CORPUS CHRISTI — A decade after capturing footage of what appeared to be the ghost of a little girl haunting a downtown building, the amateur filmmaker says it was all a hoax.
The footage is real. So are the terrified screams of those in the film and the large crucifix one man clutches to his chest after the ghost is sighted.
What's not real is the figure of a little girl who appears in a dark corner of the Smith Building, now known as Retama Vista Apartments.
Painter Mike De La Garza created the ghost girl using old clothes he found in the building. He filmed the ghost footage in 2002.
At the time, he was 20 years old and hired to help renovate the then-empty second floor of the building at the corner of Schatzell and Mesquite streets. The idea began as a harmless prank and later evolved into a Corpus Christi ghost legend that has attracted an international following online.
More than a month ago, De La Garza released footage from the original taping that proves the ghost figure is a prop he created. The previously unpublished clip shows a behind-the-scenes shot of ghost girl figure in the dark when suddenly the lights turn on to reveal the figure is actually a dress set up in the corner. De la Garza and the two friends walk into the shot and pose for the camera.
De La Garza said he decided to release the clip that shows it's a hoax because he wants people to know the truth.
"It's all entertainment," he said. "That's why I wanted to put the fake part out there."
The reality has received mixed reaction within the online community. Some are angry, others still convinced its real and others wonder why anyone ever believed it. Tracy Long, who owns the building, falls squarely in that third category.
"Duh. You have to be an idiot to believe it was anything else but a hoax," he said.
Long bought the building six years ago and finished the second floor, once used by the IRS for offices in the 1950s, into loft apartments. After he bought the building, he had trouble keeping people away. He once found a group of people conducting a seance and often saw people parked outside the building who told him they felt vibes coming from the property.
"It was just stupid," Long said.
The idea for De La Garza's ghost girl started as a prank on his former co-worker Thomas, who is seen in the film holding a large crucifix. At the time, the two were tasked with cleaning out the building and prepping it for lease for the building's previous owners.
One day while Thomas was away on an errand, De La Garza found some clothes, including what looked like a child's dress, in one of the rooms. He set it up in a corner of the room, using an old mop head and yardstick he broke into three pieces to give the dress a three-dimensional look.
When Thomas returned, De La Garza pretended he had seen a ghost and showed it to Thomas. Thomas was convinced the building was haunted. He invited friends to see the ghost, too.
During the next two weeks, the simple prank led to impromptu ghost tours of the boarded-up building as rumors of the ghost sighting spread. De La Garza led the tour and a friend of his ran the breaker box, switching lights on and off as De La Garza walked a small group through a maze of darkened rooms in search of the little girl, whom he called the Ghost of Christie Smith.
Next he taped a 20-minute account of the haunting. By this time, Thomas had learned the ghost was a prank, and he participated in the film.
The videotape shows grainy footage of De La Garza aiming the camera through dark hallways, rooms and a stairwell with Thomas as they canvass the building to capture footage of the ghost. He made one copy of the tape and gave it to a friend.
"I never thought it would take on a life of its own," he said.
De La Garza and his co-worker never finished the renovation, and they soon lost touch. De La Garza left for San Antonio, and when he returned the prank had turned into the talk of the town. People he didn't know recognized him from the video and wanted to know more.
Then he agreed to an interview with a local TV station. At some point after YouTube was launched in 2005, someone posted segments from the original video on the site. There are several versions of the original footage online, and the analysis of it is spread among several different paranormal sites. It has an international following.
For years, De La Garza thought the original footage was lost, but he recently found the tape in a box at his home in Corpus Christi. He decided to publish it on YouTube a few days before Halloween.
"I'm going to put an end to all of this," he said.