A Vancouver heritage home that has sat empty for nearly 30 years after a violent murder has just been listed for $1.4 million.
The three-storey home on the corner of Fraser Street and East 10th Avenue in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood is linked to one of the city’s most notorious cold case homicides.
On August 3, 1991, Wanda Watson failed to show up to her 6 pm waitressing shift at the Marble Arch Hotel in downtown Vancouver, which police told Daily Hive was very out of character for her. Later that evening around 10:30 pm, neighbours saw her house on fire and called the fire department.
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The young woman had been stabbed in what was believed to be a robbery gone wrong. At the time, the Vancouver Sun reported that Watson entered the home when men were taking items, and she was grabbed and then stabbed in the chest multiple times. The assailants poured gasoline into the basement and lit the home on fire before “collecting their loot” and fleeing. Two men were seen running from the home carrying the stolen items.
Firefighters discovered the injured woman while responding to the blaze. VPD said she was lying on the hallway floor of the main floor of the home. She died on the way to hospital.
Julie Jean, a junior high school friend of Watson’s, told Daily Hive she had recently moved to East Vancouver from Victoria to start a modelling career.
“She had beautiful long wavy strawberry blonde hair — a stunning young lady,” Jean said.
Watson lived in the home with her sister, Vicki. It was owned by her parents, who owned at least two other homes on Vancouver Island, Vancouver historian and Cold Case Canada podcast host Eve Lazarus told Daily Hive.
Police investigators believe that Watson surprised the thieves after they had gathered several items they had intended to take, according to a Crime Stoppers bulletin published two weeks after her murder.
Both suspects were described as young men between the ages of 20 to 25, although one had a bushy moustache. The Crime Stoppers bulletin referenced a similar robbery and arson on East 16th Avenue — around eight blocks away from Watson’s home — around a week earlier. There, thieves tried to cover their crime by lighting the home on fire.
In that case, the family was awoken by the fire and was able to escape.
After the homicide
After the homicide, the extensively fire-damaged home was abandoned. Because of its condition and the ensuing “detrimental effect” on the residential neighbourhood, the City Council of the day had the home declared a nuisance in 1994 and ordered it demolished.
Photos from the city archive taken that year show the exterior windows boarded up with plywood and the south side of the home still charred.
According to city documents, the owner lawyered up to fight the requirement to demo the home — and took the fight all the way to BC Supreme Court to have the resolution set aside.
Liz Gray, who has lived on the block since 1983, told Daily Hive the home’s yard was “a real mess” and turned into “a dumping ground” in the years after the murder.
Back then the neighbourhood was “not very good at all,” she said, adding that prostitutes were often seen soliciting their services at Fraser Street and Broadway, and needles were routinely discarded on the sidewalks.
Development permit to fix up the home
A development permit was obtained in 1995 to renovate the home into three units and restore fire damage. Photos do show upgrades to the home’s exterior, including new paint.
But a city planning document said that construction work had been “sporadic” and officials warned that unless active construction resumed the building permit would expire. The permit did eventually expire, in 1999.
The derelict home was apparently the subject of “dumping and other undesirable activities” as it sat unoccupied over the years, according to a memo from a city building inspector to the Standing Committee on Planning and Environment 21 years ago.
Citing a danger to public safety and public complaints, a motion was introduced to Vancouver City Council in 2000 to declare the property a “nuisance” and compel the owner to secure the property. The order included boarding up broken windows with painted plywood and erecting a chain-link fence around the perimeter of the corner-lot.
The motion followed complaints from neighbours that the home, in its unfinished condition, was inhabited by “undesirables.”
“[It] has only been framed on the inside, some of the windows have been broken, there are no guards or handrails on the stairs and the site is not fenced. Debris and discarded materials are occasionally being dumped on the site and it is being frequented by transients and undesirables. The building and site are in contravention of the Standards of Maintenance, Vancouver Building and Untidy Premises By-laws.”
It also notes that the owner was “unresponsive” to repeated efforts to reach them by telephone and letters.
The current state
The home has been a long-running source of intrigue in the “Fraserhood,” with area residents long speculating about the ownership status and when the house would potentially change hands again, especially as the city’s real estate values reached record highs and the Empty Homes Tax was introduced in 2018.
Although the windows and doors remain boarded up, the lawn is regularly mowed and the exterior of the home is tidy.
The six-bedroom, four-bathroom home was built in 1908 and was just valued at $1.41 million by BC Assessment. Annual taxes on the 2990-square-foot home totalled $4,375.54 this year.
The new real estate listing for the property calls it a non-conforming old timer, with no finished square footage inside a “completely bare slate.”
Realtor Cindy Russell notes in the listing there have been some upgrades to the building but the sale is primarily lot value. Russell declined an interview with Daily Hive about the condition of the property and prospective buyers, citing client confidentiality.
Provincial tax records show the home was sold in 1984 for $105,000 and again in 1987 for $117,500.
Wanda Watson’s murder is still unsolved and the police file remains open.
“[I] pray that one day this case will be solved as it’s haunted me throughout life as she was the sweetest, kind-hearted person you could ever meet,” said Jean.