Whaley House, built in Greek Revival style, commands a section of San Diego… (Jay Jones )
Reporting from San Diego — — The dispatch to the 2400 block of San Diego Avenue was in response to a 911 call. A concerned citizen had reported that a woman was crying outside the historic Whaley House Museum.
The responding police officer will never forget that eerie evening nearly 30 years ago. It was the night he saw a ghost — something he didn't talk about for decades.
The officer "came onto the property — I believe he was by himself — and there was a woman at the back of the house crying," recalled Victor Santana, a museum manager who read the confidential letter the officer wrote after his retirement.
He said "she was in period clothing," Santana continued. "He asked, 'Ma'am, are you all right?' She turned around and smiled."
But, according to Santana's recollection, as the officer shone his flashlight on her, the woman vanished.
At least one other on-duty officer, as well as countless guests to the home, claim to have come face to face with otherworldly apparitions. Here, there is no need for animatronics and gory greasepaint found this time of year at Southern California theme parks. The spirits, some say, are very real.
"You have to have an experience yourself to start questioning your beliefs," said Maritza Skandunas, who, as a member of San Diego Ghost Hunters, leads visitors on after-dark searches for the spirits of early San Diegans Thomas and Anna Whaley and their children.
Over the decades, the house served not only as the family's home but also as a courthouse, general store and theater. All of these are accurately depicted in various rooms of the Greek Revival-style house, completed in 1857. But it's the idea of seeing the home's long-dead residents that draws many of the 100,000 or so annual visitors to this Old Town San Diego museum.
"They see things. They get touched. They hear things in real time. It's a really active house," Skandunas said.
She added that she and her fellow ghost hunters have identified many of the spirits by name. Sometimes, they hear their voices.
Santana, the museum's director of interpretive services, is among those who say they have heard voices, apparently from the other side. He was still in high school, working as a docent, when he had his first supernatural encounter at the house.
"As I was setting the alarm code, I heard a woman's voice say, 'Why are you here?'" he recalled. "That really scared me to the point that I ran out the front door without completing the code."
As the alarm's siren blared, another San Diego police officer responded to the Whaley House.
"He claimed there was a woman in a green dress in the parlor," Santana said.
"This lady works here, doesn't she?" he remembered the officer asking him. By the time backup arrived, the woman in green had disappeared.
The ghosts are said to be particularly prominent in late October.
"It's supposed to be the time that the veil gets very thin between the two worlds," ghost hunter Skandunas said.
"It goes back through history that that's when the spirit world is more active. We have people who come out with the weirdest pictures. They hear things. Their hair gets pulled.
"Mr. Whaley loves to smoke a pipe or a cigar. When he's around, he likes to come up to the young women on the tours. He'll blow sweet tobacco smoke right in their faces."
Neither Skandunas nor Santana can say with certainty why the Whaleys and their neighbors might linger.
"They just don't want to move on," Skandunas said.
"They make that choice to stay."