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Paranormal adventures in Goochland

dowsing rods
An amateur paranormal investigator uses dowsing rods to try to communicate to spirits. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

This isn’t the first time friends Kathleen Preservati and Rosie Stephenson have teamed up for a paranormal adventure.

“I've gone across [the] country and done different investigations, like at Waverly Hillsin Kentucky and some other major spots,” Preservati says. 

But it is their first time checking out the alleged spirits walking the halls and empty classrooms of what was Central High School in Goochland County

“I'm introducing her to go into groups,” Preservati says while pointing to Stephenson. “Because she likes to go rogue with no guidance. And that can sometimes not be the greatest.”

Like Preservati predicts, Stephenson will later choose to go rogue, away from their assigned group to explore.

It’s late on a crisp Saturday night in early April, and the pair are part of a group of about 50 people gathering at this partially deserted former high school to learn the art of ghost hunting from professionals. 

“It's got a lot of rich history to it,” says Mariah Leonard, recreation coordinator for Goochland County Parks and Recreation. “The history dates back to the 1920s actually, as being the African American high school.”

It grew from a six-room schoolhouse into a two-story building and became a junior high school when it was desegregated in 1969. Eventually, after a new school complex opened elsewhere in the county in the mid-2000s, the building was abandoned. 

Years later, the county took over the building and began renovations — but only on the second floor.

The second floor is now home to the Central High School Cultural & Educational Center. It includes a huge gym with basketball hoops, a space for ballet and art classes, and summer camps are also held at the center, says Leonard, who adds that the county’s 4-H club and the Monacan Soil and Water offices are there too. 

But…“The downstairs is all untouched. It's as if you're standing still in time,” Leonard says. 

It’s on this level that the ghost hunting investigations take place. 

“We've got everything from the cafeteria, the library, science labs, the band room, the detention room, all down here completely untouched,” Leonard says. “You see just the layers of dust and the dates on the chalkboard.”

Leonard says they keep finding more and more artifacts from the former school, such as homework assignments and buckets of ice cream in the home economics kitchen. 

Before she started working for parks and recreation six years ago, Leonard was already well aware of the alleged hauntings in the building. 

“From day one I'd been hearing, ‘Oh, this place is haunted,’” Leonard says. “You hear those stories and think nothing of it.”

But in and around her office — which sits above the deserted classrooms — Leonard started hearing and feeling things that were out of the ordinary.

“The one time for me where I really was like, okay, this is real,” she says, “I was actually sitting in the gym lobby, and we have a custodian closet and the door was open and I just watched the door close itself.”

That’s not the only odd happening Leonard’s experienced. 

“I've heard chairs move in the classroom next to my office. I have heard very, very dissonant voices when there's nobody else in the building. You can hear footsteps sometimes,” she says. “You kind of feel like a comfortable feeling, though. It doesn't feel scary, you know, it just feels like somebody's here.”

Because of those earlier rumors and her personal encounters, Leonrad decided to seek out some paranormal investigators. 

“I thought it'd be a fun thing to look into why nobody dug into this,” Leonard says. “So I actually did some research on paranormal groups because I'd seen this stuff on TV and I thought yeah, let's see how this goes.”

She found Ray Sarvino of RTL Paranormal and Flumeri Promotions and invited them out to investigate. His group did a private session at first, then expanded it to two regular investigations with groups of people and even did an overnight lockdown event.

“They've caught some pretty amazing things,” Leonard says. “It kind of reinforces the things I've seen, the things I've heard and the stories I've heard from faculty and staff who worked here [as well as from the] students who went here, that they were telling the truth.”

Sarvino, who says he experienced paranormal events when he was younger, says in those early investigations at Central High, his team did find some things out of the ordinary.

“We've caught EVPs, which is short for Electronic Voice Phenomena, which is capturing voices and sounds that people won't physically hear. But somehow, for whatever reason, we're able to capture them on the recorder or even on video,” Sarvino says. “We've seen shadow figures [and] apparitions. Some of the members in the group said that they were touched.”

The thing Leonard likes about RTL is that they really try to debunk the encounters people report to them, like the episode she had seeing the custodian door closing by itself.

“They actually do go in and just check and see well, is that loose? Is there airflow that can blow the door shut? Things like that,” Leonard says. 

She says after RTL checked the door and its surroundings, they found no reasonable circumstances that would have caused the door to shut and said a spirit could’ve closed the door.

“When I say debunk, I mean, try to find a logical explanation to what's going on,” Sarvino says. “If we cannot figure out a reasonable explanation to what occurred, then we kind of put it in the category's evidence.”

Sarvino says solid evidence would be if somebody experienced something at the same time one of their pieces of equipment does. 

“And if we capture something on audio, the more stuff that you have to solidify the claim, then it's going to be defined as evidence,” Sarvino says. “So it's not us just looking for ghosts. No, we actually have to analyze everything, because we investigate people's homes and businesses and stuff that are really legitimately scared about what's going on.”

He says after they collect data, analyze it and try to debunk it, they present whatever evidence is leftover to the clients and let them make their own decisions about what’s going on.

Besides holding paranormal investigations, Sarvino also represents talent in the likes of Mustafa Gatollari, who hosts A&E’s television show “Ghost Hunters.” Gatollari was on hand to lead some of the investigations that night. He says because of the many ghost-hunting shows, people who attend events like the one at Central High need to come with doubts.

“I think it's really healthy to be skeptical about a lot of things,” Gatollari says. “People have been burned a lot by shows that are really fraudulent, and there's very easy ways to manipulate equipment. So if you're a naysayer, I'd say that's good.”

Gatollari, who like Sarvino got into paranormal investigations because of unusual things he experienced as a child, says the thrill in nights like the one at Central High is being able to capture something you can’t quite explain.

“Whether it's an errant voice when you're the only person there, or maybe you see something and you know, your equipment goes off, you detect a weird aberration and electromagnetic frequencies when there's no EMF around,” he says.

With the help of members from RTL and Gatollari, the group of roughly 50 participants breaks into smaller groups and gets some equipment to lead their investigations – though many brought their own paranormal tools. 

Each group heads to a specific location on the lower level of Central High, including an empty library, a detention center, the gymnasium and the band room, before regrouping back in the auditorium for a break. Then the groups switch to another room. 

Tonight, it’s the band room that has the most buzz. 

“For some reason, the band room is where all the stories had come from originally when I started working here,” Leonard says.

Leonard says many people think the stories about band room hauntings revolve around a well-loved janitor, who in 1963, allegedly took his own life somewhere on school grounds. She says after some of her own investigations, like searching out a copy of his death certificate, she thinks the stories are true. 

“And that kind of confirmed the rumors that I'd heard for years, that there was a janitor that had died, how he died, when he died, all that stuff,” she says. “But the rumor had been, ‘oh, he died in the band room. Oh, he died in a shed behind the band room. Oh, he died in a tree out front.’ And so we've been trying to confirm this.”

Leonard says she wanted to dig deeper into the janitor’s story so she and others could respect the person’s life and what he meant to the school.

“It's honoring this man and the sadness that it took for him to do this and what happened to him,” Leonard says. “And so that's why we do this.”

Leonard says another reason she likes how RTL works is they teach how not to provoke a spirit. 

“You don't insult them. You're not rude. You're here to learn about them. See if you can gather anything from their story and respect who they were as a person,” she says.

Surrounded by upended tables, chairs and stage risers, about 15 people – including Preservarti and Stephenson – are milling around the band room. Some investigators are fumbling with their paranormal equipment in the dark, many on an app that claims it can pick up sounds from beyond.

While the main group continues listening for sounds and using dowsing rods to ask spirits questions, Preservarti and Stephenson have wandered into the home ec room — filled with ovens pulled away from the walls and broken cooking equipment — after hearing some noises. 

“She picked up a figure about five minutes ago,” Stephenson says, pointing to Preservati who’s using a thermal imaging camera.

The camera maps out human figures, plotting a series of dots and lines that sort of resemble a stick figure. They became popular among paranormal investigators after gaming users reported the cameras, used to track player movement in certain games, would detect a second player when no one else was in the room.

Using a data logger, Stephenson notes that inside the room, the temperature has dropped to 66 degrees. 

  “What we try to do is combine the data,” Stephenson says. “A lot of times, we’ll have several devices going off at the same time and that just gives us confirmation that it’s not an anomaly.”

Using metal dowsing rods, which people have used for centuries to locate water sources, Preservati begins asking questions to whatever spirit may be in the room.

“For me, it’s very, very effective, '' she whispers, describing how the rods move when a question is asked. “[For] yes responses, they’ll usually cross. No, they’ll stay neutral or fan out in the opposite direction.”

Preservati says for her, the rods sometimes twirl depending on if a male or female energy is present. She says if it twirls in her right hand, it’s a male, in her left, a female. “It’s just something you can’t duplicate. It’s just amazing to watch,” she says.

After a series of questions, the pair determine the janitor is in the home ec room. Both ask the spirit  repeatedly to show itself until Stepenson accidentally steps on some broken glass and then…

“Did you see that? First time it’s picked up anything,” Stephenson says, indicating that a stick figure has appeared on the screen. The stick figure comes and goes intermittently.

“Sir, thank you for showing yourself, I really do appreciate that,” she says. 

Using the dowsing rods, Preservati continues to ask questions: “Are you alone?” The dowsing rods cross, indicating a yes. “Where are you?” At this, both rods point toward a spot.

“It was over here, but he was laying on the ground where all the glass was, which is kind of odd,” Stephenson says.

“There he is,” Preservati says as the stick figure returns to the screen.

“Isn’t that cool?” Stephenson says. “But he’s on the floor, laying on the glass and that makes me nervous.”

“It’s the janitor. The janitor is probably cleaning up the glass,” says Preservati, who then indicates it’s a “hard yes” because her dowsing rods are moving. 

“I said it was a mess, and I stepped on it,” Stephenson says.

“And look, he pointed to you,” Preservati says .

“Oh my God. Thank you so much. I’m getting chills right now, like legit,” Stephenson says.

Back in the auditorium, Preservati says she thinks there’s a reason she and Stephenson stepped away from their group.

“I think it wanted us to kind of get away, so it could kind of talk to us in private,” she says. “But I thought that was really cool because we were using multiple pieces of equipment. And it was responding when we were asking it to respond. And that's very unusual and highly unlikely for anything like that to happen.”

Preservati says it’s the respect they show to spirits, in not trying to provoke them in any way, that has led to some of their best investigations.

“When her and I get together, we always have success,” Stephenson says. 

The group of 50 people continue going from room to room on the lower level, using high tech equipment and looking for other spirits to respond until 1 in the morning. Many, says Leonard, will come back when she puts on another paranormal event. Others will follow RTL to their next event, hoping to come in contact with the spirit world.


Ian M. Stewart is the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.