The two were cordial, the way you are when you share the same space, but Jaycee Crawford didn’t know his roommate well. They’d say hello in the hallway when they passed, then retreat to their respective bedrooms. That was about the extent of their relationship.
They’d been living together for nearly six months, but still, sitting in a midtown coffee shop on a chilly autumn afternoon, Crawford couldn’t even recall the guy’s name.
“It was something like Ilya,” Crawford said. “Maybe Ulya?” He shrugged, a little embarrassed.
Ilya had an irritating habit of leaving his alarm clock blaring all day. He liked to listen to the radio at all hours too, so when Crawford noticed the music and DJ chatter emanating from behind his roommate’s locked door, he didn’t think much of it. He became a little more curious when he heard the roommate’s cellphone ringing, unanswered, for over two days.
“I was like, who goes without their phone for 48 hours?”
It was Memorial Day weekend, 2013. Crawford, a professional photographer, had been in and out of the apartment visiting with friends, and it wasn’t until Monday night that he started to think something might be wrong. It was a vague concern, though, and when Crawford finally called his landlord to unlock Ilya’s door, his main objective was to put an end to the racket.
The coroner who came later said Ilya had probably been dead for at least three days.
“The body was in really bad shape.” Crawford said. “There were big pustules all over his body and liquid dripping off of it…. It kind of looked like he had basted in the oven.” The temperature was in the nineties, one of the first really hot days of the year. The smell was awful. “He’d hung himself,” Crawford explained, “with three neckties, from the water pipe.”
Crawford, 41 and dressed in a crisp peacoat with his black hair neatly combed, wore a nervous smile as he recounted the story. It’s not that he found it amusing, but a certain giddiness sets in when you’re describing a scene like the one he uncovered in the room next door to his own. “It was like CSI but, you know, real,” he said.
Crawford and the landlord immediately called 911. For the next three hours, the two were tethered to the apartment while the police took statements and investigated the scene. Ilya had left a note, and when the cops were satisfied that the death was indeed what it looked like, the coroner’s office took the body away.
Crawford spent that first night at a friend’s house; when he came back the next day, Ilya’s parents were in the apartment collecting his things. The family had been estranged for years, and they were interested in how well Crawford had known their son. There had been sporadic contact between Ilya and the family, they told him, but no reconciliation.
“It seemed like there were a lot of missed opportunities,” Crawford said.
Crawford is not religious, nor is he superstitious. But after Ilya’s body was taken away and the place was quiet again, his mind started to go places he hadn’t anticipated. Very much in spite of himself, he became aware of little sounds in the apartment that he might have previously ignored: water trickling through pipes in the walls, floorboards creaking, the kinds of things he’d never picked up on before. He couldn’t help it.
Ilya had obviously been going through a very difficult period. What if the “bad vibes,” or whatever they were, had left something behind?
“I started leaving the lights on,” Crawford said. “I just didn’t want to have any dark corners.”
Crawford and the landlord decided fairly quickly that when they found a new tenant, they wouldn’t mention Ilya.
“We decided that there was no point in mentioning it,” Crawford said. It would make the place harder to rent, for one thing. And besides, this is New York. “The reality is that someone has probably died in every single room of every home in this city.”
In New York, withholding the information regarding Ilya’s death is perfectly legal; in fact, a statute passed in 1995 specifically protects landlords and real estate brokers who fail to mention when a death has occurred in a home.
It’s a law designed, in essence, to deal with ghosts.
About half the states have something similar. And those laws can all be traced to a 1991 New York court decision, Stambovsky v. Ackley, which contains this startling line: “the house, as a matter of law, is haunted.”
In a country where litigation is a way of life and superstition is mainstream, maybe it’s not surprising that poltergeists would end up on the docket. A Pew Research poll in 2009 found that one in five Americans believe ghosts exist. One in five also claim to have had firsthand experience with one.
While Stambovsky and an analogous case, Reed v. King, decided in California in 1983, are decidedly obscure outside of legal circles, the two decisions have prompted sustained debate in law schools and the pages of legal journals over the ensuing decades. They’re fascinating, and not just because there’s something delicious about a court ruling that deals with haunted houses largely with a straight face. They also raise some pretty profound questions about how the law is supposed to function in a society that is purportedly rational, though not always evidently so.
The rulings also occasioned some seriously unintended consequences — setting off a minor panic in the real estate industry, for example — and, even twenty-plus years later, leaving some questions unanswered. How exactly should the law operate in realms of superstition? In a country where many high-rises simply omit a thirteenth floor, at least on the elevator panel, where should the courts come down on, for lack of a better term, bullshit?
When Helen Ackley and her husband, George, moved from Maryland into a sagging Victorian in Nyack, New York, in 1967, they knew they’d have work to do. As she described it in the May 1977 issue of Reader’s Digest, the place needed a coat of paint. The gabled roof had gone “awry.” But broad views of the Hudson River and the “diamond necklace of the Tappan Zee Bridge” erased any worries they had about repairs.
What the couple didn’t realize was that they were moving into a home most everyone in the neighborhood knew to be thoroughly infested with ghosts.
The first inkling, Ackley wrote, came when a plumber reported hearing footsteps in what was supposed to be an empty house. Soon after, a group of kids playing ball outside let Ackley know that the place had a reputation. She initially laughed off the warnings, but she’d been primed.
George Ackley had been living in the Nyack house for some time before Helen and the kids arrived; she’d stayed behind to close up their previous home in Maryland. Their first night together, she was surprised to learn that George had been sleeping with the lights on. She asked him why. “I don’t want to discuss it,” he told her, rolling over in bed.
Ackley’s telling is full of the standard haunted-house tropes: Windows and doors flew open unexpectedly; swaying light cords were abruptly stayed, as if by an “unseen hand.” Even so, from the start, Helen wrote, she had “nothing but good vibes” about the new house.
But the occurrences became increasingly hard to explain away, and after a while the living family began to communicate, at least in a rudimentary way, with their incorporeal housemates, Ackley wrote. The couple’s daughter Cynthia, who was ten at the time, discovered that the ghosts could be reasoned with and were actually pretty considerate. When the family first arrived, she reported that her bed had been shaking every morning, rousting her out of sleep in time for school. With a winter vacation coming up, mother and daughter asked Cynthia’s “invisible alarm clock,” out loud, to please let her sleep in during the break. The spirit seemingly obliged.
There were at least two actual ghost sightings over the years, too, both of which Ackley described in detail, right down to the spooks’ fashion sensibilities. One apparition, spotted by a friend who spent the night, was “a man dressed in a long jacket of the Revolutionary period.” Ackley herself encountered the other while home alone painting the living-room walls:
What did he look like? He was the most cheerful and solid-looking little person I’ve ever seen. A cap of white hair framed his round, apple-cheeked face, and there were piercing blue eyes under thick white eyebrows. His light-blue suit was immaculate, the cuffs of the short unbuttoned jacket turned back over ruffles at his wrists. A white ruffled stock showed at his throat. Below breeches cut to his kneecaps he wore white hose and shiny black pumps with buckles.
She asked the spirit if he approved of her remodeling decisions; he was there for only a minute, and then he was gone.
“No, I wasn’t drinking that day,” Ackley wrote. “No, the paint fumes hadn’t got to me…he seemed happy to be there, and I was proud to meet him.”
The lot of them got along famously from there on out, and by the time she penned her piece, Ackley had come to “savor these happenings…if the time comes for us to move again,” she wondered, “is there any way we can take our otherworldly friends with us?”
Ackley made a concerted effort to publicize her visitors. There was the piece in the Digest, of course, and she even had the place featured on a walking tour of Nyack. She was proud of her ghosts.
More than a decade later, the time did come for the Ackleys to move. And in 1990, Jeffrey and Patrice Stambovsky — who had been trying to escape the claustrophobia of New York City — looked to Nyack, and the Ackleys’ busy home. They made an offer on the house, and it wasn’t until the two parties were deep into negotiations that Patrice learned about the haunting. She wasn’t so happy with the news.
While Ackley may have come to “savor” her ghosts, she hadn’t put them on the list of the place’s amenities. The Stambovskys felt they’d been misled. The stories about ghosts in the home were well-known locally, but as newcomers, they couldn’t be expected to be familiar with Nyack folklore.
The couple wasn’t worried about ghosts, court records make clear. They weren’t superstitious. They were worried, effectively, about other people’s superstitions. Their argument was that a house reputed to be filled with restless spirits wouldn’t top the list of most house-hunters; at the very least, a certain population would be averse to the news, and that would make the house less marketable. They were worried they might have trouble selling the place in the future, at least for its maximum, unhaunted price. They backed out of the sale, which meant forfeiting their $32,500 deposit. But because Ackley hadn’t disclosed the home’s reputation, they didn’t think they should have to eat those costs, so they sued.
Reached by phone, Patrice Stambovsky declined to discuss the case with the Voice, partly because she and her husband have been revisiting it every autumn for two decades. Every year around Halloween they get calls, she said. She sounded a bit fed up with it all.
The question in the Stambovsky case — whether ghosts have an effect on market value — wasn’t entirely novel. Almost a decade prior, the California Court of Appeal had confronted some of the same issues in a case as bizarre as its New York counterpart.
While the California case, Reed v. King, was decided in 1983, to find its beginnings, you need to go back another decade, to 1971 and a town known as Grass Valley in the remote Sierra Nevada foothills near Lake Tahoe.
Grass Valley is strung out along State Route 20 in the tumbling mountain wilderness along the Nevada border. Tucked among corrugated hills carpeted in redwoods and shot through with cold, fast-flowing, crystalline rivers, it began as a mining outpost in the Gold Rush era. Today it has a typically crunchy NorCal flavor: There’s a disproportionately large number of hydroponic supply stores and white guys with dreadlocks.
Charlene Vichi came to Grass Valley with her four children in the winter of 1971. Separated from her husband, she had recently been hospitalized after attempting suicide, and had driven from her home on the coast in Fort Bragg, California, to spend some time with her parents, Charlotte and Russell Faylor.
Sometime in the early morning of November 7, 1971, Charlene’s estranged husband, John Vichi, walked into his in-laws’ home and used a .22-caliber rifle to shoot every member of the family he could find.
There were five people dead and two more wounded when an emergency call came in from a cluster of homes near Route 20 that was secluded even by the standards of Grass Valley.
The emergency response might have been faster, but the operator couldn’t tell which house the call came from; the area was so rural it was still served by a party line. When a Nevada County deputy sheriff finally entered the Faylor home, he was backed up — Old West posse–style — by a few neighbors armed with their own weapons. These are facts that might be quaint in some other context.
The deputy found Charlene Vichi dead, along with Michelle, her thirteen-year-old daughter from a previous marriage; Steven, a ten-year-old son from the same relationship; and the two children John and Charlene shared — four-year-old David and eighteen-month-old Tina. Charlene’s parents were seriously wounded but still alive.
Even for a multiple-murder case involving toddlers, this one was particularly cruel, if for no other reason than John Vichi’s choice of weapon. A .22 round is about the diameter of a chopstick. The caliber is so small, and so likely to maim rather than kill, that it can’t legally be used to hunt deer in many states.
When the attack began — or “the fracas,” as Sheriff Wayne Brown put it, weirdly, to the Grass Valley Union — at least one of the children was still in bed asleep. It took multiple rounds to kill Charlene and the children, and at least some of them tried to run. There were small bloody footprints throughout the house.
Charlene Vichi’s parents survived, but the story was unremittingly sad. With five bodies to bury, the Faylors had financial problems heaped onto their considerable grief. A blurb in the Union a few weeks later, headlined “Family without funds,” pleaded for donations to pay the victims’ funeral expenses.
John Vichi, stocky and handsome with a shock of thick black hair, was arrested the day after the killings with his rifle still in his car. He’s been in prison since. Today he’s in his eighties, biding his no doubt limited time at the California Department of Corrections’ Medical Facility in Vacaville, where ill and elderly inmates go to die.
Thanks to news agencies and wire services, the murders in Grass Valley made headlines as far away as Boston. Today, however, the incident is largely forgotten. Today, no one at the sheriff’s department in Nevada County has even heard of the murders; even the kind employees working the phones at the local historical society draw a blank when asked about them.
Unfortunately for Doris Reed, it was the Faylors’ home — which she would later describe in court papers, somewhat dramatically, as a “house of death” — that caught her eye nearly a decade later when she moved to Grass Valley, a septuagenarian looking for a quiet place to live out her days. It was sometime in the early 1980s when she and the owner, Robert King, agreed on a price of $76,000.
All was well for more than a year, until a neighbor, chatting with Reed, mentioned the murders that had taken place in the home ten years earlier. A mother and her four children had been gunned down, she recounted.
Reed wasn’t happy. Unlike Stambovsky in New York, she wasn’t planning to sell the place. But the history of the home disturbed her deeply, according to records on file with the Superior Court in Nevada City, California. She couldn’t sleep, and was convinced she could see bloodstains under the paint on the walls. She felt the place retained an echo of the terrible things that had happened there. Maybe she can be forgiven for her fears; if a home can be haunted, the Faylors’ would seem a very good candidate.
Reed wanted out, and she sued. Court filings claimed that King not only failed to disclose the murders, but actively tried to conceal them; he allegedly told neighbors to keep their mouths shut, lest Reed be scared off from the deal.
Reed claimed King had committed a kind of fraud by selling her a home with a history that made it impossible for her to enjoy. The filings described the murders in extreme terms — as “violent,” which would seem redundant, but also as “gruesome” and “horrific” and as “atrocities.” Much was made of the fact that they involved small children.
None of the court papers Reed filed mentioned ghosts — that would be crazy, and thus bad strategy. The defendants, however, were less coy.
“Any diminution in fair market value would have to relate to ‘ghosts’ or ‘bad vibrations,’?” they wrote, in court documents on file with the Superior Court, the sarcasm fairly dripping off the microfilm. “It is difficult indeed to imagine qualifying an independent appraiser to render an opinion on the effect of ‘ghosts’ on the fair market value of this otherwise perfectly sound house…. The absurdity…should be a sufficient answer to plaintiff’s claim.”
The California appellate court decision, issued in 1983, comes across as vaguely condescending, filled as it is with punny turns of phrase. Justice Coleman Blease ruled that while some owners may not mind the “specter” of living in a house with this kind of history, it might not appeal to “less hardy souls,” and the market value is therefore reduced in a measurable way. The decision also quotes The Merchant of Venice: “truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long.”
Reed won the case. The Vichi murders did have a quantifiable, dollars-and-cents effect on the value of Reed’s house, the court said. The ruling even put a number on it; the murders should have knocked about $11,000 off the purchase price, or, put another way, $2,200 for every potentially restless spirit. Reed won the money.
The decision, understandably, sidestepped the question of whether ghosts are actually real. What the court determined, it seems, is that belief itself has meaning.
As with the California decision, the court in the Stambovsky case failed to settle the question of the afterlife. That decision largely follows the same lines, but the two cases have subtle differences. There was never a hint that the Stambovskys believed in ghosts; theirs was purely a complaint about the home’s reputation. And there was never any evidence to suggest that anything particularly traumatic had happened in the mansion in Nyack. Reed had newspaper clippings and the recollections of the neighbors, but these concerned murders, not ghosts. In a way, her concerns were more valid. Something terrible had happened in her home. An infant and children and their mother really had lost their lives.
Some legal scholars point out that while courts may have been taking an expansive, progressive view of the law when they determined that ghosts were “material” to the sale of a home, they unwittingly opened a door that still sits slightly ajar.
“I think the decisions really scared the real estate industry,” said Sharlene McEvoy, a professor of law at Fairfield University in Connecticut who wrote about the cases in the early Nineties. “They felt there was now a risk that contracts would be rescinded based on these cases.”
If any fear or stigma, even one based on nothing but superstition and ignorance, could be “material,” where would it end? The courts didn’t even attempt to determine whether the stigma was rational. What if a home had hosted satanic rituals? Could that nullify a sale too? How about prostitution?
Those examples are hypothetical. But in 1985 the principles involved in Reed v. King actually were used to legitimize another irrational fear, when a homebuyer cited the case as precedent after learning that a former tenant had died of AIDS. While there was, of course, absolutely no risk to the new tenant, Reed showed that provable harm was now irrelevant. It was a perfect example of what that case had called the “camel’s nose of unrestrained irrationality.” Failing to draw the line at ghosts, it seemed, had obliterated the line.
McEvoy, for her part, thinks the court mainly got things right. “I like when consumers are protected,” she said. But the response from the real estate industry, a political “force to be reckoned with,” as McEvoy put it, was considerable. State legislatures went to work crafting laws, like New York’s, designed to absolve brokers and their clients from the responsibility to disclose.
California’s version is particularly interesting. Like the laws enacted elsewhere, it was designed to blunt the effects of the courts by immunizing brokers and sellers.
But the confused, somewhat ambiguous wording of the statute reflects the confused, somewhat ambivalent rulings themselves. In plain language, it says that a broker or seller can’t be sued when a death in a home occurred over three years ago. On the other hand, it doesn’t require a broker to disclose a death that’s less than three years old, which is what makes the legislation such a masterpiece of legalistic gobbledygook. Most laws either tell you what you are prohibited from doing — you can’t kill another person, for example — or stipulate what you’re required to do — you must signal your turns. California Civil Code Section 1710.2, however, does neither of those things. Rather, it indicates what you are not prohibited from not doing:
“(a) No cause of action arises against an owner of real property or his or her agent, or any agent of a transferee of real property, for the failure to disclose to the transferee the occurrence of an occupant’s death upon the real property or the manner of death where the death has occurred more than three years prior to the date the transferee offers to purchase, lease, or rent the real property…”
“No cause of action arises,” the legislature said, against a seller or renter of a property who fails to disclose a death more than three years old. So the seller isn’t explicitly required to disclose deaths less than three years old. But they’re not liable for not disclosing a death more than three years old.
When he wrote his decision, Israel Rubin didn’t expect that he’d be talking about Stambovsky decades later.
“It was one of, I think, about twenty cases that day,” he said.
During an interview not long before his death in 2014, the former judge’s face was just visible above heaps of paper and Pentaflex folders spilling in a riot over his desk. On the 38th floor of a midtown office building, his back to a bay window, his head was framed by a broad view of the Manhattan skyline and crowned with a breath of white hair.
Rubin said he’s had a steady stream of inquiries about the case over the years.
“I’ve received letters, one after another, from law schools and law students from all over,” Rubin said, and media too. “Italy, France, Japan.”
Rubin ultimately took the Stambovskys’ side. Because Ackley had widely publicized the supposed presence of ghosts in her home, she had a responsibility to inform a potential buyer as well.
Like with Reed v. King, Rubin’s decision had a tongue-in-cheek quality. It quoted Shakespeare, too — Hamlet, this time, appropriately enough — but also Ghostbusters: “A very practical problem arises with respect to the discovery of a paranormal phenomenon: ‘Who you gonna call?’?”
It was clear Rubin took some pride in a case that he considered, above all, an excellent teaching tool. What better way to get law students to pay attention in class than to bring up ghosts? As for the puns? That just proves judges are capable of humor, he said. (Or “Yuma,” in Rubin’s flat New York brogue.)
But he wasn’t so caught up in the bigger questions. In Rubin’s view, Stambovsky was a clear-cut case. The five-judge panel that made the decision was split, but he said there wasn’t an unusually long or contentious discussion. In any event, he certainly wasn’t interested in being lured into pontification about the law and its proper role in a progressive and modern society, or humanity’s relationship with death. It was simple: The house had a reputation; the Stambovskys couldn’t possibly have learned about it during a standard home inspection; the defendant should have told them. What’s next on the docket?
“It was a real estate case, a fairly routine case, actually,” Rubin said. “It was never about whether anyone believes in ghosts.”
Fair enough. But what about Rubin himself?
The judge had his hands clasped in front of him. “Of course not.”
About two months after Ilya’s death, Jaycee was in the kitchen in his apartment, making himself some dinner, having just arrived home from work. After a few nervous weeks, he’d started to relax a little bit. His ears no longer pricked up at every creak. He was no longer running up his electric bill by running every light bulb in the place. He was beginning to feel like Ilya’s spirit, if it had ever been there, had vacated the premises. He and the landlord had agreed on a new roommate who would be moving in shortly. They hadn’t mentioned Ilya.
Attending to his meal, alone in his darkened home, Crawford suddenly stopped. There was a rustling noise coming from the dead man’s room.
It definitely wasn’t his imagination this time, he said. There was someone inside. Was Ilya’s ghost finally making his presence known? Crawford listened for a moment, frozen. Then he thought he heard the doorknob turn.
Crawford whirled around and looked down the short, unlit hallway that led to Ilya’s room. The door opened, and the shape of a man emerged. Crawford’s heart leapt into his throat.
It was the new roommate, Mike. The landlord had given him a key.
Mike was very much alive.
“I was very relieved.” Crawford said. “I didn’t realize he had already moved in.”
In the weeks after Ilya’s death, the house had lost its smell. The landlord had enlisted Crawford to help clean up after the suicide. It was gruesome work. “A sea” of bodily fluids had seeped into the mattress, he said. They’d packed up the dead man’s belongings, those that hadn’t been collected by the parents, and thrown them in the dumpster. The landlord scrubbed the floor and let the place air out.
But as Blease, the judge in the Reed case, might have noted, “truth will come to light,” and Mike eventually found out about Ilya’s death, about three weeks after he moved in. He was not pleased.
Crawford and the landlord sat down with Mike and explained that he could end the lease if he wanted to; there would be no penalty for backing out. While Crawford had become increasingly comfortable in the home, he understood that not everyone was going to feel OK living in a room that had been the site of a suicide.
Maybe incongruously, Crawford had tamped down his irrational fear of ghosts, and made peace with Ilya’s death, by way of a thoroughly rational approach: In all the time that had passed, though he’d been watching rather closely, Crawford hadn’t had a single supernatural experience. It wasn’t that the existence of ghosts suddenly seemed impossible to him, but he had to evaluate the empirical evidence around him. Surely, if the place were haunted, he would have seen some proof by now. It was as simple as that, a matter of probability.
Crawford took the same argument he’d been using against himself and now turned it on Mike. Mike had been there for nearly a month by this point. Was he having trouble sleeping? Did the room seem like it was haunted?
“No,” Mike admitted, in Crawford’s recollection. “Actually it’s been really peaceful.”
Mike said he hadn’t slept so well in years.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 20, 2015