Let’s look back at some of the most gripping, noteworthy and just plain strange real estate crime stories of 2019.
From your common wire fraud and client lawsuits to the more harrowing attacks and murder attempts against agents, the real estate industry is no stranger to crime. While the risks and relevance of open houses and iBuyers’ failure to curb squatters have dominated real estate safety discussions over the last year, agents regularly have to grapple with crime and safety situations on the job.
Let’s look back at some of the most gripping, noteworthy and just plain strange real estate crime stories of 2019.
Murder-suicide of Miami brokers
The year started off on an extremely tragic note after well-known Miami Realtor Linda Marx, 70, was shot and killed by her son-in-law, Stephen Kasimow, who was also a broker. Kasimow, 52, shot Marx, fled the scene and was later found dead by means of suicide.
An investigation later revealed that Marx had been talking to Kasimow outside the northern Miami home that he shared with his wife when her son-in-law pulled out a gun and shot her. Police believe that Kasimow blamed Marx when his wife and Marx’s daughter, Aimee Marx Kasimow, asked him for a divorce
Active in Miami real estate circles since the 1980s, Marx had closed over $100 million in deals over nearly four decades and, according to her website, employed more than 20 agents through her agency. After hear death, real estate agents across the country sent in messages of grief and support for Marx’s loved ones. “A Dear Neighbor, fellow Realtor, and asset to our community,” neighbor Dexter Coelho wrote on Marx’s obituary page.
An eviction gone very wrong
Utah-based agent David Stokoe was found dead inside a Salt Lake City apartment in January. According to police and court records, Stokoe came to tell tenants Manuel Velasquez and Jessica Reese that they were not paying their rent and needed to leave the apartment.
Velasquez, who was later charged with murder, is reported to have shot Stokoe several times in response to him bursting through the door. Reese and Diana Hernandez, a friend of the two tenants, were charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly helping Velasquez hide the body in a nearby crawl space.
The murder investigation and subsequent trial are still ongoing. At the time of his death, Stokoe worked for local brokerage RANLife and was well-known in his community as an agent and father of four young children. His death sent waves of shock and grief both throughout Utah and the national real estate community.
An unlikely El Chapo connection
The highly prominent trial of gangster Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera intersected with the real estate community in an unexpected way. During the hearings, one of the notorious gangster’s closest former accomplices testified that Guzmán had tried to use the Hells Angels to kill a real estate agent in Canada. The former leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel and one of Mexico’s most dangerous drug lords, Guzmán was extradited to the U.S. and sentenced to life in prison later in the year.
But in January, Guzmán’s former right-hand man Hildebrando Alexander Cifuentes-Villa told the court that Stephen Tello, a real estate agent and student from Concordia University in Montreal, had worked with Guzmán to bring cocaine, heroin and crystal meth from Mexico to Canada.
Guzmán would later grow suspicious that Tello was mishandling the funds they made from the drugs and started hatching plans to take him out. But the plans were stilted after both Cifuentes-Villa and Tello, who is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence for his role in the drug ring, were arrested in separate drug raids.
A heinous crime in New York
In February, another agent’s life was taken much too soon after Jennifer Irigoyen was found stabbed to death in the entranceway to her New York apartment building. Irigoyen, who was pregnant with her second child at the time of her death, was heard screaming “He’s got a knife! He’s going to kill the baby!” near the front door and vestibule of her home building in the early hours of Sunday, February 3.
Irigoyen’s boyfriend, Anthony Hobson, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder a few days later.
Surveillance camera footage seen by investigators showed a man grabbing Irigoyen, dragging her through the entrance and vestibule and then stabbing her in the stomach. An ambulance brought her to the hospital, but she and her unborn son died. Irigoyen had been working as a broker and HR manager at New York’s Crosstown Apartments and regularly sold homes throughout Manhattan and Queens. Fellow agents started a GoFundMe account to raise money for her burial ceremonies and young son.
Execs named in college admissions scandal
When it first broke, the news that many celebrities and high-profile company executives paid exorbitant sums of money to buy their kids entry into prestigious universities sparked a level of national outrage not seen in years. The widespread efforts to cheat the system included everything from bribing officials and varsity coaches to register their children as athletic recruits to having an insider administrator look over their children as they sat through entrance exams.
What became known as the college admissions scandal rocked many industries — not least of which, real estate. Along with Hollywood actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, head of California-based real estate investment firm Bruce Isackson and real estate venture capitalist Robert Zangrillo were some of the real estate executives named in the Federal Bureau of Investigation probe.
As the probe continued, a California judge sentenced Toby MacFarlane, a former senior executive at WFG National Title Insurance Company, to six months in prison for paying $450,000 to get his son and daughter into the University of Southern California, making it one of the toughest sentences handed out so far.
Open house attacks
In April, Illinois police arrested a man who had shot a female real estate agent with a stun gun during an open house in an attempt to sexually assault her. The agent, whose name is being kept private by the police, was holding an open home in the Chicago suburb of Tinley Park when Stanley Keller, 50, came in, took some brochures and asked to see the house. After feeling something vibrate behind her and then poke her in the back, the agent ran out of the house and yelled for the neighbors to call the police.
Police later discovered that the man had been holding an opened but unused condom and suspected that he had been planning to sexually assault the agent. He was later charged with one felony count each of attempted aggravated criminal sexual assault, aggravated battery and possession of a weapon by a felon due to a past conviction.
The incident was the first of many attacks on agents during open houses which, throughout the year, launched an industry discussion on safety during open houses. Some have argued that the risks of an attack, especially to female agents hosting open houses alone, outweigh their benefits.
A black agent handcuffed while showing a home
Racism in real estate came to the forefront of industry after a a Realtor and his client, both African American, were handcuffed, held at gunpoint and questioned by the police while trying to view a home. The incident prompted Jerry Isham, a Realtor with the local Movement Realty brokerage, and his client, Anthony Edwards, to sue the city of Cincinnati.
The men had been touring a local house in a mostly white neighborhood when a neighbor and retired police officer called the police after seeing them enter the house. Video footage showed police officers storming the house and yelling at the men to get out even as Isham explained that he is a Realtor who is showing the home with a client.
While the city of Cincinnati later settled the case by apologizing and offering to pay Isham and Edwards $151,000, the incident gained national attention and sparked conversation about who gets the benefit of the doubt and taken seriously as an agent — and who immediately gets seen as hostile even while on the job.
Cult-following ‘flyer bandit’
Throughout the summer, a ‘flyer bandit’ sought out open houses in Santa Cruz, California, in an effort to locate and empty as many unmanned home flyer boxes as possible. Local police revealed that the man had been participating in a competition organized by a local spiritual cult in which whoever collects the most flyers wins a bride.
While open house flyers are generally free and available to whoever wants them for whatever reason (and therefore not something that the police can control), local Realtors complained that the man was preventing those truly interested in buying a home from learning about it while also causing them to shell out hefty printing fees for new flyers.
The Santa Cruz County Association of Realtors sent out a safety warning telling its agents about the ‘flyer bandit’ and the risk of having open house flyers lost in this way. According to some locals, the cult’s competition ended in October and the ‘flyer bandit’ has not been heard or seen from since.
A fake agent steals from celebrities
In one of the most bizarre stories of the year, a man reportedly alternated posing as a high-flying real estate agent, buyer and homeowner in order to get access and burglarize the homes of celebrities including Usher, Adam Lambert and Jason Derulo.
Benjamin Eitan Ackerman, 33, was arrested in January on suspicion of theft after police found in his home thousands of missing items worth more than a million dollars reported stolen from celebrity houses across Los Angeles’ Hollywood Hills. Some of the missing items included expensive jewelry, rare art and fine wine.
As the investigators started unraveling the convoluted case, they discovered that Ackerman had been using a real Beverly Hills real estate agent, Jason Emil Yaselli, as an accomplice in the crime spree. Yaselli and Ackerman would reportedly work together to gain access to the stars’ homes and steal luxury items whose total worth could equal more than $50,000. While Ackerman had originally been the only one arrested, both men had been charged with money laundering, residential burglary and identity theft by August.
iBuying’s squatter problem
The discussions around safety in iBuyer homes reached a fever pitch after Arizona police found a couple squatting in an Opendoor house with two children. Gary Lynn, 29, and Adriana Gamboa, 26, were discovered after a buyer came in to view the house. Gamboa was giving one of her children a bath on the second floor while another child was running around the house wet. While it was not immediately clear how Lynn and Gamboa had accessed the home, the Opendoor app shows which homes in a particular neighborhood are on the market and allows anyone with a cell phone to request a code and then go inside.
After news of the situation broke, many started questioning whether the burgeoning iBuyer resale model — being able to find an empty for-sale house online and access it through a phone code — was putting both agents and prospective buyers’ safety at risk. Some agents shared stories of being locked out from the inside by a squatter while others have come inside to find everything from drug paraphernalia and tampered-with appliances.
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