01 Dec How an Attempted Murderer Brought Down a Million Dollar Real Estate Sale in a Specific Performance Lawsuit
Back in 2003, a 13 year old girl named Casey was out for an evening run along the wooded hills of Cincinnati’s most well to do neighborhood, Indian Hill. As a flourishing cross country runner, this was a routine jog for Casey. With her father only a quarter mile behind on a bike, she saw a figure appear coming her direction, someone she recognized from her school bus named Ben White.
Casey, in assuming that the 17 year old Ben wouldn’t even recognize her, began to run at an angle to give him the right away when he grabbed her, placed his hand over her mouth and dragged her into the woods kicking and screaming.
Ben was intent on killing Casey that day, a day his parents later claimed was a short term, mental breakdown. Casey’s father could hear the screams and ran into the woods to find his daughter on the ground with knife slashes to her face, neck and side as well as puncture wounds to her lung and liver. Although Ben came 1mm from slashing Casey’s jugular vein, Casey survived.
Fast forward to June of 2013 and Ben is being released from prison to serve 6 months of house arrest and ongoing probation. Ben, now 27 years old, moved back into his childhood home on Pipewell Lane. The news of Ben’s return spread through the community of Indian Hill, where crimes of attempted murder and kidnapping aren’t supposed to happen.
The Neighboring Home Goes Up For Sale
Grant & Karen Troja, next door neighbors to the White family, purchased their home on 8625 Pipewell Lane for $840,000 in 1996. The Colonial style home boasts over 6500 square feet on nearly 5 acres. The house had been listed off and on from 2007-2011 under Stephanie Sudbrack-Busam, a Vice President of Sales for the largest broker in the region, Sibcy Cline.
In 2013, the listing was handed off to Kelly Meyer, another agent with Sibcy Cline, who was able to put the home under contract while listed at $1,295,000 to the Pleatman Family.
Crysta and Stephen Pleatman were excited to relocate their family of 8 to this new home and teamed up with yet another Sibcy Cline agent, Nat Comisar, to represent them during the purchase. Nat comes from a well known family in the area and is highly respected for being an excellent Realtor.
But for reasons only known to the buyers of the transaction, the Pleatmans chose to waive the inspection contingency on the 38 year old home and move aggressively into closing.
Ben is discovered
A few weeks before closing was to occur, a future neighbor called Crysta Pleatman to inform them of Ben White’s recent release and presence at the neighboring home. With three young girls, the Pleatmans were obviously concerned and the closing was now in jeopardy.
In an effort to keep the deal together, Grant Troja reached out to the Lance White, Ben’s father to arrange a meeting between the future owners and the White family, including their son Ben. According to Lance, the meeting went well with both parties looking forward to living alongside the other.
Even Grant Troja, the seller, felt confident enough after the meeting to begin moving furniture out of the home and into storage. But the Pleatmans ultimately chose to cancel the contract and offered to release the $10,000 earnest money to the sellers as compensation for failing to close.
Sh#t Hits the Fan
After 5 years of struggling to sell his home on Pipewell, Grant Troja wasn’t about to let the buyers back out of the contract so he sued the Pleatman’s for Specific Performance – forcing them to follow through with the terms of the purchase contract.
The Pleatmans filed a third party complaint against Sibcy Cline and their agent Nat Comisar for breach of fiduciary duty in failing to inform them about Ben’s crime when asked about crime in the neighborhood. The Pleatmans also felt multiple agents and management within Sibcy Cline worked together in a conspiracy to hide this information in an effort to close the sale.
What transpired over the next two years was complete mayhem as Crysta decided to make her plight public. On December 4, 2013, Crysta posted on ripoffreport.com the following message for all to see:
“We have tried to settle this situation out of court. We requested that Sibcy Cline work with Seller Grant Troja to drop the case against us for $179.000 in damages. We also requested that Sibcy Cline remove all contingencies and threats of ceasing future business with our lender so that we could move forward with our approved loan to purchase a different home. We requested attorney fees as well as reimbursement of the $1,000 a week that we are paying to rent a new home until we can close. Sibcy Cline refuses to acknowledge any wrong doing on the part of their agent Nat Commisar and VP Stephanie Sudbrack- Busam (supposed supervisor of Nat Comisar at the time). Therefore, we will be filing our lawsuit today against Sibcy Cline for 5.5 million.”
As attorneys for both parties failed to reach a settlement, Crysta spent the following year taking matters into her own hands by aggressively contacting parties of the lawsuit, their counsel and material witnesses. She continued to pursue a win in the court of public opinion by trashing Sibcy Cline on social media, displaying aggressive handmade signs on her vehicles and in yards and even flying a “Shame On You Sibcy Cline” banner over the ATP Tennis Tournament in August of 2014.
In January of 2015, Sibcy Cline filed a motion against the Pleatmans for sanctions related to this behavior and was awarded $15,000 in Punitive Damages and Attorney Fees. The decision was quickly appealed by the Pleatmans and Crysta continued to contact parties of the lawsuit despite the judge’s orders to cease these actions.
Towards the end of 2015, Crysta was back in court facing another round of charges for contacting prohibited parties and indirect contempt of court. She was eventually found guilty and sentenced to 5 days in jail, of which she served 2.
Around this same time, the Trial Court granted Sibcy Cline’s motion for summary judgement, ruling out any wrong-doing by Sibcy Cline, and leaving the Pleatmans set to go to trial with the Trojas.
Things begin to settle
In January of 2016, the Trojas and the Pleatmans went to court to finally address the specific performance lawsuit. After one week of jury deliberations, opening arguments and testimony, the parties settled. After spending 2 years of time and tens of thousands of dollars fighting one another in the court of law and the court of public opinion, a confidential settlement was reached.
During the Pleatmand and Troja trial, Stephanie Sudbrack-Busam, supposed manager of Nat Comisar at Sibcy Cline, testified that she did in fact have knowledge of Ben moving back into his parents home three months prior to the contract being signed by the Pleatmans. This revelation further fueled the Pleatman’s accusation of conspiracy and negligence by Sibcy Cline.
So was Sibcy Cline actually at fault?
The Pleatmans wanted to use the testimony of the Troja lawsuit to appeal the summary judgement. In November of 2016, the First Circuit Appeals Court of Hamilton County affirmed the trial courts ruling.
The court first reviewed the statutory and common law duties of a real estate licensee. Agents have a duty to disclose any materials facts, which they have knowledge, which are not confidential and of which the buyer may not be able to obtain on their own. These include ‘stigmas’ that can be classified as a material defect.
Because there was no case law involving neighboring criminals, the court relied on a couple cases involving suicide and murders within a home. In both cases, these criminal events that occurred within the home were not considered a material defect. Therefore, the real estate agents involved should also not be responsible for disclosing if a felon was a prior owner of the home or lives nearby.
In addition, the court relied heavily on the contract language pertaining to offsite conditions in both the contract and property disclosure. The contract states that the seller is not responsible for any conditions outside of the property itself including crime statistics. The buyer is also informed in the property disclosure to perform due diligence to determine if any offsite conditions may affect their decision to purchase the home.
Lastly, even though a principal at Sibcy Cline had knowledge of Ben moving home, that knowledge does not automatically transfer to the buyer’s agent, Nat Comisar.
Though it’s likely that the Pleatmans will appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court (who can choose whether or not to even hear this case), agents should feel gratitude towards Sibcy Cline for helping to provide clarity into the gray area of disclosure in real estate.
How You Can Protect Yourself
Regardless of whether or not something has to be disclosed, there are issues outside of a home that will affect your happiness. With so many public resources available to you, don’t rely on a seller or your agent to inform you of every possible issue affecting the property. Here are 4 quick tips to help you learn about possible stigmas affecting your future happiness in your new home:
- Talk to the neighbors right after the showing – If you’re looking during the warmer months, it should be easy to see folks outside doing lawn work or going for a walk. Don’t be afraid to ask how they like the neighborhood or if there is anything unusual with the neighbors in the community.
- Call the Sheriff Department – they will give you a quick, honest overview of crime in the general area as well as any registered offenders on your street.
- Google the Home – Search for the specific house, the street, look up some of the neighbors names in LinkedIn or Facebook to get an idea of who your future close friends might be.
- Always get a home inspection – The Inspection Period is an opportunity to dig deeper into the home and surrounding area. The home may be in perfect condition but this 7-14 day window also gives you a chance to get input from friends or family who have ties to the area. Buying a home is a HUGE commitment and the decision should not feel rushed or taken lightly.
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If you found out an attempted murderer was living next door to your new home, would you still close?
Let us know in the comments below.