NEWS- Jayner's place: Tenant sought for murder victim's house

The memory of a heinous crime lingers over 807 St. Clair Avenue.

What happens when a cottage, long enjoyed for its tranquil setting and proximity to downtown, suddenly becomes a murder scene? Will anyone live there again?

Downing Smith is about the find out.

The longtime Locust Grove neighborhood resident has been renting the compact, two-bedroom cottage he owns at 807 St. Clair Avenue for several decades. But such peaceful dealings came to a brutal halt on November 9 when 26-year-old UVA alum Jayne McGowan was shot multiple times there after she answered a knock at the door.

"I've been here 60 years," says Smith, "and I don't ever remember anything like this happening."

The incident left a city wondering how a cheerful charity fundraiser who built marshmallow-roasting campfires in the front yard with friends who called her "Jayner" could become a victim.

The seemingly random crime caused residents to question whether anywhere in Charlottesville was a truly safe place to live anymore, even after two men living less than a mile away on Caroline Avenue, Michael Pritchett and William Gentry, were arrested.

Now, nearly three months later, Smith is going about the somber business of trying to find a new tenant for an otherwise habitable 525-square-foot cottage.

"There's no easy way to bring it up," says Smith, who lives next door. "So I usually tell them at the end of the tour, when it comes time to hand them an application."

Although a handful of showings over the course of the month haven't yet produced a tenant, Smith says the crime hasn't seemed to make a difference to anyone who's actually toured the house.

"There was one woman in D.C. whom I told before she made the trip down and who said it would be a little too weird for her," says Smith. "But mostly it's been for other reasons. Either they have a large dog, or they can't start renting until April, or it's too expensive."

It's also winter, traditionally the worst time for landlords in Charlottesville, where leases typically begin in the warm months. Smith says the house has been freshly painted to cover the fingerprinting dust, and the rent is $850, the same that McGowan was paying.

"It took us a while to rent it before we found Jayne, too," Smith says, "because it's such a small house, and it has to be the right fit."

McGowan's murder has cast a pall of caution over a neighborhood that had once been the picture of a quiet community, and it hasn't been lost on Smith's potential tenants. 

"When people ask if it's safe, I tell them that I've always felt safe here, but if they want crime statistics, they can go to the police," he says.

The effect hasn't been limited to newcomers.

"The neighborhood association is trying to get together a meeting with police to talk about crime prevention," says Smith. "I know I lock my door when I leave now. Normally, I wouldn't bother to do that."

According to Randall Bell, a California-based real estate consultant specializing in tragedy-tainted properties, Smith should have far less trouble than anyone trying to sell such a house.

"Renters," says Bell, "have a whole different mindset. They're not investing any equity dollars into it, and they sometimes feel good that they're helping the community get back to normal."

Bell says he has seen this scenario play out even with the most infamous of buildings.

"They rented the house on Bundy Avenue in Brentwood where O.J. Simpson committed the murders really soon afterward without any problem, and they rented the JonBenet Ramsey house out as well," says Bell. "It may take a little longer and a little more negotiation."

Still, whoever ends up moving into 807 St. Clair will never be able to really fill the vacancy for Smith.

"Jayne was an excellent tenant," he says. "She was the perfect person for that house."