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Arkansas real estate agent’s murder highlights perils of the job

(Courtesy Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office via Associated Press)

Real estate agent Beverly Carter, 49, was found dead on Tuesday, her body buried in a shallow grave behind a concrete mixing plant north of Little Rock. It was a senseless and seemingly random act of violence against a woman who at the time was only doing her job.

Her death is a tragic reminder of the hidden perils real estate agents face, potentially every day.

“She was just a woman that worked alone — a rich broker,” said the man charged with her murder, Aaron Lewis, in response to questions about his motives.

Lewis, a 33-year-old repeat felon, entered a not guilty plea to the murder charge. But his glib statement to reporters Tuesday highlights the inescapable reality that female agents are easy-to-find targets simply by virtue of their job description.

Selling real estate is a solitary profession that involves escorting virtual strangers into sometimes vacant properties at a moment’s notice. Advertising — usually accompanied by an agent’s photograph and phone number — is virtually a requirement for the majority of agents who work for commission.

According to the National Association of Realtors, 57 percent of agents are women, and a 2011 report on violent crimes against real estate agents found that women are disproportionately victimized.

“Criminals are cowards and criminals are lazy,” said Tracey Hawkins, a former real estate agent who teaches safety procedures to real estate professionals. “Real estate agents make their living meeting complete strangers in empty houses. That’s just the way they do business.

“There’s more than likely a female there, and that agent is going to be alone. The perception is that if you want a wealthy target, find a real estate agent– it’s easy.”

Safety training, Hawkins said, is usually done on an ad hoc basis by individual brokerages or regional real estate associations. When Hawkins is called in, she said, it is usually after violent crimes against agents have occurred somewhere.

“I think safety training should be mandatory,” Hawkins said. “Real estate agents are require to learn how to write contracts, ethic rules, laws. But real estate safety is not sexy or exciting.”

Carter’s body was discovered on the final day of the National Association of Realtors’ “Realtor Safety Month.” The association’s incoming president, Chris Polychron, pledged in an interview with The Post on Tuesday that he would make safety a top priority when he is installed in his post in November.

“My heart goes out to her family, friends, her co-workers,” said Polychron, himself a longtime Arkansas real estate agent. “The sad part is that when you work in real estate, it does involve risk. But as an industry we have got to promote better safety awareness.”

Polychron said making training mandatory might require convincing licensing boards in all 50 states to make changes to their rules. At the association, he said, amending ethics regulations to include safety requirements would require a board vote.

“Is it worth it if it saves one life? Absolutely,” he said.

Among Arkansas real estate professionals, the murder of one of their own has already changed everything.

“I’ve been doing this almost 20 years, and there’s only one incident where I felt unsafe. It was at an open house,” said Karen Hall-Fore, a Little Rock area agent who knew Carter. “I went this morning and got Mace for everyone in my office.”

She added: “The business is just going to have to change.”

Open houses in particular can be perilous affairs where agents — who are often alone in an otherwise empty home — feel like “sitting ducks.” Hall-Fore said that the events, where agents welcome random potential home-buyers who are passing through alone or with their own agents, are not effective tools for selling a home.

“We always do them because our sellers want them,” Hall-Fore said. “They’re not a productive way and we’re going to have to stop doing that.”

Beverly Carter’s husband last heard from her on Thursday evening, just before she planned to meet a new client at a vacant, foreclosed property that was for sale.

She did many of the things that agents are trained to do: She left her purse in her car to avoid theft, and she called her husband to give him her exact location.

But it wasn’t enough. Her brown Cadillac was still parked in the driveway of the property with her purse inside after the scheduled appointment. Carter was nowhere to be found.

“I’ve been in [real estate] 40 years and I’ve done the same thing she’s done a thousand times and I won’t do it again,” said another agent, Bobbie McCluskey.

Hawkins said real estate professionals are encouraged to use technology, like the mobile app MyForce, to send distress messages and even a GPS location to law enforcement or family members. Agents can also arrange to make coded emergency calls to their main office if they feel unsafe.

She encourages her trainees to always meet with new clients at the main office first and to make a copy of the clients’ drivers licenses or other identification. Hawkins also encourages agents to carry a legal, non-lethal weapon of their choice, such as Mace or pepper spray.

Hours after Carter’s body was found on Tuesday morning, the company sales meeting at Nancy Daniels’ brokerage in Little Rock was focused on new safety procedures, including requiring every new client to come into the office for their first meeting.

“You’re just on edge about everything, everywhere that you are,” Daniels said. “We are concerned and fearful.”