'Zombie' house flippers learn owner's skeletal remains weren't discovered for years

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — For an unknown amount of time, the mail outside one St. Petersburg home kept piling up; it turns out the owner died in his living room but wasn’t found for years until the bank came to change the locks.

The mystery of what happened to the owner of a home in a quiet corner lot of St. Pete is far from over, but neighbors now know why the house fell into complete disrepair.

Now, a real estate team is flipping the dilapidated home to give it a second chance in the community.

“We were told the owner (Mark Steven Labahn) didn’t have any children. He was not close with his siblings at all and hadn’t talked to them in decades,” Alex Jandick, the founder of 131 Realty Corp., told ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska. “He was retired from the military and got military pay every month, so the pay would go into his bank account, and then the bank would auto-debit his mortgage. If we rewind to 2021, during COVID, a lot of people were staying in their homes. And no one bothered to check in with him. A lot of the neighbors here moved in around 2019 or 2020. So there’s nothing out of the ordinary, just not seeing a neighbor.”

Jandick said he looks for the most disgusting homes in a specific area of Tampa and St. Pete. He has a particular name for the type of homes he looks for.

“We call them zombie houses when they’re abandoned. It’s a zombie house,” Jandick said.

Jandick said that in Florida’s real estate market, there is a lot of competition from national corporations to buy homes. But, as a local family-run company, he tells Paluska he has the advantage.

“National competitors really had no chance against the local guys. That’s what we love about doing this,” Jandick said. “People have to learn how to buy right and know their local neighborhoods. Neighborhoods in St. Pete and Tampa are street by street by street. So you have to know exactly where to buy, how to set up the scope of work, how much money you’ll spend on the house, how much time it will take, and then knowing exactly what it’s going to resell for.”

Jandick and his business partner Brian Rosegger often gut the houses down to the studs and clean them out themselves. Doing the labor can save thousands compared to a waste disposal company.

Rosegger said he was driving by the house when he first noticed mail piling up outside the front door. After doing days of research, he learned the owner had passed away, and he started searching archives for his next of kin.

“And when we got to the house, I mean, it was just piled to the ceiling with garbage and just junk and all kinds of things. He was an eccentric character. He had a jewelry-making business; he was polishing rocks and was into guns. So there was a lot of ammunition and stuff everywhere. But based on the condition, they suspect that he had been dead for several years.”

Rosegger hopes to give the community closure now.

“All the neighbors, they’ve watched this property sit into for several years, and they’ve wanted something nice in their neighborhood instead of having to look at this,” Rosegger said. “So it’ll be good to see the neighborhood revitalized.”

Paluska confirmed with St. Petersburg Police that on Jan. 10, 2024, the skeletal remains of Labahn were discovered when a representative from the bank came to change the lock. According to the public information officer, Yolanda Fernandez, the man was known to be a hoarder and recluse. The case is still open as they wait for the medical examiner to determine the cause of death. It is labeled as a suspicious death as they await results from the forensic anthropologist; however, no foul play is suspected.

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