Police: 2 Ohio real estate agents slain, 1 robbed within a week; other agents take precautions

By Thomas J. Sheeran, AP
Wednesday, September 22, 2010

2 Ohio real estate agents killed; another robbed

KENT, Ohio — Two real estate agents were killed in vacant homes for sale and another was robbed all within a week, prompting frightened agents in northeast Ohio to cancel open houses and avoid meeting prospective buyers alone.

Two brothers were arrested Tuesday in the Sept. 15 robbery of a real estate agent who showed them an apartment in Boardman Township. Police were investigating whether the robbery is related to the first homicide in nearby Youngstown, but authorities said the investigation into the second death was focused on a person who is not one of the brothers.

Vivian Martin, 67, was found dead on the kitchen floor in a burning home Monday in Youngstown, said police chief Jimmy Hughes. An autopsy showed she was strangled before the home burned down, and the fire was ruled an arson.

The next day, the body of 51-year-old Andrew VonStein, who had been shot once, was found in a vacant white ranch-style house he was trying to sell about 40 miles west of Youngstown in a lakefront community near Kent State University.

Portage County Sheriff David Doak declined to identify the person at the center of the investigation into VonStein’s death and would not call the person a suspect.

A connection to Martin’s death and the robbery hadn’t been ruled out, Doak said late Wednesday.

“A lot of agents are really scared and upset,” said Suzanne Brown, an office coordinator at RE/MAX Valley Real Estate in Youngstown, where all 24 agents in her office have canceled open houses scheduled for this weekend. The office has stopped taking on new clients until police are confident that all suspects are in custody, Brown said.

Brown said she is reminding agents to take standard precautions when showing homes, such as not going into the house first and not bending down or turning your back to clients. Agents are also encouraged to meet new clients at the office, get identification and verify that they are preapproved for loans — all of which can help ensure that the potential buyers are serious and credible.

The woman who was robbed was showing a vacant apartment building in Boardman that was for sale. She was held at gunpoint, robbed of her purse and threatened with death if she called the police, Boardman police Capt. Donald Hawkins said. Her name was not released.

Paul Brooks, 27, and Robert Brooks, 25, were charged with aggravated robbery. They were being held in the Mahoning County jail and scheduled to be arraigned Thursday, Hawkins said. It wasn’t immediately clear whether they had an attorney.

Paul Brooks was convicted in 2002 on a charge of false imprisonment in Richland County, Wis., and served one year in prison, Hawkins said.

Martin’s body was found on a street filled with a mix of well-kept and rundown single-family homes, about two miles from the Pennsylvania border. She lived two blocks away.

A woman who answered the phone at Essence Realty, where Martin worked as a broker, declined to comment.

VonStein, a prominent real estate agent who had worked in the community for 32 years, was reported missing by his family when he failed to come home from work Monday night. Dennis Buffington, a landscaper working across the street from the home where VonStein’s body was found, said he had not seen VonStein enter the house by the time he left at 5:30 p.m.

“People came there to plant the mums,” he said, referring to purple and yellow flowers neatly planted along the driveway. “I’m sure they were doing that to show the house. They left before we did.”

Police found VonStein using a tracking device in his car parked outside the tidy ranch home, which sits on half an acre of tree-shaded land with a swimming pool. Property records show the home, which sits across the street from a glittering lake, is worth about $235,000.

VonStein had a private real estate business for years and sold it several years ago to join Cutler Realty, where agents refused to comment on Wednesday. At his home in nearby Ravenna, his two grown daughters cried as they remembered him.

“He was my best friend, my mentor, my everything,” said his daughter, Brooke. “He made me who I am today.”

Brooke VonStein said her parents had returned from a vacation in Georgia on Saturday night.

“He went to work on Monday and never came home,” she said.

VonStein often worked seven days a week, sometimes even selling houses while he was on vacation, his daughter said. He was active in his Catholic church and a member of several community organizations, including the Portage County Association of Realtors and the local Rotary Club. For years, he had been named the county’s real estate agent of the year.

“It’s just the oddest thing,” said Judy VonStein, his sister-in-law. “The oddest thing. To know how much he is loved, that anybody would do this is very hard to understand.”

Sheeran reported from Cleveland. Associated Press writer Matt Leingang in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.

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