Haunted Nevada: A Skeptic Spends Dark Hours In An Historic Prison

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CARSON CITY, NV - There may be no other location in the state that holds more history than the old Nevada State Prison on Carson City's east side.

It played a pivotal role in the Nevada's history, even predating statehood. The first session of the territorial legislature was held on this site at what was then the Warm Springs Hotel.

A short time later the property was purchased for the state's prison.

An on-site quarry provided the sandstone for its oldest structures and for many of the oldest public buildings in Carson, including the state capitol.

For 150 years, the state's most dangerous criminals were housed here. There were riots, breakouts and executions. Forty three of them, including the first anywhere by lethal gas.

The prison was closed in 2012 and now sits empty, under the care of a preservation society, awaiting a possible future as a museum.

Many who served time here never walked out alive and if it's true that troubled souls linger behind in this world it's hard to imagine a more likely home.

That's a question that for many begs an answer.

And that's why on a dark cold night we've come here.

The old prison has never hosted a paranormal investigation. This will be its first and the people I'm with can't wait to get started.

They're members of Northern Nevada Ghost Hunters. They all have day jobs, but this is their passion.

I am a self-described agnostic about all things paranormal, as is my photographer, Jennifer Carruthers, but I don't automatically dismiss the views of others with different experiences.

I also don't want to do a standard let's-see-if-I-can-scare-you around the campfire story. There are others I could have approached about this story. I like their earnest no-nonsense approach. And I've come to trust them.

Last year as we accompanied this same group to the old St.Mary's Hospital in Virginia City. That visit produced a couple of results this skeptic still can't explain.

Will this visit pose new questions?

Even they don't know.

They bring different talents to this quest. Some in this group claim psychic abilities, but they also bring lots of equipment.

Some tools are subjective like divining rods. But there's also equipment capable of capturing hard evidence: cameras, audio recorders and electro-magnetic field or EMF meters.

This is an experienced crew, each knows their role. In charge of all, the group's founder Jeadene Solberg.

The investigation begins as it always does with a prayer. Then the team gets to work.

We're accompanied by three men who know this prison well, including a former associate warden.

Like many who worked here, they are divided on this subject.

Some say in their years here they never saw or heard anything they couldn't explain. Others report strange experiences.

One recently took a picture in one of the cell blocks. It shows a strange fog and what appears to be disembodied legs in a corridor.

He couldn't explain it. Neither can I.

Infrared cameras are placed at various sites around the prison, they'll be left on recording as the teams bring other methods to bea elsewhere.

As it grows dark, there's little need for us to create an eerie atmosphere. But for the distant sound of traffic and the howl of a coyote, it's quiet.

The darkened windows of the cell blocks look down on the yard like what one former warden described as so many eyes peering down on us.

There's no power beyond the room in which we assemble, so we'll make our way through the rest of the structures with flashlights and do some of the work in total darkness.

There are places we can't go. The execution chamber is off-limits. Until a new one is built, it's still the state's only such location.

But there are other places with dark histories.

A walkway between two cell blocks, a blind spot for the guards, the ideal location for an ambush murder.

The cafeteria, site of a racial riot and murder and then there's a uniquely bizarre place.

For many years solitary confinement--the hole--was literally that, a cave carved into the sandstone cliff.

These days there's a limit on an inmate's stay in solitary. Back then there wasn't. One man spent seven years in there and emerged blind and so violent, he was eventually given a lobotomy.

A dreary, unhappy home for a spirit.

Three different teams circulate between there and other likely locations throughout the prison, hoping to coax a sign from the beyond.

Much of it involves attempts at verbal communication.

One member asks any spirit in ear shot to respond to the diving rods the carries.

The rods swing and cross, apparently in response.

In culinary, a pair of small flashlights placed around a back room appear to respond to yes or no prompts.

In what was called the "Bull Pen" in C Block, we watch a new piece of equipment, a sort of combination thermal and EMF camera which looks a lot like an iPad.

In bright colors it shows the outline of a pair of us standing in the room. Behind us, it detects anomalies the size and shapes of human bodies, but without a thermal signature.

In one small room, just off the north side of the yard, Jennifer gets a strange feeling. She's suddenly dizzy.

"It felt like someone pushing on my neck," she says. As they leave, a Go Pro camera she's wearing records what seems to be a muffled comment.

We're divided on what it might have said, but it wasn't from anyone present.

Hours later we wrap things up and no one is sure what we've got.

So, there were moments, but nothing dramatic.

The immediate impression from the Ghost Hunters is that there's a lot here, but it's staying quiet which they say sometimes happens, especially on a first visit.

Did we strike out?

I'm worried the team I've brought here, so excited at the opportunity, may be disappointed and mentally I'm contemplating a much shorter story.

As it turns out I shouldn't have been worried.

There are hours of recordings to be logged and analyzed, including those from the cameras left running while we were elsewhere.

A week later, we meet at Solberg's house to see what they've found.

That moment when Jennifer felt suddenly dizzy like someone was pressing down on her neck?

Infrared photography shows a point of light shooting behind her, then as she leaves following her out the door.

There are occasional dust motes flitting about, but the speed and trajectory suggest something different to the team--orbs.

Even in the paranormal world orbs are controversial. Some in this group believe in them. Others don't. But paired with her physical reaction, it's an intriguing piece of evidence.

There was much more, more than the investigators had expected.

There are a number of E-V-P's, electronic voice phenomena. Faint whisperings, difficult to pick out of the background. Some glean words from them, but they often are so faint, it's hard for me to agree.

When the prison was operating, the mess hall and culinary were considered the most dangerous locations and on that night it turns out they were the most active.

As two women from the team sit in total darkness in the mess hall talking. They heard nothing other than their voices at the time, but an audio recorder captures a loud male laugh followed by a childlike voice which seems to be saying "mommy."

With the volume it's clear, recognizable and unexplained.

There are others. And they show up on recordings made by an infrared camera left running for a good hour and a half while everyone else was elsewhere.

It doesn't take much imagination to hear a background of the kinds of sounds you'd hear in a busy cafeteria, but then there's a clear sound--metal on metal--like a knife on a sharpening steel.

Then the sound like a tray sliding on a metal counter.

Finally, again with no one present or even in the building, repeated booming sounds, like someone banging on big piece of metal.

But the most startling result emerged from a camera carried by one team.

Gail Reilly and Jilly Smith were walking along the east side of the yard, past a cell block to which we had no access.

They heard what they thought was someone rattling a door out to the yard and stopped to try to coax a response.

There's a small window in that door about shoulder height. It was dark and empty.

Again there's no power anywhere in the prison, save that small courtroom in which we assembled.

Gail and Jilly walked around the steps to the doorway, talking to anything or one that might be around.

"There's no one here, you won't get into trouble."

The camera swings back to the door and the window is no longer empty. There's a discernable shape, lighter and it looks like it's peering out at the women.

Gail and Jilly are both veterans at this sort of thing, and have reputations for being steady and hard to rattle.

At this moment, though their voices betray their surprise.

"Jill?" Gail says on the recording, her voice a little shaky. "Come look at this."

It doesn't appear to be a reflection. It's behind the glass.

They take the camera up to the window and peer in.

There's nothing on the other side that might have caused that image.

Will the recording show it?

Following group protocol, they don't mention it to the others, waiting until it can be reviewed. Seeing it for the first time, other members have the same reaction I do.

The figure--can we call it that?--is the most puzzling and, let's say it, creepy result of the investigation.

Even for a skeptic like me, a chilling sight. One I won't easily forget.

I've spent my professional life as an honest witness describing what I see and hear. I have to report that I'm walking away from this assignment without an explanation.

And I'll admit a little shaken.