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The News Tribune


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Karie Hamilton | for The News Tribune

Ghost hunt at Fort Steilacoom - Greg Marx, a member of A.G.H.O.S.T., takes an electromagnetic field reading on the grounds of the old cemetery at Fort Steilacoom Park in Lakewood on Sunday.


Psychics of soul searching

Sean Robinson; The News Tribune

SUNDAY, Oct. 20, 9:30 p.m.

Under a cold autumn moon, the ghost hunters pause for a moment before their quest begins.

Claire Talltree, one of the psychics, speaks, and the smiling party grows solemn.

"We want to introduce ourselves to whatever entities are here," she says. "We are A.G.H.O.S.T., and we are just here to visit and give you voice."

Nineteen people stand on the grounds of Fort Steilacoom Park, on what decades ago used to be the working farm of Western State Hospital. They come from as far north as Snohomish, as far south as Olympia.

Most of the hunters belong to a group called Amateur Ghost Hunters Of Seattle-Tacoma. Some say they are psychics or "sensitives," with the ability to feel spiritual impressions. Others are self-confessed ghost nuts, carrying infrared lenses, thermometers and electromagnetic field detectors.

They claim no otherworldly skill, other than an addiction to the paranormal and a willingness to explore creepy places in search of ghostly evidence.

Since its founding one Halloween ago, A.G.H.O.S.T. members have explored Seattle's underground, the Kalakala ferry, historic homes in Tacoma and Pierce County and the Buckley Cemetery, among other sites. Members don't claim that they've seen actual ghosts, but they say they've seen plenty of oddness, including wisps of what they call ectoplasm, and "orbs" - round circles of light that appear only in photographs.

Tonight's hunt, scheduled to coincide with the full moon, covers the barns and cemetery at the park, and a ruined building once connected to the hospital, since abandoned. Members say such places leave strong psychic impressions. This site is promising.

How did they get permission to enter the locked grounds and buildings? Members give vague answers. Vice president Patricia Woolard, who lives in Bonney Lake, mentions "people who know people who know people."

Founder and president Ross Allison, an Auburn resident with spiky blond hair and a leather jacket, divides the party into three groups.

"How many psychics do we have?" he asks. Five hands raise. He assigns them to the three parties. The group leaders carry two-way radios, tuned to the same frequency: channel 13.

Parkland resident Dutch Jackson, a ghost hunter built like a small Volkswagen, wraps a black band around his head. It holds a slim flashlight. He looks like a miner at a disco. Together with Greg Marx of Olympia, he belongs to a group called FSI (Freelance Spiritual Investigations).

Allison rummages through a pair of metal briefcases.

"Hey," he asks, "did you guys bring your Geiger counter?" Someone replies that this piece of equipment was left at home, along with the dowsing rods.

Allison sets the ground rules: No smoking. Be careful. Don't go off alone. If anyone takes pictures, give a warning first. The group agrees. The warning word is "Flash."

Talltree's group heads southward, toward the hospital ruin. The fog swallows them. Another group heads for the nearby cemetery.

The barns

Allison unlocks a barn door and pushes. The door groans open, and the group peers into blackness.

At first they see nothing. Then flashlight beams slice the dark, and large shapes grow in the shadows. Cars. Wrecked. Two rows of them, four deep. The group doesn't know it, but the Pierce County Sheriff's Department sometimes uses this barn for storage.

"I get a pretty steady temperature of about 58 degrees," says Greg Marx, looking at his EMF detector.

"Flash," says Crystal Hillin, secretary of A.G.H.O.S.T. Her camera bathes the long room in a burst of white.

At the back of the barn, the party's flashlights play across something that used to be a blue station wagon. The roof is flattened, the back hatch torn off and stacked on top. A frame around the license plate reads, "When Hell freezes over, I'll ski there too."

"Pretty dramatic here," Allison says. "Picking anything up?"

Mike Malone, one of the psychics, stands near the metal hulk, holding one hand to his temple.

"I'm picking up a ferocious headache," he says. "Just a crushing skull ache. Absolutely crushing, from the left side."

"Flash," Hillin says.

The blue station wagon was stolen on an April evening in 1998. At 5 the next morning, it screamed past a sheriff's deputy in Lakewood. The teenage driver ripped around a corner, then slammed the car into a tree. He died instantly.

In another barn, the party finds pieces of tombstones - fragments gathered by volunteers who are restoring the neglected hospital cemetery.

"Flash," Hillin says.

Remnants of words etched in grief are still visible on some of the old stones. "LOTTIE 1853-1916," one piece reads. Another bears only a number: 201. A third partial epitaph, broken by time, reads simply, "IN ME."

The ghost hunters gaze at the rubble with reverence.

Elsewhere in the barn, something snaps. The party whirls, instantly alert.

Another snap. Something small and white floats to the ground. Flashlight beams stab up to the rafters.

They reveal a coven of drowsy pigeons. The fat birds flap and harrumph in the annoying light, and a little blizzard of feathers drifts down.

Darkness cloaks the other end of the barn. There may be more to see. But there are more pigeons in the rafters above. The soil ahead is soft, covered with feathers and sticky white spots.

"Ross, I dare you to run through there," Jackson says. The night hides his face, but everyone hears his grin.

As the group leaves the barn, Allison clicks his radio and calls the party at the cemetery. Time to switch locations.

"Can you guys read me out there?" he asks. A crackling voice replies that they've filmed some "ecto" or "e" - short for ectoplasm, supposedly the stuff that ghosts are made of.

Allison clicks again and calls the group at the ruined hospital building.

"Hey, you guys at Western State, can you copy?" he asks.

No answer.

The cemetery

Fog veils the graves, reducing party members to dim silhouettes.

"Please excuse my walking on you," Hillin says, speaking to the ground and stepping carefully over rows of weathered headstones.

The group gathers around an obscure structure - four posts with a unmarked stone in the center.

"This is a major hot spot," Marx says, reading his EMF meter. "We're jumping all over the place - I'm getting some pretty crazy fluctuations."

"Flash," Hillin says.

Malone feels something, too.

"Whoa, folks," he says. "This is just - this is a hive."

The hunters set a tape recorder on the spot. They will leave it behind for a while, and let it pick sounds from the silence.

"We've got a lot of people here," Malone says, "who do not realize they are dead."

Between 1876 and 1953, 3,218 patients of Western State Hospital were buried in the cemetery. The graves are marked with small stones, not much bigger than a slice of bread. With few exceptions, there are no names - only numbers.

Allison clicks his radio.

"Hey, you guys up at the hospital - can you read?" he asks.

Again no answer. Marx mutters that the radios are supposed to have a 2-mile radius.

Oak leaves turn silver in the moonlight at the cemetery's northern end. Allison stops in a circle of trees and takes pictures.

"Not fog," he says. "That's ecto."

On the small screen of his digital camera, he eyes the shots. They don't look like much - pictures of fog, spread in a shingle-like pattern. But one frame stands out. Instead of shingles, the fog swirls in curvy wisps. Ecto.

"Clearly different," Allison says.

He holds up a microphone and speaks to the emptiness.

"Is anybody here?" he says. "We're not here to harm you. Will you tell us your name?"

Something rustles nearby. Faint voices mouth unclear words. The hunters turn their flashlights toward the source.

Someone curses. A faint, smoky smell wafts through the trees: marijuana. Two figures about 30 yards distant walk away from some bushes and slip into the night.

The ruin

Allison still can't raise the hospital party on the radio. His group leaves the cemetery and walks toward the hill where the building sits.

Shadows step out of the fog. Claire Talltree's group, finally. They say the batteries in their radio have died.

The path to the building curls around the back side and stops at a tall cyclone fence topped with razor wire. Allison leads the hunters through a gaping hole in the fence.

"Flash," Hillin says.

The rotting white structure looks bombed, crushed by a giant fist. Walls, windows and floors stand, but most of the roof has collapsed. Moonlight streams through the building's bones.

Malone gets a feeling. A man, he says. About 35 years old. Unhappy with his short haircut, unhappy that no one will give him a razor.

Local historians call the building The White House or the Hill Ward. One resident says it was partially demolished as a military test exercise in the early 1980s. Search and rescue teams have used it for drills.

Sketchy records say it was a dormitory built in 1932 to house patients who worked on the hospital farm. There was no central heating. As the number of patients at the hospital dwindled, the building fell into disuse. Records don't say exactly when, but by the early 1960s, the place was empty. Historians aren't sure if anyone died there.

Allison walks to a hole at ground level that used to be a window. He says it leads to the boiler room. He climbs in, telling party members to find a foothold on a cement block they can't see. Hillin follows.

In the darkness, broken glass crunches beneath the hunters' feet. There is a faint smell of urine. Flashlights flicker across the concrete walls, where drunken revelers have scrawled messages.

"KILL YOURSELF," one says.

Allison finds the boiler, rusted and enormous. A dusty teddy bear hangs by the neck from one of its pipes.

"That's just wrong," Hillin whispers. "Flash."

The report

The hunters were completing their reports the week after their visit. Lots of ecto shots, Allison said. The psychics got several strong impressions. Malone said one presence - a female - was angry and wanted the group to leave. But others wanted them to stay.

The group isn't finished with the site. They plan to return to Lake Waughop, near the abandoned building, where they say bones have been found.

Allison calls himself a skeptic. He wants to believe in ghosts, but admits he's never seen one. He waits for definitive evidence. The searches at the old hospital site and other places only lead to more questions.

"Someday," he says, "we'll find the answers we're looking for."

Sean Robinson 253-597-8486