A Ghost of a Chance for a Spirited Encounter in San Juan Capistrano

Times Staff Writer

The ghost story: A newspaper reporter researching ghosts in Orange County asks local Native Americans for permission to visit an ancient tribal cemetery, reputed to be the spookiest place around. They say no, it’s hallowed ground, and forbid him to pass beyond the graveyard’s locked gate.

He goes anyway, climbing a fence after midnight to get in. They find him the next day -- dead of a heart attack -- his face contorted in fear, with fingernails bloodied in an apparent attempt to escape.

The real story: The reporter gets there at midnight but is way too scared to climb the fence. The cemetery’s reputation for spookiness, he discovers, is well-deserved. He cowers in his car.


There’s something odd about the light in San Juan Capistrano, birthplace of modern Orange County and home to its ghostliest haunts. At dusk it seems all wrong; there’s too much contrast between white and black, an eerie condition that bathes everything in a hue of unreality like a jerky old movie.

The effect is especially evident in the historic Los Rios district, next to the railroad tracks on the edge of town. One of the oldest neighborhoods in California, it is here in a village of adobe huts that workers and parishioners of Mission San Juan Capistrano -- built in 1776 by Spanish padres -- lived for generations. It is also here that a spirit called the white lady is said to reside.


She’s “an elusive ghost,” Pamela Hallan-Gibson, now interim city manager, wrote in the 1983 book “Ghosts and Legends of San Juan Capistrano.” “She is young and pretty with long black hair and a seductive smile. She wears a long, white dress that ends in mist around her feet, and she moves with ease to different sections of the town.”

Hallan-Gibson associated the white lady with a young girl who, she wrote, took strychnine in the 1890s and died on the front porch of the home of a lover who’d jilted her. Of course, she is but one among dozens of spirits who, locals say, haunt this area.

In mission times, according to legend, another young beauty named La Llorona gave birth to many illegitimate children. Without the financial means to care for them, she drowned them in the river. Today, the legend goes, she wanders the banks of Trabuco Creek late at night, crying with the wind as she searches in anguish for her murdered little ones.

The spirit of Polonia Montanez, once the village midwife and religious teacher, is said to haunt the adobe she inhabited before the turn of the 20th century.

And a cigar-smoking ghost referred to as George -- dressed in a plaid shirt, khaki pants and leather hat -- is reported to have tormented the former owner of the old Forster Mansion on Ortega Highway right up through the late 1980s.

Not everyone in town, of course, believes these tales.

Jose Rojas, 44, has lived here for 23 years and never seen a specter. “I ride my bike through Los Rios all the time,” he says, “and I’ve never seen a ghost. This is a nice area, with good people here.”

Miriam Zuniga, 16, and her 45-year-old father, Angel, frequently walk through Los Rios as well. “We’ve never seen a ghost,” she reports, “and it’s usually very calm.”

Ah, but then the shadow of a doubt crosses Angel Zuniga’s face. Well, he says hesitatingly in Spanish as his daughter translates, though it’s true that he’s never seen a ghost in San Juan Capistrano, he did encounter a spirit back home in Mexico: a devil in a tree.

Suddenly it’s as if the floodgates have opened and everyone has something to tell.

A 50-year-old man who won’t give his name reports that his brother-in-law once heard the footsteps of a ghost in Serra Chapel, reputed to be California’s oldest building and the only church still standing where mission-founder Father Junipero Serra said Mass.

“Most of the ghosts are around the mission,” the man says. “Even the priests talk about it. Everyone I know is afraid of that place -- you don’t want to be caught there [at night].”

Unless, of course, you’re Bill Greenlee, 54, who grew up in Los Rios and says he has encountered ghosts most of his life. “There used to be one that came through every night at midnight in high heels,” he recalls of the 15 years he spent living in a historic adobe. Though he could clearly hear her shoes clomping on the pavement outside his window, Greenlee says, he’d go look and “nobody was there.”

Later, he says, he saw “a black dog with red eyes and a big chain. They called him the devil dog.”

And on two occasions, Greenlee says, “I saw an old Indian. I threw my pillow and it went right through the guy.”

All that, however, was a long time ago.

“They don’t come out like they used to,” he says of the spirits. . “I guess there are too many people moving in. Now that they’ve opened all the restaurants, the ghosts hardly ever come out -- it’s been years since I’ve seen one.”

So what does he recommend as the most likely stamping grounds for spirits of today?

“The Old Mission Cemetery,” Greenlee says without hesitation. “Hardly anyone goes up there.”

The reason, it turns out, is that not many know where it is. Operated by the mission on behalf of the local Juaneno band of Indians, the cemetery is considered hallowed ground available for burial only to Native Americans or members of early pioneer families who settled San Juan Capistrano.

“It’s very sacred to us as Native American peoples,” says Jerry Nieblas, speaking for the local Juaneno families.

An Indian burial ground since the early 1800s, the cemetery -- on a hill that once commanded a view of the ocean overlooking what is now Ortega Highway about a quarter mile east of town -- was first used by the missionaries in 1862 during a smallpox epidemic that claimed 300 souls. Since then, Nieblas says, hundreds more have been buried at the cemetery now shrouded by trees and walls in ceremonies combining Roman Catholic and Indian traditions.

In the late 1970s, Hallan-Gibson reports, a group of psychic researchers spent a night at the Old Mission Cemetery with a tape recorder running. They seemed to encounter nothing, she writes, but upon listening to the tape the next morning they heard two voices forever engraved on its magnetic tracks: that of a man saying in a sharp whisper, “Ha. I want to tell you my name,” and one of a young boy saying, “I’m scared.”

Nonetheless, Nieblas tells a would-be visitor now, “because of the sacredness of the area, we would rather you not go in at this time. We’ve had everything from a satanic seance up there to major headstones vandalized.”

A surreptitious glance over the battered chain-link fence reveals why.

During the day, the cemetery seems peaceful, featuring -- in addition to dozens of simple white crosses marking the graves of unnamed mission Indians -- innumerable large granite headstones bearing such historic San Juan names as Yorba, Forster, Rios and Lobo.

Late at night, however, there’s a decidedly different atmosphere. Barely visible in the light of a dim moon, the forbidden cemetery -- behind a padlocked gate out of view and unmarked from the highway -- seems ominous and foreboding. Shadows seem to move to a beat of their own. Faint flickers of light flutter from grave to grave like reflections of distant flashlights in unseen hands. And a low crackling rumble sounds like clapping thunder in a sky that bears no storm.

It’s enough to make the hairs on your neck stand up. Your imagination running away with you? Your eyes and ears playing tricks? Probably, but one thing is clear: There’s no way this fence will be climbed tonight. Not today, not tomorrow. And certainly not any time near Halloween.