- ENIGMA OF AMERICAN POLTERGEISTS -
THE OAKLAND POLTERGEIST
A Business Office Was Wrecked by A Noisy Ghost in 1964!
It is not uncommon to find records of poltergeists in homes all across America, but the last place that one would expect to find such a noisy and destructive “spirit” would be in a busy office building. However, in June 1964, a poltergeist did go to work in the office of court reporter George Wheeler in Oakland, California. Over the course of several days, dozens of strange events occurred in the office - seemingly without explanation. The normally quiet office was soon filled with police officers, reporters, photographers, television crews and poltergeist investigators, both real and phony. For a time, Wheeler’s work, which consisted of taking down the testimony of the Alameda courts, came to an absolute standstill.
One of the main investigators of the strange events was Jim Hazelwood, a writer from northern California, who got involved in the activity on June 15. Roy Grimm, the city editor of the Oakland Tribune, called Hazelwood and gave him the address of Wheeler’s office on Franklin Street. He told Hazelwood that he had gotten a police call saying that “things were jumping around over there.” When Hazelwood asked him what he was talking about, Grimm replied that it was a “poltergeist”, barely able to contain his laughter over the telephone.
Although the assignment didn’t exactly get off to a great start, Hazelwood took a cab over to the office building and took the elevator up to the third floor. Here, he joined several other people who were milling around outside of Wheeler’s office - who all got a start when they immediately heard a loud crash from an empty room adjoining Wheeler’s suite of three offices. The door was open and Hazelwood peered inside to see a metal cabinet lying on its back on the floor.
Feeling a little unnerved, Hazelwood went into the office and introduced himself. I found that the usual occupants of the office were Wheeler, his wife Zolo (who was also a court reporter) , court reporters Robert Caya and Calvert Bowles and two transcribers, Helen Rosenberg and John Orfanides. Wheeler was not present when the writer arrived but Oakland police officer Charles Nye was there, having been called to the office about 15 minutes before.
Free for a moment, Hazelwood looked around the office suite and described it like this: “Wheeler’s office is a suite of three rooms, side by side and connected by doors that usually stand open. Wheeler occupies the far right, which also contains a small cupboard in which the staff keeps coffee-making equipment, wax for polishing desks and floors and other miscellanea. … The center room is the main entrance to the offices and is usually occupied by the transcribers, Mrs. Rosenberg and John Orfanides. The room on the left contains several telephones, Dictaphone equipment, a water cooler, wall cabinets for storing papers and equipment and a movable counter filled with office supplies.”
As is readily obvious from the description that Hazelwood gave, this was a standard and quite ordinary office from the 1960’s. There was little (or nothing) here to suggest that something out of the ordinary would be occurring - and yet it was.
Mrs. Wheeler took Hazelwood into the main office first. Her husband’s room was admittedly, “a mess”. An ashtray lay on floor, broken into pieces. Outside of the coffee cupboard (as Hazelwood called it, but it was really a small closet), a pile of smashed crockery was lying in a pool of water. Officer Nye explained that he had inspected the premises as soon as he had arrived and had seen a empty blue flower vase and a glass water pitcher sitting on a shelf of the cabinet. He noted that they seemed to be right on the edge of the shelf and so, concerned that any vibrations in the building might dislodge them, he pushed both items back further onto the shelf. A few minutes later, while in another room and with Wheeler’s office vacant, the pitcher and the vase apparently flew through the air, made a right turn and shattered on the floor in the office, a few steps from Wheeler’s desk.
As Nye was recounting these events to Hazelwood, there was a banging sound that came from the room to the left. One of the telephones had managed to remove itself from the table and had fallen to the floor. The office was empty at the time so Hazelwood hastily called the newspaper office and asked them to send over a photographer.
Jim Edelen, a veteran of the Tribune staff, showed up a few minutes later and began snapping photos of the damage that had been done. He asked John Orfanides to pose with the shattered objects aside of the coffee room and he snapped the photos. Moments later, as they turned to leave the room, there was a crash behind them. They turned to find that the broken shards on the floor were now covered with white powder. A large jar of Coffeemate had flown out of the coffee room and it too had shattered on the floor.
Helen Rosenberg, who did most of her work in the office, was present during more of the strange events than anyone else. She told Hazelwood that the first burst of activity had occurred about two weeks before. At that time, the telephones had been behaving erratically with the rows of lights along each telephone lighting up in quick succession, although no one was ever on the line. The telephone company could find nothing wrong with the units and the trouble continued even after they changed the phones.
The electric typewriters began to act strangely next. In those days, the keys of the typewriters all had small coil springs beneath them so that they would return to position when depressed. It was necessary for the top to be removed from the machine in order for anyone to reach the springs. Somehow though, all of the typewriters began to act in a bizarre manner. All of the key springs went limp, twisted together and curled up. Repairman came and took them away, leaving loaner machines in their place. The springs on the borrowed machines did the exactly same thing, becoming completely inoperable. When the original machines were returned, their springs also began acting up again. According to the company that made the machines, the springs were designed to last the entire life the machines!
When Hazelwood was in Wheeler’s office on June 15, all eight of the telephones kept sliding off the desks and falling to the floor over and over again. The metal top of a typewriter also flew across the room and struck the wall, leaving a dent, while a metal postal scale also jumped into the air without assistance. A porcelain cup that was sitting on Mrs. Wheeler’s desk vaulted almost 10 feet into the air and shattered against the ceiling, leaving a brown stain behind. Then, abruptly, about 4:00 pm, all of the phenomena stopped.
During the night, Wheeler returned to the office and moved a desk out of the left room. He moved it to an empty office downstairs in an attempt to get away from the phenomena. When he moved the desk out, he placed the telephones on the floor.
When Hazelwood returned to the scene the following morning, he found Bob Cava in the now empty room, talking on the telephone and looking out the window. Hazelwood heard a loud thud and instantly entered the room. Caya’s back was to the door and he was still talking but on the floor was a Dictaphone pedal that had apparently flown out of a cabinet and struck the counter, leaving a mark behind.
Hazelwood began to keep a log of the activity and soon noted that things seemed to occur about five minutes apart. One of the first things that he noticed was a metal box of papers that were on the floor in Wheeler’s office. It had apparently fallen there soon after the office had opened. He picked it up, examined it and placed it on top of a filing cabinet. Later, while standing in the doorway of the room with his back to it, the box flew about eight feet and hit the floor with a loud and frightening crash. Hazelwood whirled around but there was no one in the room.
By this time, the strange happenings had been widely publicized and all manner of curiosity-seekers began showing up to check things out for themselves. These included the usual tourists, occultists burning incense and Dr. Arthur Hastings from Stanford University. Although a teacher of speech and drama, Hastings was also fascinated with the unknown and had worked with the famed parapsychology foundation at Duke University. After speaking with Hazelwood and ruling out natural phenomena and the use of stage magic or a hoax, Hastings contacted Duke and asked to continue the investigations on their behalf. He told Hazelwood that the activity seemed to be connected to a “genuine poltergeist phenomenon.”
The poltergeist continued to be busy throughout Hazelwood’s second day. A typewriter was tossed from a table in an empty room. A large electric coffee pot fell to the floor, cups exploded, telephones crashed and a filing cabinet fell over. The wooden file cabinet was one of the few things that those assembled actually saw in motion. Bob Goosey, the typewriter repairman, was standing in a doorway and saw the cabinet suddenly turn sideways and topple over, right before his eyes.
On Wednesday morning, June 17, the events reached a climax. Early that morning, Cal Bowles and John Orfanides opened the office and in the following minutes, the water cooler fell over, soaking the left office and covering the floor with broken glass, a eight foot tall wooden cabinet containing office supplies came down in the center of the room, scattering papers in every direction, and the movable counter flipped over onto its back.
Hazelwood arrived shortly after this had taken place and discovered that the police had taken John Orfanides down to headquarters for questioning. The poltergeist activity, meanwhile, had quieted down. Orfanides was later released and went home and the Wheeler office, now in shambles, was silent. This lasted for several days and Hazelwood began to realize that the outbreak had apparently come to an end. Dr. Hastings told him that this was frequently the case, that the phenomenon would reach a breaking point and then apparently burn itself out.
Then, on June 29, there was a startling new development in the case. Hazelwood was contacted and was told that John Orfanides had again been taken in by the police for questioning. He confessed to throwing the objects around, hiding them behind his back until no one was looking, and also to bending all of the typewriter springs. Hazelwood was stunned, knowing that the “confession” hardly explained all of the other things that had occurred - but the police were satisfied. They encouraged Orfanides to speak to the press and although the young man asked to speak only to Hazelwood, the police set up a full-scale press conference instead. Dozens of newspaper and television reporters attended but Hazelwood was out of town and another representative from the paper had to go in his place.
At the conference, a spokesman from the police department outline John’s admissions and Orfanides glumly agreed with everything they said. The story went out that he had confessed to everything and the case was now considered closed. It was picked up by the wire services and the news went out all over the country that the much-publicized Oakland poltergeist was merely a prankster.
Hazelwood still did not believe a word of the confession. This was not because he had become particularly friendly with the young man but because Orfanides had been at Hazelwood’s side on many occasions when event occurred in other rooms. In many cases, the writer had been the first on the scene when objects flew and seconds later had investigated to find the rooms empty. He did not believe that he could have been fooled so completely so a short time after the press conference, he went over to Orfanides’ apartment to see him. He took with him Leo Cohen, a photographer from the paper.
When Hazelwood asked him why he had confessed, he said that he did it because he knew the police would consider the case to be closed if he did. He also admitted that he had not thrown the objects, as he had said that he did, and that he could not have done so without being detected. Needless to say, this left Hazelwood and Cohen wondering again why he would have confessed to the events. He certainly would not have done it for the publicity and in fact, could probably expect to be fired by Wheeler for wrecking the office.
He said that he had been extremely upset when the police questioned him and wanted to get the interrogation over with as quickly as he could. He told Hazelwood that the police kept suggesting ways he could have made the objects move, reminding him at the same time that he would probably not be prosecuted. Finally, he agreed to the methods they suggested and told them that he threw everything because that was the only way that he thought it could be done.
“But these things are as much a mystery to me as to everybody else,” he added.
And they remained that way, forever unsolved. What really happened in the Oakland Poltergeist case is anyone’s guess, although Dr. Hastings continued to investigate the case and to work with John to determine if he could unconsciously have been the cause of the activity. In the end, he surmised that he was. Apparently, the young man, who was just 20 years old at the time, was often teased by the other men in the office for his effeminate behavior, even though he was newly married at the time. Hastings believed that John’s stress may have built up to the point that it released itself as poltergeist-like activity. It should be noted that all of the activity ceased after John left the company.
© Copyright 2002 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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