Newton Daily News - Front Page Feature Article

Central Iowa group searches for paranormal phenomena


By Mike Mendenhall NDN Staff Writer

Created: Friday, November 25, 2011 11:29 a.m. CST


Vicki holds up 3 fingers to see if the spirit will tell correctly identify the number. Dani takes a photo and Randa, team member and homeowner of HillTop, listen to the 'Ghost Box' for answers.

During the business day shoppers at the Newton Hy-Vee might see him dressed in the tradition white shirt and tie, supervising employees, stocking shelves or assisting other customers, but at night Kris Doepp leaves the retail world for abandoned farm houses, salvage yards and even condemned prisons.

A shift manager by day, by night the 32-year-old is a paranormal investigator.

“I first got into it as a kid reading ghost stories,” Doepp said. “I’d have the Haunted Heartland books, reading about old haunted houses. My grandma Pat had a bunch of old Time-Life books on the paranormal, and when we’d go to Chicago to visit her it wasn’t cool to hang upstairs in the kitchen with grandma and grandpa, so we’d go down in the rec room and look through all these books. All the old ghost photos were in the books. I’d read these stories, and it got me completely intrigued with it.”

Beginning on his own two years ago with a common workshop headlamp and a digital voice recorder purchased at Walmart, Doepp recently joined the Supernatural Research Society of Iowa — a ghost-hunting team that investigates homes, dilapidated structures, bridges or anything that has known or suspected paranormal activity around the state.

If fact, three Newton investigators are part of the 10-person team, including residents Dani Rogers and Drew Claseman. The society is employed by business owners, home owners and renters to find evidence that their properties are indeed haunted.

Des Moines area historian and cemetery preservationist Vicki Stinson founded the group in 2008. She was disappointed with other groups that she says seem focused on the quantity, not quality of investigations.

Born on Halloween, she said that the paranormal is in her blood. She is aware of the perception some skeptics may have of a group that dabbles in an area ignored by mainstream science, but Stinson says a good recruit for the society needs to be open minded, analytical and have a passion for the paranormal. “And don’t be scared of the dark,” she said.

“We’re just as American as mom’s apple pie. They’re just normal people that don’t stand out in a crowd.”

In the last three months the society has investigated the shuttered Missouri State Penitentiary and a farm house in rural Newton. Doepp and Claseman have taken it upon themselves to investigate Car County Auto Wrecking on Newton’s southwest side. Besides a tattered doll that seems to be placed in a different car each time they visit the yard, the duo said they have both recorded strange voices from the salvage yard. What the paranormal community calls electronic voice phenomena (EVP), this is one of the main sources of evidence that investigators look for when attempting to prove a place has what they believe is true paranormal activity.

“For some reason, and I don’t know why, the early paranormal researchers found that ghosts are able to speak on a recording device,” Stinson said. “And you wouldn’t necessarily hear them with your own ear. But here again, don’t ask me how this happens. Listening for that voice, that noise that doesn’t belong in the conversation is the goal. If you’re catching steps walking down the hall and no body’s moving, who is doing it?”

The group’s most recent investigation was in what is considered by the paranormal community as one of the most haunted places in Iowa: Hilltop Manor in Des Moines’ Sherman Hill neighborhood.

The residence of group member Randa LeJeune, Hilltop is an old Victorian-style home built in the early part of the last century. It was moved from the Drake University neighborhood to its current location, the spot of an apartment fire that killed seven people in the 1970s. LeJeune says that two of the victims’ spirits inhabit the house, as well as the original owner — a minister by the name of Joseph who held contempt for sinful couples. Letting out her rooms for parties interested in the paranormal, the home owner says that no unmarried couple has been able to last an entire night in the minister’s bedroom

The Nov. 19 investigation was a windy night with a bite in the air. Stinson’s white SUV with a graphic decal reading “Mystery Machine” was parked outside. The pre-investigation preparation was nearly as extensive as the main event. Four members of the Society arrived that night attempting to find evidence of the specters.

Cases of equipment were opened on the floor in the parlor and dinning room. Laptops, parabolic microphones, camcorders, temperature gauges, electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors and two-way walkie-talkies were filled the luggage. Doepp walked the house, taking temperature readings and looking for leaky windows — anything that could contaminate their findings.

He says that although unconventional, the Society is very analytical and will rule out all other possibilities for an occurrence before they confirm it as evidence. Orbs, or spheres of light that appear in still photos, are difficult to verify Doepp explains. They can be created by the flash of a camera reflecting off of dust or the headlights a passing vehicle. Doepp looks for orbs that he believes could not have another possible light source.

The team archivist, Stinson, takes copious notes through the investigations — recording sounds of footsteps, objects they believed to have moved without living influence and sudden temperature changes.

At 10 p.m., the team locked itself in and prepared for “quiet time,” a part of the investigation when they sit in complete darkness, stay still and just listen to the house. Doepp moves two chess pieces on a board sitting in the foray. He places his recorder on the board before he goes upstairs to catch any potential EVP’s. The investigator hopes a spirit will rearrange the pieces in his absence.

After 15 minutes of quiet observations, the team reconvened in the dinning room. The chess pieces had not moved, and only slight noises were heard, so Stinson believed it was time to attempt to speak with the presences in the home. She pulls out what the Society dubs “The Ghost Box.” The device is essentially an AM radio that constantly scans through the band. Paranormal investigators believe that spirits can communicate through radio waves.

She had prepared questions typed out specific to Hilltop. The group surrounds the box and all introduced themselves. Stinson began talking to the spirits.

“Are any of the spirits here? Or the victims of the fire?” she asks. “Do you remember we’re just here to talk to you? We’re just here to help you.”

“I thought it said Vicki,” Rogers said.

During the session, Rogers and Doepp video record the area surrounding the box looking for moving objects, check for EMF changes and temperature differentials, but that night they came up dry.

Stinson explained that paranormal investigators have experiments that they conduct to bring out spirits, including introducing outside stimuli into the ghosts’ environments.

“If you’re dealing with a child spirit, we’ll try to do little things to bring out the spirit,” she said. “Things they would have enjoyed in life like a ball or a matchbox car that they would like to interact with even now. I we do it primarily so if they move it.”

The investigation continued throughout the night and into the morning. Stinson said that an investigation can last up to six hours, and a full report of their findings is always given to the home owner after they are complete. The group will spend hours going through their recordings looking for things not visible to the naked eye or audible to the human ear without their equipment.

“This is more than a hobby,” Stinson said. “If someone’s got the heart for it, it just comes out. They can’t hide it. They get all excited about it. It’s like men and football.”

For Doepp, the paranormal is a force at work that he hopes to one day be able to explain and add to people’s understanding.

“I just decided to do it one day,” he said. “I’ve been watching the ghost hunting shows for a while. I catch them every single week. And even though over time I’ve come to realized it’s TV — you can’t trust everything you see — but if these guys can do it why can’t I? It just kind of becomes an addiction. You just want to want to get better and better and better evidence. You get so excited the first time something shows up that you personally know that it’s not you or anybody with you. It’s kind of spine-chilling the first time you hear it.”

Mike Mendenhall can be contacted at 792-3121 ext. 422 or via e-mail at

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