Sun Newspaper
Ghost Hunters - Area investigative group works to prove existence of paranormal Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) - October 31, 2007
Author: JASON WITZ ; Staff Writer
Scott Walker seems troubled when he sits in the small wicker chair. A street lamp peeks through the second-story window, coating the room with a dull glow. Midnight has already passed.
The August air reeks of a musty odor. Arcadia's Old Opera House is filled with antiques - and unexplained activity. Walker sinks his head into his hands, as he prepares to probe the shadows. He readjusts to the darkness. "Can you tell me your name?" he said. The room is silent. A porcelain doll sits in the corner, staring blankly at the investigative team with her lifeless eyes. One member begins another line of questioning. Nothing happens. But the room doesn't feel empty. Something attracted the group to the tiny room. And before dawn, they would realize the historical building had company.

Group history
Walker, 41, has always been sensitive to spirits. It started in the 1980s, after his grandfather died. Walker said he would still see his relative as though he never left. Walker's partner, Ellen "Sprout" Dvorak, 38, would have a similar experience growing up. However, it took several strange photographs to pique her interest.
The couple discovered a recurring mist suspended above Walker's show car, after it was repainted. Dvorak started reading everything she could find about paranormal activity.
Initially, the two conducted field work in cemeteries using a compass and a 35mm camera. Later, their research moved indoors. Others would join the effort.
Peace River Ghost Tracker formed seven years ago as a means to explain the unexplainable. The nonprofit group works to prove the existence of spirits and to help others understand their presence. But make no mistake: ghost hunting is not a thrill-seeking adventure for the five-member team.
"We're not out there to see how much we can get scared," Dvorak said.
Prior to each investigation, the team researches the location and its history. Witnesses are interviewed to determine claims. "We go in as skeptics," Dvorak said. "We want to make sure what is going on is truly paranormal."

Arcadia's Old Opera House was built in 1906, after most of downtown succumbed to fire the previous Thanksgiving. Displaced businesses rented the rooms surrounding the theater upstairs to continue supplying residents. The theater was used for vaudeville shows, silent movies and graduation ceremonies. Dick and Helen Cernoch purchased the building 14 years ago, when the second floor was condemned. It now serves as a museum and antique mall.
Given the history, Cernoch wasn't surprised when customers and tenants began complaining of strange activity.
The claims vary from sounds of children running through the hallways to laughter near the stage. Many customers have expressed feelings of discomfort upon entering the store
. Despite personal experiences, Dick Cernoch isn't convinced -- yet. "We don't believe in this stuff, but there's so much evidence to the contrary," he said. "We just don't know."

The investigation
Setup takes longer than expected. One of the infrared night vision cameras continues to transmit a dark image. The lens' ring of red bulbs should lighten the midnight setting. Walker fusses with the settings, but the screen only flickers with jagged lines. Team members replace the connecting cable. Nothing. The camera is next to go. The image still appears filtered in dark gray. Two hours pass before the matter is resolved. Despite the delay, the team is eager to begin their analysis.
Walker's visits the stage first to conduct a sweep for electronic voice phenomenon, or EVP. He speaks in a soft, nonthreatening tone as he introduces himself to any spirit that will listen. A digital tape recorder documents the conversation, which seems one-sided. "We mean you no harm," Walker said. "Can you tell me why you're here?"
There is no response.
But it doesn't mean no one is home. The recorder can decipher sounds not heard by human ears. Walker continues to probe the still air with questions -- some more personal than others.
Another team member places a toy truck near a stationary camera to entice the spirit. Witness reports indicate it could be a child. "I'd sure like to get some proof you are here," Walker said. "You don't need to be scared. Let me know why you're here." The stage is silent. Even the aging floorboards seem indifferent to the foot traffic. Walker waits several minutes before moving to another room.
The investigation passes into the early morning hours.
Investigator Lori Chapman stares at the screen displaying activity from the four camera placements in the building. Occasionally, a bug or dust particle flies past a lens. More often, the image doesn't change. "Most of the time, this can be boring," Chapman said. "But when you get something, it makes it all worthwhile." Team members would get a visit from something -- or someone.

It started with a strange odor near the front stairwell. During a routine sweep, Dvorak and Walker could smell what appeared to be lemons. Investigators try to determine its origin, searching the walls and adjoining hallway for any fragrant source. The scent dissipates moments later. Walker attempts to follow the scent into a nearby room, where a small, wicker chair gets his attention.
One team member sits in the child-size seat and is overcome by feelings of nausea. Investigator Toni Ray places a stationary camera in the corner, but the battery has a sudden drain. Dvorak's digital recorder documents severe interference before its batteries suffer a similar fate. She returns moments later with new batteries and begins the detailed interview.
And this time, someone answers.

The findings
Walker spends hours analyzing reels of black and white footage on his flat-panel monitor. Every second is broken down, scrutinized for evidence to solidify claims. It's a tedious process. Investigators must rewind the tape whenever an unexplained sound or image catches their attention. Usually, it's nothing. Every building produces unique noises, and most potential evidence has a logical explanation. Then again, Walker or another member might spot something even more peculiar during a second look.
In this case, it took more than a week for the group to finish the analysis. "We disproved a lot of the stuff we heard," Walker said, indicating many of the questionable sounds in the footage came from team members. Still, the group couldn't explain everything.
Aside from personal experiences, the stage seemed to attract strange activity. The camera stationed on the balcony captured a white sphere that pulses for several seconds before fading into the darkness. The group was taking a break outside. At first, Walker thought it was just a flashlight, but the tiny ball seemed to disintegrate. Moments earlier, the camera microphone on stage recorded three quick, but distinct sounds. Walker described the "tap, tap, tap" as the noise one would hear just before an orchestra played. A full second hadn't passed when the main hallway camera picked up a chirping sound of what appears to be a parrot or cockatiel. Again, no one was in the building, and team members couldn't find any history of birds in the premises.
But the most surprising discovery came from the room with the small wicker chair.
Team members detected a strange lemon odor in the hallway when Walker went into an adjoining room. Immediately, he was drawn to the chair. Dvorak attempted to do EVP work, but the interview is clouded by static. The batteries on Ray's hand-held camera drain upon her entrance to the room, although she had used only 33 minutes of the two-hour lifespan. Walker stayed in the room as the two retrieved new batteries. Dvorak returned and began to introduce the date and time into her recorder. Ray placed the camera in the corner. As Dvorak spoke, a faint word emerged on the tape of what sounded like a woman. Her voice was soft and vaporous, as she hissed the greeting "Hi." No one heard the woman at the time of the investigation.
Dvorak discovered the word while reviewing the tape outside. Upon further analysis, it was learned Ray's camera picked up the disembodied whisper. "It was very eerie," Dvorak said. "But it was an acknowledgement."

You can e-mail Jason Witz at