By the time Todd Kohlhepp stood behind bars for alleged kidnapping, he had served real estate clients as a registered sex offender and convicted felon for over a decade.
With the body count linked to the 45-year-old agent now up to seven (including a 2003 quadruple murder at a motorcycle shop) after a woman was found being held captive in a metal container on his property, the Spartansburg County, South Carolina, resident’s name has been all over national headlines.
That’s not long after his online reputation was — on the surface — made up of shining Zillow reviews and nearly two dozen recommendations on realtor.com.
Where was the background check?
Kohlhepp received his real estate license from the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation’s (LLR) real estate commission on June 30, 2006, about three weeks after he applied, according to the commission’s Communications Director Lesia Kudelka.
He’d been released from a 15-year jail sentence in 2001. In an “About the Broker” section of his real estate site (now unavailable), Kohlhepp lists himself as a Realtor in addition to broker-in-charge at TKA Real Estate. In 2006, applicants to LLR were required to explain any history of criminal convictions to obtain real estate licensure, Kudelka confirmed.
But there was no background check requirement in place. Kudelka said the application question at the time read: “Have you ever been convicted of or pled guilty or nolo contendere to a crime (other than a minor traffic offense)? Yes_____ No____ . If yes, explain fully on an attachment to this application. Include all pertinent information such as charges, date location and sentences.”
Kohlhepp’s two-page summary described the incident that put him in prison in 1987 as a heated argument between two teenagers. Here, he also promised to “set an example in performing in a manner following all guidelines honorably of your commission.”
Court records, however, show that he’d pled guilty to forcing a 14-year-old into his bedroom with his father’s handgun before raping her.
A letter from the presentence investigation report reads: “One can speculate as to where the defendant’s behavior will lead. It is this writer’s opinion that it is this type of individual, one with little or no conscience, who presents the greatest risk to the community.” The conviction also put him on the registered sex offender list.
A bill requiring background reports for all licensees as part of the application process passed and was signed July 2014 in South Carolina (Bill S.75). “Background reports for all initial applicants began May 2015,” said Kudelka.
The same 2014 law also added clarity that a conviction of a violent crime stands as “grounds for denial of issuance of license or for disciplinary action.”
Kudelka provided Inman with the order to temporarily suspend Kohlhepp’s real estate license, dated Nov. 4, 2016.
President and General Counsel for eXp World Holdings, Russ Cofano, who has 25 years of executive-level experience in technology, association, MLS, brokerage and law, weighed in on the barriers to entry in the real estate profession. “This is obviously a very disturbing and distressing case,” he said.
“From my review of South Carolina license law, Mr. Kohlhepp would be subject to a background check which likely would have identified the earlier conviction. “While I believe all or nearly all states have implemented background/conviction checks at licensure or renewal, how each state treats those is still a patchwork quilt.”
Misleading online reputation
Although at least one real estate professional had a bad feeling about Kohlhepp and reported speaking out about him over a year ago, he seems to have presented himself as a competent agent both in real life and online.
Kohlhepp had a shining profile on Zillow.com (now deleted) featuring an overall five-star rating and eight positive reviews.
Kohlhepp also had a profile on realtor.com (no longer live) that shows he had 23 recommendations.
Cofano told Inman that all real estate licensees can have a profile on realtor.com.
According to the realtor.com “claim your profile” instruction site, agents can get the designated “R” next to their name on a realtor.com profile by providing their NRDS (National Realtors Database System) identification number to prove Realtor status. As the screen capture below shows, Kohlhepp had the Realtor designation on his profile.
The National Association of Realtors’ (NAR) Managing Director of Media Communications Sara Wiskerchen explained how a licensee becomes a Realtor.
“After receiving a real estate license, members join at the local association level and receive automatic membership into the state and national associations,” she said.
“Some local associations do require additional background checks and fingerprinting of new members, but that varies by association.
“NAR is deeply disturbed by the news reports regarding Todd Kohlhepp, and our deepest sympathies go out to the victims and family members affected by his alleged activities.” Cofano, pointing to the above NAR policy, added: “The NAR does allow for local boards to qualify membership for Principal Brokers based on past history of criminal convictions.
“NAR’s model application form asks these questions, but unless there have been some major changes, most local boards (which process applications for Realtor membership) do not perform individual background checks and instead rely on state license law for that.
“I would assume that NAR will be looking into this practice based on cases like these to determine if an additional background check would be warranted for Realtor membership.
“On one hand, we know that this type of egregious conduct represents the tiniest fraction of the industry; any opportunity to consider elevating the requirements for Realtor membership should be considered, especially when dealing with the safety and well-being of consumers.”
In addition to working as a Realtor, Kohlhepp also led as broker-in-charge at TKA Real Estate for what appears to be approximately 15 agents and a website featuring around 35 listings as of October.
A look at the law
In March, Inman reported that in the majority of states, felons can get a real estate license if they petition their state’s real estate commission.
And even in states with stricter laws, there may be loopholes, such as allowing agents who become felons to keep their license for up to three years, which is when agents must have their licenses reviewed in some states.
NAR’s Wiskerchen also said that the majority of states require or permit some type of investigation related to an applicant’s character, criminal background or financial status. About half of all states require applicants to submit fingerprints.
“That said, it’s not clear how the states evaluate or act on the information they receive from the background checks,” she said.
Furthermore, last week the Spartanburg Association of Realtors president Rob Ponce released the following statement: “Our real estate community was deeply disturbed and shocked when we learned of the developing news from Spartanburg County. The alleged actions of this real estate licensee are not representative of the professionalism of the Realtor Association or its members.
“At this time, the association is waiting for the results of local law enforcement’s investigation into the matter. The South Carolina Real Estate Commission, the state agency responsible for real estate licensing, has been alerted. The association has procedures to determine the appropriate sanctions — once law enforcement and the Real Estate Commission have taken action.
“In the meantime, please join us as we pray for the victims, the families of those involved and for all South Carolinians.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated. Email Caroline Feeney