I stood by the bed in a third-floor hotel room, tears filling my eyes as I watched a black shadow streak past the open window. I didn’t know what it was, or where it was going. I do know the room felt both warmer and lighter after it went.
This was my first experience on a ghost hunt.
As a reporter, I have to be both skeptical and open-minded. But combine rich local history with talk of lost souls and a spooky October night? The truth blurs, and the veil between worlds feels awfully thin.
On Tuesday night, I was invited to attend a ghost hunt in Walnut Grove by the California Haunts Paranormal Investigation Team.
They’re a group based in Sacramento that uses both scientific and psychic techniques when investigating potentially haunted locations. The team has operated for 14 years and has grown to 40 members, with 100 investigations on the books provided for free.
Team members are experienced investigators and experts at seeking logical explanations for things that seem paranormal in nature.
Supposedly, paranormal phenomena abound at the Ryde Hotel, just west of the Sacramento River out in the Delta.
Built in 1927, the Ryde Hotel has a rich history of drinking and dining. Its clientele over the years has included movie stars like Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. Mobsters as well as politicians have stayed there.
At one time, the hotel had a barber and beauty salon. It is thought that the hotel may have also served as a bordello. During its heyday, the bottom floor was a speakeasy that provided thirsty guests with whiskey and good jazz music.
Since it was the Prohibition, the whiskey, of course, was bootleg.
There was once a trap door in the building which contained a tunnel which led underneath the road and out to the river, to bring in the whiskey — or make a quick escape.
Some patrons and employees have reported seeing ghostly apparitions throughout the building.
In particular, a couple of rooms on the third floor, a shed out back and the bar area are notable spots for unusual sightings.
The hunt begins
I arrived at 7 p.m. as the sun sank over the horizon and moths swooped at the patio lighting. I was met by team leader Charlotte Kosa and Roberta Spencer as they unloaded boxes of equipment from Spencer’s car. We were soon joined by Sharon Rowe, a trained shaman, Vincent Corso and Jose Quiada.
Ghost hunting is a volunteer vocation attracting a wide range of professionals, from psychologists to former cops and reporters.
Kosa is a retired crime beat reporter who admits she went into the field with skepticism.
“I’ve been touched, pushed, bruised,” she said. “I believe. I’ve come to a point where I believe.”
The team unpacked cameras, EMF meters, digital voice recorders, thermal imaging cameras, infrared video cameras, and more basic items like flashlights.
There were also a few less scientific items, like a pair of dowsing rods and something called a bug jar with an electronic firefly trapped inside. Kosa said spirits can communicate using each of those.
But why investigate a building at all? So maybe it’s haunted. What good can come of proving it?
“It can add to the history of a place. And it validates the experiences of people who have strange things happen to them. We can help people not feel crazy,” Spencer said.
First, Rowe walked the grounds alone, searching for areas where she felt activity or spirits approached her. Sometimes she feels them touch the back of her head, trying to get inside, she said. But she shuts them out, explaining that she can still hear them outside her body.
Of course. OK.
There was a small white shed behind the hotel that held groundskeeper equipment. Rowe said she sensed the spirit of a man named Henry who was still on Earth in an effort to protect his shed. I peeked in, but didn’t notice anything unusual.
Rods and rituals
In the dining room, Rowe closed her eyes and spread her arms wide.
“Yes, this room is active. There’s so many people here,” she said.
The room was dark and empty save for myself and a few members of the investigating team. I watched through a camera equipped with night vision.
She took hold of the pair of dowsing rods. These are bent metal rods with loose wooden handles, lightweight enough that ghosts can move them to respond to questions. Crossed rods mean “yes,” while spaced out rods mean “no,” among other signals.
Using the rods, Rowe discovered more than 30 spirits were in the room. Men, women and children crowding around, trying to reach the shaman to say, “Hello.”
Rowe talked with them a bit more, asking ages and finding out if they were former hotel patrons. She said some came for the drinking and gambling, while others worked at the hotel. The rods swayed gently, sometimes crossing, sometimes staying still. Rowe’s hands didn’t move.
Then she asked about working girls, in the bordello rumored to have existed on the grounds.
Rowe took a deep breath and her voice shook.
“It’s all the working girls around me, now. Oh, they’re scared. They think they can’t go to heaven because of what they did,” she said, taking deep breaths to remain grounded.
Rowe passed the rods to Spencer and began to chant and pray. Through her ritual, she said, the women, and even a few young children, were sent up to heaven.
“I can’t leave someone here if they want to go,” she said. “They wanted to go.”
Corso and Quiada brought in a camera, some EMF meters and other equipment into the dining room and set up at a table near the bar. They played Frank Sinatra over an iPhone and watched the meter lights bounce from red to green. They wouldn’t know until reviewing the footage later if they caught any spirits on camera.
Kosa came in, too, and held the dowsing rods in hand.
“Where is the reporter?” she asked. The rods pointed to me.
“Where is Sharon?” The rods pointed to Rowe, seated on my left.
“Turn this rod in a circle if you can understand me,” Kosa instructed, holding one rod in her right hand.
The rod moved slowly at first, gaining speed before whipping around three times. Kosa’s hand remained still.
Trippy. Was my mind playing tricks on me, or was there something formerly alive hanging out with us?
Catching up with spirits
Next, the guys set up cameras and ran cables up to the lobby, where Kosa had monitors and recorders to track anything weird. While Kosa connected her equipment, I ventured upstairs with Rowe, Spencer, Corso and Quiada.
We walked slowly down the hallway. Corso and Quiada entered an unlocked room, No. 305. While they filmed and investigated inside, Rowe’s attention was pulled toward the end of the hall and the fire escape. Then she stopped, and her shoulders slammed against the wall behind her.
“Something certainly wants my attention,” she said. She closed her eyes and looked inward, then shuddered.
“This was bad. Something bad happened. They took her and they hurt her, then they dragged her down the hall and threw her body out the door,” she said, breath heaving. The investigators circled around the shaman, cameras on and EMF monitors blazing.
Corso revealed something he learned in his research before the night’s hunt. Years ago, several women were assaulted and beaten in the hotel, then their remains were removed through the fire escape. Yikes.
The team entered the room to perform a playback. They turned on a voice recorder and asked the room questions like, “Can you speak to us? What is your name? What happened to you?” Then they played it back. There was nothing but our own voices on the tape.
The men went back downstairs to check on the cameras. Spencer, Rowe and I returned to room 305 with the dowsing rods and tried again. The room felt cold and empty, even with the lights on.
This time, something happened. Using the rods, Rowe determined the spirit was a woman named Amy who was stuck in the hotel because of the trauma that happened to her in life. Rowe opened the window, and chanted and prayed again, like she did earlier, sending “Amy” away.
“Does the room feel different to you after you perform a ritual like that?” I asked her.
“Does it feel different to you?” she said.
It did. Lighter, warmer, fuller. I can’t explain why.
We returned downstairs. The cameras weren’t working. They transmitted video just fine until Kosa connected them to her recording device. Then they shut down, with the power switches still on.
“Ghosts will do this sometimes. Maybe they think it’s funny. Maybe they don’t want to be recorded,” she said.
Sending them home
Since the traditional investigation methods were unavailable, it was time to go upstairs again.
Armed with dowsing rods, video cameras, flashlights, EMF meters and a ghost app on Rowe’s iPhone, we entered room 302.
It felt joyful inside, and light. Like it was waiting for someone to run in and bounce on the bed. But it was supposed to be one of the rooms with the most paranormal activity.
Corso opened the window. We stood in a circle around the bed. The cameras were on and the EMF meter lay on the bedspread. Rowe clicked off the light and began to speak.
“If there is anyone here, we’d like to speak to you. You don’t have to be afraid. There’s nothing to fear here. We won’t hurt you. We want to talk to you. Hasn’t it been so long since someone talked to you?” she said.
The group waited in silence. Then Rowe urged me to open the closet door to my right.
I have watched horror movies. I should know better. I should not have opened the closet. In my head, I was screaming, “Don’t even think about it!”
But my hand reached out. I opened the door wide. I felt a woosh of energy fly past me. It seemed like the energy moved first to Rowe.
“Oh, she’s here. Here she is,” she said.
Then it hit me.
My body felt like it was shaking but I was standing still. My eyes filled with tears. I gasped out a sob, suddenly emotional. I felt a strange urge to wash a young woman’s face, comb and braid her hair, and dust off her clothes. There was a very strong feeling that a girl needed me to help clean her up and prepare her for a journey. She was having a hard time and needed to look nice.
I’m telling you, there was nothing in front of me but the bed. There was no hair to braid. But I knew it wouldn’t be OK until I did something to help this girl.
Rowe, Corso and Quiada looked to me, reaching out to steady me.
“Oh. That’s something. That’s happening. I’m OK. It’s OK,” I said.
Rowe jumped into action, opening all the closets and shower doors she could reach. Children liked to hide there, since it was small dark and safe, she said. Rowe said more spirits gathered in the room.
It was time for another ritual. This time the four of us held hands as Rowe prayed. I felt so deeply that I needed to do something for this girl that I prayed, too. I told her she was beautiful and safe and perfect, no matter what had happened. I told her she could leave. That she didn’t have to be stuck here. That Jesus would protect her. I went all out.
Tears dampened my cheeks. My hands shook. I prayed so hard. I don’t know what came over me.
I looked up at the window and saw a small shadow streak past. It went so fast. But Quiada saw it, too, and we shared a glance. This was real.
On the way back down to the lobby, I looked over my shoulder at the hallway. I wanted to see out the window, to see the grounds. But 25 feet or so from the fire escape, I stopped. Something inside me told me not to go any farther, that bad things happened to girls who walked that hallway by themselves. My flashlight was on. Nothing was there. I took a step. The feeling got worse.
That’s it. I’m out. We’re done here.
Downstairs, I helped pack up all the equipment. The camera worked again for a moment, but only after Kosa told the group to bring up the cables. Weird. All of this is so weird.
By Rowe’s car in the parking lot, I said goodbye. She asked if I had sage with me. Nope. No garden herbs here.
“Wait. I have to sage you,” she said.
The five of us stood in a circle as Rowe lit a stick of smudging sage in an abalone shell. She chanted and prayed again, moving the sage so the sweet smoke flowed over our bodies. I felt mostly the same afterward. The smell was nice, though, and the intentions behind it.
Quiada handed me a small packet of dried sage. For the ride home, he said. I thanked him and drove back to Lodi. It was 2 a.m. I had spent seven hours wandering a haunted hotel with strangers.
Only now, they don’t feel like strangers. And they’re going to call me for their next assignment.