Scene of the Crime

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Photograph by Tony Luong

It was destined to be the party of the year. Several men from the South Shore had rented a Lynnfield mansion, away from the usual chaos of Boston’s clubs and bars, where there promised to be a pool, a hot tub, DJs, and an open bar. Thirty-three-year-old Keivan Heath couldn’t wait. He’d heard about the party from a friend, and for days his excitement bordered on anxiety—he even texted his inner circle to ask what shoes to wear. Options included a pair of blue high-tops and floral-patterned sneakers. The verdict was unanimous: the blue ones. Heath was ready to go.

A stout 5-foot-7 with thick biceps and a muscular chest, Heath pulled on a black shirt, a pair of black pants, and a blue-and-red baseball cap. It was hours before sundown on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend when Heath’s ride arrived at his mother’s home in Randolph. Once they hit the road, Heath lit a blunt and took out his phone to film himself and the driver, Anthony, getting roasted on their way to an epic bash.

They arrived around 7 p.m. and walked up the long driveway, which was already lined with cars. At first glance the party lived up to the hype—a row of foil-covered catering trays resting over Sterno burners, a booming sound system, and a patio full of men and women having a good time. Heath hit the bar for his go-to cocktail, Patrón and pineapple juice. There were 50 or 60 people at the party, and it seemed like a dozen more trickled in each hour. At one point, Anthony, whose name has been changed at his request, says Lynnfield police showed up and chatted with one of the hosts in the driveway to make sure the parking situation wasn’t going to get out of hand. The visit did nothing to dampen the mood. Throughout the night, Heath took several grainy videos on his phone featuring thumping bass lines, crowds of people, and the illuminated frame of a luxury home in the quiet suburbs. All evening long, Heath marveled at the house and how much fun he was having. “He literally said, ‘This is the best night I’ve ever had,’” Anthony recalls.

Laid-back mansion parties were not a regular part of Heath’s life. He’d grown up in poverty, born to a teenage mother, Sharon, who immigrated to the U.S. from Honduras. For six months they lived in a shelter before finding subsidized housing in Dorchester’s Uphams Corner neighborhood. Heath did not graduate high school and was often in and out of jail, arrested for selling drugs, disorderly conduct, assault, resisting arrest, and trying to break into a T-Mobile store. At age 28, tragedy hit when his younger brother, who’d been diagnosed with lupus as a teenager, died from the disease. Heath, who prided himself on being his brother’s protector, was devastated. Not long after, he found his mom crying alone at the kitchen table. When he tried to console her, she admitted to feeling ashamed that she couldn’t afford a proper headstone. She’d tried to borrow against her retirement and looked for ways to get a loan, but was repeatedly denied. “Don’t worry, Mommy,” Heath told her. “I’ll figure out what to do.” A few days later, Heath was arrested while holding more than an ounce of cocaine and nine small baggies of crack.

Heath’s struggles likely felt a million miles away as he sipped his cocktail on that warm spring night. Now in his thirties, life seemed to be getting back on track—he had earned his GED, had two healthy young sons, and was in a loving long-term relationship. “He didn’t have any enemies,” Anthony says.

Like so many parties, the longer it lasted the rowdier it got. By 1 a.m. more than 100 people sprawled throughout the home, and carloads more kept showing up. Within an hour, it was “wall to wall” people, Anthony says. “It hit social media and it seemed like everyone who was leaving the clubs in Boston made their way up to this house.” By 2:30 a.m., Anthony decided to call it a night. Heath wasn’t ready to leave. He walked Anthony down to his car, grabbed a bag of belongings, and said he’d catch a ride with another friend. Driving south toward Boston, Anthony called Heath and could still hear the party in the background. They joked the way drunken friends do in the wee hours of the night.

Minutes later, gunshots rang out in Lynnfield. Police received the call at 3:04 a.m. By the time officers arrived two minutes later, partiers were driving away and running through the street, fleeing the scene. Emergency responders administered first aid to the gunshot victim, but Heath could not be saved. Later, Anthony was told that someone had insulted a female friend of Heath’s, a drunken fight broke out, and bullets started flying.

Despite dozens of potential witnesses, a year has flown by and no arrests have been made. The last time a murder rocked Lynnfield was in 2010. It was a messy, multi-victim murder-suicide. “That case solved itself,” Lynnfield Police Chief David Breen says. Heath’s murder is proving far more challenging. “I’ve never had a case that had so many witnesses who either refuse to identify themselves or refuse to cooperate,” Breen says. “It’s extremely frustrating.”

Meanwhile, Lynnfield residents responded to the murder by closing rank. Immediately following the shooting, the town seized on the fact that someone in their midst was renting his home to God-only-knows-who and clamped down on all short-term rentals. Within days, Lynnfield’s building inspector drafted a cease-and-desist letter claiming that the homeowner, Alex Styller, had violated the town’s bylaws. The letter, which makes no mention of the shooting, notes that “a review of the ‘Airbnb’ web site” showed that Styller was renting his home on a short-term basis, which the letter claimed was a violation of local zoning ordinances. Styller, though, had no intention of rolling over. Instead, he phoned his lawyer and set into motion a fight that could have repercussions far beyond the tony suburb, providing a blueprint for towns everywhere that want to ban Airbnb—and the strangers who come with it.

 

Alex Styller’s home is not visible from the street. It sits atop a small hill, nestled behind a miniature forest. In an advertisement on Airbnb, Styller bills it as a “Super Modern European Mansion” and charges $1,500 for the privilege of staying the night. “Total privacy!” the ad promises. Amenities inside the 5,000-square-foot home include five bedrooms, an in-ground pool, and a bar, all set on 3 wooded acres behind a gated driveway. Marked by giant windows, sharp angles, and mixed building materials, the estate is decidedly out of step with Lynnfield’s predominant Colonials and ranches.

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Alex Styller, inside his Lynnfield home. / Photograph by Tony Luong, styling by Yojanse Jimenez/Team

On a recent evening, Styller invites me inside his home to tell me his version of events. We sit in the kitchen, just under where an errant bullet had pierced the ceiling the night of the party. To my right, in the living room, an orange tree and a lemon tree grow under a UV lamp. Styller, who is short and slim with dark hair and light-blue eyes, pours hearty glasses of 15-year-old Glenlivet for each of us and offers up a platter of lemon wedges and goat cheese. “Me and my wife,” he assures me, “are big foodies.”

Styller, who advertises on several property websites, had rented his house through HomeAway to a man from Bristol County who wanted to host a small college reunion party (Styller declined to provide the renter’s name or contact information). Over the course of three months, he says, they exchanged emails and talked on the phone. Styller scanned the man’s LinkedIn page. Satisfied with his cursory background check, he agreed to rent his home for the holiday weekend. On Friday night, he met the man at his house, gave a tour, and surrendered the keys. He also met the party’s cohosts. “Very nice, very polite, well-dressed black guys,” he tells me. Styller packed up his family and went to his parents’ home in nearby Woburn to spend the weekend.

At 8:30 a.m. that Sunday, Styller received a phone call from his real estate broker. It was unusually early and his broker wasted little time. “Alex,” she said, “I’m very sorry about what happened.”

Styller paused, dumbfounded. He had no idea what happened. The details were murky, the broker explained, but there had been a shooting at Styller’s home and somebody was injured. Styller got off the phone, scrambled into his white Mercedes SUV, and raced toward Lynnfield, where he found his driveway blocked by police vehicles. Standing across from a bank of news trucks, a detective told Styller that he couldn’t enter his home until cops cleared the scene. Styller returned to his parents’ house and flipped on the TV looking for updates on what had happened. “The entire day,” he tells me, “felt weird.”

A Russian accent hangs heavy over Styller’s words, a relic from his days in Moscow, where he grew up in a 400-square-foot apartment with his brother and parents. As the Soviet Union deteriorated, Styller left and made his way to Italy, where he spent 14 months as a refugee. He linked up with a group that helps Jewish migrants and made arrangements to move to the U.S. He attended free English classes at Hebrew College in Newton Centre and worked at a Copy Cop, where he polished his language skills on customers. In 1992, a Russian friend reached out with an opportunity to join a successful computer hardware business. In no time, Styller branched out and founded his own computer company.

A decade later, after grinding it out as a small-business owner, Styller and his wife wanted to move to the suburbs. With a child on the way, the couple wanted the life that all new parents hope for—a safe neighborhood, good schools, a yard. Lynnfield emerged as a “hidden gem,” Styller says. “Wonderful people. Wonderful residents. Fantastically positioned. Awesome schools. Couldn’t ask for more.” They bought a large private property, where they could design their dream home.

Life in Lynnfield was peaceful, but it was also expensive. Like many entrepreneurs, Styller felt the pinch of the recession and the steady climb in living costs. His business had faced its own challenges, including a 2015 federal lawsuit filed by Microsoft that alleged Styller’s company sold computer systems that contained pirated versions of Microsoft software. According to court records, Styller’s company settled the case with undisclosed terms. In Airbnb and HomeAway, Styller saw an easy and lucrative side income. “We all need money,” he tells me between sips of scotch. “Our children are supposed to go to college, we’re paying our mortgages, we’re buying the cars, we’re paying for the cars; we’re paying for everything.”

Styller began testing the short-term rental market roughly three years ago. He rents out his home only a handful of times each year, he says, and rejects approximately three-quarters of the people who express interest. He also conducts his own background checks. “That’s my home,” he tells me. “That’s where my daughter lives. That’s where I live. I have no plans to let people whom I don’t check, like questionable people, into my house.”

Most renters, he says, are affluent and professional. A Nigerian executive and the head of a large publicly traded company come to mind, he tells me, estimating that he rented out his home a total of five times in 2016. Not once, Styller says, did he hear complaints about his use of HomeAway and Airbnb from the neighbors, the building inspector, or police—until Memorial Day weekend.

While waiting for the police to wrap up their investigation that Sunday, Styller talked on the phone with the men who had rented the house. They apologized, Styller says, and told him the party simply got out of control. They didn’t know Keivan Heath or what had led to the shooting. Styller was ready to chalk it up to an unlikely mishap and move on, but the city had other ideas.

Two days after the shooting, Lynnfield’s building inspector drafted a four-paragraph cease-and-desist notice forbidding Styller to rent online. According to the letter, Styller’s use of Airbnb for a weekend here and there was the equivalent of operating a hotel or a “lodging or rooming house,” neither of which is permitted in the residential zone of Lynnfield. Styller seethed. “There is no justification,” he tells me. “Tragedy can happen, but let’s not get hysterical. Let’s not get panicky. Okay?”

It’s easy, of course, to take issue with the town’s reaction. Then again, if someone rented out the house next door and a murder took place, what would you do?

 

Lynnfield isn’t the type of town typically associated with Airbnb, a service that first made inroads in major cities such as San Francisco and New York. It’s a politically conservative suburb of 12,000 where the biggest attraction is a Whole Foods that anchors a high-end shopping center. Ninety-five percent of the city’s residents are white and the median home price is just shy of $600,000. To anyone who opposed Styller, the narrative was simple: In renting out his home, he’d allowed more than 100 partygoers, some of whom were apparently armed, to descend on their quiet little town. At a zoning-board hearing not long after the murder, Styller said he’d stop renting his property for parties and that he’d already updated his Airbnb ad to make that explicitly clear. He also expressed interest in working with the city to obtain a special permit so he could continue renting out his home on a case-by-case basis. He was not prepared for the backlash.

At the hearing, several residents told the zoning board they feared for their safety and that the town was forever changed as a result of what happened at Styller’s home. Then Richard Dalton, a longtime Lynnfield resident and a regional director in the Massachusetts Office of Business Development, took the floor. Dressed in a suit, with slicked-back silver hair, Dalton told the room that his daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren live one street over from Styller in a house that abuts the back of his property. “After the incident,” Dalton scowled, “those three children did not sleep in their own house for a week. They were afraid to be in their home, in their neighborhood.”

Dalton then launched a personal attack against Styller, telling the zoning board that if they were considering giving Styller a special permit to continue using Airbnb, they should first consider Styller’s moral character. He said: “When you look at him being sued by Microsoft for using pirated copies of software, when you look at—” Styller’s attorney jumped up and objected. Dalton, who declined to comment for this story, turned around, shrugged his shoulders, and emphatically declared that this case wasn’t merely about Styller—it was about “preserving the character of this town.”

At the next appeals meeting, a month later, neighbors again showed up to sling mud. This time they let fly allegations of nude sunbathing on Styller’s property and noise-ordinance violations. Styller brushed off the attacks and stayed focused on the issue at hand—whether his house was a hotel or a boarding home. The truth was that his use of Airbnb didn’t fit neatly into the letter of the town’s law. The home wasn’t a hotel, nor was it a lodging or rooming house. So what was it?

Lynnfield is hardly the first city to wrestle with online rentals. It’s a poorly regulated industry, and in Massachusetts—where Airbnb generates nearly $50 million in rentals a year—legislation to tax it and address safety concerns is limping through the State House. Across the country the issue has sparked wars between cities and states over who has the power to regulate these transient rentals. Some states, such as Arizona and Indiana, have gone so far as to introduce legislation that would make it illegal for cities to ban short-term rentals.

In the wake of the shooting, Lynnfield amended its laws to outright ban any property owner who lives in a residential district from renting out his home for less than 30 days. It doesn’t matter if you post it on Airbnb or give the keys over to a family friend in exchange for a few bucks—renting your home in Lynnfield for a couple of weeks in the summer or while you’re away on Thanksgiving break is now against the law. “What’s weird about that is they did it in a very comprehensive fashion,” says Peter Karol, an attorney and an associate professor who teaches property law at New England Law Boston (he is not involved in the case). “To solve this problem, they sort of made a major policy change for the entire town…it seems like a broad policy decision if it was really based on one criminal event at one house.”

Airbnb and HomeAway have said very little about the Lynnfield case. HomeAway didn’t comment, while Will Burns, Airbnb’s public policy director, tells me he wasn’t surprised by the town’s reaction. “I understand the impulse,” says Burns, previously a Chicago alderman. Local lawmakers can be subjected to immense pressure from constituents to regulate the sharing economy. Throw a murder into the mix, and everything is intensified. Still, Burns says, there are more-effective ways to protect a neighborhood’s quality of life than banning property owners from renting out their homes on Airbnb. Styller agrees and has filed a lawsuit against the town’s zoning board in Massachusetts Land Court to win back his right to use Airbnb. “I’m very comfortable fighting this,” Styller says. “People have rights to rent their property.”

The outcome of the lawsuit hinges on the fine print of Lynnfield’s bylaws and how one interprets the International Building Code. At an initial hearing, Lynnfield’s attorney argued that short-term rentals had always been banned in the town and the decision to amend the bylaw was merely a means of clarifying that. If the town didn’t restrict short-term rentals, he argued, Styller’s use of Airbnb and HomeAway could become so frequent and disruptive that it might as well be a business. “It becomes burdensome on the neighborhood in a way that, say, a hotel or a motel would be,” he told the judge.

It’s too early to say whether Lynnfield’s ban will stand, and if so, what it might mean for other towns that want to outlaw short-term rentals. For now, both Styller and Lynnfield have dug in for a fight.

 

Whether Styller or Lynnfield prevails in court is of little concern to Heath’s mother, Sharon. Since her son’s murder, she spends most of her days alone in her small Randolph home, surrounded by photos of her two deceased children. Too often she replays the night of the shooting in her mind.

She was asleep when two police officers knocked on her door around 5 a.m. They gave her a slip of paper with a phone number and told her to call the hospital for information about Heath. Sleep still clouding her eyes, Sharon grabbed her phone and began dialing. She assumed her son was in an accident and needed to be picked up. Once the woman who answered began talking, though, Sharon blurted out, “Please don’t tell me my child is gone.” To this day, she isn’t sure why she said it. The voice on the other end of the line said, “I’m sorry for your loss,” and Sharon broke down.

Nothing has felt right since then. It has been a painful and frustrating year of grief for Sharon, who says she didn’t meet with police until late August, nearly three full months after her son’s death. By that point, newspapers had reported that two off-duty Boston police officers had attended the party, yet investigators still had nothing to show for their work. A detective told her the case was moving slowly, witnesses weren’t cooperating, and it could easily take two years for police to make an arrest. More recently, Sharon heard that the district attorney has begun conducting grand juries in order to compel witnesses to testify, but she’s not optimistic that her son’s murderer will be caught anytime soon. The way she sees it, the town of Lynnfield wants to sweep the whole affair under the rug and move on, more interested in banning short-term rentals than finding her son’s killer. “My son’s murder is not a priority to them,” she says. “They’re more concerned about the value of that house than the value of my son’s life.”

As of press time, Styller’s home is still for rent on Airbnb. The ad describes Lynnfield as one of the “safest areas in the state of Massachusetts.” There is no mention of the murder.

Source URL: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2017/05/25/lynnfield-murder/