When Sgt. Miguel Lopez was 11 years old, he remembers suddenly awakening from a deep slumber by a sinister ghostly presence at the end of his bed. “I saw two red glowing eyes,” he recalls. “I looked over at my brother and tried to yell, but I couldn’t.”
Lopez pulled the bed sheets over his head as he felt something grabbing his legs and slowly pulling itself up his body toward his tiny face. “I could hear breathing in my ear,” he remembers. When he finally mustered up enough courage, he pulled back his sheets, and the thing was gone. “I never talked about it,” says Lopez, now 51. “I dismissed it. I didn’t want anyone to think I was crazy.”
Lopez kept the ghoulish encounter a secret for more than 30 years until, at a family gathering five years ago, his sisters opened up about their own paranormal experiences at their childhood home in the Wilshire district of Los Angeles. “They heard names being called out and growling,” he says. “We didn’t know we each had experiences. One of my sisters to this day still sleeps with the lights on. Something still follows her.”
The once hidden family secret started Lopez on a quest for answers. By day, he is a gang supervisor at the LAPD’s Hollenbeck station in Boyle Heights, an Hispanic working-class neighborhood east of downtown L.A. By night, he is a ghost hunter, trading in his gun, badge, and baton for night goggles, a camera, a tape recorder, a K2 device that is supposed to light up when there’s a change in the electromagnetic field, and a flask of holy water.
Lopez, a stocky man with a shaved head and wide grin, says he fell into the role of ghost hunter after he began researching the phenomena on the Internet and talking to community members about their own bizarre encounters. “Eight out of 10 people say they have experienced something,” he says.
His goal, he says, is to help solve problems. “I like to help people so they don’t feel like they are crazy,” he says. “How can I disprove it to give you some peace of mind? I try to explain things. Is it the air conditioning? Is it a wiring or electrical issue? I am looking for explanations.”
Of course, some things can’t explained. So Lopez also does his homework and hands out a query sheet with questions. Did someone die in the house recently? Was a séance held or Ouija board used before the disturbance began? Have there been reports of unexplained fires or disappearing objects?
Lopez is among a legion of ghost hunters that have popped up across the country in the last decade. It’s a growing trend thanks to shows like Syfy’s Ghost Hunters and Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, which stars three investigators who deliberately provoke and confront ghosts during dusk-to-dawn lockdowns.
Paranormalsocieties.com, an online national paranormal directory, has over 4,000 paranormal groups registered to its website. The site, which receives over 35,000 visitors a month, provides lists of ghost hunters by state. In 2012, the site received over 1,500 requests for assistance, says founder Bill Wilkens.
“Fifteen years ago if you said you were haunted, people wouldn’t lend any credence to it,” says Wilkens, a New York City federal police officer. “Now you’re less likely to be made fun of or judged. Now it’s a conversation topic.”
A Memphis Ghost Hunters organization offers two-hour workshops for budding paranormal investigators.
In the last five years, Lopez has investigated over 40 strange occurrences in churches, city buildings, abandoned hospitals, and residential homes. He says he has been punched in the chest, grabbed in the back and neck on his paranormal adventures, had strange orbs follow him from room to room, and cleansed rooms with holy water, white sage, prayer, and sea salt. Because he doesn’t want the spirit to follow him home, he douses his car and his head with holy water. “I don’t want anything attached to me,” he says.
He uses his detective skills to weed out the glory hounds who are trying to profit from having an in-house ghost. “I like to know what they are getting out of it,” he says. “I ask them if they are trying to sell this as an attraction.”
However, Lopez, who does not charge for his services, says most of his clients are sincere and want to he get to the bottom of the mysterious occurrences. “The majority of people want to know what is going on for their own peace of mind,” he says.
Lopez admits that as the resident ghost expert he does get a fair bit of razzing from his police officer buddies. But some of them, he says, have come back to him later asking for his help with strange occurrences at home. “I have helped four or five,” he says. “Once you break down the wall, they are open to it.”
More recently, he investigated the strange happenings at the temporary field office of Los Angeles city councilman Jose Huizar. As soon as they moved in, some staff members began hearing strange knocking noises, bells ringing, and the fire alarm system going off. There were times they even felt woozy.
“We started making excuses,” said administrative assistant Hilda Carrillo. “It was an old building. We thought maybe it is the air conditioning. We ignored it, but it was happening too much.”
On one particular occasion, Carrillo says she came early to the office and heard what sounded like tables and chairs being dragged across the floor at the rental hall above her. A few hours later, she asked the building owner why he was working upstairs so early, and he told her he had just arrived, and he had not been upstairs. “It was way too much racket,” she said. “It was going on for 15 minutes.”
Another time, Carrillo says the night office cleaner claimed to come face to face with the ghost. “She was vacuuming in the conference room and saw feet and looked up and saw a tall man with a hat,” says Carrillo. Carrillo said the maid described the ghost as a handsome Hispanic man in his 50s who wore a cowboy hat, a brown coat, and jeans.
Carrillo says she and some of her colleagues believe the man was a regular at the Leon De Oro, a notoriously violent drinking establishment that was located upstairs for years before it was finally closed down.
“We figured he got killed here,” she said. “It was a friendly ghost. It’s not like he wanted to hurt us.”
Carrillo says she mentioned the bizarre occurrences to her friend at the LAPD who recommended Lopez.
Lopez says he and a couple of his cop buddies and members of the councilman’s staff stopped by late one night to get to the bottom of it. Lopez, who was armed with his sensor detector, said they went upstairs to the old bar room and were getting “hits.”
About the ghostly figure in the cowboy hat, Lopez says, “I couldn’t explain the man.”
But Carrillo says that since Lopez cleansed the former nightclub the occurrences have stopped. “After that everything quieted down,” she says. “After that I felt peace. Everything went back to normal. I don’t feel boxed in anymore.”
Lopez has also investigated paranormal activity at the Los Angeles Public Library’s Benjamin Franklin branch, which is located across the street from Hollenbeck station. Some staff members believe two spirits are haunting the walls of the library. One of them, says library clerk April Contreras, is a former library employee who died 15 years ago. The other one, she says, is a dark presence. “It’s like there’s a friendly ghost and a mean one,” she says.
Contreras says staff members have heard something call out the name of a library employee, seen a dark shadow moving through the halls, and witnessed DVDs flying off shelves. She says she saw the dark shadow herself in the libraries break room. “In the corner of my eye I saw someone there,” she says. “It happened three times. The last time I got up and nobody was there.”
Lopez says he walked the hallways late one night and had his own strange encounter. “I heard something and I looked around and there were books on the ground,” he said. “Five books. The books I can’t explain."
Contreras says the library still is still haunted. Lopez may have to return, she says. “We always still hear sounds here.”
For the most part, Lopez takes his part-time job good-naturedly, but sometimes, he says, even he gets a little spooked. “To say I am not scared is a lie,” he says with a smile. “It's how you deal with it. I do it for curiosity. Hopefully it doesn’t kill me.”