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Recent murder rekindles unsolved Puget Sound case

It’s been 10 years and the case is still open.

No arrests have been made in the Puget Sound’s most infamous real estate murder that took the life of a respected agent representing the region’s largest company. A recent killing in Iowa rekindled stark reminders of the incident and sparked a review of safety precautions by brokers everywhere.

On January 5, 2001, the body of Michael Emert, 40, an agent with Windermere Real Estate since 1991, was discovered in a home for sale in Woodinville. Police believe Emert, then an agent in the Bellevue office, might have been showing the home to a prospective buyer when he was stabbed to death.

“The case of Mike Emert is an open and active case,” Sgt. John Urquhart of the King County Police said last week.

Has any recent progress been made?

“The fact that it’s not on the shelf is good news,” Urquhart said.

The Iowa incident occurred in a show home that showcased a new development. Ashley Okland, 27, who worked for Iowa Realty Co., was found April 8 with two gunshot wounds at a model home in West Des Moines. She later died at a local hospital. Okland was a 2006 graduate of Iowa State University. Her friends told the Des Moines Register that she had a radiant smile and no enemies.

Okland reportedly was spotted in the neighborhood speaking with the man on two to three occasions in late February and early March. The resident who reported the tip described the individual as a younger man, “scruffy looking, (with) possible dark features.”

On one occasion, the man – whose vehicle was said to resemble a Cadillac Escalade – spent 20 minutes parked in front of the show home where Okland was shot, according to reports. The witness said Okland then exited the model house and left the area in her own vehicle, followed by the SUV.

Most Des Moines-area weekend open houses, along with a popular home tour, were canceled.

According to the King County medical examiner’s office, Emert died of “sharp force injury.” Emert’s body was found by the seller, who is represented by another real estate firm and was a stranger to Emert.

Authorities believe that Emert’s late-model Cadillac sport utility vehicle was taken by the perpetrator and later abandoned.

A witness at the time reportedly saw someone driving the vehicle from the vacant home and police were seeking a “person of interest” who was white, in his 50s, walked with a limp and was believed to be from the San Francisco area.

Investigators have been stymied by the case – and the lack of DNA evidence – yet continue to track Emert’s killer. A $50,000 reward and national television exposure have not helped. Detectives have stated that the crime scene contained very few clues, leading them to believe that it was highly unlikely Emert was attacked randomly or that he had stumbled on a burglary.

Emert grew up in Walla Walla and attended Washington State University. He was a popular and successful agent who had several listings with price tags greater than $1 million at the time of his death.

The Emert incident stunned the entire Puget Sound area. How could this happen on a quiet corner in an upscale neighborhood? According to King County tax records, the home in which Emert was found was valued at $589,950. While organizations can remind salespeople to be careful and suggest strategies when situations seem wrong, it’s nearly impossible to stop a seemingly qualified buyer or service provider from committing a crime.

Many agents continue to work alone. A majority are sole proprietors even though they are affiliated with a realty company. It’s common for just about everybody in the business to receive a telephone call from a potential client seeking to view a property, and then be asked to meet that person at the home for sale. Most agents are wise enough to first meet at the office but some people are slick enough to persuade an agent to do otherwise.

Should real estate agents absolutely work in pairs, or at least have a “required” informal buddy system? Is there any realistic way of better ensuring the safety of salespersons – and other service providers – that routinely show empty homes to complete strangers?

“Common sense” and “follow your instincts” only go so far.

Tom Kelly’s book “Cashing In on a Second Home in Central America: How to Buy, Rent and Profit in the World’s Bargain Zone” was written with Mitch Creekmore, senior vice president of Houston-based Stewart International and Jeff Hornberger, the National Association of Realtors’ international market development manager.

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