real estate buyers and sellers, but people he’d hired to clean his home. Some never made it out alive. Authorities ultimately charged him with seven counts of murder plus kidnapping and sexual assault. He pleaded guilty in 2017 and is currently serving seven consecutive life sentences.
 Willy Suarez Maceo of Miami is another suspected Realtor-turned-serial-killer. He’s been charged with first-degree murder in the killings of two homeless men, one in October of 2021, and the other a few months later in December. He’s also been charged for attempted murder for third shooting, also in December. Again, the murders were unrelated to real estate, but they really make you question who’s listing that empty house down the block.
All this real estate-related death makes you wonder why For Sale by Owners go it alone. They’ve got no buffer between themselves and the buyers who come to preview their home. I’d be very wary if I were them. I’d be sure to have a crowd of people in the house whenever any prospective purchaser called for a viewing.

If there’s one thing I’m grateful for, it’s that because all of these murders have been spread out over decades, the general public hasn’t gone sour on real estate and using real estate agents—not yet anyway. If I continue to write about Rock Canyon Realty, I may have to start answering my phone with the disclaimer, “Hi, I’m Dawn Barclay, Associate Broker—I don’t plan to kill you and I certainly suggest you don’t murder me.” The truth is, despite all the books and newspaper stories, real estate is probably 99% safe. But I’ll carry pepper spray in my purse—just in case.
 (Note: The term “Realtor” is really supposed to be written as REALTOR© but I find that jarring to read so I have compromised by capitalizing the word. I hope NAR doesn’t come after me.)







  1. Fascinating ! I never knew any of these true crime stories.
    Thank you for mentioning Killer Condo, a Park Ave NYC mystery
    At least in New York City agents don't get into cars with buyers though taxi drivers are their own kind of crazy!

    1. Right, if you work NYC real estate, the taxi, Uber, and subway costs when showing properties is what kills you!

  2. An eye-opening piece, Dawn! But so very true. It reminded me of a story told to me by a dear friend who at one time was a real estate agent. She told me that at a private showing the prospective client tried to rape her at knife point. She only escaped by tearfully telling her assailant she was pregnant and intercourse risked her losing the baby--and offering him oral sex instead... which he accepted.