TO BEGIN WITH there are the photographs. Small, boxy snapshots, unremarkable at first glance. If you keep looking, though, you begin to notice a strange, almost troubling sense of intimacy; as if you were trespassing onto private property, peering into unlit windows. In one of them, a black-and-white from roughly 1980, a middle-aged man is standing on the front porch of a house, looking slightly past the camera. Uncomfortable in the spotlight, his mouth curls slightly at the edges, giving his face a pinched quality. He cradles a cat against his chest, tilting his shoulders to move the cat better into focus, to take the attention off of himself.
In the other, taken in March of 1986, an elderly woman is sitting in a wicker chair inside the house. There are tall, spry potted plants on either side of her. She's wearing a light-colored robe, tied at the waist. Her hair, streaked with gray, is cut just above the shoulders. She is also holding the cat, but it's a more spontaneous gesture, less formal than the man. She holds the cat up from her lap, her mouth open, in a coo. There is a vivaciousness in her gesture, a trusting warmth.
The photographs are of Sheridan and Pearl "Penny" Oman, a devoted, reclusive couple who for many years based their lives around each other and their artwork. Sheridan was a nationally prominent wildlife painter and sculptor whose work in the mid-'60s for the Desert Museum and in many wildlife books can still be found on bookshelves and on the walls of museums and restaurants. Penny focused her attention more on human beings, making dozens of paintings of children and adults. Nothing about their work or the photographs suggests a tragedy, but if you look closely at their expressions, each posing in front of the other, you might get a sense of the bond between them, how unbreakable, how deep. You might imagine them dying with one another, which is what they have done, in a way.
One evening last March, authorities believe Sheridan Oman took a gun, neatly shot their cat and then his beloved wife in the living room of their house, laid them down gently onto the floor, left a note in the mailbox and on the driveway to alert people to Penny's body and drove their vintage MG hardtop up Mount Lemmon. Once there, he left the car parked on the side of the road, and went up into the mountains by foot to get lost in the wilderness, presumably to commit suicide amongst the cacti and animals of the desert. "Presumably" because the police have never found Sheridan's body. After three days of fruitlessly searching over the area, they packed it up and went home. The case was ruled a homicide/suicide and left at that. In one evening, Sheridan Oman performed for his chief passions, spent them all, and vanished into the night-shrouded mountains like a wisp of smoke.
The house, a simple, flat-roofed "T", sits up a steep dirt road on the city's western edge, completely surrounded by vegetation. There is a wonderful front garden thick with flowers and cacti, and an aviary that sits outside the confines of the rest of the house, a perfect place to sit and stare at the Catalinas, or to watch the birds and javelina roam amongst the sage brush and thorny mesquite trees.
The house is no longer empty.
TUCSON HAD A well-documented record number of homicides last year. Into all the angles that last year's body count was registered, add this one: Many of the murders were committed inside the apartments and the houses of the victims. Shortly after a body is discovered, the public eye moves on, but there is a very real and inexorable process of modern civilization that must follow: Space is cleaned, reorganized, and quickly reclaimed. In most cases the house needs to be re-sold, and this can happen much faster than you may think.
"It can happen really fast," says Detective Ken Thomson, a veteran of the Tucson Police Homicide Division. "A lot of times the house turns over to a representative, usually within 24 hours. The turn-over could be a week."
Beth Smith is a lawyer, originally from New York, who came to Tucson years ago to visit and old boyfriend and has never left. She fell in love with the area the way most of us transplants do: The place goes straight to your chest and adds a special thrum to your soul you don't get from anywhere else. Before his disappearance, Sheridan Oman had donated his house to the Nature Conservancy, who in turn sold it to some nearby neighbors, who wanted a chance to preserve the peace and quiet of the land. If they seem protective of the area, they have reason to. It is an unlikely swath of desert landscape surrounded on either side of a wash by townhouses and complexes. Immediately down the hill, there is the busy traffic grind of people heading to and from their jobs. The two houses sit isolated like a nature preserve, on a dry island of beautiful, mostly unmolested, sand, rock, and cacti.
Smith was friends of the new owners, and she readily jumped at the chance to move into the house when they offered it to her, but not without some initial doubts. "When I first saw it," she says, "it was filled with all the Omans' stuff. The walls were covered by their artwork. There were a million holes in the wall from masonry nails. Sheridan was very into anatomy so there were a lot of mounted skeletons."
The night she first saw the house, the owners were throwing a party. Naturally, everyone wanted to see the place. "I was with a bunch of people who were very into the idea of a haunted house. There were lots of stories and speculation about whether Sheridan had picked up some chippy and then flown off to Italy.... I have to say I was a little bit spooked. Not even so much about the murder, but the whole business of just walking in on someone's life that had been stopped like a stopwatch, where everything was frozen in the moment of their death."
As she talks, we are sitting in the living room. The house has been cleaned very thoroughly, emptied of most of the Omans' things and repainted. The roof got made over last year and new plumbing and wiring has been put in. It's now stylishly simple and uncrowded. A beautiful, old house restored and set straight. Smith, who moved in from a "crummy" complex on North Campbell, is unreservedly enthusiastic about the place. "From the first night I spent here...I just loved it," she says, beaming. "I mean, how can you not be at peace in this place?"
She has thrown out most of the clutter, something the Omans, who lived in the house for many years, did not do. And yet, she is reluctant to reclaim the house entirely; she feels it still belongs to them, in a way. The house contained their life for many years, and, like dust motes in the air, their presence remains. The murder didn't ultimately keep Smith from moving in, but put her into the minority on that count. Moving into a house where a violent homicide has been committed can be a serious deterrent for many people.
RAY HAWS, A Realtor for an eastside Century 21, had the unlikely and horrific job of selling the house where two close friends of his had been murdered. The house, on the city's east side, was the scene of one of Tucson's grisliest and most notorious crimes of 1995. Peter Taylor was convicted of beating and stabbing his parents to death before setting their bed on fire. Taylor, convicted last April, is still in jail, awaiting sentencing. This arrest came later, however; at the time Haws was selling the house, the crime was still a mystery. "There had been no arrests," Haws says. "The perpetrator was not known."
Haws is a solidly built man, doggedly cheerful in the manner you would imagine of successful Realtors, used to reassuring people, being of friendly service. On this subject, however, his voice gets quiet, his eyes seem to recede, cloud over. Clearly, it is still weighing heavily on his mind. "It was very difficult," he says of showing the house to prospective buyers. "The first time was the worst, after that I was okay because it had been totally cleaned up and there was no sign whatsoever of any crime in the home." He takes a pause here, sighs heavily before looking back up. "But there were a lot of memories."
Ethically and professionally, Realtors are meant to disclose whether a violent crime or homicide has occurred in the house as soon as the prospective buyer shows interest, but no legal or punitive action can be taken against them if they don't. Arizona Real Estate law states clearly that the licensee is immune from civil and administrative action if they choose not to reveal this type of information. If you're in the market, you might have to ask point-blank or do some research to find out the true history of the house.
Haws, for his part, felt impelled to tell prospective buyers about the murders immediately. He claims the house wasn't on the market any longer than usual, but there was no doubt the fact of the crime deterred more than a few people. "It does have an effect on selling the property," he allows. "You really don't know whether it does or doesn't (affect the buyer) all the time. They don't always want to tell you, but you can tell that's what's bothering them."
He also acknowledges the emotional difficulty in selling the Taylor house, a place in which he and his family had spent many holidays and special occasions. Accomplishing his job, a favor he felt he owed to the children--including the then-unindicted Peter--did little to assuage his feelings. "In terms of personal closure it didn't help," he says. "At the time I still didn't know who had done the crime. Now there's a side-effect because (Peter) was convicted. I feel I helped him financially." He looks away again. "It's not been easy," he says quietly.
The new owner of the Taylor house sleeps in the same room where the murder occurred without batting an eye lash. He is a non-superstitious man who found a good deal on a home he liked. That simple. He declined further comment for this story.
He falls into one of the major categories of people who are on the housing market, the practical realist. If the house's history doesn't bother you, you can get a pretty good deal. The Taylor house went fairly cheaply, and the owner believes he could have saved even more money if he'd waited a while before making his offer.
Other people believe houses fill with the energy and memories of whomever has lived in them, thus a crackling new sub-division might reveal nothing in the way of history or sensation, but a home that has been through a generation or more might have a different feel to it, conveying a sense that something was either good and happy, or quite the opposite.
Jefferson Bailey, a restaurant owner who lives in the Armory park area, falls into a different category. Call it "presence sensitive." He was in the market for a new house about 10 years ago. For a short while, he thought he'd found his dream place on Fourth Avenue--old, interesting, nestled on a quiet street with three other units in back that he could have rented. "It had everything going for it," he says, "even the right price." But somehow, when he took a look inside, it didn't feel right. "It was a feeling, just a feeling," he says. "You walked in and it just wasn't a happy place, and then afterwards I found out someone had been murdered there."
When asked to extrapolate on what that feeling was, exactly, Bailey demurs. "That's hard," he says. "I'm pretty aware of spaces I'm in, and there are places that either feel good or don't, or when you're in them you feel happy or sad and there's no accounting for it. No intellectualization of it, but we all are--we must be--extremely responsive to our environment."
The murder Bailey sensed actually occurred in 1983. A young mother was found by her two teen-age daughters. She'd been stabbed to death on the kitchen floor after an argument with her live-in boyfriend. Despite its other merits, in the end, Bailey could not buy the house. "No way, not even a possibility," he says. "It would be a curse. You'd get a string of three-month tenants who would trash it, or people would move in happily married and then get divorced."
A third type of reaction involves enthusiastic interest in the unknown; people who enjoy the inherent mystery and possibilities of living in such a house. This is the category that Beth Smith naturally falls into.
When Smith first moved into the Oman house, the owners sent various clergy members to the residence "just to get a sense if there was any problem." They found none, and then Smith's cleaning lady--who was very agitated by the idea working there--brought in a special friend of her own for further inspection. "It was this 85-year-old teeny little lady," Smith says, laughing at the recollection. "She was extremely religious. I came home from work that day and there were votive candles lit everywhere and this tiny woman was standing there, saying rosaries." Eventually, the woman agreed with the earlier experts, there was no sense of violence or anger there.
This would seem to follow with how the Omans lived their lives. They kept to themselves most of the time. Their old neighbors, who live not more than 30 yards away, only remember very sporadic conversations with the couple. Penny, especially, seemed to stay sealed up in the house. There was speculation she was suffering from Alzheimer's at the time of her death. At the time of the murder, there were notes all over the house detailing everyday actions like "Feed the cat" and, on the washing machine, "Turn this knob first." One of the Oman's calendars that Smith keeps, along with a host of other prints, drawings and other artifacts, has written on it things like "Off balance all day" and "Both shaky, little pain." Whether Sheridan's act was out of mercy or violence is not exactly known. The reasons, like Sheridan's body, are elusive. But Smith is certain. "I don't believe it was an act of anything other than love," she says. "Penny was his life."
Murder cuts short people's lives, but, paradoxically, it can also elevate them. Our curiosity, our need to know, can turn unknowns in life into superstars in death (see: Ron Goldman, Nicole Brown, et al). This was also the case with the Omans, who spent much of their time hoarding their privacy only to have their lives pried open by the public eye after the murder. For days, it was front-page news, and the neighbors were besieged with interview requests and photographs, leaving them still press wary to this day.
Smith is aware of this conundrum; if Sheridan had wanted to go out peacefully, he chose a strange way to do it. "Had they just died, they wouldn't have been interesting people," she says. "The murder made them extremely interesting to whole bunch of people who never even knew them."
EARLIER THE SUN went down behind the mountains, washing the Catalinas in a beautiful orange light, and now it's dusk. I ask Smith about the hypothetical possibility of Sheridan's returning to the house one night, coming back home. "If he came to the door, my heart would stop," she says. "But he wasn't a threat to anyone, ever. Not a man with any violence in his soul. After the initial shock, I'd have to sit him down and ask him about the house and Penny and what he's done since then."
She still finds small pieces of Sheridan's sculpture strewn around the garden and the yard. She cleans the pieces carefully and keeps them on a shelf. "I want to respect them to the point that I don't want to stow away any evidence that they were ever here," she says. "It was absolutely their home. They lived here forever."
For Ray Haws, the death of his friends is still a raw, painful memory; the house causes him grief. One house is unlivable, terrifying, and another still emanates a sense of peace and order. The Omans lived their lives almost entirely in the confines of their home, painting, reading, watching the sunsets together. Even in death, that tranquillity emanates for Smith. She is sitting against her chair, still feeling blessed by the luck that brought her this house, this sense of well-being. She looks around her living room appreciably, as if seeing it again for the first time. "I just can't imagine wanting anymore than this," she says.
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