If you bought a house where something terrible happened, would you feel at ease - secure in the belief that lightning doesn't strike the same spot twice - or would you turn it into a fortress for fear that copycats might someday try to repeat the crime?
That question was on my mind in November, when I went to LA for a CSO dinner. I'm a history buff and have read a lot of true crime books like "Helter Skelter" over the years, and I made time to go see some of the places I've read about.
Whenever I read a book about crime, the security journalist in me always surfaces, pondering the following questions:
- If I lived at a former crime scene, would I feel secure in the knowledge that the people and circumstances of those events were long gone, or would I find myself listening for ghosts in the middle of the night?
- If it were the latter, would paranoia take over, with the constant fear that someone was trying to come on the property?
- Would I have tall gates and iron fencing installed in an effort to feel safer?
As I set out in search of these places, I made a mental note to look at the current scenes and compare them to photos of the past. These sites might offer a valuable glimpse into the psychology behind security.
Indeed, a couple sites were hidden behind big gates and strategically placed trees. Other sites looked no different from pictures of 20 and 40 years ago. But after talking to a consultant who designs the security for a lot of Hollywood homes, I realized that some of my assumptions were wrong.
My first stop was Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, where Sharon Tate and four others were brutally murdered by minions of Charles Manson in the summer of 1969. Then I drove to Waverly Drive in the Los Feliz section of L.A., where the Manson Family killers stabbed Leno and Rosemary LaBianca to death the night after the Tate murders. The first thing I noticed at both sites was that they looked more like fortresses than in the black-and-white photos I've seen.
The gate at the end of Cielo Drive allows gawkers no view of the property itself, which has changed considerably over the years. The Tate house was razed in 1994 and a massive mansion was built in its place. But the curious still go to the gate all the time. The gate that was there in 1969 was a simple chain-link model. You could look through the gate and see the grounds and the garage of the old house.
The LaBianca house is still there and looks the same as it did 42 years ago. But there's a big difference today: A massive iron gate and trees strategically placed in front of the property to obstruct the view. I assumed this was added security designed to keep the Manson fanatics out. The next day I decided to find some other notorious sites and see if the outdoor security had changed over the years.
I went to the scene of the Wonderland Murders. The house looks the same as it did in 1981, when four occupants were brutally bludgeoned to death with metal pipes in a drug-related scenario involving porn star John Holmes and allegedly masterminded by Los Angeles businessman and drug dealer Eddie Nash. No gates in front. Anyone could walk into the car port. Next I visited the house where Lyle and Erik Menendez shot their parents to death. I saw no gates or other visible forms of security. You could walk right up and ring the doorbell, just like any other house.
Security or décor?
I reached out to two people in an effort to make better sense of what I saw. The first was self-described "Crime Doctor" Chris McGoey, an internationally known security expert who wrote an article for us on the basics of home security a few years ago. The second was Scott Michaels, a documentary filmmaker, owner of the popular Findadeath.com site and owner of Dearly Departed Tours. The latter enterprise has Michaels regularly driving tourists to many of these crime scenes. Think of it as a darker version of the tours that take you to homes of the stars. In that capacity, I figured, he must be familiar with the security measures taken at these homes.
Some of what the two told me was what I expected. But they also shot down some of my perceptions.
First, McGoey told me, those big gates aren't necessarily security measures the current owners put in place out of fear of more violence or even out of concern over gawkers. Sure, it's to give them more privacy. But big gates are also status symbols.
"For the most part, the addition of gates, fences etc. are not so much about adding security because the homeowner is afraid of a repeat crime," McGooey told me. "It's really about creating a look that fits with the neighborhood. Or, if the home is located in a neighborhood that isn't as nice as it once was, the extra security is more about that than what may have occurred on the property in the past. People don't usually worry about crimes that may have occurred there. The people and circumstances are long gone."
True, there are instances where the current homeowners are worried about gawkers, he said. But it's rare.
Homeowners "know the deal"
In touring these sites, Michaels has adopted a routine to minimise homeowner discomfort.
"I don't hang outside for hours. I usually get out, take my pictures, and leave," Michaels said. "If I'm on tour, I try not to stay outside for very long. The people that own the homes usually know the deal. First, if they are outside or in front -- I don't stop. I leave. I'll come back. I will go around the block. Give them enough time to disappear. I know I'm not their favorite person by a long shot, but I don't want to give them any more reason to dislike me. I really try to be as respectful as possible."
If you aren't trespassing, there isn't anything anyone can do to stop the gawkers, Michaels said. A person can stand in the street all they like and snap away. Michaels said he personally chooses his moment, does what he needs to do, and leaves.
"If you do trespass, there probably isn't anything anyone can do but yell at you. If they call the police, the police are probably already aware of whatever house you are visiting as a tourist attraction. By the time they respond, you'll probably be gone. Unless it's Beverly Hills. I think their response time is 2.5 minutes," Michaels said. "I was once in my bus in front of the Menendez house - in my bus, in the street. Some youngish guy - probably early 20s - came out of the balcony with what appeared to be a semi-automatic weapon. He didn't point it at me, but he made it very clear to me that he had it. When I told a police officer about it, he seemed unfazed. If I didn't feel it was a threat, then there was nothing they could do."
When Dennis Hopper died, Michaels went to see the house. He was on the sidewalk and was approached by a security guard. They didn't ask him to leave, but made it clear he wasn't welcome.
"I took my pictures and left," Michaels said.
In the final analysis, this project has reinforced a perception: Whether you're a business owner or a homeowner, security is rarely the first thing on your mind. For a business, the first concern is the product line. For the house, it's the décor.
The security becomes a concern if something bad happens. Even if you own a former crime scene, security only becomes a preoccupation if something else happens on your watch.