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LOCAL HAUNTS : Historian Collects Tales of Ghostly Visitations, Headless Highway Riders

October 25, 1990|AURORA MACKEY ARMSTRONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They've appeared in the Old and New Testaments, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the Odyssey. They've provided inspiration for Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe. They have even starred in box office hits, leaving a trail of wealthy screenwriters and film producers behind them.

But ghosts, some Ventura County residents believe, are more than just literary fodder or fare for a midnight yarn. Reports abound of haunting happenings throughout the county.

"Nobody really knows what a ghost is because they all behave in such different ways," said Richard Senate, a historian at the Olivas Adobe in Ventura who has gained a reputation over the years as the county's unofficial ghost hunter. "One ghost in Oxnard was nothing more than a pipe smell. Another would only sing nursery rhymes. There is one on Old Creek Road that is headless," he said.

The products of overactive imaginations, hoaxes or hallucinations? Before you make up your mind, read the spirited accounts below.

Alice Doesn't Work Here Anymore

At first, Julie Reisenhoover, a maid at the Bella Maggiore Inn in downtown Ventura, paid little attention to some of the odd happenings around the 32-room hotel, built in 1927.

Several times when she was vacuuming the upstairs hallway, Reisenhoover said, she looked up and saw a shadow moving down the hallway. She heard the sound of jangling keys. Doors opened and closed by themselves.

But it was Room 17 that finally persuaded Reisenhoover it hadn't all been her imagination or someone playing tricks on her.

Although the deadbolts on the hotel room doors can only be turned from the inside, Reisenhoover and other maids said the deadbolt of Room 17 constantly locks itself when no guest is there. When the door is unlocked, they said, the scent of cheap rose perfume in the room is overpowering. Often, Reisenhoover added, someone's head will have left an impression on the pillow, even if no guest has checked into the room.

Once, Reisenhoover said, she opened the door to Room 17 and heard a 1940s song playing on the radio--as well as on every other station she turned to.

"Alice, another maid, told me she saw a woman dancing on the stairs and then just disappear," Reisenhoover said.

Several guests, according to Manager Tom Wood, also have noticed strange things at the hotel. "On one of our guest questionnaires, someone wrote that everything had been fine--except for the bar of soap that rose up and just flew through the air," Wood said.

Last year, Senate and a 14-member ghost-hunting team--made up of laymen, psychics and psychologists--stayed overnight to investigate the hotel. Senate said they knew nothing of specific events that reportedly had gone on there.

During the evening, psychics--who were in different parts of the hotel--independently came up with what they said were at least two different ghosts. One was a hippie named Mark, who supposedly had died of an overdose in the 1960s. Another was a young child.

In a seance that night, another psychic claimed to connect with the spirit of a woman who had a long story to tell. She said her name was Sylvia Michaels and was a prostitute from Atlantic City. She had hanged herself in Room 17 or 18 in 1947. At the time of her death, she was 23 years old. She likes men visitors at the hotel best.

"I think the rose perfume is Sylvia," Reisenhoover said. "And the 1940s music we hear, I think that's her, too."

Did the woman exist? Not according to local police, who have no record of a suicide at the hotel in 1947. Other local agencies also have no evidence of her existence.

"If the death did occur in Ventura County, we would have a certificate," said Sid Durham of the county recorder's office.

Wood, who went to law school before going into hotel management, said the lack of evidence doesn't bother him. During the 1940s, he said, the hotel was a "working-class flophouse" that would have attracted people like Sylvia. In the 1960s, before it was shut down for nearly 15 years, Wood said the hotel was a "counterculture hangout" for guests like Mark.

Besides, Wood added: "Not having any information on Sylvia kind of fits. If there was a mystery surrounding her death, it all would go hand-in-hand with her spirit still being here."

Meanwhile, ghostly stories at the hotel haven't died. Last week, an out-of-town visitor came to the front desk to drop off his key. According to the desk clerk, he'd had a strange night and had awakened several times.

Each time, he said, his room had been filled with the sickly sweet fragrance of cheap rose perfume.

Chocolate Mousse on Rye?

The two-story, blue and white building at 211 Santa Clara Ave. in Ventura has been reincarnated many times. First it was a family home and later a series of restaurants that survived for various lengths of time. In its current life, it is the Seafood and Beverage Company, a warmly decorated restaurant that has a staircase leading to what once were small bedrooms facing north and south.

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