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Spooky seers

(Originally published on Oct. 31, 2005) David Bender has a difficult and stressful job by day. He's a social worker.

But it's the work he does by night that truly challenges him. He's a ghost hunter.

Bender, 34, is co-founder of a nonprofit Sacramento group that will come to your home, office or any other spooky place and try to determine whether it's haunted.

The Sacramento-based American Paranormal Investigations is particularly busy come Halloween, when people begin to think about not only costumes and candy but ghosts and goblins. Some of the client calls turn out to be pranks, but many people are deathly concerned about things that go bump in the night.

Bender and several devoted volunteers, some with the apparent ability to sense the presence of spirits, have conducted about 30 investigations over the past 21/2 years.

Asked if Sacramento is a particularly hospitable place for ghosts, Bender smiles and says, "There is quite a history here."

Adds fellow ghost investigator Aaron Berry, "I think the Sacramento Valley is one of the most haunted places on the planet. I've seen two ghosts and a lot of things that couldn't be explained, things that shouldn't have happened. Our belief is ghosts are just misplaced people. It's rare that they're malicious or mean."

Berry, the 34-year-old father of three, started dabbling in the paranormal after the death of his father, Dale Berry, in 1999.

Bender's personal history led him to the world of ghosts years ago, growing up in Helena, Mont. He is one-quarter American Indian and says his late uncle was a medicine man who taught him traditional blessings and ceremonies.

"It was very common just talking about spirits as everyday things in my family," Bender said.

In the late 1990s, as his interest in ghosts grew, Bender began to assemble a basic ghost hunting kit, beginning with a camcorder, a thermometer and a flashlight.

At 6-foot-4 and solidly built, Bender wasn't necessarily afraid of seeking out haunted houses. But he grew ever more curious about what he sensed but could not see.

"I just wanted to find out what was out there," he said. "It was disappointing at first. There was a lot of trial and error."

In 2001, Bender moved to the Sacramento area for work. After hours, he sought out others who shared his passion for the paranormal.

He and Aaron Berry eventually started their own group, which quickly grew in membership. American Paranormal Investigations, or API, acquired more sophisticated equipment, including a night vision camcorder, laser thermal reader and an electromagnetic field meter. Tim Meunier, 26, usually sets up the equipment.

An aspiring filmmaker, Meunier became interested in ghost hunting after working on a documentary on the topic.

"It helps me validate things I couldn't explain," he said. "It's not for everyone, but I do think everyone likes a good ghost story."

Last year, API filled out the paperwork for nonprofit status. It does not charge for investigations, relying mostly on grants and donations.

Looking for ghosts usually means long hours, often working through the night. Afterward, someone has to watch hour after hour of deadly dull video footage, often simply of a chair or a bed.

They must be careful not to look away, lest they miss a brief appearance of a light or shadow that could be a ghost. "The best way to describe it is a ball of energy," Berry said.

Several of the investigations are documented at www.ap-investigations.com, the group's Web site.

In a case involving a secluded house in Fair Oaks, investigator Rhonda Witter wrote, "The first thing I saw when I took my first trip through the house was the presence of a grandma in her house coat with a coffee cup."

Witter, 43, a customer service representative and massage therapist, is considered one of the group's "sensitives," meaning she has the ability to sense the presence of ghosts.

While many might scoff at such a thing, Witter and others are serious - and they shrug off the naysayers.

"I didn't really go public for a long time," Witter said of her ghost detection ability. "If people don't understand, they criticize."

Witter said she will visit an investigation site and simply rely on the feelings she gets.

"When I come across a spirit that's really strong, their emotions go through me," she said.

"When I close my eyes, I see what the spirit sees their world as being."

Apart from the sensational - and controversial - investigations, API says its goal is to do more than find ghosts and goblins.

"We help people who are having problems in their house and help the spirits go where they need to go," Witter said.

"I'm not out to prove anything anymore," Bender said. "I just want to present information. People just want to know everything is OK. Some people are perfectly fine with having ghosts around."

At Witter's home, ghost hunting has gotten as up close and personal as you can imagine.

"There's an old man who lives in my bathroom," she said. "When I first looked at the house, I knew he was there. He was peeking around the corner. I said, 'I know you're here and it's OK.'"

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