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Spirits aren't always attached to the creepiest old building in town
by Amy Starnes

IN THE MIDDLE OF AN ORANGE-TINTED October day, as the Lake Erie wind gains enough chill to make you wrap your jacket even tighter, Sonya Horstman walks slowly toward a Cleveland street so busy it squeals under the weight of all its traffic.

Her long dark hair rides the shifting breeze around her. At the edge of West 25th Street, near Detroit Avenue and St. Malachi Roman Catholic Church, Horstman suddenly leans back and then steps back.

Was it a bomb? she asks turning back toward the safety of the sidewalk. I'm sensing a bomb.

She pauses. He didn't know it was coming. He had no clue.

What Horstman, known around Cleveland more commonly as Psychic Sonya, didn't know at the time was that she had been driven to the location where notorious Cleveland mobster Alex Shondor Birns turned the key on his Lincoln Continental one spring night in 1975. Pieces of him reportedly fell at St. Malachi.

Sonya had only been told she was in the general location where a terrible crime killed someone who was not so nice.

She explains her sense: the evil, the force, the energy, the whatever-you-want-to-call-it that's created when something bad happens to someone seeps into the ground like fresh blood. It's impossible to erase. Neither time nor new asphalt, fresh parking spaces nor even the constant roar of daily life can pull that stain from the earth.

I was able to pick it up. It will always be here, she says, returning to the quiet and warmth of a nearby car.

THE COMMON GHOST STORY or spirit tale, the reports of cold rooms or of hair-raising chills, seem to be most often attached with the creepiest old house on the block. It's as if ghosts come packaged with the 100-year-old mansion, its wall-climbing ivy and rickety wrought iron gates.

Why are there no ghost stories about an average street corner? The laundromat? The convenience store? To our knowledge there's not yet a tale about the mobster's ghost haunting a Cleveland corner. And Sonya, who didn't know where she was being taken before arriving at Detroit and 25th, notes that she didn't feel Shondor's or anyone else's presence on the street, other than the negative residual energy.

But the psychic asserts that if the mobster did not cross over into the light, he certainly could visit Detroit and 25th if he wished or his favorite nightspot or his former home.

Sonya, who calls herself one of Cleveland's top paranormal investigators, believes spirits can choose to stay on Earth rather than moving through the light when they die. Some dead feel they can't leave because something horrible has happened to them. Some can't bear to leave children or a loved one. Others, ?la The Sixth Sense , don't seem to understand they're dead, she says.

But once they're here, they have free will, Sonya claims. They're not stuck where they died or where they lived. They can venture where they wish; even follow a stranger home, she says.

SONYA'S BELIEFS MAY BE BACKED up by Mitch Tolliver's somewhat scientific findings.

Tolliver heads up Spiritseekers of Ohio, a Rittman-based group that uses cameras, video recorders, voice recorders and eloctromagnetic readings to determine if something supernatural is haunting a cemetery, a park, a prison or someone's house.

Tolliver says the group has visited Cuyahoga Valley National Park several times because of Indian legends there. On the most recent trip, he says he had left his tape recorder on as the group was walking out, when suddenly he felt something come up behind him, and he thought he heard something. Others denied hearing anything, but when Tolliver got home and listened to that part of the tape, he heard what sounded like someone running on gravel, though no one in the group had been running.

When Tolliver started the group about seven years ago, he didn't believe in ghosts. Camera spots could be dust, he says. A rattling door could be from a drafty window. But what convinced him were the EVPs, ghostbuster speak for electronic voice phenomena. He says the recording to this day that gives him chills was captured as he and his sister walked quietly though the children's portion of a cemetery.

Later on his tape: There was a child's giggle, plain as day. There was no child around.

Tolliver, now, is trying to move his group out of parks and cemeteries and toward home investigations. He says the group does about two or three a month. They do in- depth interviews before accepting a case, and they attack each supposed haunting by trying to eliminate any natural cause.

Tolliver says the group finds evidence of supernatural presence in only about 30 percent of the cases.

The creepiest place in Cleveland, to Sonya, in fact, is not just one old building but an entire section of street.

Asked where she gets the nastiest vibes, Sonya quickly answers, The street of Franklin, by the Franklin Castle; that whole street, that whole sector.

She says not only is the 1860 home the cause of the creep factor, but so is a nearby hospital.

The castle, built by German immigrant Hannes Tiedemann, has several ghost stories attached to it, including stories about Hannes himself, and even of a young girl supposedly found hanging in the home's rafters before 1900. After 1913, the building spent 55 years as a gathering place for the German Socialist Party. It then passed through several families' hands as an intended home. The last few homeowners spent large amounts of money attempting to restore it, but in 1999, the house was gutted by arson. Charles Milsaps, the building's new owner, intends to restore it to its original interior design and use the building for a private dinner club.

Sonya, however, claims the building is cursed. She wishes Milsaps well, but says she's afraid he won't escape the curse.

It had so much death inside there that it creates a curse when you desecrate a body or mistreat a body, she says. Nobody's ever been able to make anything out of it. It's got a real unsettled history.

Milsaps says he doesn't think the house is cursed. Restoration is about 18 months behind schedule (the building is set to open in fall 2005), but he says, No, we have not had any cursed things happen to us.

Sonya often pays her respects to Chief Joc-O-Sot, the Sauk warrior buried here.

SONYA SPEAKS MATTER-OF-FACTLY about the spirits. To her, there is no question that they exist; there's no doubt that they rush up to her in certain buildings because they know she is a seer of their kind.

A single mother from Oberlin, Sonya supports herself by working full-time as a psychic. She classifies herself as clairvoyant one who sees, feels or senses not only spirits but auras and energies off other people rather than a psychic medium, who may predict the future or summon the dead to speak from the other side. She is often heard on radio shows, generally through the month of October and hosts Haunted Cleveland Tours, in which she takes groups three times a week to Cleveland-area buildings and spots where ghosts have been alleged to roam.

She charges for her readings and tours, but can't bring herself to collect for her other occasional service: ghostbusting. For a family or a home plagued by a spirit that's lost its way, Sonya says she can communicate with it and implore it to find the light and move on. She says she doesn't ask questions, and she doesn't want to know the spirit's story. In fact, she avoids it.

I know it sounds odd, but I really don't care what they were or what they did or what their problem was, she says. The point of why I'm here is you've gotta go.'

She also doesn't hound the police about her feelings or knowledge. For example, she says there's a young boy buried in a barn in Medina County. He's told her he was buried decades ago in winter a time when it was too hard to dig a grave anywhere else. He was supposed to be moved in the spring, but never was.

How can I go to the police and tell them I know this kid's buried there? He died in, like, 1900. But he's still hanging around the farm because his body hasn't been discovered, and I'm not going to be the one to do it.

Because if I did that I would be so responsible, and you know how many spirits would then come forward and bug me?

For more information:
Spiritseekers of Ohio: http://www.spiritseekersofohio.net
Haunted Cleveland Tours with Psychic Sonya: www.HauntedClevelandTours.com or 440-775-1217.