OCEAN CITY — A dangerous incident this month in a coastal North Carolina town that only avoided becoming a tragedy because of pre-arranged precautions emphasized the importance of safety for local Realtors often put in compromising situations when showing properties alone with complete strangers.
In Salisbury, N.C. last week, a female Realtor showing homes to a 49-year-old man was sexually assaulted at knife-point and was then taken to a second home for viewing where the assaults continued. In between, however, the Realtor called her office and used a pre-arranged code word to indicate she was in trouble and a colleague and ultimately the police arrived before she was put in further danger.
The suspect, later identified as Brian Cooper, 49, arrived at the female real estate agent’s office and told the victim his brother was a law enforcement officer and that a relative had recently died and left him some money with which he planned to purchase a new home. Cooper actually went to the victim’s office and was seen by multiple employees before arranging for the victim to show him houses for sale. The victim met Cooper at the first house on the list, during which he produced a knife and sexually assaulted her.
The victim and suspect drove together to the next house on the list, but in the interim, the victim told Cooper she had to check in with her office because her colleagues would be suspicious if she did not contact them. During the ensuing conversation with her office, the victim used a pre-arranged code word suggesting she was in trouble. A colleague from the office went to the second home she was showing Cooper and walked in, uncertain of just what was going on.
The victim had fled from the home and the other real estate agent drove Cooper back to the office, not sure of what had happened. The victim had called 911 to report the incident and Cooper was arrested at the real estate office and has been charged with attempted rape, assault and false imprisonment.
The near tragic incident cast light on the always dangerous problem of Realtors showing properties, often vacant homes, or sitting on open houses by themselves with complete strangers, some of whom have a propensity for violence.
Only the use of a pre-arranged code word prevented the female victim from being assaulted further or worse. Following the North Carolina incident, the Salisbury-Rowan Real Estate Association issued a reminder to agents in the area to be advised of the potential dangers and have a pre-arranged safety system in place.
“Please be aware that one of our Realtor members was assaulted while showing a house today,” the SRRA warned. “If you are going to show a house, please let someone know where you are going and who will be with you. If your office has an alert code, please make sure that everyone is aware of the procedure. Unfortunately, we can never be too careful and many times think that it won’t happen to us. Please be careful at all times.”
A poll of local Realtors in the Ocean City area this month revealed most have similar safeguards in place to protect their agents from harm when showing properties to complete strangers.
“Most companies that I have worked for do,” said resort area realtor Nick Bobenko of “I recall that when I was with one company, there was a process in place for an agent in distress to call the office and ask for the ‘blue folder’ to be brought to them at whatever address they were. Obviously, most of this risk in going to fall on females and I would assume each of them have their own protections or a system in place.”
The National Association of Realtors and the regional Coastal Association of Realtors list safety tips and often hold safety seminars for agents. Another local realtor, Jay Wise, manager of the local Prudential PenFed Realty offices, agreed with the importance of having a pre-arranged safety plan in place.
“We encourage agents to let the desk receptionist know of the showing plan,” he said. “If an agent were to feel uncomfortable, they would call the front desk and ask for a benign folder in reference to the property. This benign word would cue the desk receptionist to alert the police to check on their welfare.”
Realtor Joy Snyder of Mark Fritschle Group Condominium Realty, Ltd. outlined some of the potential dangers, particularly in the resort area.
“The one thing we’ve always emphasized is leave an itinerary on your desk and tell the office when you expect to return,” she said. “If you’re not back within 20 to 30 minutes of the time you’re supposed to be back, the office is instructed to call you on your cell.”
Snyder said there are inherent risks for agents showing properties to complete strangers and offered some absolute no-no’s as far as advice.
“One thing that is very dangerous is showing properties at night,” she said. “We just never do it. Another curse right now is the Internet and pictures of vacant houses for sale. You never want to have photos of a vacant house. Instead, we have a photographer shoot the house while it’s still occupied.”
Snyder said the seasonal nature of the Ocean City area’s real estate market presents unique challenges.
“One of the problems we face here is the high level of vacancies in the offseason,” she said. “Never enter a property first and always follow the client, always leave the door ajar, and never, ever go out on a balcony with a client. In most cases, we’re dealing with strangers, and as nice as they seem to be, you just never know these days.”