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Cathy Free: Friends seek out ghostly haunts

Published: Thursday, Oct. 28 2010 12:19 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY – With its boarded-up windows, crumbling brick walls and overgrown weeds, the old rock Cottonwood paper mill doesn't exactly give off warm vibes.

The pioneer-era landmark is downright creepy and that's just fine with Chad Nelson and his best friend, Billy Shields. The spookier the better has always been their motto. Now if only they could convince the mill's owner to unlock the front door and let them inside.

Preferably in the dark. With nobody else around. Sometime after midnight.

"The Old Mill is our dream – it's the Holy Grail for anybody who does what we do," says Nelson, 29, who along with Shields, 28, runs the Salt Lake Ghost Hunters Society, a group dedicated to investigating buildings rumored to be haunted.

"Nobody's been able to get permission to go inside for years, but we'd love to be the first," adds Shields, recalling stories he heard about the mill while he and Nelson were growing up in the East Millcreek area.

Legend has it that when a fire swept through the mill in the late 1800s, two transients and a dog died in the blaze, he says. "For years afterwards," adds Nelson, "people who worked there said they could hear a faint barking that they couldn't track down."

Shields grins. "We're hoping someday to take a tape recorder and video camera inside and see what we can find."

In the spirit of Halloween, he and Nelson were eager to share a few stories about their spirited hobby over a Free Lunch of pasta and salad at the Old Spaghetti Factory in Trolley Square – another historic landmark with a long list of legends.

"Our interest in this place has nothing to do with the tragic shootings that happened two years ago," says Shields. "We would never make light of such a terrible thing or want to disrespect the families of those who died. But there is a fascinating history here from the days when this place was a trolley barn."

It's the ideal place, he says, for a ghost "to feel comfortable."

Ghost hunters say the historic mall is home to a mysterious janitor who waxes the floors while whistling, then disappears, and a friendly spirit named "Walt" who used to hang out in the old movie theater.

It's nothing new to Shields, who says he grew up in a haunted World War II-era house with his bedroom in the basement.

"Crazy stuff would happen – chairs rolled across the floor on their own, footprints would show up outside my bedroom," he says. "Whenever my sister and I had to leave our rooms, we ran as fast as we could up the stairs."

When he met Nelson, who has a lifelong fascination with spooky stories, the pair became instant friends. Six years ago, looking for a new way to explore the creepy side of Utah, they started the Salt Lake Ghost Hunters Society.

"We get a lot of calls from people wanting us to get rid of ghosts," says Nelson, "but we would never mess with that. We only want to study them."

Thus far, the pair has investigated dozens of ghost sightings, from hauntings at a cattle ranch in Fort Duchesne to a "lady in white" in Memory Grove and a legendary spirit named "George" who is said to lurk around Salt Lake City's Capitol Theatre.

Their most hair-raising adventure was at the abandoned Ogden Exchange Building, where they picked up mist and shadowy figures on their video recorders and a few extra surprises on their tape recorders once they returned home.

"While I was listening to the tape, I distinctly heard a little girl singing 'Ring Around the Rosies,'"says Shields. "That's pretty creepy when you're sitting at your desk late at night, all alone." He pauses and laughs. "But I suppose if you're going to listen to the ramblings of a ghost, there is no better time than late at night."

Have a story? You do the talking, I'll buy the lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com.

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