Feature Stories


In a city renowned for its community spirit, a different sort makes itself known.

By Trish Anderson-Boerger
It wasn’t Halloween — not even a dark and stormy night. But ghosts don’t have calendars, so my debut as a ghost hunter was on a hot June afternoon in 2009.

The old Franklin Elementary School on St. Mary’s Avenue seemed a cool haven coming in from the steamy asphalt of the parking lot. And quiet, too. My footsteps echoed through the empty halls of the building’s dimly lit interior.

Built in 1928, the school’s halls rang with the laughter and chatter of children for five decades until it was closed in 1979.

My guide that day was a SWAT officer with Fort Wayne Police, whose officers have used the building since 1993 as a training academy. Though the officer, whom I’ll identify only as K to preserve his SWAT security, carried a Glock 9 mm on his hip, his appearance alone reassured me that he could handle anything he encountered.

K explained that back in 1993, as an instructor, he was given a brief orientation to show him where the thermostats, etc., were. He was puzzled when his guide paused at the door of an empty room, now a storage closet next to K’s office, and told K off-handedly, “This is the room to hang out in if you want to see the spooks.”

K shrugged off the comment. But a bit later, as a captain who taught at the academy lifted an access panel in the floor revealing a ladder going down to the steam pipe tunnel, he warned K to stay away from it, adding, “You couldn’t get me to go back down there.”

Now, K said, his curiosity was piqued. He’d heard the building might be haunted from neighborhood folks who related an urban legend that a custodian who died there in the late ’60s or early ’70s remained there still as a ghostly presence.

K, however, was skeptical. An acute observer, he’s been trained to look beyond superficial appearances and question them. He believes there’s a logical explanation for everything. But he was soon to find that might not always be true.

In 1994, K told me, the staff psychologist was a Ph.D who was also a former Green Beret, black belt in karate and special tactics expert. “Easily the most dangerous man I’ve ever met,” K said. “He can kill you with one hand.”

Once K asked the psychologist if he’d ever noticed anything odd while in the building. The psychologist, who believes he’s sensitive to the paranormal because he grew up in a house that was haunted, related what happened to him one night when he was in what had been the principal’s bathroom next to his office. He told K he’d suddenly felt “a presence so dark, so malevolent, it had a hundred times more ‘attitude’ than he had.” He felt it didn’t want him there and knew immediately “I had to leave that building NOW.” Later, the psychologist left to take a position with another law enforcement agency.

Then another SWAT officer related to K that one night around 3 a.m. he was setting up equipment up for a presentation the next day. He said he suddenly had “a feeling of dread” and felt something ice cold walk through him, something that didn’t want him there.

For a while, K thought such experiences were isolated, though all the cops joked about “Casper” the ghost. Once, a week before the current class was scheduled to graduate, a recruit commented on a bulge in the floor of the old gym where they worked out and asked K, “Do you think that’s where Casper lives?” Another recruit chimed in, “Have you seen that thing, too?”  

Though reluctant to talk because he “didn’t want to be scrubbed as a psycho” just a week shy of graduation, the recruit told K about one night when he was the last to leave after working out and had to shut off the lights and lock up. As he was getting a drink from the fountain, he saw a figure walking down the hall to the captain’s office. But when he went to take a closer look, he found the floor-to-ceiling metal security gate barring access to the hallway padlocked and secure.

Three other officers spoke of hearing footsteps going up and down the bleachers in the empty gym and doors slam when no one else was around. In 2007, a new female maintenance worker who’d had no way to have heard any of the stories, ran to K very upset because she saw “something” while cleaning the shower in the men’s locker room. Questioned, she said it appeared to be an older man with gray hair, glasses, pasty skin and wearing the same dark blue Dickie’s work clothes the recruits wore.  

One Sunday afternoon in 2008, K brought his 12-year-old son in to use the elliptical trainer in the weight room while K did paperwork in his office. His son came running to tell K “Dad, there’s a man down there” yelling angrily in the shower room. K says he and his son were alone in the building.

In 2009, two officers saw a gray-haired, 50-ish man mopping the floor in the hallway, pushing the mop bucket ahead of him as he worked. One officer asked the other “Did you see that?” and the other responded, “You mean the old guy with the mop?”

When they ran to take a closer look, they were confounded to find the floor dry and the mop bucket in a nearby closet.

K wrapped up his account by telling me there had never been any sightings in the tunnels under the building, nor any reaction from the K-9 unit dogs. Oh, and K remembered the psychologist had made the statement that what threatened him was “not a person.”

Then what was it? Could something darker than an urban legend about a dead janitor account for the phenomena so many separate accounts described? I wondered what had been on the site before the school was built. Could something have happened there back in the days it was occupied by the Miami tribes? I’d seen historic maps identifying the land known today as the Lakeside area as “old Indian torture grounds.”

When K asked me if I’d like a tour, I took the flashlight he offered me. Then, slightly apprehensive, I followed him down the metal ladder into the dark steam tunnel.

Anxiously scanning what the flashlight beam might reveal in the far recesses, I held my breath and advanced cautiously behind K in my open-toed sandals. Then, as I took a step, a bit of steel wire on the floor brushed my toe. An involuntary scream escaped my lips. Suddenly, even the protection of a SWAT guy with a gun didn’t seem like enough.

Outside, I was grateful to feel the heat coming off the parking lot.

A few weeks later, some experienced ghost hunters I knew, who had high-tech equipment to capture thermal images and low frequency sounds, planned a 1 a.m. foray into the building. They invited me to join them.

Nothing could compel me to return.
Posted: Mon, 09/26/2011 - 3:19 pm
Last updated: Wed, 05/23/2012 - 3:10 pm