Bad Dream House
Very cranky these days… I’m coming up on the 25th anniversary of the discovery of my sister’s body – I can’t sit still.
Anyway, I’ve been chewing on this bone for a while wondering how best to write about something, but I think I’m just going to go for it and spit this one out…
The fact is I just recently moved. For four years my wife and daughters lived in a house that was the former residence of the lead suspect in a missing persons investigation. Here is how we came to buy that house:
When my wife and I first moved to North Carolina we were quite restless to put down some roots. We had spent a great deal of our married life living like gypsies, wandering from one city to the next. We moved to North Carolina in search of stability. Our daughter was two at the time, and we had another child on the way. My wife had grown up in Chapel Hill. She still had all her family here. It was a good place to raise a family. We were tired of living in apartments. Two children needed a home. They needed a yard to play in. I was thirty-seven years old. It was time to buy a house.
My wife had here heart set on a “fixer-upper” just outside Chapel Hill. From the outside the house was inviting. It looked like two A-Frames stuck together. A sort of Swiss chalet tucked neatly in the forest. As we approached the front door, my wife braced me with the words; “you’ll have to just go with me on this one.” That’s when I knew we were in for trouble. The odor was the first thing that hit me. As I crossed the threshold, I caught a waft of “the-dog’s-been-pissing-on-the-carpet-for-the-last-eight-months.” Then there were the visuals. The floor was absolutely covered with garbage – think D-Day and Omaha Beach, only substitute dead bodies with old pizza boxes, hard packs of Marlboros, and crushed Mello-Yellow cans. Anything that could hold water was absolutely filled to the brim with cigarette butts. Whoever lived here was an “artist”, there were nude drawings covering all the walls – cartoon anime; cinched wastes and big tits. And a complementary pornography collection in the video cabinet. There was a Christmas wreath over the fireplace mantle. It was March 31st. There were weapons – numb chucks and broadswords and crossbows – a D&D nerd’s dream come true. A thought crossed my mind; This must have been what it looked like when Guns and Roses recorded their first album. Then I heard the music coming from down the hall. There’s someone actually living here?
We started down the hallway. The carpeting was gone, torn up by whatever animal had lived there. The sub-flooring was all that remained. For some reason it was stained dark brown. I came to the door where the music was coming from. The door had about fifty knife marks in it. There were also silver dollar sized holes. It looked like someone had shot at it. I opened the door. Black Flag or Anthrax or some crap was screaming from the stereo. On the bed rested a big fat lump. The lump was sleeping. It was three in the afternoon, and this lump looked comatose. Suddenly, it rolled over, looked me briefly with one glazed fish-eye, and passed out again. I closed the door.
My wife and I were still arguing when we went to bed that night. To cut a long story short – against my better judgment – I decided to go with my wife on this one. We bought the house. Things only got worse. Before the closing, my wife was prone to coming out to the house alone. She would wander around the place and fantasize about all the little improvements we could make. A building inspector – an ex-Marine – advised my wife never to set foot alone in the house again. He had seen the lump on the bed. He thought he looked lethal. At the closing, none of our real estate people showed up. They found the house too disturbing.
Eventually we learned an elderly widow and her teenage son (the lump) had owned the house. We were told that the father had died, and the mother wanted to move to smaller accommodations that were more manageable. Junior was getting to be a handful – what with the medieval arsenal and all. When we walked around the neighborhood people would give us that funny look. You know, that, “you’re the fools who bought that house” look? One neighbor confided in us that the family had lived in the house for twenty years. The son was a quiet boy, but troubled. At age eight he walked up to this neighbor’s daughter on the street, smiled sweetly, and proceeded to pummel her with the brick he had concealed in his hand.
It’s not like we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. The evidence was tattooed all over the house. These folks were troubled. There were knife marks everywhere; not only through the bedroom door – on the kitchen walls, on the bathroom ceiling tile, there were so many stab marks on the wood floor in the living room, you’d have thought that Christmas dinner had been carved there. But our feeling was, don’t blame the house for the way it looked. It wasn’t the house’s fault. All it needed was a little love – and several dozen trips to the Home Depot. Fixing what was broken became my spring project. I ripped up the kitchen, tore out the pissed-stained carpet, replaced all the brown stained sub-flooring. I threw out drywall, re-tiled the bathroom floors, pulled-out horrendous amounts of hair and body-gunk from the drains. Finally I decided it would be easier to simply gut the bathrooms altogether.
When I’d go outside to work on the landscaping my wife would quip, “Tell me if you find any dead bodies out there.” I, of course, thought this was hysterical. A corpse would make our home complete. After six weeks, we finished our renovations. We burnt some sage given to us by our real estate agent, placed a small quartz crystal in the southwest corner of each room – because our real estate agent told us this would help with any bad vibes – and moved in.
Of course, it came as no surprise whatsoever when four weeks later the police phoned us up and asked if they could pay us a visit. It turned out the son of the former owner of the house was the lead suspect in a missing person investigation, and the police wished to check the property for a dead body.
There are times when you realize life is trying to tell you something. This was one of those times. It would be fair to say that I have a restless soul. I’ve traveled around a bit. Fifteen years ago, I left Canada, and eventually became an American citizen. I’d like to say that I did this because I love America, but the truer statement is that I’d grown to hate Canada. I hated the Canadian sense of superiority. The idea that Canada offered the same opportunities as the U.S. – only without the crime, without the chaos, without the social problems. It wasn’t true. There were the same problems in both countries. If the U.S. was a freak show in an open-air market, then Canada’s dirt lay hidden in a filing cabinet market “confidential”. Canada kept secrets. More to the point – after my sister died – I believed secrets were being kept from me.
For a long time I was determined to keep moving. I suffered from acute wanderlust. My wife and I traveled all over the country. In eight years we had moved from southeast Texas to Toronto to California to the Carolinas. I had an aunt who said we lived like gypsies – when were we finally going to settle down?
So what were the odds that me of all people – when I finally made the decision to settle down – would chose to buy a home with a dead body on it?
Deborah Key was known for her independence, and for taking risks. On the night of Sunday, November 30th, 1997, the 35-year-old woman was seated at the bar of Sticks and Stones, a local pool hall in Carrboro, North Carolina. Seated at the other end of the bar, within Deborah’s view, was a young man in a leather jacket – his hair tied back in a ponytail. The man was busy drawing nudie pictures in an artists sketch book – pre-pubescent girls in space suits with huge cans; Sailor Moon with a hormonal imbalance. The young man was drinking diet coke. Deborah Key was drinking too much. At some point, Deborah got up from her barstool and ragged on the young man for drawing such disgusting pictures. The man apologized for offending her. He asked if she’d like to join him for a drink. Not at the bar, they would move to a booth at the back. Shortly before closing time the bartender saw the couple together in the corner. She was giving him a back massage. They were very flirtatious. The 5’6”, 115 lbs brunette was last seen at two-thirty a.m. in the parking lot of Sticks and Stones. Key and the young man were leaning up against her car, kissing. A few days later the police found Deborah’s unlocked car, still parked in the lot of Sticks and Stones. Her purse was resting on the passenger side seat. No one has seen her since.
It took police six months to track down the young man with the ponytail. When they asked the man – the former resident of our house – to come in for questioning he said that he would be at police headquarters in the morning. By the time morning came, his lawyer intervened and told them that he would not be available to answer any questions. The police got a search warrant for the young man’s car, but the lab results came back inconclusive. They found some bloodstained women’s underwear in the car, but they were never able to link the underwear to Deborah Key. The police were unsuccessful in trying to obtain a search warrant for the house. The car was easy, since it was established that the young man and his car were at the location where Deborah Key was last seen alive on the early morning of December 1st, 1997. The house was another matter; there was nothing to suggest that he and Key had traveled in the car all the way back to the house. The case dragged on for two years. The police had a lead suspect; they just didn’t have a body. And their suspect wasn’t talking.
In December of 1999, our soon-to-be house was put on the market. Immediately, the investigation into Deborah Key’s disappearance began to take life again. Detectives believed that Key’s body might be buried somewhere on the lot. In an effort to gain access to the property, police had agents pose as interested buyers to see if they could learn anything from viewing the interior of the house. They found the place in such a dilapidated state, investigators speculated that their suspect might be deliberately trashing the house, in an effort to keep what was inside hidden. If the place looked like crap, then no one would ever buy it. In the Spring of 2000, the local police chief was making a routine pass in an unmarked car when she noticed that the heaps of garbage that were normally piled up in the front yard, had suddenly been replaced with children’s toys. Someone actually bought this dump? A week later the chief of police called my wife, and asked to pay a visit.
When the police arrived they assured us they wanted to get this over with just as quickly and smoothly as possible. But there were problems. They couldn’t locate a cadaver dog. The one they wanted was from Florida, but he had suddenly been called away on business in Atlanta. It seemed the cadaver dog was over-booked. We would have to wait two weeks before they could search the grounds for a body.
“But couldn’t you just get another dog?”, I asked.
“Well we could, but we want the best. This dog’s the best.”
“Why do we have to wait two weeks?”
“The dog needs the rest. It’s exhausting work.”
Before they left, they wanted to assure us we were in no danger. Deborah Key was most likely this guy’s first kill. Police felt confidant that the body wasn’t buried anywhere in the house. If he did dispose of the body here, then it was probably back in the woods some place. In any case, they did ask us not to speak about the matter to anyone. Word might get around, and they didn’t want to tip off their suspect. Just in case he got it in his head to run. “Or maybe come back and move the body”, an officer added. Finally they all got up, and said that they’d see us in two weeks.
That first weekend we stayed at the beach. Then we stayed at my mother in laws. When we had run out of favors, we came back home. Home. We always talked about how neat it would be to live in a haunted house. But this wasn’t haunted. This was mother-fuckin’ creepy. There was the added benefit that my wife was by now seven month’s pregnant and looked like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. So began our two-week FREAK-OUT. We didn’t sleep. Not ever. I went to bed with a baseball bat, the telephone, the phone number of the police department, and a fifteen-pound Mag-lite next to my bed. I’d wake up every night in a cold sweat. Was he coming back? Was there something he left behind? Was he in the house now? He probably still had keys to it. He’s probably standing in the living room right now with a pickaxe just waiting for me to be foolish enough to come out after him.
It didn’t help that we had only lived in the house for a month. The place was scarier because you never knew where anything was. In the dark I’d bump into walls and fumble for the light switch. I couldn’t find anything. My daughter was sleeping in his room. Her bed was in the same spot where that lump rolled over and looked at me. One night she came running out of her room, “Mommy, Daddy, my room scares me!” Oh, that’s okay, pumpkin, the whole house is scary. Didn’t you know? We bought it from Leather-face. There was also the added spooky benefit of living in a deep dark forest. Outside our bedroom window, we’d hear something moving that sounded like a five hundred pound gorilla. I’d be cramming my heart back down my throat before I realized it was a herd of grazing deer. There were lots of critters out there. Possums and coons. Screech owls and badgers. And something that made a sound so terrifying that my wife and I just labeled it the flying-bush-pig. We never did find out what it was.
Somehow we survived. Two weeks passed. One morning a caravan of vehicles came up our gravel driveway.
We said hello again to the local detectives. Joining them for the day’s proceedings were various patrol officers, the County Sheriff’s department, a big fat agent from the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI), a team of forensic technicians, and the gang from Pee Wee’s Septic Tank Service. Everyone gathered round and tried to look like they knew why they were there. Officers discretely slurped on their Wendy’s Big Gulps. From out of the back of a kennel in the police van stepped the star of the show. I was expecting a big, droopy bloodhound. I was surprised to find a svelte, handsome German Shepard. I never got his name. We were never formally introduced. The dog wrangler stepped forward,
“We’ll start with the outer perimeter of the house. It’s a good morning. The ground is wet, so he should be able to sniff through the clay.”
The wrangler pulled the dog up close and shoved a small, black ball against his nose. Then he clipped the lead and let him run loose. The dog bolted off with officers and the wrangler in quick pursuit.
While we were waiting to see what the dog would find, I insinuated myself into the conversation with the agents. My wife remained indoors. Earlier, we had pawned our daughter off on my mother-in-law. We didn’t want her around for this. My wife certainly wasn’t setting foot outside. Unlike me, she held no fascination in seeing a corpse pulled out from under the dirt and the mud. Investigators were confident. They came dressed for the event, decked out in black SWAT fatigues. The SBI agent wore checkered pants and an ugly tie. The mood was intense and full of expectation. Everyone was certain that after two and a half years, the mystery of Deborah Key’s disappearance would finally be solved. The SBI agent spoke,
“We feel pretty confident he buried her out in these woods somewhere. Or maybe in the septic well.”
“In our septic well.”
“Ya. He might have chopped her up and dumped the pieces down the shaft. PEE WEE! YOU WANNA GET THAT SEWAGE PUMP STARTED!”
The dog worked all morning. He sniffed the better part of an acre of our property. The dog came up with nothing. Their efforts were hampered by the soil. In this part of North Carolina it is mostly made up of thick, hard clay. If anything were buried more than three feet deep, the dog would have a tough time picking up the scent. On the other hand, because the ground was so hard, it would be difficult for anyone to dig a grave deeper than three feet. I tried digging a garden in the stuff and the effort practically killed me. My harvest consisted of one dwarf sized pumpkin. Nothing grows in this stuff.
Meanwhile, Pee Wee had managed to suck our septic well dry. Everyone gathered around the well opening and looked down with gruesome expectation. The tank was empty. There were no bones at the bottom. The mood turned from confident to confused.
“If it’s alright, we’d like to check the inside of the house?”
It was the SBI guy. I explained that we had gutted the place. There would be no trace evidence. Everything was gone – the brown-stained flooring, the clumps of hair from the bathroom traps.
“You didn’t keep any of it, did you?”
Sure. It’s in the medicine cabinet next to my collection of human excrement.
As confusion turned to desperation, the recovery party agreed it was time to take the dog under the house. I opened the crawl space door, told everyone to mind the five-foot ceiling; the wrangler did his little black ball trick, and in went the dog.
“What’s in that ball anyway?”, I asked.
“Rotting flesh… I’m just kiddin’ ya’, we don’t use real corpses.”
Funny. Yeah, that’s some joke.
I was getting bored. Three hours and these loafers were still at my house. Then finally, the dog did something. At the back of the crawl space between two central supports, we all watched as the dog paced back and forth, and began scratching on the red dirt floor.
What’s he doing?”
“He’s lighted on something.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means he’s found something.”
It was scary. The dog kept pacing and scratching. I looked over my shoulder and there was a police officer with two shovels. Everyone began to dig. I couldn’t believe it. A dead body was buried under my house. I’d been under this house alone. I’d come under to repair the insulation, to fix the telephone wiring. The digging took a lot of effort. The space was too small to raise the shovel over your head. You couldn’t get a full arc. It was hot and humid. We kept running out of breath. The clay was as hard as rock. You couldn’t really dig; you had to chip away at the layers. We got two feet down. Finally – after forty-five minutes – we decided to stop. There wasn’t anything here. We didn’t find Deborah Key.
As things wound down the police told us not to worry. The good news was there wasn’t a body buried on our property. The bad news, Deborah Key was still a missing person. Everyone looked discouraged. The way you look when after the first 10 minutes you know the Super Bowl’s going to be blowout. Detectives took the dog’s reaction into consideration and formed a theory. After she died, Deborah Key’s body was probably stored under the house for a brief period of time. Her killer took the time to plan how he would finally dispose of the body. Deborah Key was not buried here. If agents couldn’t dig through the clay, then their suspect certainly couldn’t either. The police also wanted us to know that Deborah Key probably hadn’t died in the house. Police believed she was killed earlier, in the killer’s car.
After that day with the cadaver dog, I began to have terrible nightmares. I dreamed about rotting corpses all the time. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Around the same time my daughter was doing some dreaming of her own. One day I caught her walking down the hall muttering to herself,
“No. No Way, I definitely don’t want to have that dream again. O Boy, I don’t want to have that dream where Mom and Dad turn into skeletons.”
She later confided to me that she had a reoccurring dreamed where she was strapped in her car seat, and the car was moving down the road, but no one was driving. I know just how she feels.
Some of my dreams got downright bizarre. There was one where I was at a party and Ralph Nadar sat down beside me. Only he was dressed like this classic, 60s G-man – Joe Friday or something – complete with blue suit and pork pie hat. We struck up a conversation. All at once he pulled out a brown manila envelope, and told me it contained autopsy photos of my sister. Would I like to see them? I had a dream where all the trees outside our house blew down. When I woke up, I swore it had happened. The screeching of the timbers as they snapped was so powerful. I went out on our deck at two in the morning to assess the damage. I found everything unchanged.
For a time I became obsessed with the Deborah Key case. I visited all the places where she had gone – where she was last seen. I did research. I started thinking about maybe solving the crime. Then one day while I was reading about the case on the Internet. I found an article written shortly after Deborah had disappeared. The reporter described Deborah as “loose”. They said she was in the habit of talking to strangers and partying all night. She would sometimes leave with strangers and not be heard from for 3 or 4 days at a time. In a subsequent letter to the editor, Deborah’s mother responded to the article. She said much of what had been written about Deborah was merely hearsay. Deborah’s mother was deeply hurt that the reporter would write such horrible things, as if she, the victim, was somehow responsible for the horrible, inhumane act that was her death. I felt so bad. I wanted to call her up and say I understood. I never called. I figured one of the last people she would have wanted to hear from was this guy who bought the house where the person who had murdered her daughter had lived.
The drama that had unfolded at our house became a common topic of conversation with friends and family. The story of Deborah Key became like a parlor game – shared with guests after a good dinner. One day I called up my brother.
“It’s pretty ironic don’t you think?”
“You know… House with a dead body. It’s a mystery. Theresa’s death’s a mystery.
“I just think it’s odd.”
“Are you at work?”
“We’ll don’t you have work to do?”
“I just think it’s funny that I would move into this house.”
“I mean, what are the chances…”
“Yeah, okay, I gotta go, I gotta go do some work.”
Walking around Carrboro, I sometimes run into the detectives who are working the Deborah Key case. I see them at the grocery store, or in the summer at a fourth of July party – sometimes in the fall at the Halloween festival. The officers are always with his kids. We talk about how we should get our girls together. Then I’ll say something like, “anything ever happen with Deborah Key?”, and then this look of disappointment crosses their face. Clearly the case disturbs them. They were so sure the body would be on our property. No one can understand how – in a town the size of Carrboro – someone can just disappear. I have been troubled by the same thought.
Eventually our house became just another house. I would take out the garbage, or clean out the gutters… rake leaves. We’ve never had the feeling that the place was haunted; only that it was dead – dead energy. In addition to the crystals, our real estate agent advised us to put up wind chimes and mobiles. The place was like a black hole; it needed movement and activity to bring it to life. Eventually I had to stop thinking about Deborah Key. It might have been my wife who said it, or I may have come to the realization myself – why was I so obsessed with Deborah Key, but kept avoiding my sister’s case? I don’t know. I tried to stop thinking about the spooky place where we lived. But sometimes when I would go under the house to fix something, I’d stop and listen. Nothing. My heart would race. I’d start to hyperventilate. Then I’d come out from under the house and close the door. I’d stand on the sloping side of the hill and stare into the forest. Then I’d go back to my family inside and pretend like nothing happened.