Members of the Central Texas Paranormal Society team gather in the drawing room at East Terrace, a Historic Waco Foundation house where they recently spent a night checking for paranormal activity. Shown are Valerie Fairly (from left), Tony Ramos, Lee Smith, Scott Nagel, Rita Garcia, Jane Brown, Becky Nagel, Ed Viera and Ken “Pop” Hotchkiss. (Photo by Rod Aydelotte)
Ken Hotchkiss and Lee Smith see dead people ... and talk to them.
And sometimes they hear something back from the other side.
As co-founders and lead investigators of Central Texas Paranormal Society, they prowl around attics and sheds, eerie business spaces and the occasional institution or historic home, in their quest to know “what’s out there.”
Some folks might think the father-daughter duo are already “out there” in their interest in ghosts, spirits or spooks. They founded CTPS in 2004 to seek answers to their questions about the great beyond.
“I believe that we are all made up of energy, and energy is what is left behind regardless of the circumstances of our demise,” Smith said. “We’re vibrant, energetic people while we are living and breathing. Shouldn’t it be the same after we are gone?”
Smith said her definition of spirit is broad enough to encompass ghosts or angels — even demons.
“They come and go and move about in both worlds as they choose,” she said. “Is it a thin veil between the worlds? Or is it a ‘pop-in,’ ‘pop-out’ kind of thing, like ‘I’m going to the other side for a little while?’ ”
Hotchkiss, raised a Seventh-day Adventist but now a “free-range” seeker of sorts, said he believes the truth is “out there,” and he hopes to find it through the scientific method. He employs infrared video cameras and still digital photography, takes digital temperature recordings and captures digital voice recordings in pursuit of elusive and often inexplicable phenomena.
“You’re only as good as what you can back up,” Smith concurred. In the eight years since their launch, they’ve acquired equipment and accessories they value at about $20,000 to conduct paranormal probes.
Hotchkiss is adamant that he and his squad “are not a bunch of kids running around with flashlights in a cemetery.”
The 12-person team conducts some 25 investigations a year, virtually every other weekend, Hotchkiss said. Members have roamed as far north as Denton (looking for the ghosts said to frequent the boiler room of Bruce Hall on the University of North Texas campus) and as far south as Port Isabel.
Usually they are approached by a homeowner or a business owner. A date is agreed upon for an evening-long investigation, which generally lasts from 6 p.m. until 1 or 2 a.m.
Smith said she tries her best to screen requests for serious inquiries only. “We want to be respectful and give everyone the benefit of the doubt, if we can,” she said.
After a walk-through with the client, with an explanation of what phenomenon is being experienced where, the team sets up its equipment in several locations, and members split up in pairs to monitor the activity.
“We always do it at night because there’s less noise and fewer distractions,” Hotchkiss said. “And the spirits just seem more active then.”
All cases are confidential, unless the clients themselves choose to disclose their involvement.
For example, CTPS was recently engaged by Historic Waco Foundation to check out the vibes at East Terrace, as part of the preparations for the house museum’s autumn exhibit (see sidebar). Earlier this summer, the paranormal team spent an evening prowling the house and grounds of the circa 1872 Italianate villa at 100 Mill St.
“We found something,” Smith said, “non-malevolent spirits.”
They recorded one ghost, apparently goading another ethereal being, saying, “Wiley, tip-toe closer to them.”
Another man’s voice said: “Mother should be in the bedroom.”
Holly Browning, curator of collections and interpretation at Historic Waco Foundation, said CTPS was one of several paranormal teams interviewed for the task, before being given permission to test for incorporeal residents.
“We’ve been approached by a lot of paranormal investigators over the years because we have historic homes that some think might be haunted,” Browning said. A small committee weighed the pros and cons of calling in PIs, and selected CTPS because “they presented themselves as very professional and were exceedingly respectful — of our homes, our antiques, and most importantly, of our sensibilities.”
Organizations such as HWF, she added, have to walk a fine line in maintaining an air of scholarship and fact-finding, while also catering to popular tastes. CTPS seemed to be a good fit for the mission, she said. “They were really great to work with.”
About a month after the initial data-gathering, Hotchkiss and Smith presented a brief report to the HWF board on their findings. Nothing unusual turned up on the videos or stills, she said, but the board was presented a compact disc with six “voice” recordings — mostly one-or-two-word phrases hard to discern.
“We’re certainly not opposed to working with them again on some future investigation,” Browning said.
CTPS does not charge for its services. It accepts donations, though, to help fund their work. “Especially for gas,” Smith said.
“But usually, we’re pretty happy for a plate of sandwiches and a pot of coffee,” her father added.
In the past, they’ve invited select guests to join them in a spectral stake-out for the night. “It can be mind-numbingly boring at times to watch a video monitor for hours, waiting for a door knob to jiggle,” said Hotchkiss, a Fort Worth native and former Marine. “But, boy, when you catch ’em, that’s when you get excited.”
The Central Texas Paranormal Society’s current team
• Ken “Pop” Hotchkiss — Founder and lead investigator. He is a retired federal employee and former U.S. Marine.
• Lee Smith — Co-founder, case manager and a lead investigator. She is Hotchkiss’ daughter and a “registered nurse by day and paranormal investigator by night.”
• Becky Nagel — Case manager and investigator. She is Smith’s sister and a homemaker. She says her job is to shoot down questionable “evidence.”
• Scott Nagel — Tech manager and Becky’s husband. He’s a retired U.S. Air Force electronics technician who works for L-3 and bills himself as the resident “debunker of the team,” looking for any logical explanation to the unorthodox happenings they encounter.
• Rita Garcia — Investigator and video specialist. She is a bilingual X-ray technician.
• Dana Koester — Investigator and evidence analyst. She is a retired postal employee.
• Ed Viera — Investigator and evidence analyst. He is chief flight instructor for Texas State Technical College-Waco.
• Valerie Fairly — Investigator and evidence analyst. She is a correctional officer at a state maximum security prison.
• Jane Brown — Part-time investigator. She is a grandmother and hospital clerk.
• Jackie Fife — Investigator and evidence analyst. She is self-employed.
• Tim Fletcher — Site moderator and part-time investigator.
• Tony Ramos — investigator-in-training. He works at L-3 and brings three languages to the table — English, Spanish and Hebrew.
Area ghost-hunting groups
Almost 200 ghost-hunting groups operate in and around the Lone Star State, according to ParanormalSocieties.com. In addition to CTPS, local entities include:
• Central Texas Spirit Seekers Paranormal — Chris Novinska, founder; 254-829-5152; CenTexSpiritSeekers@yahoo.com
Historic Waco Foundation’s
“Sitting up with the Dead: Victorian Funeral Customs and Spiritualism”
Oct. 6 through Nov. 3 at East Terrace House Museum
General admission tours: 2 to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, at the regular admission price.
Visitors will learn about Victorian funeral customs and the Spiritualism movement. East Terrace House Museum, a circa 1872 Italianate villa, will be “dressed” for an 1880s funeral, and the double parlors will be prepared as for a wake. The upstairs ballroom of the mansion will be set for a seance.
This is not a haunted house tour. There will be no gore, disturbing images or activities meant to frighten visitors.
Special “twilight” tours with the exhibit curator (reservation-only event) cost $10 per person. Tours will take place at 7 and 8 p.m. Oct. 6, 13 and 20. Call 753-5166 to save a spot.
A special “open house” with the Central Texas Paranormal Society will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. Oct. 27. Tickets remain $10 for admission, but no reservations are required for this twilight tour.