People who believe their homes or businesses are haunted by ghosts often think there is no one who can find the cause of those bumps in the night.
But Nipomo is home to a team that has spent the last three years helping people cope with strange and sometimes frightening phenomena.
Central Coast Paranormal Investigators was launched by Mitch Flores after he experienced bizarre occurrences in an old South County school building while working as a custodian.
“The clock would run backwards,” Flores recalled. “I’d turn off the lights and walk down the hall, and the lights would turn back on behind me. And there was nobody in there but me.”
After seeing an episode of “Ghost Hunters” on TV, he decided a team like that was needed here, so he formed CCPI in 2007.
Since then, he and various team members have investigated reported hauntings in homes, businesses, abandoned buildings and cemeteries.
They’ve been touched by invisible hands, recorded disembodied voices, photographed floating orbs and even had an equipment case hurled across a room by an unseen hand.
But as exciting as it might seem to capture haunting evidence, they say their real accomplishment is bringing clients peace of mind or, at least, affirming that what they are experiencing is not all in their minds.
“People experiencing paranormal activity don’t understand it,” said Flores, the lead investigator. “They just want to know what’s going on. ... That’s our main purpose — to go in and shed light on what’s actually happening.”
Nikki Ortega, a cosmetologist, mother, team investigator and public relations liaison, agreed: “It’s amazing to come back to people with answers they’ve wanted to know so long.”
How they reach those answers is what makes them credible, explained William C. Butt III, an Air Force captain stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base and team investigator-in-training and researcher.
“The key is the scientific approach,” Butt said. “That’s what will make or break you when you go to present your evidence.”
Equally important, they say, is that the team doesn’t charge for its service, although they will accept donations if offered.
“There are other (paranormal investigation) groups in California, and a lot of them charge,” Ortega said. “We don’t feel that’s appropriate.”
Flores added, “That would be kind of like a police officer charging for responding to a crime. To say we need a fee to come and help, that’s just wrong.”
Investigations begin long before team members arrive at a site and set up their equipment.
First, they carefully screen potential clients to be sure they’re not hallucinating from excessive use of alcohol, illegal drugs or legal medications.
“But we try not to shoot anybody down,” Ortega said. “Sometimes people are weak, and spirits prey on the weak.”
A typical investigation involves spending an entire night inside a home or business in total darkness and silence — except for questions and challenges team members pose to “provoke” the spirits.
They are usually accompanied by professional photographer Sandra Cortez to document the investigation.
Their equipment includes three types of electromagnetic field detectors, infrared illuminators, video and still cameras with infrared capabilities and four digital voice recorders, or DVRs.
Sometimes team members see phenomena like floating orbs and “shadow people” and hear sounds like knocking and footsteps.
But often the cameras catch things they can’t see and the DVRs pick up sounds they can’t hear.
Those phenomena are identified only after team members spend weeks analyzing their evidence.
“In our spare time, instead of playing golf or watching TV, we listen to the digital voice recorders and watch the videos,” Flores said.
Often, the DVRs record soft, whispery voices — known as electronic voice phenomena, or EVPs — responding to the team’s conversations.
For example, Ortega noted, in one home, after she pointed out a floating gold orb, a voice was recorded saying, “I seen you look.”
The CCPI team also may return to sites for reinvestigations and to try to “debunk” phenomena.
“We always look for an alternate explanation for paranormal experiences,” Flores said. “We try to re-create that orb on the wall. We’ll go outside with a flashlight or shine car lights on the house.”
Although some clients have allowed the team to post findings, photos and recordings on the CCPI Web site, most have asked that their names and homes or businesses be kept confidential.
“Exposure can be good and bad,” Butt said. “If you’re the CEO of a bank, are you going to come forward and say there’s something weird going on in your house? Probably not.”
One exception is the Far Western Tavern in Guadalupe, where Flores said the team has seen shadow people; heard running footsteps; photographed orbs, glowing ectoplasm and a fiery vortex; and recorded more than 300 EVPs.
Flores said a DVR left in the upstairs men’s restroom recorded sounds of doors opening and closing and water running while the team was downstairs.
“To me, it sounded like a custodian at work — you know, taking supplies out of the cabinets, cleaning, opening the doors,” Ortega said.
Voices that sound like women and a little girl also have been recorded upstairs, where the former hotel once had 13 rooms that served as a brothel.
Flores said when he told a spirit it could have a quarter he placed on a table if it could move the coin, a voice said, “I make my own money.”
One voice said “just turn it on” when team members had trouble getting a walkie-talkie to work, and another voice said “I can make it warmer” as they discussed whether the air-conditioning was making a room cold.
After weeks of analyzing evidence, the team will return to a client with the results.
“We reassure them that what they’re hearing is real,” Flores said about playing back the recorded sounds. “You would not believe the relief they have.”
Sometimes, the team will have its occult specialist and shaman Tom Burbank bless a site, as he did at the Far Western.
Flores said after Burbank blessed the restaurant, employees told him the atmosphere in the banquet room seemed lighter and less oppressive.
“We’re not just helping human beings, but we’re also helping spirits,” Ortega explained. “We find out what they need and help them move on.”
Team members say it’s important that people not fear paranormal phenomena and not accept Hollywood’s portrayal of ghosts as malevolent, murderous spirits.
But they also say people shouldn’t believe everything they see on all the rapidly proliferating ghost-hunting TV shows.
“A lot of those discredit what we do,” Ortega said.
Butt agreed: “You should take a lot of those shows with a grain of salt. To be fair, they’ve got to make a buck. But they sensationalize everything.”