Small-town ghost hunters eager for contact

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Galien — On a darkened lot in a deserted downtown, seven people were crammed into a one-room jail.

With a tape recorder running and digital camera ready, they were prepared to catch black magic in the former lockup with two iron-door cells.

They asked Will Smith, who has been dead for a century, whether he killed a railroad dispatcher in 1906. Smith was held for several days but never charged in the case, which remains unsolved.

Alas, Smith wasn’t talking. The query, along with others, was met with silence.

The spirit’s reticence didn’t discourage members of the Michiana Paranormal Society. They just moved to their next haunted location. Galien is full of them, they say.

At the former high school, teachers reported hearing lockers slammed shut in empty hallways, according to the group. At the American Legion post, something kept turning a chair around after a worker set it at the bar. At an antique store, items were mysteriously tossed about.

“There is so much that is unexplained,” said Chris Speth, a former group investigator who lives in this southwest Michigan village. “Why can’t they be ghosts or spirits?”

Coincidentally, Galien is also the home of the paranormal group.

Galien officials take their image as a ghost town in good humor.

In fact, village Clerk Christine Palmer was part of the decision to hold the ghost tour last week.

She was talking with two residents about ways to raise money for village Christmas decorations when one suggested having the paranormal group lead a visit of haunted hot spots.

“It’s kind of a neat idea,” she said.

Group members weren’t the only true believers during the tour. Among the 50 participants were many who believed in ghosts.

Shawn Klinger said whatever he encountered would be unlikely to match what he’s already experienced at his father’s home in Paw Paw.

After the family moved into the home in 1992, they’ve heard voices, been scratched, heard the back door open and close by itself, and saw ornaments fly off the Christmas tree sideways, Klinger said.

“This is nothing new to us,” he said.

He said the ghost even had a crush on his wife’s girlfriend.

“He likes you,” he told Darlene Marble, who also was on the tour. “That’s your new boyfriend.”

Galien is struggling to avoid becoming a ghost town of another sort.

The past decade has seen the closing of the bank, grocery store, other businesses and the elementary and high schools.

Surrounded by miles of farms, the rural community has 550 residents.

At this point, Galien may have more ghosts than residents, said the paranormal group.

Kim Rowe not only runs the paranormal group but also is a community leader in the farm town.

She recently left the village board of trustees after eight years, was a school board member for three years, ran a neighborhood watch group and was chairwoman of the Galien Junior Miss pageant.

Rowe, 50, a mother of three, said she has gotten so good at her paranormal work that she can walk into a room and quickly determine how many ghosts are present, where they’re located and what gender they are.

She calls herself a “sensitive,” someone with the ability to make contact with spirits.

“I can feel what ghosts feel,” she said. “I’m not a medium. I’m just me.”

When she formed the paranormal group in 2010, other community leaders teased her, she said. She still gets ribbed on social media.

“When I started, I was the town joke,” she said. “A lot of people think I’m crazy. But I’m used to that.”

Galien Ghostbusters

The paranormal group, which some locals call the Galien Ghostbusters, has five members.

They’re a forklift operator, volunteer firefighter, home improvement store clerk and two homemakers. Most had paranormal experiences before joining the group.

They don’t charge to investigate whether homes or businesses are haunted. Instead, they raise money through donations, bake sales and sales of DVDs of their investigations.

The money comes in handy because ghost-hunting equipment can be pricey. Rowe, alone, owns $2,000 worth of gear, including an infrared video camera, digital audio recorder and electromagnetic field meter.

But Ouija boards are verboten. The group worries they could be used as a portal by a ghost far less friendly than Casper.

Normally intrepid, the gang doesn’t mess with demons. Too dangerous. Fortunately, they haven’t come across any.

“It’s not good to provoke them,” said Cory Kovacs, the group’s lead investigator.

Last week, 50 people gathered at the American Legion post for the ghost tour. The paranormal group normally works by itself. This was a rare time they allowed guests.

The tour, which cost $5, was preceded by a soup/chili dinner (three bowl limit) for $7.

Before dividing the participants among the five paranormal investigators, Rowe went over the rules.

No one younger than 18 was allowed, she said, reading from index cards. That’s because younger people have overactive imaginations.

And no talking while at the sites. That’s because ghosts tend to speak softly.

A few smart alecks in the back of the room were razzing Rowe.

“Can we drink in the tavern?” one asked about a planned tour stop as his friends guffawed.

Rowe responded with an ominous warning. She said it was possible participants would return home with more people than they came with.

While some participants saw the ghost tour as a hoot, many seemed to expect to find their spectral quarry.

Ron Strawbridge of Berrien Springs said he has had several run-ins with the supernatural.

Several years ago he was attending a party at the home of a niece who had died. While standing in the yard, several people saw the niece standing in her usual spot, in the dining room looking out at the party guests.

“And, yes, drinking was involved,” said Strawbridge, who, nonetheless, believed the apparition was real.

He said he has suffered five heart attacks and has died four times.

“I know more is out there that we don’t know about,” he said. “There must be something beyond all this.”

During the tour, each group took turns investigating five places: the American Legion, the jail, the elementary school, a bar and a closed bar.

As the groups crisscrossed on the darkened streets of Galien, with an autumnal breeze and thoughts of the supernatural, they looked like trick-or-treaters without the candy.

The light poles were decorated with real ghosts, or at least stuffed ones, holding signs advertising local businesses.

Kovacs led his group of nine into a darkened room at the American Legion. Two women hugged in mock fright.

Kovacs is fascinated with UFOs, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, but is considered the group’s skeptic. He said ghost hunters often allow their imagination to cloud their judgment.

He began by trying to start a conversation with the spirits:

“Hello, my name is Cory, we would like to talk to you.” Silence.

“Please tell us your name. How long have you been here?” Silence.

“Can you make a noise? You can touch me if you like.” Silence.

Suddenly, a door swung open and closed, but it was an American Legion volunteer who hadn’t finished cleaning up after the dinner.

Search continues

A member of Kovacs’ group left after the tour’s first stop. Three others departed after the third. They wanted to watch the Chicago Cubs’ playoff game on TV.

After visiting the American Legion and two bars, the shrinking group walked past a “No Trespassing” sign and into the elementary school.

The school, which closed in 2012, once was a ghost-hunting paradise but the school board stopped the searches, citing liability concerns.

The district dissolved, the school was bought by a private developer and the Galien Ghostbusters were back in business.

Kovacs and five participants walked gingerly through the school’s darkened halls, the beams of their tiny flashlights bouncing off the dusty floor and walls.

In one of the classrooms was a sign: “Please keep off the grass and other illegal drugs.”

Despite Kovacs’ earlier warning about provoking ghosts, he seemed frustrated by the lack of contact with the spirit realm.

Playing the role of a stern principal, he began berating unseen children.

“What did I tell you about running in the hallway?” he barked. “Did you hear what I said, Mister?”

But nothing stirred. The only noise came from his walkie-talkie as other group members coordinated their next stop.

Still, Kovacs remained optimistic. In the days ahead, he would review all the flash photos and audio tapes he made during the search.

If there was a ghost in Galien last week, he was going to find it.

Twitter: @francisXdonnell