“We’re putting ourselves in situations where anything is possible”: Real estate agent’s killing rattles industry

Fatal shooting of Monique Baugh has prompted brokers to review safety practices

Jan.January 23, 2020 11:15 AM
Clockwise from top left: John Gomes, Ronita Kalra, Eric Beniam and McKenzie Ryan (Credit: Getty Images, iStock, Wikipedia)

Clockwise from top left: John Gomes, Ronita Kalra, Eric Benaim and McKenzie Ryan (Credit: Getty Images, iStock, Wikipedia)

John Gomes had what he called “a danger feeling.”

It was Halloween and the real estate agent was meeting a client in Lower Manhattan for a showing. That night in 2008, the client turned up with a deflated hockey bag and holding a pair of flip-flops. Gomes went with his gut, pretended he’d forgotten the key to the home and offered to give the client a tour of the building’s amenities. When they walked into the gym, the man shielded his face from the cameras and walked out.

“I really do genuinely believe that he wanted to kill me and cut me up and put me in that bag,” said Gomes, now a star broker with Douglas Elliman. He believes it was the same man arrested the next day for a hate-motivated killing.

Now, the brutal New Year’s Eve slaying of real estate agent Monique Baugh has rattled an industry that often relies on private meetings between strangers, and with technology that brings client and agent ever closer.

Authorities say Baugh, a 28-year-old Minneapolis broker and mother of two, was fatally shot after agreeing to meet her assailant — whom she did not know — for a home showing. Across the industry, her death has prompted a discussion and review of security practices and has brought back memories of disturbing encounters.

Though violent acts that target real estate agents are rare, especially in major markets, they do occur.

“I bet there’s more people like me with stories like this,” Gomes said. He now tells his story to his team of brokers, hoping to reinforce their no-questions-asked buddy system.

At Modern Spaces in New York, CEO and founder Eric Benaim said the brokerage is exploring how to install Google Nest cameras in all of its new development projects.

His hope is that a prominently displayed camera will make someone “think twice” before they act. Benaim added that he consulted lawyers to ensure the measure wouldn’t be a violation of privacy.

“I think having a camera over there, the agents and [clients] will feel comfortable,” he said. “We’re living in crazy times. You got to do what you got to do.”

National Association of Realtors last year launched a safety network that sends alerts about physical or cyber threats to its members. NAR also posted a story about Baugh’s killing on its website, with a link to resources for brokers and firms.

Though showings are the nexus of most safety concerns, as agents build out their personal brands and marketing on social media and share cell phones for quick and immediate service to clients, boundaries and ground rules are blurring.

Compass broker McKenzie Ryan has accumulated more than 20,000 followers on her Instagram page and maintains a few ground rules as she posts about her daily life: Don’t tag close friends or family, don’t list contact information on your profile and never reveal your actual location in real time.

“I don’t want to be the grim reaper here, but you’re asking for it by constantly sharing where you are,” she said. “I think that, in and of itself, is pretty dangerous.”

She said a handful of her influencer friends have to carefully hide the locations they post from because they have stalkers.

One Miami-based broker recalled a client who called her after seeing an ad she posted on her social media accounts. Their conversations seemed typical until about a month in when the man said he was renting an apartment around the corner from her home so that they could “start our lives together.”

The broker — who declined to be identified to protect her safety — had never met the man before, but he knew what she looked like and had likely perused her accounts.

The broker has worked to remove her home unit number from publicly available documents with her address and now uses a Google Voice number that allows her to shield her cell phone and screen calls.

Elliman’s Ronita Kalra has almost 45,000 Instagram followers and has appeared on the reality show “Million Dollar Listing New York” alongside her former business partner, Luis D. Ortiz. Her first brush with how a public persona can have real-life consequences came early on in the form of an envelope.

It arrived at her Manhattan home and became a weekly ritual for the rest of the show’s season. Each package included a gift, but no message. Sometimes the items were jewelry or phone accessories and, later, Kalra received a straw cleaner and mini fluorescent light bulbs.

“I didn’t feel threatened in any way, but it was just very, very strange,” she said.

Now, Kalra said her social media is a big part of her business, but she’s careful about sharing her location and will only show properties by private appointment. She also now lives in a building with a doorman for another layer of security.

“It’s just one of those things,” she said. “We’re putting ourselves in situations where anything is possible.”

Write to Erin Hudson at [email protected]

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