Rumor had it that the Newton Daily News building was haunted.
Stories of footsteps echoing in an empty lobby, light bulbs burning out soon after being replaced and doors mysteriously closing, untouched, had gone unexplained for years.
With Halloween just around the corner, however, we at the Daily News decided perhaps it was time to take a closer look at these phenomena, all while having a little spooky fun in the process.
Enter the Jasper County Paranormal Idealist, a team of seven investigators from around the county dedicated to picking up on paranormal activity in cemeteries, homes and businesses, among other places.
On the evening of Oct. 20, JCPI teamed up with a handful of Daily News staff for an all-night stakeout, armed with flashlights, cameras and audio equipment. For five hours, the team explored every corner of the Daily News building, from the printing presses to the boiler room, for any evidence of a paranormal presence.
An investigation this in-depth, however, isn’t something you can just wing — JCPI founders A.J. and Mollie Winningham along with co-founder Brandon Bergfeld have nearly 10 years of combined experience in pursuing the paranormal.
“In 2010 we decided to form our own team,” Mollie said.
“We slowly added people, but it’s an expensive process to build a team up,” A.J. added.
The team, which began as the threesome, has since brought four new members on board in researcher Beth Blacksmith, lead video Harold Waits and investigators Russ Blacksmith and Bobby Sanders.
It’s an overcast Saturday night as the members of JCPI file into the NDN building on the corner of First Avenue and East Second Street North for a complete tour.
Led by our editorial staff, they snake though each corridor of the brick building, built in 1921 specifically to house the newspaper, Waits with a camcorder on his shoulder and Bergfeld armed with a digital camera.
In addition to visual evidence, the team records audio throughout the night for later analysis, as it’s often difficult to discern certain sounds immediately and in-person. It’s clear, however, when reviewing the tracks, that something audible took the investigators by surprise.
Aside from the startled outbursts of “What was that?” that pepper the audio samples, much is hard to make out in the original tracks.
“I like to keep the audio as original as possible,” Mollie says.
“But sometimes you have to edit them,” A.J. adds.
Oftentimes, the team must reduce background noise and amplify certain portions of a track to make each EVP — electronic voice phenomenon — more clear.
She plays a track for us, recorded in the lobby of the Daily News building.
“Did you hear that?” she says. “It said, ‘get out of here.’”
Bergfeld and the Winninghams’ interest in paranormal activity began with more than just a simple curiosity; in fact, each of the three founders detailed personal experiences that spurred them to delve further into paranormal investigations.
“I grew up with it most of my life,” said Mollie. “The apparitions, the shadows, the things being messed with, things disappearing ... so I guess I grew up with it, but he didn’t believe it until he moved in with me,” she said of A.J.
“I woke up to an apparition watching me sleep on the couch,” he added.
Bergfeld’s experience with the occult is equally chilling.
“I lived in Des Moines and was probably about 16 years old and I had heard stories about my cousins’ house being haunted,” Bergfeld said. “There was an old man that passed away, and his wife went out back into the shed and turned the car on and killed herself, and she would appear in the doorway of the kitchen.
“It was a really hot day, and there was no air conditioning and all the sudden it got really cold and I turned around and there she was standing in the doorway,” he said.
It’s nearly 11 p.m. as half the investigation team finishes up a session in the Daily News’ basement, which houses printing equipment. Just as they turn to walk away, they hear a loud crash. Flashlights pop on and illuminate a metal dolly, tipped over near the rear basement door.
“We saw it sitting there on the tour at the beginning and we had just finished a session by the elevator,” Bergfeld explains. “We were a good 10 or 15 feet away from it when we heard it.”
“The dolly came across the hallway and slammed at us. It was a bit of a Scooby-Doo moment ... I think all three of our feet left the ground,” A.J. laughs.
As quickly as possible, the investigators snap photo after photo of the basement, hoping to catch any evidence on film.
“That was right after the dolly got knocked over,” Mollie explains, pointing to an ominous orb in one of the team’s photos. “You have eyes, you have a nose and you have a mouth — you can see the facial features.”
She pulls up the next image, taken seconds later, which depicts a much smaller anomaly: “The little orb just shot out the door,” she says.
While the evening at the Daily News marked the group’s first investigation in Newton, they’ve been all over the state in the past three years. From cemeteries in Des Moines to the Squirrel Cage Jail in Council Bluffs, they’re always willing to take on new investigations.
Despite this zeal, JCPI is often met with opposition.
“We hear ‘no’ quite a bit, especially in Jasper County, more than other counties,” Mollie said. “That’s usually why we go out (to other counties) because it’s so hard in Jasper County.”
“They either don’t want to believe it or they’re not open to it,” A.J. added. “There are a lot of skeptics.”
What proves to be an eventful night comes to a close for the JCPI investigators as the clock nears 2 a.m. The evening, however, would not be complete without one last exercise.
Throughout the evening, the team had conducted question-and-answer sessions with the alleged spirits in an effort to further understand any evidence of paranormal activity in the building.
“We loosen up the flashlight where just barely touching will set it off,” Mollie said. “So we’d sit there and ask questions and they’d respond back.”
The flashlight remains on the floor in the Daily News break room, casting an eerie light on the faces of the JCPI crew.
“Toward the end of the night we were all just sitting there messing around, and if we’d start laughing the light would go off,” Mollie explains. “(The spirits) enjoyed the laughing and enjoyed the joking, they weren’t angry.”
“They’re not here to hurt anybody. I think, honestly, just keep joking with them,” Bergfeld adds.
In the end, the JCPI serves as a means of engaging and informing those within Jasper County interested in paranormal occurrences, as well as offering plenty of entertainment to the seven members involved.
“Our idea is basically to prove or disprove anyone’s ideas about anything going on in their area — preferably prove because we love finding evidence,” said A.J.
“We’re just out to help other people have a better understanding,” added Bergfeld.
“The first part of the night we’re always serious and it’s all business, but toward the end of the night we have our fun,” Mollie said.
“It’s kind of like fishing,” she said. “You either catch something or you don’t.”
In this case, JCPI’s findings will stick with them for a long time.
“We weren’t expecting (to find anything), it took us all by surprise,” Mollie said.
“We don’t look at the place the same way driving by anymore,” A.J. added.