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A Ghost of a Chance for a Spirited Encounter in San Juan Capistrano

October 27, 2003|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

The ghost story: A newspaper reporter researching ghosts in Orange County asks local Native Americans for permission to visit an ancient tribal cemetery, reputed to be the spookiest place around. They say no, it's hallowed ground, and forbid him to pass beyond the graveyard's locked gate.

He goes anyway, climbing a fence after midnight to get in. They find him the next day -- dead of a heart attack -- his face contorted in fear, with fingernails bloodied in an apparent attempt to escape.

The real story: The reporter gets there at midnight but is way too scared to climb the fence. The cemetery's reputation for spookiness, he discovers, is well-deserved. He cowers in his car.


There's something odd about the light in San Juan Capistrano, birthplace of modern Orange County and home to its ghostliest haunts. At dusk it seems all wrong; there's too much contrast between white and black, an eerie condition that bathes everything in a hue of unreality like a jerky old movie.

The effect is especially evident in the historic Los Rios district, next to the railroad tracks on the edge of town. One of the oldest neighborhoods in California, it is here in a village of adobe huts that workers and parishioners of Mission San Juan Capistrano -- built in 1776 by Spanish padres -- lived for generations. It is also here that a spirit called the white lady is said to reside.

She's "an elusive ghost," Pamela Hallan-Gibson, now interim city manager, wrote in the 1983 book "Ghosts and Legends of San Juan Capistrano." "She is young and pretty with long black hair and a seductive smile. She wears a long, white dress that ends in mist around her feet, and she moves with ease to different sections of the town."

Hallan-Gibson associated the white lady with a young girl who, she wrote, took strychnine in the 1890s and died on the front porch of the home of a lover who'd jilted her. Of course, she is but one among dozens of spirits who, locals say, haunt this area.

In mission times, according to legend, another young beauty named La Llorona gave birth to many illegitimate children. Without the financial means to care for them, she drowned them in the river. Today, the legend goes, she wanders the banks of Trabuco Creek late at night, crying with the wind as she searches in anguish for her murdered little ones.

The spirit of Polonia Montanez, once the village midwife and religious teacher, is said to haunt the adobe she inhabited before the turn of the 20th century.

And a cigar-smoking ghost referred to as George -- dressed in a plaid shirt, khaki pants and leather hat -- is reported to have tormented the former owner of the old Forster Mansion on Ortega Highway right up through the late 1980s.

Not everyone in town, of course, believes these tales.

Jose Rojas, 44, has lived here for 23 years and never seen a specter. "I ride my bike through Los Rios all the time," he says, "and I've never seen a ghost. This is a nice area, with good people here."

Miriam Zuniga, 16, and her 45-year-old father, Angel, frequently walk through Los Rios as well. "We've never seen a ghost," she reports, "and it's usually very calm."

Ah, but then the shadow of a doubt crosses Angel Zuniga's face. Well, he says hesitatingly in Spanish as his daughter translates, though it's true that he's never seen a ghost in San Juan Capistrano, he did encounter a spirit back home in Mexico: a devil in a tree.

Suddenly it's as if the floodgates have opened and everyone has something to tell.

A 50-year-old man who won't give his name reports that his brother-in-law once heard the footsteps of a ghost in Serra Chapel, reputed to be California's oldest building and the only church still standing where mission-founder Father Junipero Serra said Mass.

"Most of the ghosts are around the mission," the man says. "Even the priests talk about it. Everyone I know is afraid of that place -- you don't want to be caught there [at night]."

Unless, of course, you're Bill Greenlee, 54, who grew up in Los Rios and says he has encountered ghosts most of his life. "There used to be one that came through every night at midnight in high heels," he recalls of the 15 years he spent living in a historic adobe. Though he could clearly hear her shoes clomping on the pavement outside his window, Greenlee says, he'd go look and "nobody was there."

Later, he says, he saw "a black dog with red eyes and a big chain. They called him the devil dog."

And on two occasions, Greenlee says, "I saw an old Indian. I threw my pillow and it went right through the guy."

All that, however, was a long time ago.

"They don't come out like they used to," he says of the spirits. . "I guess there are too many people moving in. Now that they've opened all the restaurants, the ghosts hardly ever come out -- it's been years since I've seen one."

So what does he recommend as the most likely stamping grounds for spirits of today?

"The Old Mission Cemetery," Greenlee says without hesitation. "Hardly anyone goes up there."

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