A notorious tour


Author Steve Lehto also is an attorney with a private practice in southeastern Michigan.

Lawyer publishes book on country’s ‘Houses of Homicide’

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Author Steve Lehto had to “reinvent the wheel” with his latest non-fiction book, “American Murder Houses: A Coast-to-Coast Tour of the Most Notorious Houses of Homicide.”

“It’s one of these books where it didn’t dawn on me at the front end how much work it would be,” said the 52-year-old Lehto. “It’s not as obvious as you think, but each chapter is about a different house, and I had to reinvent the wheel each time… With each house, I had to start from scratch and dig up information on that house. The next chapter, I had to start all over again with a different house. The research for one chapter did not help me with the research for another chapter. It wound up being so work-intensive that halfway through, I was kicking myself.”

Born in East Lansing, Lehto grew up in Birmingham. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history from Oakland University in 1989 and his juris doctorate in law from Southwestern University Law School in Los Angeles. A lawyer in private practice in southeastern Michigan, Lehto said that “American Murder Houses” (Berkley Books $16) is his 10th non-fiction book and will be released on Tuesday, Feb. 3. Lehto will be signing copies at Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 25.

The book explores 27 murders that occurred in American history, most notably Lizzie Borden’s home in Fall River, Mass., where her parents were viciously killed with an axe in 1892 (though she was charged with their murders, Borden was acquitted in 1893); the Miami Beach mansion of fashion designer Gianni Versace, who was murdered by Andrew Cunanan in 1997; the SeaTac, Wash. home of Gary Ridgway, alias the Green River Killer, who brought many women – mostly runaways and hookers – to his house, where he’d have sex with them and subsequently kill them; the L.A. neighborhood of Brentwood where Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were murdered outside of her condo in 1994, et al.

“The criteria was it had to be a house that was still standing, which ruled out a whole bunch, by the way. And it had to be a house that either was one people would know about – regardless where they lived in the country – or was significant for some other reason,” explained Lehto. “The Charles Manson murders – two of the three houses are still standing; everyone’s heard of ‘Helter Skelter.’”

He continued: “There were a few that would only be known locally, but they were – to me – so interesting that they belonged in the book. James Ruppert was the guy in Ohio who snapped and killed 11 relatives in 1975 (in what’s called the Easter Sunday Massacre). It’s the largest mass murder of a family in American history. The house is still there.”

Ironically, the chapter that required the most research was the one centering on the house where – contrary to popular belief – no murder occurred: the Gardette-LaPrete House (also called the Sultan’s Palace) in New Orleans.

“I spent more work on that chapter than any other chapter in the book because I had to disprove a negative. I’m pretty certain that if you read my chapter, you’ll agree that I’m right: No murder took place in this house. There are people in the world who’ll probably be upset with me for debunking history,” said Lehto. “No murder took place there, yet every web-site I’ve seen says a murder took place there with these gory, gory, fantabulous details that aren’t true.”

As to how the rumor got started that a murder occurred in that house, Lehto has no answers.

“But it’s one of those stories that’s so good, it gained traction and became accepted as true,” he said. “But there’s so many things wrong with the story that you realize it couldn’t possibly be true and it’s not.”

The legend goes that a mysterious stranger – rumored to be a Turkish sultan – came to New Orleans in 1792 with his entourage and leased the Gardette-LaPrete House in the French Quarter, where he threw wild parties. The morning after one of his famous parties, many people were find brutally murdered all over the mansion and the supposed sultan was missing.

Lehto pointed out that none of the murder victims were ever identified and there were no newspaper articles about this crime – and there would’ve been, given the sheer numbers of victims. Further, this house was built in 1836 and yet these murders that supposedly took place there occurred in 1792.

“Researchers trying to learn more – such as the date of the crime or the names of the victims – encounter a huge gap in the evidence,” said Lehto. “I did find a very, very early version of story that possibly is the source. There was a book that was published in 1922 called ‘Legends of Louisiana.’ I don’t know if it’s the origin (of this story) or the first time it appeared in print.”

When his editor at Berkley pitched this idea to him, Lehto was amazed that there was never a book done on locations of such heinous crimes, regardless that they are numerous web-sites devoted to them.

“So the idea was brought to me,” recalled Lehto. “It was one of those ideas where you hear the thumbnail sketch and immediately realize, ‘Hey this is a good idea.’”

When researching and writing the book over the course of a year, Lehto only visited one of the 27 (28 when counting the Gardette-LaPrete House) houses: Versace’s mansion. He didn’t have the budget to visit all of them.

“One of the reasons I didn’t go look at the houses is that most of them are not open to the public,” he said. “The good news is so many newspapers nowadays have been digitized, so you can pick up old newspaper coverage of almost anything.”

Versace’s mansion is the most expensive of all the houses profiled in his book.

“What’s amazing about it is he was living in it as just a resident. It was a monstrous house,” he said. “The people who bought it later turned into a hotel/restaurant and it was still large. It was opulent beyond any description. The swimming pool is gold-plated with 24 karat gold – that’s why it was so expensive.”

Even though researching each house could be tedious at times, Lehto enjoyed writing this book.

“It’s one of those things where you’re studying the human psyche. I don’t know why people are fascinated by these stories, but they are. They fascinate me also. I have degrees in history and law and both played large parts in doing the research because they’re murder investigations,” explained Lehto. “It was interesting to go back and look at these different murders because they not only occurred throughout the country, but they occurred throughout history, too. One of the homes was built in the 1700s. It’s interesting to see how this stuff was similar from one era to next and how different it was.”



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