ROANOKE — An attack on a real estate agent at a weekend open house has left the industry shaken.
Roanoke Valley real estate professionals said it highlights the vulnerable position agents are in when meeting strangers, an essential facet of their work.
A female real estate agent was attacked and severely injured during a Saturday open house at Mariners Landing in Bedford County. Dustin Robert Holdren, 34, of Roanoke County, was arrested just after 1:30 a.m. Sunday, according to court papers.
He’s charged with a felony count of aggravated malicious wounding. Authorities said Holdren has relatives in that area of Bedford County and was found at a home there.
Mac Westland, an agent with Keller Williams Realty, identified the woman who was attacked as Lenora Farrington. Her condition wasn’t available Tuesday, although Westland said Sunday she was in stable condition.
Bedford County Sheriff Mike Miller, who did not identify the victim, credited her and neighbors with aiding officials. People were able to give investigators a description of a man and a vehicle seen in the area around the time of the attack, according to a search warrant.
The suspected motive for the assault remains under investigation, Miller said. It does not appear that the victim and the assailant knew each other.
The woman, who was attacked with a blunt object, was taken to a hospital with serious injuries, Miller said. A search warrant indicated the weapon might have been a wrench. She was able to call 911 and has talked to investigators.
Authorities believe the assault was an isolated incident, but deputies have stepped up patrols in the area. The sheriff’s office also is working with the chamber of commerce to organize a safety task force with local real estate firms.
The task force will look at safety plans already in place, and collect new ideas from both real estate agents and law enforcement.
Holdren was listed Tuesday as being held without bond at the Blue Ridge Regional Jail in Bedford. He has a preliminary hearing scheduled for Aug. 31.
A 2019 report on safety from the National Association of Realtors found 33% of respondents experienced a situation that made them fear for their personal safety or the safety of their personal information. Open houses appear among an accompanying list of situations that commonly cause fear.
But the vast majority of the 2,652 respondents — 95% — said they had not been the victim of a crime while working as a real estate professional.
Agents in the Roanoke Valley said such incidents are rare. However, several recalled the 1990 murder of agent Carolyn Horton Rogers, who was attacked in a house she was selling.
Cheryl Ham, an agent with her own team under the Long & Foster umbrella, said news of the weekend attack brought back memories of Rogers’ murder. Ham said she had been targeted as well, noting that her name was written on a notepad found in Rogers’ car, which had been stolen and was discovered at Tanglewood Mall after her death.
Ham said she does not host open houses alone and believes all real estate agents should adopt the practice of bringing someone along.
“You just have to keep protecting yourself,” she said.
Laura Benjamin, chief executive officer of the Roanoke Valley Association of Realtors, said she was notified of the Saturday attack by the agent’s broker, who asked her to spread the word.
“We tend to think that the greater Roanoke Valley, which includes Smith Mountain Lake, is a peaceful, safe place to live. So it was absolutely shocking to hear that that had happened in our community,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin said it’s important for every agent to develop their own safety protocols and stick to them. Though of course, there’s no way to guard against every scenario.
“I think it’s a very sad but necessary reminder of the importance of Realtor safety,” she said. “I’m confident that every single Realtor, every broker is going to rethink every step they take.”
There are precautions that can be taken before showing a home to prospective buyers, such as asking them to come into the office and getting a copy of their identification. But it’s challenging to screen visitors to an open house.
“When we have open houses, we’re advertising it in the media, we’re saying, ‘Come one, come all,’ ” said Kit Hale, principal broker and managing partner for MKB Realtors.
Hale plans to strongly urge his agents not to hold open houses alone. Virtual tours and open houses — something agents turned to during the COVID-19 pandemic — could also be a good option. He said MKB would explore self-defense training.
Each year, Hale dedicates a company meeting to safety, where he shares numerous tips. Unlock all deadbolts and fences. Don’t park in the driveway to avoid being blocked in should you need to escape. Be aware of your surroundings. Have a system in place to alert someone if you’re in trouble.
Walter Grewe, president of the Roanoke Valley Association of Realtors, acknowledged it’s best practice not to host open houses alone, but said, “Unfortunately, that is often not the reality.”
“There’s not many people who want to give up two or three hours on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon to go sit at a home that is on the market that no one might show up to see,” he said.
But having a buddy, whether it’s a family member or a rookie agent from the office, can add a layer of protection.
At an open house, the door is wide open — sometimes literally — to anyone who wants to have a look around.
“Real estate on the whole is a meeting of strangers,” Grewe said. “They don’t know me, I don’t know them — even if they’re referred to me by a past client or a friend or family member.”
He said that’s why agents might ask you to come into the office for a first meeting and for a copy of your identification. Why they might walk behind a client through a house, or be hesitant to turn their back. It might seem a little invasive or odd, Grewe said, but it’s for the agent’s safety.
Vic Coffey, principal owner and broker of RE/MAX All Stars, said he expects the attack will prompt every company in the valley to revisit its practices and procedures.
He said few open houses are being conducted in the region right now anyway, given the limited inventory in the market. When houses are selling in a matter of days, rather than weeks or months, there’s less need for open houses, though he said some agents may still hold them the first weekend the house is available for an extra marketing boost.
Coffey said the great concern everyone in the industry — not just locally, but nationally — has for the victim is evidenced by a GoFundMe set up for her by Teresa Grant with Keller Williams Realty. By Tuesday evening, more than $137,000 had been donated.
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