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Backyard Body Lands Realtor in Court

MONTEREY, Calif. (CN) — Many people may have a skeleton in the closet, but when Laura and Richard Coté's landscaping crew discovered a body buried in their back yard, they decided to sue their Realtor and the property's former owners.

The Cotés moved to Monterey in 1998 and after renting a home for 18 months, decided to buy it. They never were told that a renter had been convicted of murder in 1983 after his victim's body was found in the tool shed behind the garage, so when a second victim turned up it was a complete shock, said their attorney, Aerin Murphy.

Alfred Powell, 60, is serving 15 years to life in Solano State Prison for the 1982 murder of Suzanne Kay Nixon. Nixon, who was 30, was the daughter of Anne Nixon Ball, the 1982 Republican candidate for the 16th Congressional District.

The Monterey Herald reported at the time that Nixon's car had been discovered four blocks away from Powell's home, with the keys in the ignition. When police knocked on doors to ask questions, Powell answered the door in a bloody shirt. Nixon's body was found buried beneath a pile of clothes, bags and bricks.

Apparently, he had already killed another woman, Sandra McGee, and buried her in the back yard.

McGee, 32, was the mother of three girls and picked Powell up while he was hitchhiking at night. Her car was found in the parking lot of the Hyatt Regency Monterey while it was under construction. There had been speculation that she was buried under its foundation, according to the Herald.

Powell pleaded not guilty to McGee's murder on June 1 this year. He is also being investigated for a third murder. Sheila Chavez's body was found Sept. 18, 1982 at the bottom of a ravine behind the Monterey Library. She was killed in the same manner as the other two women and her murder has never been solved.

Attorney Murphy said her clients, who still live in the house on Third Street in Monterey, are traumatized by what their landscapers found in their back yard and worry another victim could still be buried somewhere.

"Can you imagine?" Murphy said. "It was absolutely shocking. You might expect tree roots to get in the way, but you never expect to find a body in your back yard."

Murphy said her clients would like to move, but would have a difficult time selling now, and that the gruesome discovery reduced the value of the home, for which they paid $339,000 in 2000. She said the Cotés also have lost their ability to enjoy a little peace and quiet.

"Monterey is a Lookie-Lou small town and there has been a barrage of people and media in front of our clients' house. It's overwhelming," she said.

Because Monterey is such a small town, the Cotés say, the previous owner Sean Ford, and their Realtor, Herbert Aronson, surely knew of the home's history and should have disclosed it.

In their June 3 complaint in Monterey County Court, the Cotés seek damages for failure to disclose, fraud by concealment, breach of duty, negligence, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. They sued Ford, Aronson, and previous owners Marlene Provence, and Anthony and Michele McCulloch.

The Cotés say in the lawsuit that Ford pressured them to close the sale quickly and even fished around to see if they knew of the home's history, asking if they had heard about somebody having lived in the shed.

"They didn't think much about it at the time, but it really struck them later on," Murphy said.

Ford's attorney, Andy Swartz of Monterey, said his client did not know about the murders, that he was just a kid in high school at time, and "if he ever read the newspaper, read the sports section and the comics."

Swartz said the people who sold the home to Ford never disclosed any of this. Swartz provided a Transfer Disclosure Statement, signed by the McCullochs, who sold the home to him in 1994. The statement mentions cracks in the driveway and some loose boards in the attic, but nothing about a murder or Powell's past on the property.

"The lawsuit is completely frivolous," Swartz said. "We hope they will dismiss the complaint against Mr. Ford."

Neither Aronson, Provence nor the McCullochs appear to have hired an attorney. When reached by phone, Aronson said he had "no information about anything," and would not comment. The others could not be reached for comment.

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