11/03/1997 at 01:00 AM EST
STANDING IN THE VAULTED FOYER of the mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., where 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult committed mass suicide last March, Randy Bell shakes his head sadly. "When they took out the bodies," he says, "the gurneys chipped up all the marble."
That's the problem with death: It leaves a mess. And when the mess is big enough to make the evening news, it plays havoc with property values. Marble can be repaired, blood-stained carpets can be replaced, and the smell of death eventually aired out, but the stigma can linger for years, driving away potential buyers. That's where Bell—"Dr. Disaster," as he's known in real estate circles—comes in. His job is to erase the bad memories so that an owner can sell a tarnished property for something close to its original value—in the'case of the Heaven's Gate estate, about $1.6 million. In fact, Sam Koutchesfahani, who owns the property, will be putting Bell's work to the test as he accepts sealed bids throughout November.
A Los Angeles real estate appraiser and stigma specialist, Bell has also consulted on Nicole Brown Simpson's four-bedroom Brentwood condo, which sold at auction in December for just slightly below its $595,000 asking price, and the Beverly Hills estate where Charles Manson's followers murdered Sharon Tate and four other people in 1969.
To make prospective buyers forget what happened in a house, Bell, 38, relies on the Bell Chart, a 30-point set of rules that he created in 1992. He will, for instance, eliminate anything that has been seen in TV coverage of a tragedy. In the case of the Rancho Santa Fe house, that will mean a major makeover. "The fireplace mantel is going to go; all the carpeting, all the marble, the wallpaper, will be different," he says. "You'll walk in here and say, 'I don't even recognize this place.' "
Another Bell rule: Get the house occupied. "You've got to move on instead of just wallowing in the tragedy forever," he says. So, as soon as the mansion had been renovated to Bell's specifications, Koutchesfahani, a real estate investor, and his family moved back in.
On Bell's advice, Koutchesfahani threw a 13th-birthday party there for his son Tony on June 6. The 40 guests, most of them newly minted teens like the guest of honor, danced on the lawn and frolicked in the pool, though the padlocked house was off-limits. "Everything that has to do with my house, I run by Randy," says Koutchesfahani. "Even before my lawyer."
The son of a Fullerton, Calif., engineer and a homemaker, Bell, who lives in Laguna Niguel with his wife, Melanie, 31, a business-management student, and their three small children Michael, 5, Steven, 4, and Britten, 2, found his ghoulish niche in 1988, when he was called to testify as an expert witness in a property damage case. "I just thought, 'This is for me,' " he says. "It involves a lot of research and I love research. It's complex and very challenging."
Now, for $295 an hour, he handles about 25 properties at a time. "We cherry-pick the best cases," he says. "I make the same amount of money whether it's boring or interesting, so I try to pick the interesting ones."
Even Bell believes that some properties, like the JonBenét Ramsey house in Boulder, Colo., are beyond rehabilitation and should be razed. "Whenever you have a crime against a child," he says, "it's so negative and abhorrent and the hope of selling is very small." Apart from those few exceptions, though, Bell is optimistic that time and the real estate market heal all wounds, however fatal. "Here in Southern California," he says, "you don't have to wait very long for another tragedy to come along and take everyone's focus somewhere else."
MICHELE KELLER in Rancho Santa Fe