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Los Angeles Times

An undead art walk

Nighttime fell quietly in Laguna Beach on Saturday.

The lilt of conversations at Las Brisas and Heisler Park mingled with the hum of crashing waves, gently piercing the dark. A salty breeze wound its way down Cliff Drive, while inside the Laguna Art Museum, Christopher Turner urged Anna Hills to communicate with him.

A plein air painter, Hills played a key role in the establishment of the Laguna Beach Art Assn. in 1918 and served as its president for six years. She was 48 at the time of her death in 1930.

Turner, a leader of The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) West Coast, was accompanied by fellow members Julie Muramoto and Chad Weber. Accoutered with high-definition Sony infrared cameras, audio recorders, motion sensors and flashlights, the trio tried to ascertain if the building, which became home to the museum in 1972, bespoke the presence of spirits or energies.

Unlike his counterparts, Turner, is a self-proclaimed skeptic. He discovered TAPS on "Ghost Hunters," a reality TV series that premiered on Syfy in 2004 and is now in its ninth season. With more than 15 years of engineering experience, he was taken by the group's use of scientific research, equipment and techniques.

"I think the thing that really interested me in the paranormal is that it's a new frontier," said the Huntington Beach resident. "Nobody can say, 'I'm an expert.' Nobody can say, 'I'm better than you.' Nobody can say, 'My methods are better than yours.'"

According to Turner, TAPS, which was founded by Jason Hawes in 1990, seeks to explain "abnormal activity within a normal environment." It's surprising, he said, to learn just how many people have witnessed doors close by themselves, seen a disembodied shadow or heard footsteps where there shouldn't be any.

Sometimes, investigators determine that a creepy, late-night creak is only an old house settling. Otherwise, environmental factors don't add up, leading them on a search for the energy of a human being who is no longer alive but might have once been associated with the property.

The organization's website states that it receives thousands of requests daily, with residential cases forming the bulk, but it was Turner who approached the Laguna Art Museum. In Turner's experience, people who work in places that boast lengthy histories often have paranormal experiences.

Unfortunately, these stories mostly stay in the lunchroom, never making it to the management level. So he sent the museum staff an introductory email about TAPS West Coast's free services and instantly piqued their interest.

Director of Operations Tim Schwab recalled working late one night about eight years ago. Jaya, his 6-year-old Jindo, was keeping him company, sprawled outside his ground-floor office facing the elevator.

"All of a sudden, he got up and started walking toward the corner in kind of a crouched position," Schwab recounted. "Then all the hair stood up on his back and he started growling in a low, guttural way."

It took two tries to make the dog snap out of it. Though he has watched his pet react to other dogs, strangers and even kites and balloons, Schwab, of Irvine, said he hadn't seen that type of behavior in the animal before. He added that a conversation with Mike Stice, then the museum's chief of security, revealed that a psychic who stopped by to use the restrooms reported feeling "a really big presence."

Janet Blake, curator of historical art, offered some historical context. She remarked that different sections of the museum date back to different periods. It was expanded first in 1951, bringing in an office wing, a second-floor classroom, a new skylight and more. Remodeled once again in 1986, the venue gained a balcony gallery, new exhibition space on the main level and another small room on the lowest floor.

In 1934, patrons contributed $1.50 each toward the completion of the construction of the lowest floor. In return, their names were stamped into square tiles, some of which are still visible while others are hidden beneath newly added portions of the building. Association members, art enthusiasts and the likes of William Wendt and Edgar Payne were among these people.

Although admitting she is not a believer, Blake speculated that the museum's location on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the fact that Native Americans could have died there might have appealed to TAPS.

Payne was one of the names that Muramoto called out, shrouded in pitch-black darkness, in the museum's lower level gallery, near Schwab's office. She joined Weber, of Orange, and Turner in introducing herself and stating that they meant no harm — all they desired was to communicate.

"Are you a female or male?" Turner asked.

"Were you an artist?" Weber offered. "If you're here, could you give us a sign? If you're not shy, feel free to touch my arm."

"Is there anyone in this room with us?" asked Muramoto, who lives in Tustin. "I heard the elevator likes to go up and down on its own. Is that something you do?"

There was no response. The motion detectors and flashlights remained dark.

Upstairs, though, in the Steele Gallery where Wayne Thiebaud's paintings of plastic flowers, stuffed toys, sweets and suckers are showcased, a different scenario was playing out.

The trio placed flashlights on furniture around the room during multiple hourlong sessions throughout the night. Question after question was posed and the torches, placed well out of the occupants' reach, fluttered on.

"There we go," Muramoto murmured, followed by Turner: "We see that you can turn on that one. Can you turn on the pink one now?"

The pink one failed to glow, but other flashlights flickered a few times until the penultimate investigation.

Scattered across the room, the TAPS members spoke softly among themselves — sometimes, the spirits like to add to the conversations, Muramoto said — when what sounded like a distinct but quick "Uh" was heard and recorded.

A visibly rattled Weber retired to the museum's conference room to upload the audio clip to his computer. He and his colleagues plan to review all the accumulated footage before returning to the museum with their findings in about 2 1/2 weeks.

Returning to the same space one last time before wrapping up, Turner requested that Hills make a noise or turn on a flashlight or roll it off a chair.

Once again, the flashlight blinked to life, to which he responded, "It's showtime."

"He's haunted," Weber said. Muramoto agreed, adding, "He's a ghost whisperer."

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