By Paul T. Choate
July 20, 2012. “The black house with the red dot on it on Howard’s Knob,” “The Stahl House,” “The Cult House,” 448 Howards Knob Road. It is known by many different names, but almost everyone in Boone has at one time or another looked up and seen the strange black mansion on Howard’s Knob. After seven years abandoned and the former owner sent to prison, it is now in shambles after break-ins, many wild parties and frequent vandalism.
Built in 1990 and once a million dollar home, the property now sits vacant with the front doors chained and locked. Black paint is peeling from every side of the house and several windows have been shattered. Many windows that remain have been graffitied with the likes of spaceships — a reference to local rumors of the red dot having to do with aliens — and “this place got what it deserved. let it rott” [sic] on one (see photo gallery below).
The inside is no better. After being abandoned and foreclosed on, and with all furniture and receptacle covers stripped out, frequent break-ins and parties have left only empty beer bottles (and worse) visible on the inside. On one wall a large red pentagram has been spray painted on — another reference, this one to a local rumor that satanic activities took place in the residence.
“It’s been vandalized at certain times and we’ve found things in the house like used condoms, and people have broken the windows and they’ve broken into it,” said Jason Eldreth, broker and co-owner of A-Plus Realty in Vilas and previous listing agent for the property after it was abandoned. “It’s become like an overlook hangout for people. [I’ve seen] beer bottles, and you know, there’s been a lot of that kind of stuff that has gone on up there. I know the neighbors don’t really care that much for it and I think they might have even called the Sheriff’s Department a couple of times for people hanging out up there and that sort of thing.”
Eldreth believes, based on his observations, that the vast majority of the damage to the home has been the result of young people frequenting the property.
“I’ve been up there several times and I’ve found what I would consider to be high school students or college students,” he said. “They would probably be ages of 18 to 24 or something like that. I went up there one day and there were probably like 10 people up there. I was like, ‘What are you guys doing? I guess you just feel like you have the right to come up here and enjoy the view.’ But yeah, every time I’ve been there and seen anyone there it’s been kids. It’s not like older, homeless people or anything like that to my knowledge.”
In addition to the vandalism, some problems arose from a leaking roof, according to Bill Tester, appraisal director and revaluation coordinator with the North Carolina Office of Information Technology Services. He said due to water leaking into the basement, a great deal of mold had formed. He added, however, that the roof has since been repaired and the mold has been taken care of to the best of his understanding.
“The house is really a dysfunctional house for the mountains. It has a flat roof and that’s not ideal for the mountains because obviously water ponds up and snow piles up and melts,” Eldreth said. “Another thing is none of the windows on the whole front of the house open or close, so in essence it’s like a sauna in there. It’s probably 110 degrees and high humidity so it’s perfect for mold growth. … The house is just continuing to deteriorate.”
“I might have to get up there myself and take a look at it because it sounds like it is deteriorating rapidly,” said Tester on July 19 after hearing about the extent of the vandalism.
So how did it come to this?
Enter Richard L. Stahl, a professor at Appalachian State University from 1974 to 2000. Prior to the lavish mountaintop mansion being abandoned, Stahl was the owner. If it seems odd for an ASU professor to live atop a mountain in an 8,096-square-foot mansion, well, it is.
Stahl was indicted by federal prosecutors in August of 2003 on an elaborate array of charges such as money laundering, wire fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy. Beginning in 1995, according to the federal government, Stahl began conducting a scheme where he named himself as the beneficiary of several millions of dollars in life insurance policies on David Anderson, a Miami bar owner and landlord.
The government contended that Stahl had no business interest in Anderson’s life. However, according to a June 3, 2010 article published by the Winston-Salem Journal, Sean Devereux, a defense attorney in Asheville who represented Stahl, contended that their business relationship was “unconventional” but “legitimate.”
There is also another side to Stahl and Anderson’s relationship — albeit thus far unproven. According to Shana Lewis, associate broker with A-Plus Realty and appraiser of the Stahl property, there were rumors in the High Country that Anderson was Stahl’s homosexual lover.
Anderson passed away in 1999 and “suspicious death” started being thrown around. According to the same Winston-Salem Journal article, Stahl collected over $5 million from five policies. Suspicion particularly arose among government attorneys due to Anderson dying a mere 12 days after a contestability period had run out in the last policy that benefited Stahl.
In addition to the suspect nature of Anderson’s death, Stahl insisted no autopsy be performed and that Anderson be cremated a very short time after his death, according to Lewis. Stahl was never charged in connection with Anderson’s death.
In May of 2004, Stahl entered a plea bargain to one count of money laundering. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, he served from July 18, 2005 until Dec. 28, 2006 and was also ordered to pay $5 million in restitution.
U.S. Marshals take over the property
In December 2008, U.S. Marshals seized his 1.5-acre property, located on three lots on Howard’s Knob, as part of the restitution money he was ordered to pay. According to Eldreth and records in the Watauga County Register of Deeds, there was an outstanding loan of $625,000 owed to Bank of America (BAC) at the time.
“The U.S. Marshals, when they seized the property, they thought the property was evidently worth more than what was owed to Bank of America,” Eldreth said. “They can’t tell Bank of America, ‘We’re taking this property and you get zero of your money back.’ Bank of America had an outstanding loan on the property, so when they seized it they saw what they thought was equity in it. Well then when they started trying to market the property and trying to sell the property, ultimately they never got any offers over what was owed to Bank of America on the property. … See the Marshals had to pay Bank of America’s loan off and then whatever else they got above and beyond that loan amount they would have taken for the judgment against the property.”
Eventually, the U.S. Marshals turned the property over to Williams & Williams Auction Co., based out of Tulsa, Okla. The June 3, 2010 Winston-Salem Journal article reported that the sale opened at 1:15 p.m. on May 25, 2010, “and was over in a matter of minutes,” but went on to report that the property had in fact been purchased.
That, however, was not the case. According to Sarah Roth, customer service representative with Williams & Williams Auction Co., the auction did take place but said that Williams & Williams auctions are “not absolute.” The bid for the property was sent to the U.S. Marshals and they had 14 days to accept or decline the offer. Ultimately they declined.
Eldreth said the bid for the property at the auction was $300,000 — well below the amount owed to BAC.
“The U.S. Marshals started negotiating with Bank of America and trying to get Bank of America to accept a lower payoff on the mortgage so the Marshals could try to get something out of it too. Well, eventually those negotiations broke down and they — in essence — just gave it back it Bank of America and said, ‘Well, okay, you take it back, you foreclose on it, whatever; it’s your property now.’ So the U.S. Marshals relinquished their rights to it because there was not enough equity in it for them to go after any money,” Eldreth said.
The return of the property to BAC was finalized on Nov. 14, 2011, according to records in the Watauga County Register of Deeds.
‘It’s a creepy, creepy, creepy house!’
Lewis said she went to the property on many occasions to appraise it and many things about it disturbed her. For years, there have been rumors in Boone of illicit behavior and even a sex trade swirling around with regards to the unusual looking residence.
Lewis described many unusual aspects of the home, including multiple rooms containing only a bed and whole walls dedicated for use of a projector mounted in the ceiling. She said there was a room containing a massage table and “tons of medical books,” as well as a bizarre shower.
“There was a humongous shower in it. It had shower heads on both sides but it looked like you could fit 10 people in it. It was weird. It looked like a communal shower,” said Lewis.
She also went on to describe a strange room with several mattresses placed on risers all around the room. “I was like, ‘Okay this is like a big giant orgy room or something.’”
Apparently, there is also a room in one wing of the house that contains only a bed and a floor to ceiling glass window panel, accessible only via an elevator inside the residence or through a door connected to the outer deck.
“Just the way it was set up and the vibe you would get off of it, it was very sexual and very — just creepy. … It was very uncomfortable and dirty-feeling,” she said.
Perhaps strangest of all, she described a rather unconventional security system — if in fact that is what it was.
“Every door had a motion detector,” she said. “Like, you would open a door and it would yell through the whole house, ‘Downstairs door is opening!’ I wondered, ‘Is this to keep people out or to keep people in? Because I really don’t know,’
“It’s a creepy, creepy, creepy house!”
So… what will become of the place?
As it stands now, BAC still possesses the property. Vacancy Posting Notices are taped along and beside the front door with several dates listed on them from BAC Field Services Corporation inspectors coming by to check for squatters — the most recent date being June 29, 2012 as of now.
The property — including all three lots — is on the Watauga County tax books for $923,300. This, however, is based on appraisals prior to the worst of the vandalism taking place. According to Tester, unless there is a request for a change in value, the property value will not be changed until January of 2014 at the next general reappraisal.
As it stands now, Bank of America does not even list the property on their site dedicated to foreclosed homes for sale. Eldreth confirmed that the property is not currently on the market.
“Right now it’s not listed for sale,” Eldreth said. “I’ve seen some properties take a while, I’ve seen some in a matter of a month or two after [BAC] takes possession of it. … But eventually it will come back on the market.”
Once BAC continues their process and gets ready to put it on the market they will order new appraisals on the property.
And so, though still on the books for almost $1 million dollars, Eldreth concluded, “In my opinion, I think they would probably be lucky to get $150,000 to $200,000 out of it.”
To view additional details on the three lots of the property, click here.
[Includes photos from July 19, 2012; Feb. 2, 2011; Oct. 22, 2009; and June 29, 2009]
Photos by Paul T. Choate and Jason Eldreth
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