STILLWATER — In spite of multiple investigations of hauntings and other paranormal activity, Justin Miner can remember being uncomfortable only once.
Miner and his brother had set up surveillance equipment in a windowless concrete tunnel beneath the former Waverly Hills Sanitorium in Louisville, Kentucky. They were approached from 40 feet away by a “bluish-purple ball of light” that hovered and changed shape before splitting in half to pass them. The light was caught on video, which shows it accompanied by a “huge, tall, shadow-like human figure from floor to ceiling.”
“I’ve never been scared or nervous or on edge or anything like that at any location, but after that thing passed I turned to leave … and I can’t tell you why, I just wanted to get out,” remembered Miner, 33.
He, his brother Brian and cohorts Adam Swanson and William Hill make up the Johnsdale Paranormal Group, an organization of serious (unpaid) investigators based out of Onamia that spends free time checking out unexplained phenomena across the U.S. On Sept. 20 the five-year-old group spent an overnight at the Warden’s House Museum in Stillwater for the third consecutive year, with results to be presented in an hour-long public session at the museum Oct. 25. Legend has it the historic site is haunted by the daughter of a former warden as well as a former prison stable caretaker.
In the past the group documented unexplained voices, footsteps and odd flashes of light there, and this time it brought a thermal camera that shows temperature changes, which some believe denotes the presence of spirits.
The group’s overall goal as investigators?
“Just helping people in general find answers,” explained Miner. “It’s one of those scientific fields that’s kind of on the brink of discovery. We’re all about finding legitimate answers and trying to weed through the stuff that’s not paranormal.”
The group also tries to help people frightened by paranormal activity in their homes or elsewhere, particularly if children are involved. That’s happened twice on investigations so far, but both times the “hauntings” seemed to have logical sources.
Miner explained he first became interested in the paranormal in 2007 while working as a counselor at a residential inpatient facility in Minnesota. He was putting away equipment when someone ran behind him and swung nearby curtains. When he alerted staffers a resident was goofing around, they informed him no one was missing and he’d likely encountered the often-seen spirit of a young boy. Later, Miner was in the facility kitchen when he heard an unseen presence walk toward him then stop just outside the lighted area.
Shortly after, he and his cohorts (all high school classmates in their 30s) ) began researching the history of Johnsdale, Minnesota, a ghost town five miles west of Onamia known for paranormal activity. While research and investigations there are still in progress, the group has since conducted investigations at more than 30 other locations U.S. locations.
Helping them on that quest has been the purchase of $3,000 worth of equipment designed to detect paranormal activity; Miner said the most useful is a camera system that can monitors eight rooms or locations at once.
“We piece it together along the way as we go,” Miner noted. “The crazy part is, I never thought we’d get to where we are now. We started doing this more-less as a hobby … but we’re getting phone calls now that more people see what’s being done. Right now, I’d say we’re investigating at least once a month.”
Almost as gratifying as viewing paranormal activity is identifying some as normal, he said. Once the group found an oddly warped doorway that accounted for a door that seemed to close on its own. Last summer it visited the site of the 1959 plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa that killed singers Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, but attributed the reporting of “ghostly” sounds of an airplane to semi brakes on a nearby highway.
On the other side of the coin, Miner has three times heard his voice spoken by unseen presences on audio recordings. The group also once investigated the Queen Mary hotel in Long Beach, California, catching on tape a possible shadowy figure in the boiler room.
In spite of the group’s scientific approach to investigations — and added legitimacy to the field since the advent of paranormal-themed TV shows — some consider the group’s work a waste of time. That doesn’t bother Miner.
“There are definitely 100 percent skeptics, and there’s nothing you’re able to show them for them to believe in the paranormal,” he said. “I tell them ‘You’re right to be skeptical. When we’re able to dismiss claims, that in itself is almost a kind of gratification, because we’re answering questions.”
The time required for the investigations is usually the greatest challenge, he said, since all group members have families, children and day jobs.
“We go for the night and basically give up a night of sleep to investigate, then turn around and review all the (taped and recorded) evidence,” he explained. “With six to eight hours of investigation and four cameras, that’s 32 hours of footage you have to get through. But it’s worth it.”
On his bucket list are several locations from which the group has been turned away. Among them are the Wabasha Street Caves in St. Paul; several spots in St. Augustine, Florida; and the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado where Stephen King’s “The Shining” was filmed.
“We’ve been shot down more than once,” he noted.
He encourages attendees at the Oct. 25 Washington County Historical Society presentation to draw their own conclusions as to what’s going on at the Warden’s House.
“We’ll let you listen and watch, and you be the judge,” he said. “If you have an explanation for what it is, we’re more than happy to hear it.”