A couple of years ago, word got out around the Austin freelancing community that I "dig" paranormal stuff, like crystal balls, psychics, ghosts -- and especially -- magic. That's when the editor of a small town newspaper, the Oak Hill Gazette, gave me a call. He told me I would be the ideal reporter to interview the ghost hunters who were investigating reports of paranormal activity at an historic restaurant, south of Austin, Texas -- a restaurant that just happened to serve my all-time favorite pizza.
I was TOTALLY jazzed. A paid assignment to write about haunted pizza! What could be cooler than that?
Of course, my serious journalist colleagues all shook their heads and advised that I would never win a Pulitzer Prize for writing such “trash”. (Ha! Losers.)
So for Halloween, I’m reprinting my exciting Haunted Pizza Story to entertain you. Every word in this article is true! (We Old School Journalists never lie in print.)
The Haunting of Austin Pizza Garden:
Ghost Hunters Investigate Historic Oak Hill Restaurant
By Adrienne deWolfe
(Article originally published in the Oak Hill Gazette on Oct. 29, 2008)
“It really creeped him out,” remembered Jayme Garza, the restaurant’s weekend manager. “When I came to work, one of the other staff told me that I needed to (calm him down ) because he had gone into dry storage to burn sage.”
In the Native American tradition, burning dried sage leaves is part of a purification ritual that is intended to drive away evil spirits.
On another morning, approximately 45 minutes before the Austin Pizza Garden (APG) was scheduled to open for business, one of the waitstaff carried a tub of silverware into the vacant diningroom. After placing a handful of knives and forks on a table, she headed for the kitchen to retrieve napkins. When she returned to the diningroom, the tub had been overturned, and the silverware had been scattered across the floor. Only a few other APG staff had been present in the building. All of them swore that they had not entered the diningroom.
“These unexplained (incidents) have been happening for 15 years,” said APG General Manager, Brian Ahart, a former law enforcement officer whose uncle owns the restaurant. “Usually, (the incidents) occur early in the morning, before customers arrive, or late at night, after customers leave.”
According to Garza and Ahart, the incidents most often occur when an employee is alone in one of the restaurant’s rooms.
Located at 6266 West Highway 290, APG’s site has been a private residence and / or an active commercial area for 129 years. In 1898, when the Oak Hill area consisted of little more than grassland, live oaks, and rock quarries, Texas Ranger James Andrew Patton retired from fighting Comanches to supervise the stone masons who erected the community’s first general store (“The Patton Store” or “Rock Store”) upon the site.
The APG building has since served Oak Hill as a post office, a lodge for the Woodsmen of the World; the Spoetzl Brewery; a seafood restaurant; an art gallery; a sandwich shop (operated by the daughter of singer / songwriter Willie Nelson); and a garden supply store (Gardenville). The building was designated as a Texas Historical Landmark in 1970.
Since the APG site has such a long and distinguished history, the restaurant’s current owners and employees do not know who the ghost might be, Ahart said -- assuming, of course, that a ghost exists.
Texas Spirit Seekers
Rumors of apparitions at APG first reached Austin’s Teresa Allen while she was surfing the internet. Allen is the co-founder of the not-for-profit organization, Texas Spirit Seekers (TSS), which she formed in November 2007 with biologist and chemist, Lance Brooks, who lives in Lewisville.
“We are a scientific-based research team,” said Allen, who helps to run the organization on a part-time, volunteer basis. “We bring the most current technologies to every investigation.”
The TSS team consists of nine individuals, some of whom have been investigating paranormal activity for more than 10 years. Brooks, who works by day at a medical diagnostic company, is a PhD candidate at the University of North Texas in Denton. He has been conducting paranormal investigations for three years, while Allen, who describes herself as unemployed, has been involved in paranormal investigations for approximately five years.
In 80 percent of paranormal investigations, TSS can prove that people have been “scaring themselves silly,” Brooks said. “We find logical, scientific reasons” for the phenomena they report.
As an example, he cited one TSS investigation involving mysterious rumples on a bedspread in a private residence. “Until we filmed a dog jumping on the bed and rolling around, the (dog’s owner) swore that a ghost” was disturbing the bed covering.
“We conduct paranormal investigations as a service to the community,” Allen said. The organization does not charge for its services, nor does the organization accept payment or contributions. The group is funded by its members.
“We try to help people understand what’s happening in their homes or where they work,” Allen explained. “Our job is not to capture a ghost, but to find proof (of its existence) and to debunk human experiences” that are not the result of authentic, paranormal activity.
According to the TSS website, the term, paranormal, refers to “the realm of occurrences and phenomena (that are) removed from those which people (are accustomed to) and comprehend, and (that are) presently uncategorized by standard academia.”
“We’ll accept just about any case,” Allen said, “but our first priority is to investigate places where people are scared, especially where children are afraid to sleep at night. We want to help people feel safe in their own homes.”
TSS’s second priority is to investigate public buildings with a long history. Since its founding, TSS has scientifically determined that paranormal activity is present in numerous public structures, including the Old Motley County Jail in Matador, the Spalding Building in Waxahachie, the Oaklea Mansion in Winnsboro, and the Howard Dickinson House in Henderson.
But the team had yet to investigate a haunting in Austin.
After moving to Austin earlier this year, Allen began looking for a local haunting to investigate. That’s when she stumbled across an internet post hinting of ghosts at APG. To the best of Allen’s knowledge, no scientifically-based research team has ever investigated the restaurant.
“That made the Pizza Garden especially interesting,” she said.
Spooks on the Stairs
“I’ve hung out at the Pizza Garden since I was 13,” said 18-year-old Line Cook, Matthew Millner. “I’ve always heard rumors about ghosts, but I never really believed any of (them).”
Millner said his opinion changed about six months ago. At the time, he’d been employed by APG for a little over a year.
“I saw an apparition, or being, standing at the top of the kitchen stairs,” Millner said. “It wasn’t a ghastly ghost; it was a flesh-and-blood-looking being -- opaque. I saw color: skin pigmentation, auburn-brown hair, and white lace (on the being’s clothing.) I knew for a fact that the being wasn’t a flesh-and-blood person, though, because when I went upstairs (to find the being) with another employee, nobody was there.”
Millner described the being as a 20-something female with long, straight hair, who was dressed in “older style clothes,” perhaps from the early 1900s. Her clothing consisted of a flowing gown with straps on her shoulders, he said.
“She was just standing there, looking up the stairs” toward the second-story dining room, he said. “I saw her profile.”
Millner’s original reaction to this vision was complete disbelief. “I shouted (in surprise) and got out of there. I had an odd, creepy feeling overall. I thought I was playing tricks on myself,” he said.
When asked why he no longer believes that the being in the stairwell could have been a customer or an employee, who might have been playing tricks on him, Millner said, “It was a relatively slow night, around closing time, and no customers were (roaming) upstairs. None of the employees were wearing what this being wore, either.”
Garza has also been “creeped out,” as she describes it, by a figure on the kitchen’s rear stairwell. Early in her APG career, while she was assigned to wash dishes, she used to keep an eye on the steps because she often glimpsed what she described as a “figure wearing a white shirt.”
Thumps in the Night
“I don’t like to be alone at night in the restaurant,” Garza admitted, “especially upstairs, in the office.”
While completing paperwork on the second story, she said, she has often heard the sounds of boots thumping up the stairs. Thanks to the reflective quality of a laminated menu that hangs from the wall, Garza said she has also repeatedly glimpsed a flitting white figure. When she peers through the office doorway to see which APG employee might be playing a prank on her, she said, nobody’s on the stairs.
“And none of the staff wear boots,” she pointed out.
Ahart acknowledged that over the last 15 years, his employees have reported numerous, unusual incidents in the building. For instance, employees have complained of a voice that whispered their names; cold spots in certain rooms; and tingling, electrical sensations in their bodies.
Employees have also stated that they’ve watched a broom fall over for no logical reason; that lights have turned on in the second story area when no one was in the building; and that chairs could be heard moving across the floor in a vacated room.
Eventually, the waitstaff’s reports of a white, flitting figure through the bar area led Ahart to remove two, facing mirrors from the restaurant’s walls, he said, “so the servers wouldn’t hurt themselves by glancing over their shoulders” in alarm while they were carrying trays of food.
Ahart noted that the employees’ reports follow no noticeable pattern related to time, temperature, or season, and that large gaps of time usually occur between incidents.
But there have been exceptions to that rule.
“One day,” Ahart said, “my opening manager unlocked the front door” in preparation for the rest of the staff to report for work. Shortly afterward, he said, the restaurant’s hostess arrived and started knocking on the door, which had somehow become re-locked.
Thinking that she had inadvertently locked the front door behind herself, Ahart said, the restaurant manager returned to the entrance to let the hostess inside, and this time, the manager made a point of keeping the door unlocked.
Shortly afterward, Ahart said, the first customer arrived to find the door mysteriously locked.
“It happened a third time that morning,” Ahart continued, describing how the second customer arrived to start banging on the locked front door. He admitted that his manager might have relocked the door all three times out of habit – although she claimed that she hadn’t done so.
However, Ahart said, the door pranks occurred on the same morning that the tub of silverware had been scattered, inexplicably, across the main dining room’s floor.
In other areas of the restaurant, both Ahart and Millner have experienced an electrical jolt when they were alone in the dark.
In Millner’s case, he was walking past the ovens. “I felt like something hit my thigh – sort of like an electronic pulse,” he said. “My leg buckled and went numb. I lost control of it for a moment.”
Ahart’s experience occurred in a hallway. He reported that the sensation started in his shoulder and felt as if he’d been grabbed by a hand. The sensation was accompanied by an “electric jolt,” he said, that was strong enough to “buckle my knees.”
“The jolt lasted for a nano-second,” he added, “like static electricity from rubbing your shoes on the carpet, only 10 times stronger.” He said that the jolt resulted in a red, rashlike mark that has since healed from the skin on his shoulder.
Millner said that he did not think to look for a mark on his skin at the time of the incident. “But I found out later from Texas Spirit Seekers,” he said, “that if a ghost touches you, it has the same effect as if you’d licked a nine-volt battery.”
“Everyone has experienced the spot in the kitchen,” Garza said. “Whenever you walk through it, you forget what you came into the kitchen for.”
This particular area is a narrow walkway that’s on a direct path to the cooler. Garza said, “I’ll see (employees) walk through that spot and then stand in the middle of the cooler with a dazed look on their faces. I’ll shout at them, `Dude, you need some cheese!’ and they’ll say, `Oh, yeah.’
Ahart acknowledged that he has also experienced memory lapses after walking through the narrow walkway to the cooler. However, Ahart’s most memorable encounter with the unexplained occurred when he was alone, in the kitchen.
At the time of the incident, Ahart said, his employees had all left the restaurant, leaving him to lock the building for the night. Ahart had intended to take home a fajita pizza for dinner. He said that he baked the pie, cut it into wedges, and turned toward the refrigerator to fetch cilantro and sour cream to top off his meal.
“When I turned back to the pizza,” Ahart said, “the pie had been put back together” as if it had never been cut.
“I know I wasn’t imagining I’d cut that pizza,” Ahart continued, “because I still had the tool in my hand, and it was (gooey with) cheese and toppings.”
What thought crossed Ahart’s mind in that moment?
“There was no logical explanation,” he said with a shrug. “I figured the ghost was playing a prank.”
The Investigation Begins
Shortly after 11 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 27, eight TSS team members arrived at APG with data loggers, electromagnetic field (EMF) readers, audio recording devices, thermometers and a variety of digital and thermal cameras.
Prior to the official investigation, Allen conducted a preliminary interview with APG employees to identify suspected, paranormal “hot spots” in which the researchers could strategically place their equipment.
“The less (the team) knows going into an investigation, the better,” Allen explained. “If our team has a number of experiences during the investigation that match what the people in the building have been experiencing – and if we can document proof of paranormal activity with our equipment – then we can declare that a building is haunted.”
Shortly after the team’s arrival, a member of TSS’s Youth Team experienced the inexplicable while he was casing the building with Garza and Allen.
According to 15-year-old Brandon Stephens, who lives in Venus (near Midlothian,) “I was bending over, setting up a (camera) tripod, when I was scratched by an unseen force. It felt like a sharp, burning sensation on my back.”
Allen said that she immediately questioned Stephens: “Did you back into anything? Did you scratch yourself?” When Stephens answered in the negative, she hustled him downstairs, away from curious APG employees, to examine his back. She found that his skin had been marred by three red scratches. The mark was reminiscent of a three-fingered claw.
“Brandon couldn’t possibly have scratched himself through his clothing,” Allen said. “He was wearing two shirts.”
Minutes before the scratching incident, while conversing in the same spot, Stephens, Garza, Brooks, and Allen all reported that they’d suffered a sudden bout of nausea. About two hours later, while Stephens was alone upstairs with the equipment, he saw “what looked like a full-body apparition – a male,” he said.
“I couldn’t see what (the apparition) was wearing,” Stephens said. “It looked like a shadow. The room was lighted only by a (digital video recorder). I knew the shadow couldn’t have come from any (TSS researcher) because everyone else was downstairs and accounted for.”
Prior to her investigation at APG, Allen admitted that she had never seen a full-body apparition, although she had seen a floating golden orb in her mother-in-law’s house shortly after the woman’s death.
All of that changed at APG.
At approximately 1 a.m., Allen said, she was sitting at the bar and looking toward the corridor where the fountain drinks are situated when “I saw a man walk by, toward the soda machines. He was wearing a blue-jean shirt and blue jeans. I remember wondering why one of our members was walking (through the corridor), because they weren’t allowed to be in there.”
When asked for additional details about the man’s appearance, Allen said, “I didn’t look up fast enough to see his head, but Brandon (Stephens) said that he saw a yellow cap.”
Allen had another memorable experience during the investigation at APG. When she entered the soda-fountain area to refill her glass, she was startled by a loud noise that occurred behind her. “It sounded like someone had banged their foot on the floor,” she said, “but when I turned to see who had sneaked up on me, no one was there.”
Allen admitted, “I don’t know that the sound was paranormal, but it was loud. . . and the loose wooden (floor) board doesn’t make a sound like that.”
Explaining the Phenomena
Brooks serves as the lead investigator and technical equipment manager of TSS. “If you can see something with your eyes, or hear it with your ears,” he said, “then we should be able to pick it up with our instruments.”
Explaining the purpose for his equipment, Brooks noted that changes in temperature (eg, sudden cold spots) and fluctuations in electromagnetic fields have been cited by professional and amateur ghost hunters as indication of paranormal activity.
“The theory,” Brooks said, “is that if there’s an EMF fluctuation where there isn’t supposed to be one, then a spirit is trying to manifest itself by drawing energy from the environment. A cold spot is supposed to occur where the energy was, and a warm spot is supposed to occur where the entity is trying to appear.
“Many scientists have trouble with this theory,” added Brooks. “TSS uses EMF meters to debunk it.”
When an area has high EMF readings, human bodies can experience rashes, nausea, and hallucinations, said Brooks, who is researching immunotoxicology for his thesis.
“At the Pizza Garden,” Brooks said, “our meters picked up high levels of EMF, so much so, that it made it nearly impossible to use EMF meters to collect any type of evidence. You could see a big set of uninsulated (electric) lines coming up to the building.”
During the APG investigation, Brooks said that his instruments captured no digital, video, or audio evidence of paranormal activity. In his official TSS report about the APG investigation, Brooks wrote:
“There were a number of factors that lead to the poor quality of audio evidence that was collected in the building:
“1. The noise from the air-conditioning system and the ovens could be heard in all of the audio . . .
“2. The building is located next to a major highway, another cause of noise interference. . . The EMF readings were so high that (they) could be a factor (in) perceived paranormal activity. . .
“All of our data loggers showed no unusual changes in the internal environment.”
What about that Scratch?
“We have no explanation for Brandon’s scratch,” Brooks admitted. “We were disappointed that we didn’t get more (scientific) evidence after the incident happened. The building deserves another look.”
“We’re not saying that the Pizza Garden isn’t haunted,” Allen said. “We’re saying that in order to do an accurate investigation, all the (electricity) will have to be turned off.”
“I think there is a ghost,” Stephens said. “I don’t feel like it’s threatening. I feel like it’s trying to get attention.”
“Some of (the staff) think it’s really cool,” Garza said, that the place may be haunted. “Others don’t want to talk about it.”
According to Millner, “Just about everyone who works here thinks or knows that there’s something a little odd about the restaurant. I’m not uncomfortable here. I think there’s something strange afoot at the Austin Pizza Garden, but unless something ridiculous happens, I plan to continue working here.”
“Sometimes we play pranks on each other,” Ahart admitted. “I’ll throw something down the stairs, and we’ll all start laughing.” At other times, Ahart said, “Someone will really get spooked. You can tell they’re sincere” when they start talking about what happened.
“But I don’t think the ghost is dangerous,” he said. “I think it’s mischievous.”
Have any customers ever admitted to seeing an apparition?
“Two customers, a grandmother and a granddaughter, once mentioned an experience to me,” Ahart said. “I never intended to discuss the ghost with them, but the grandmother came up to me and said that she’d been talking to a ‘lady’ in the restroom. Shortly afterward, her granddaughter visited the restroom, and she also had a conversation with a ‘lady.’”
Ahart said that the two female customers swore that they hadn’t told each other about the ghost until after they’d confided their experience to him.
So what should customers and employees do if the ghost appears and wants to chat?
“If you hear or see anything,” Stephens said, “I recommend that you try to talk to the ghost. Ask it ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions (like its age and gender). Let the ghost know you’re not afraid of it.
“Sometimes,” he added, “ghosts are more afraid of you than you are of them.”