Real estate agents wary after attack

Man sought in April assault in Eldersburg is seen at house tours elsewhere

July 08, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Maryland State Police are searching for a man they think is casing open houses in at least three counties where female real estate agents or employees are working alone.

The man, police said, is the primary suspect in the April assault on a 43-year-old woman who was showing a model home in Eldersburg. Police said she was struck on the head from behind but fended off the attacker, who fled.

Tfc. John Linton of the Westminster barracks said the investigation is focused on a pattern established by the unidentified man, who was seen at another model home less than a mile away minutes before the assault.

When police circulated fliers with a composite sketch of the man to realty associations in Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties, they received several reports that the man had visited open houses in those counties. Last week, police said the man was spotted at an open house in Harford County.

Real estate agents said they have exercised more caution since the killing of a female agent 11 years ago. While showing a house in Baltimore's Hunting Ridge neighborhood, Lynne McCoy was robbed, raped and killed by an ex-convict who cased homes before burglarizing them.

The woman in Eldersburg was working for a private developer when the attack occurred.

"It rocks the industry when you hear of incidents like this happening," said Debbie Hager, director of communications for the Maryland Association of Realtors. "We have stepped up our urgency to get the rules of safety out."

The association's 24,000 members will soon receive a brochure on safety that is being developed, Hager said. One section deals exclusively with tips on how to conduct a safe open house.

Women make up more than half of the association's membership, Hager said.

The killing of McCoy "was a wake-up call for all of us," said Ilene Kessler, one of McCoy's close friends and a real estate agent for ReMax Advantage in Columbia. "You really don't think about it. You think you're being safe."

As a result of the killing, Kessler never works open houses alone. She also keeps an eye out for suspicious behavior.

"My radar goes up with anybody who acts like they're afraid to answer my questions," Kessler said.

In the attack in Eldersburg on April 25, the man made small talk with his victim, police said, but did nothing else to cause alarm. After the agent left him to wander around the house, she returned to her office. He followed her there and hit her.

State police responded at 12:15 p.m. They found the woman - who police described only as an employee of Preakness Homes - at the model home in the 700 block of Old Liberty Road, which is part of Preakness' Woodsyde Estates residential development.

The victim said her assailant fled in a late-model green GMC sport utility vehicle. She did not get a tag number.

Police said potential witnesses should obtain a tag number because the man is likely to give a false identification.

The woman described her attacker as white, 5 feet, 10 inches tall, in his late 40s with blue eyes and short, sandy, blond-red hair. She said he had a nickel-size bump on his left cheek and a neatly trimmed beard.

Early in the investigation, police theorized that the man was targeting women working alone at model homes, a theory supported by the calls from female agents in neighboring counties.

"These women say the person they've seen looks exactly like the picture on the flier," Linton said. "He's visiting model homes on a regular basis. Not committing any assaults leads me to believe he's staking things out."

Most real estate agents adhere to national guidelines that recommend showing houses in teams of two, but developers sometimes staff their open houses with one employee. Since the attack - a first for 20-year-old Preakness Homes - the developer has doubled the number of employees at open houses.

"We hope the police would catch this predator; that's the only thing you can call this person," said Preakness President Harry Rosenthal.

Carroll real estate agents also make sure they work in teams.

"We were a little nervous about agents going out into open houses," said Janice Kirkner, president of the Carroll County Association of Realtors. "I think you like to think that everybody's good, but the reality is, not everybody's good. If you sit in an open house by yourself, you're always leery of what if."

Anyone with information is asked to call state police at the Westminster barracks, 410-386-3000.

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