November 30, 2006 News » Cover Story

Ghoul, interrupted 

Ghost chasers stake out the Indy

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It's just after two on a Sunday morning, and Bryan Bonner is hushing his teammates as they huddle around glowing monitors.

Bonner's chair creaks as he pushes back his long, wiry hair and takes a sip of Gatorade. He listens keenly to a dissonant whir, which spills softly from his headphones.

He squints at a monitor, watching his bait: Lori Green, assistant to the vice president of retail sales at the Colorado Springs Independent, seated alone in the newspaper's breakroom. Near here, about two years ago, Green was astonished by an apparition: a pastor clad in black robes.

Green's is just one of many unexplained sightings reported over the years in this former church, marked by an enigmatic cornerstone dated "1912 and 1917."

Squinting at Bonner, Matt Baxter, a fellow member of the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society, presses his headphones tighter to his head. Green squirms on the monitor.

Bonner flashes back a quizzical expression. He chews down M&Ms.

And so it goes for 20 minutes.

Suddenly, Green rises and rushes out of the breakroom. Seconds later, pale and harried, she reports to the makeshift control center on the office's ground floor.

Green, usually composed even in the most dire advertising emergencies, says a dark and indistinct image moving in the hall frightened her. And there were odd, distant, undistinguishable, yet somehow blissful voices, perhaps singing, that turned menacing.

Bonner is not able to determine who, or what, cast the shadow that Green saw. But the same faint, lyrical voices Green describes match what he and Baxter heard on their headphones.

"Sometimes I hear people singing; sometimes it's like people screaming," Baxter says, replaying a recording of the curious noises several times.

That moment is the highlight of a grueling shift that begins in the robust, early hours of Saturday evening and ends at 6 a.m. Sunday. Yet Bonner is encouraged by the scant findings. He arranges a return visit in coming weeks.

"There's definitely something odd going on in the building," he says.

click to enlarge The Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Societys Bryan - Bonner spurns proton packs and slime blowers for more - conventional tools. - 2006 JON KELLEY
  • 2006 Jon Kelley
  • The Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Societys Bryan Bonner spurns proton packs and slime blowers for more conventional tools.

The hunters

A federal records clerk by day, Bonner has been on a quest for concrete proof of ghosts since he helped found the paranormal society in 1999. He does the work for simple reasons.

"You get to meet people," he says, sitting at the computer of his Westminster living room, surrounded by statuettes of Mickey Mouse, mini dragons and gargoyles. "It's fun."

But the work, which the team does free of charge, is serious to many people, especially those feeling haunted. It's taken them across the region, from the McClelland School in Pueblo to F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyo. The team may spend several nights at a site, dragging in computers, cameras, infrared lights, electromagnetic field detectors, microphones and long, snaking lines of cable to hook it all up.

Sometimes, the paranormal research may conclude a ghost mystery is actually a set of unusual, but explicable, phenomena. Other times, the team may want to do more research, or may conjecture that a ghost indeed may be present.

The team doesn't have 100 percent proof that ghosts exist. Yet in the course of a dozen serious investigations, and scores of smaller ones, they have amassed some compelling research and stories that could make even the deepest skeptics at least entertain the possibility that there's something out there.

Last year, Bonner and Co. visited Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, where students and faculty suspected that strange footprints and moaning emanating from a storage room were connected to the legend of a teacher who assaulted a freshman girl and then hanged himself in the building.

Though the paranormal team failed to make that link, it recorded the sounds of circling footsteps during the investigation. (Several months later, in September, the same school made national headlines after a gunman took students hostage and shot a female student to death before being killed by a SWAT team.)

In another investigation, the ghost hunters staked out the nine-decade-old county courthouse in Greeley, the site of numerous puzzling incidents. A loud breathing sound came from courtroom benches; a "shadow man" roamed; and an official meeting tape was interrupted by 30 seconds of indistinct voices, bumps and footsteps.

While there, the team's microphones picked up reverberations of what seemed to be an old-fashioned telephone bell. Perplexed, the ghost hunters dialed all known phone and fax numbers in the building but were unable to replicate the ringing.

"We couldn't explain it," Bonner says. "It's possible paranormal activity."

On the other end of the spectrum was an investigation of an Aurora home. The new homeowners complained of a hellish racket at night, and blamed demons. They wanted to know whether to sell.

"When we got there, the wife was refusing to go inside, the husband had covered the door in oil and had the television blaring on a Christian program inside," he says.

After spending hours of dissecting a cacophonous symphony of creaks, clangs and crashes, the team concluded ...

click to enlarge With Bonner and Matt Baxter below, photographer Ginger - Inskeep demonstrates how a trickster might manufacture - a photo of an orb: Disturb a piece of dust  (circled) and - catch it in the cameras flash. - PHOTO COURTESY OF GINGER INSKEEP
  • Photo courtesy of Ginger Inskeep
  • With Bonner and Matt Baxter below, photographer Ginger Inskeep demonstrates how a trickster might manufacture a photo of an orb: Disturb a piece of dust (circled) and catch it in the cameras flash.

"The house was constantly settling," Bonner says. "It was built on a landfill. There was also a major street intersection near a bar. And it was on a flight path to DIA."

Although the couple had just bought the house, they were so freaked out they sold anyway, Bonner says.

What is it?

Two years ago, Bonner experienced his own sighting as he investigated an old home in Fort Collins.

It was a dark object, floating in three dimensions in the house's bedroom the same place where a ghost had been reported before.

"I wasn't the only one seeing it," he adds.

An experienced photographer, he pointed his camera at the object and snapped two rolls of film. But when the photos were developed, there wasn't a hint of ghost.

At the same house, he captured a compelling recording of scratching noises emanating from the other side of a wall.

"The family was in a get-it-out-of-here situation," Bonner says.

So the team summoned the expertise of its own Wendy Haver, known for her talents in blessing houses or, if needed, cleansing them of bad spirits.

Haver died in her sleep just weeks ago and is "now working for us on the other side," Bonner says. She had a knack for identifying with people from many faiths.

"You really need to think about the beliefs of who lives there," Bonner says. "If you don't, you can cause damage."

Haver's efforts to purify the Fort Collins house appeared successful, Bonner says.

"We checked back months later, and the problem just stopped," Bonner says. "The residents were still scared, but the activity wasn't there anymore."

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A bit of debunking

Asked what he thinks a ghost is, Bonner answers, "I haven't got a clue.

"If I could tell you 100 percent what a ghost is," he adds, "game over."

He can muse endlessly, however, about specters, poltergeists, banshees and ghouls. And he says that what they are could depend on what you are. If your religion is Earth-based, then ghosts might well be fairies, Bonner says.

If your religion preaches brimstone and hell, ghosts are likely demons, he says. "I'm glad I don't have that outlook," he adds, "or I'd be too scared to do this work."

Ghosts could be lost souls. Or maybe they're phenomena that could be explained by physics we don't yet understand. Perhaps mirror-like images of real people, places, things and sounds become visible if the universe's fabric is somehow disturbed. In that theory, ghosts might actually be images from the past, or a possible future.

"Physics would explain that ghosts are a natural event," he says. "Is it true that there are a multiple number of realities? Can we see reflections of that?"

Another theory is that the Earth somehow records its past. That's where we might get stories of Grandma walking through the house at three every morning, or of stoic soldiers marching through a hazy field.

While Bonner appreciates the wide range of possible explanations for ghosts, his work does require a skeptical eye as well. "Evidence," he says, "is only as good as the person it is coming from."

He rails against the way some findings are hyped on cable TV shows and the Internet.

"There's a lot of folks running around," he says. "A lot of them want to get the Holy Grail, as it were."

But they're not very careful about gathering data and interpreting it, Bonner says. He was incensed when someone on eBay placed a "ghost in a jar" for auction a few years ago. Bids went to more than $50,000.

Bonner has been featured on numerous television and radio shows, particularly around Halloween, and is often asked by reporters to play the role of debunker. A few years ago, KKTV News 11 in Colorado Springs sought his advice in a story about a former bed and breakfast in Manitou Springs, where the owner had captured dancing lights on a surveillance camera.

Bonner doubted the lights were paranormal after seeing a curtain move just prior to a flash of light. The movement indicated that someone was hiding and perhaps igniting magicians' flash paper, or solar igniters from model rockets.

click to enlarge After 40-plus years in the building (shown below in - 1967), perhaps minister Walter G. Schaefer never wanted - to leave.
  • After 40-plus years in the building (shown below in 1967), perhaps minister Walter G. Schaefer never wanted to leave.

While he can't say for sure, Bonner smelled a stunt.

"When you talk to people who have really seen ghosts, it's not a flash of light," he says. "It's a person or shape. It didn't help that we were called by the media to investigate as Halloween approached."

Don't expect him to be impressed if you say you've captured ectoplasm on film, either. Sometimes described as hazy stuff, and other times strange goo, ectoplasm is said to accompany the materialization of a specter.

The obsession with ectoplasm accompanied the release of the film Ghostbusters, he notes. And the film apparently found ample comedic inspiration from the staged sances of the late 1800s, when egg whites or like substances dripped from the mouths or ears of psychics, wooing believers.

Today, many modern phantom chasers claim they've captured ectoplasm in wispy, smoky images in photographs. But it is easy to replicate the images simply by breathing under the camera's lens and snapping, Bonner says.

Similarly, whenever photo evidence of small, glowing orbs is submitted as proof of the supernatural, Bonner is irritated.

"It's always right in front of the lens," he says. "You never see the orbs coming from behind something. You never see half an orb. It's dust."

Downtown ghosts

When Colorado Springs was established in 1872, Gen. William Jackson Palmer created two identical parks along Nevada Avenue: North Park and South Park. North Park is today called Acacia Park; South Park was lost in 1903, when El Paso county commissioners controversially decided to build the courthouse today's Pioneers Museum on it.

Since those early days, the stretch of Nevada Avenue in between has fostered countless ghost stories. The tunnels under the street from City Hall are said to entertain the spirits of ill-fated police officers and licentious city councilmen.

The museum, visible from the front door of the Indy's 235 S. Nevada Ave. office, purportedly harbors the specter of Eddie Ray Beals, who was shot upon exiting a courthouse elevator in 1959 by a coworker, Willy Butler.

"We do have some strange things that go on," says Gretchen Arnold, museum receptionist, bookkeeper and tour coordinator.

Besides the sounds of footsteps, motion alarms that go off unexplained and other strange happenings, the elevator goes up and down with nobody in it.

"It's Eddie," Arnold says. "He got stuck here because he met such a tremendous end. But he doesn't bother us. We say, "Eddie, stop that!' and he does."

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Across the street, many current and past Indy employees claim to have seen or heard ghosts. And they're not alone. Kat Tudor, director of the former Smokebrush Theater, which occupied the building in the decade prior to the Indy's arrival in 2003, says "dozens" of actors, directors, set workers and others saw or heard ghosts.

Tudor says she saw a woman who wore a long, white dress and ambled around the building's third floor.

"She often laughed," Tudor says. "You'd hear a door shut or you'd hear footsteps, and there would be nobody there."

In a similar account, the Indy's receptionist claims to have seen a woman wearing a black-and-white dress with a matching hat in the lobby.

The receptionist asked whether she could help the woman, but the woman mysteriously disappeared. She also claims the items on her desk have been rearranged when nobody else is around.

Other employees tell stories of strange gravitational forces in an area where the pastor wearing black robes has been spotted. There is also a story of a little girl who runs through the halls.

"It's always the ghost of the little girl that's the real creepy one," Bonner says.

A hole in the ground

But the scariest stories in our building?

"Downstairs I'd say that's the main place," Tudor says.

There, employees have reported doors swinging open, seeing ghostly images, hearing bangs, feeling chills and more.

In 1912, Tourist Memorial Mission Church congregants dubbed their place of worship the "Hole-in-the-Ground," because a foundation had been dug, but there was no money to complete the project. For years, it was no more than a basement with a tent.

The tent "often was torn down by strong winds, but the heroic women of the church would bring sewing machines, heavy cord and needles, and with songs and happy fellowship mend the tent ..." according to an undated written summary by now-deceased minister Walter G. Schaefer in a church scrapbook.

A buy-a-brick campaign sold 200,000 bricks and brought the building to completion around 1917.

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The church, today known as the Central United Methodist Church of Colorado Springs, sold the building in 1973.

The building later housed a police training academy. A past owner, Joe Bonicelli, was accused of hiring a hit man to kill his wife.

Other family members long suspected that Bonicelli, who died in 1998, had arranged the murder of his wife, Eloise, on Nov. 23, 1975, in her Colorado Springs home to prevent her from obtaining part of the family fortune in a divorce.

He was part owner of the Pearl of Allah, the world's largest freshwater pearl, reputedly worth millions of dollars.

The church was vacant for several years in the 1980s before the Smokebrush Center for the Arts moved in during 1992.

Lucille Sams, a former public school principal and member of the church since 1940, was surprised to hear that tales of ghosts are now associated with the building.

"I never heard anything like that," she says. "Goodness sakes."

Bonner's intrigued by the historical tidbits including one he uncovered, but hasn't been able to confirm.

"There was someone in the church allegedly involved in a satanic cult," he says.

But the thought of what that might mean hasn't intrigued him as much as the pastor seen by employees as alternately youthful and aged, holding a book. It could be Schaefer; the pastor began his service at the church in 1916 fresh out of seminary and retired as a "friend to all" in 1957.

In an old newspaper photograph in the church scrapbook, the kind-faced Schaefer is wearing long, black robes. In his undated obituary, a friend stated that he performed more than 4,000 funerals for the church and some 3,800 weddings.

Perhaps, Bonner says, the voices belong to long-gone congregants of the early days who gathered under the tent in good sprits, singing songs.

"It would make sense," he says.

After spending one long night at the Indy's office, it will take time before answers come, he adds.

Electromagnetic sensors and thermometers that were placed in several hot spots recorded no unusual activity. And the hours of video and audio gathered still need painstaking review.

"We need to do a lot more to focus on what we found," Bonner says. "What makes it credible is that there are a lot of people in the office who have similar stories."

To learn more about the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society, visit rockymountainparanormal.com.

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