No one moved, no one spoke in the pitch blackness of the underground storage bunker of the Belvoir Winery in Liberty. Nine people and a paranormal investigator barely breathed, hoping for a noise from the unknown.
And then it came.
The room — an “underground bunker” that had been used for storage when the property was a campus with an orphanage, old-folks home and hospital a century ago — was decidedly creepy. When the ghost hunters first stepped into the room, a spray-painted message, “Kill yourself,” left recently by vandals, greeted them. Spinning around from that, another disquieting sight: a faux electric chair, a prop being stored for a later haunted house event.
A few steps from the graffiti was a corner where visitors sometimes report being touched by nonexistent hands. The investigator invited the group to stand there during the tour. No one did, at least at first.
The spirits thought to haunt this area are mostly children, and that was who the Paranormal Research Investigators of Topeka were aiming to make contact with in part one of what was to be a four-stop tour of the winery’s hot spots.
The investigator had brought equipment — motion sensors he placed facing away from the guests, a teddy bear that could be a trigger object for the youthful spirits.
The ghost hunt began when visitors extinguished their lights. Who would like to start? One volunteer stepped forward: Are there any spirits present? Turn on the motion sensor for yes, the investigator suggested.
A few beats later, the green light of the sensor glowed and after a few seconds faded away.
Was the spirit a little boy? A light flashed on. Did the spirit like to play in the storage area? Did the spirit like dogs? A couple of people at the far end of the group thought they heard a barely audible “dog” in response.
When the motion sensors went dark, the investigator asked, “Are you still here with us?” No answer.
“Are you still here with us?” No answer.
Could you make another sign? Maybe a knock like this, the investigator demonstrated.
A few heartbeats went by. The room held its breath.
Then came a small noise from the vicinity of the electric chair. It was like leaves rustling in the wind, if there had been any in that enclosed space. Another noise followed, not so much a knock as a rattle you might hear in your shelves during a small earth tremor.
Stories of hauntings are everywhere in the Kansas City area. But these are not your campfire ghost stories, to be enjoyed with an upturned flashlight and then laughed off later when the sun comes up.
These are the stories of persistent, unexplained events, investigated and documented by some of the paranormal investigation crews that have cropped up in the metro area the past three or four years. Often, those who experience them started out skeptical or at least on the fence about how much stock to put in claims of disembodied voices or impossible tugs on a shirt. And in the process of months or even years of finding things misplaced, seeing shadowy images and hearing voices where there should be none, they’ve come to count themselves in the “believers” column.
Of course interest in these stories peaks every October with the predictability of the tides. Movies are released with fresh images of pale little girls crawling from wells or being dragged across rooms by an unseen force. And suddenly, everyone’s interested in the paranormal.
But that’s Hollywood, says Rob Garcia, Shawnee founder of ELITE Paranormal of Kansas City and tech developer by day. The reality of most haunting is much different.
For one thing, it’s much less dramatic. Unseen beings don’t pick people up and fling them through the air, he said. For the most part, the evidence he has documented and posted on his website is much fainter. Electronic voice phenomena — sounds captured on recorders that were not emitted by humans in the room — are often faint enough that headphones and high volume are necessary to hear them. (Those in the know call them EVPs.)
Also, most encounters are not scary or threatening, he said. “I have never been attacked and nothing has ever come home with me,” Garcia said. “I’m not saying demons don’t exist. I just think they’re extremely rare.”
The people who live and work around the city’s most haunted places seem to agree.
“It’s kind of weird. You just get used to it,” said Jesse Leimkuehler, who runs the Belvoir Winery with his family. “You talk to the air a lot assuming somebody’s listening.”
There are plenty of places in Kansas City that people say are haunted. The Belvoir Winery, the John Wornall House and Alexander Majors House museums in Kansas City, a former antique shop in Lenexa and a private home in Lawson are just a few.
Mostly, they’ve been checked out with video recorders, electromagnetic field detectors, motion sensors and psychics, thanks to the explosion of paranormal investigating teams in the area.
The number of people in the area who investigate strange sights and sounds has increased dramatically the past three or four years, thanks mostly to the popularity of shows like “Ghost Hunters” and “Ghost Adventures” on cable TV.
When Garcia started investigating about 10 years ago, there were three or four groups. Now he estimates the number is closer to 20.
Investigators say they are trying to be as scientific and logical as possible. Nick Spantgos, a Topeka pharmacist who is co-founder of Paranormal Research Investigators, said his group does its best to look for mundane explanations before calling something paranormal. The group has done hundreds of investigations throughout the region but considers only a few to have paranormal activity.
Some groups offer to cleanse a site of spirits, others do not. But it’s generally frowned upon to accept money for an investigation. “You can’t technically prove anything, so how can you charge?” said Jason Kupzyk, of Mid-Continent Paranormal Research Society, based in Merriam. Besides, accepting money might skew the results in favor of paranormal activity where there is none, he said. These investigators are hobbyists, not moneymakers.
Not all sites give up their secrets to investigators all the time. Some are hot one night and not the next, investigators say. Here are a few places in the metro area that the paranormal crews say have provided regular results, making them among the most haunted places in Kansas City.
The Belvoir Winery was the former location of an orphanage, old-folks home, hospital and nursing home for members of the International Order of Odd Fellows. The Odd Fellows owned it from 1895 to 1993, when it was sold. The last residents of the old-folks home left that same year, said Leimkuehler.
The 175-acre property also includes a cemetery, though hauntings usually are not reported there, he said.
It was considered haunted even before John and Marsha Bean bought it and began turning it into a winery and wedding locale in 1993. Leimkuehler said former residents of the orphanage who returned for a reunion a few years ago told stories of feeling phantom breaths or seeing apparitions walking across doorways.
Three of the buildings were built from 1900 to 1920. The third-largest building, at around 40,000 square feet, was the orphanage. It is the only one that has been refurbished for events. The former orphanage is decorated with antiques from other places and also contains a human skeleton dubbed “George,” a former Odd Fellow from Smithville who requested his body be left to science, with the skeleton later returned to become a part of the group’s rituals.
George doesn’t play a part in the hauntings, as far as anyone knows. Leimkuehler, who spends 10 to 12 hours a day mostly in the orphanage, said he’s heard footsteps and what sounds like kids running and giggling in the upper floors, which was where the orphans used to go to school.
The other buildings are dilapidated, with windows out and crumbling floors and walls. Investigators said they’ve seen shadow people and heard activity that could not be explained after checking for intruders. And the morgue, which still has clothes from former residents hanging in evidence, seems to have a grouchy spirit who slams doors and does not like to be visited, he said.
“Most of my experiences have been from 7 to 11 in the morning,” Leimkuehler said. “It’s not that it has to be dark. It’s that it has to be quiet.”
The family didn’t talk about the paranormal experiences at first because they didn’t want people coming out to explore the dangerously decrepit buildings on their own, he said. Now, though, the winery offers paranormal tours twice a month except in winter.
Spantgos, whose Topeka investigation team runs the public ghost hunts, said he’s seen a shadowy yet solid figure walking around, heard an old woman answer “yes” in the old-folks’ home when asked if she wanted her medicine, and heard children singing a part of “Ring around the Rosy.”
“We’ve probably been to 360 locations throughout the Midwest. The Belvoir Winery is probably the most haunted place we’ve ever investigated,” Spantgos said.
It started shortly after the family moved into their 1960s-era house in Lawson, Mo., about 20 years ago. The family, who doesn’t want to be identified for fear of attracting sightseers, had just moved from Liberty and was starting an extensive remodel of the house.
There were unexplained noises. Doors slammed when there was no wind. Family members began to see and sense deceased relatives. A neighbor asked the husband — call him Joe — who the guy was chatting with him as he worked outside. But there was no guy, at least none Joe knew about.
Joe and his wife, who we’ll call Gail, often felt other things, too. The sweet smell of cookies when none had been baked in weeks. Faint music that seemed to come up between the walls from the basement. On one occasion shortly after moving in, Gail was watering some plants indoors, alone.
“I felt someone come up and put a hand on my shoulder,” she said. “When I whipped around, there was nobody.”
“Anyone who hangs out here for any period of time sees or hears something,” Joe said.
The couple and other family members figured they were being visited by deceased relatives. For the most part they were comforted and not threatened, said Gail.
With one exception. The basement.
That area was a hot spot when investigators Bill Moore of Trimble and Michael Ketteman of Excelsior Springs went over to check things out. Moore and Ketteman founded the Northland Paranormal Society. When they walked through the house with electromagnetic field meters, the levels were normal until they hit the basement.
“Then it lit up like a tree,” Moore said.
“But it wasn’t just that. It was a feeling of dread. Every time we would go back down there, it would be more intense.”
They looked for an electrical cause, but nothing would explain the high readings, they said.
Gail, too, has felt that dread, but only once or twice. The time she remembers most was when she was up late, quietly cleaning. Joe had already gone to sleep.
“All of a sudden the hairs on my arm stood up,” she said. So she picked up her miniature poodle. “I held the dog and backed myself into the kitchen corner and stood there until the feeling passed. Then I went right to bed and shut the door,” she said.
The investigating team had an active night, Moore said. Not only did they get the wild EMF readings, but they also picked up a video of a shadowy figure in a hall door, a voice ordering Moore to sit down and a “spirit box” session with intelligent answers. A spirit box quickly scans radio signals that investigators say are used by spirits to communicate.
Kandice Walker was relatively new on the job at the John Wornall House Museum in 2006 when she had the first of what was to become many odd experiences.
“It was my third day, and I was opening the museum for the first time,” she said. But as she pulled in and looked up at one of the museum’s windows, she was alarmed by what she saw. Two little girls were apparently inside.
Having children locked all night in the museum is never a good thing to have happen on your watch. “I was fairly freaked out,” Walker said. But when she worriedly searched the premises, there was no sign of them.
Only later did she learn that two small girls had lived at the house and had died of childhood disease, and that people frequently claim to have seen them. Walker didn’t know it at the time, but the Wornall House had a long-standing reputation as being haunted, with numerous sightings not only of the girls but of soldiers and the Wornall family.
Walker, who went on to become director of the museum, can laugh about it now. “Nobody told the new kid about the ghosts,” she said.
That wasn’t the only weirdness Walker experienced with locking and opening up. Another time, Walker arrived early to unlock and found the door open enough that leaves had drifted inside. But the motion-sensitive alarm didn’t sound until Walker herself entered. That happened twice in a row. The third day, all the doors were shut but none locked, including a “widow’s balcony” door that was never unlocked by museum staff, she said.
Distinct and unaccounted-for footsteps are a common occurrence, say staff members, as well as the smell of cherry pipe tobacco, which is attributed to John Wornall, the home’s former owner.
Children seem to be a common sighting as well, according to docents who spend a lot of time there. A few years ago, a little boy whose family lived nearby asked if he could play with the girls he saw in the windows. Another childlike spirit is thought to be that of Mittie Pigg, an orphan who became a servant during the Civil War.
Joyce Slater of Kansas City said some of her own haunted experiences as a volunteer storyteller may have involved Mittie’s specter. She attributes doors slamming shut or creaking open to Mittie’s reputedly mischievous spirit.
Once, two school girls held back from a talk she’d done about slavery. The group had been in the museum basement, and Slater was dressed in Civil War-era clothes. “They wanted to know who that other girl was way in the back,” Slater said. When she looked around, she caught a glimpse of someone in a long skirt just as it disappeared. “But they (the girls) were really clear about it,” Slater said, describing the girl’s appearance and clothing.
When Walker first came to the Wornall House, the museum community looked askance at talk of hauntings. It was not considered academic, she said. But since then, the Wornall and Alexander Majors House operators have parlayed the ghost stories into a revenue source. In October, the museum gives ghost-themed tours laced with the history of the house. Visitors also can go along with paranormal investigators as they seek the same knocks, smells and images that staff has seen.
Investigator Garcia has been to the Wornall House 15 times and conducts some of the open investigations. The Wornall House seems to have old spirits, mostly Civil War related, he said, and they may not always show up for investigations.
One investigation this month, conducted by Denise Seah and Kathy Marquez of the Parkville group Mystic Moms Paranormal, started out on an unsettled note. Shortly after turning on the Echovox, an app that purports to aid spirit communication, the word “rape” came through clearly.
The Civil War-era spirits were mostly quiet, though. During an upstairs session, Seah said she was beginning to feel the anguish of a young soldier and his longing to escape. There were a couple of quiet knocks from a closet door, but no more messages from the app.
Seah, who describes herself as an empath and Reiki master, uses a more psychic approach in her investigations, with little equipment. However, she cited a photograph as some of her best evidence from her 12 times investigating the museum. The photo, taken outside the house when it was locked and museum staff had left, shows what could be a little girl in a blue dress looking out a first-floor window. A rather heavy table inside blocks direct access to that window, Seah said.
Other things she has picked up: sour smells from one of the rooms, an EVP saying “Don’t” as her 9-year-old son touched museum items, a feeling of dread and sadness downstairs and other EVPs talking of sugar cookies and Christmas food.
Walker says she is open to the idea of the paranormal, but still skeptical. “I still to this day say maybe those girls were a trick of the light,” she said. “There could be a scientific explanation. But I never found it.”
“I’m probably just tired,” Michelle Staley thought as she searched yet again for a hammer and some nails she’d misplaced. It was something she’d been saying a lot to herself as she moved into her new business in Lenexa’s Old Town in August 2008.
The shop, My Granny’s Antiques and Collectibles, would feature secondhand items she’d purchased from garage and estate sales and sold online. A retail location had been a dream of hers, so when a vacancy opened up in the business district just a couple of blocks from her home, it seemed like her dream was coming true.
That very first night, though, was weird. Over and over again, things went missing. As Staley worked into the night, she started hearing voices too. “It was like a conversation. But I would look outside and there wouldn’t be anybody there,” she said.
As the days went by, more and more unsettling things happened in the 1920s-era house that had been converted to business use. Staley started hearing footsteps in the empty upstairs that sounded like they were made on a hard wood floor, though the entire upstairs was carpeted. Sometimes dishes and glasses clinked as if they were being moved.
“For most of it, I was the only one in the store,” she said. “I just kept explaining everything away.”
But then the clincher. “One evening I was sitting down eating a sandwich when I turned around and looked up the staircase,” she said. What Staley saw forever changed her views on the paranormal.
It was a small, black, formless figure, no more than 3 feet high, “like a blob,” Staley said. Stunned, she stared at it. “It wasn’t out of the corner of my eye. I just watched this thing fly up the stairs. At that moment I said, there is something going on with this building.”
Staley was so rattled that she promptly locked the doors and left, forgetting to turn out the lights. When she got home, she told her husband what she’d seen. “He said, ‘You’re just tired,’” she laughed.
The antique store where Staley had her unnerving experiences is closed now, awaiting another business. Staley left the shop in 2010, but for business reasons, not fear of ghosts.
Actually, during her years at the shop, Staley became used to the odd occurrences and took them in stride.
And there were many. “Once I started acknowledging there was something else there, I just started to have conversations with them,” she said. “When I started that, the activity would increase.”
Some of the spirits seemed to have attachments to items in the shop, she said. Scarves and perfumes on a vanity were often moved around, and sometimes the area around the vanity smelled of perfume. After the vanity was sold, Staley said, she heard woeful sobbing in the empty room. She ended up selecting a scarf and bottle of perfume that she promised aloud would never be sold.
It wasn’t just Staley noticing, either. She said customers were sometimes present when these things happened, with kids sometimes seeing a small boy upstairs. On one occasion, an employee opening the shop found all the pictures that were on the wall of the stairwell perfectly laid out on the stair steps. And unaccounted-for footsteps were heard, like clockwork, every day around 2:30 p.m. on the second floor.
A couple of rooms were more unsettling. Staley didn’t like going into the basement, an area where surgery had been done by the town doctor years ago. It made her uncomfortable. Ditto one of the upstairs rooms and the entrance to a crawl space where a customer’s daughter had once rushed, exclaiming about getting the children out.
At first Staley only mentioned her experiences to her husband, who remained a skeptic. She said she was afraid it would keep customers away. But later she began to blog about her experiences and eventually invited paranormal investigators to come have a look.
Garcia’s ELITE Paranormal crew was one of those. They visited in 2009 with audio and video equipment.
Most of what they got was audio, he said. The sound bites posted on the team’s website are difficult to make out without earphones. One of the clearest is a response to an investigator who asked whether the spirit wanted to tap one of the crew on the shoulder. A couple of seconds later comes a barely audible “I don’t.”
For Staley, the experience was life-changing. She said she was brought up a strict Southern Baptist but was open to the possibility of the paranormal.
“It just completely changed my whole belief system about what happens when somebody dies,” she said. “It changed my life so profoundly that it was a while before I could start parting with some of the inventory I brought home.”