Paranormal investigation at Abbe Center? Why not?

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Supervisors approved use of doomed facility with little fanfare

The shuttered Linn County facility that formerly housed Abbe Center for Community Mental Health has remained useful as a training site. Last year it was used by multiple law enforcement and first responder agencies to stage an active shooter situation. Last night, a much quieter training took place.

Coralville resident Greg Reisner has been a part of the Johnson County Paranormal Team since its inception in 2007. The organization is comprised of volunteers who provide their services without charge to residents and business owners throughout the Midwest.

They’ve served as advocates for such activities, providing presentations about their investigation methods and the equipment they use at Eastern Iowa public libraries. Reisner also hosts an educational and entertainment show on Iowa City Public Access TV.

But as is the case in all volunteer organizations, few members stay active forever.

Over the past 18 months or so, a handful of new investigators have joined the team. While most join with some experience already under their belts, Reisner says the group needs more practice before they can be truly comfortable working as an efficient team.

The Linn County facility located in Marion at the intersection of Highway 13 and County Home Road served as a residential treatment facility for many years before it was shuttered in September 2013. On Saturday night, May 9, it was used for training exercises by the Johnson County Paranormal Team.
The Linn County facility located in Marion at the intersection of Highway 13 and County Home Road served as a residential treatment facility for many years before it was shuttered in September 2013. On Saturday night, May 9, it was used for training exercises by the Johnson County Paranormal Team. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

That’s where the former Abbe Center, located in Marion at the intersection of Highway 13 and County Home Road, came in.

“I wanted to give them a situation where there wasn’t an anxious property owner waiting on the results of the investigation,” Reisner explained by phone Thursday evening.

“This setting allows us to establish more structure as we practice working as a unit. We are incredibly grateful to the Linn County Supervisors for allowing use of the building.”

The group was first granted access to the facility in April. That visit resulted in a single piece of evidence, an audio clip known as an Electronic Voice Phenomenon or EVP. These are sounds typically not heard in real time by people on site, but present on electronic recordings. According to Reisner, the captured EVP was short and clear but otherwise benign.

“This facility is an unknown, a curiosity,” he said. “We don’t know a great deal about its history and it hasn’t been thoroughly investigated. So, getting the one EVP makes it all the more interesting to go back again.”

Built in 1976, the structure has long been used as a residential treatment facility. It was originally built to replace the Linn County Home, which sheltered people with no other options. County homes were known earlier in history as poor farms, but were given a more politically correct name as society’s thinking changed in relation to the population they served.

For roughly the past two decades, the site was a residential treatment facility for people with behavioral health issues. Those operations were shuttered in 2013 as attitudes regarding behavioral health care further shifted away from institutionalized care and toward community-based options. Since there’s no longer a residential need and the 40-year-old building would only further decay if left abandoned, county leaders intend to demolish it in 2016.

Allowing use of the building for emergency responder training is likely to be viewed as a “no brainer” by area residents, but some may scratch their heads at its use as a paranormal training ground.

The allowance was part of the Linn County Supervisors’ consent agenda — the list of items considered non-controversial and not anticipated to require additional discussion. Only Supervisor Ben Rogers spoke about the item, and his focus was more of a nod to the atypical request than an expression of concern.

“I’d just note that if people are interested in going to the Abbe Center this Saturday night from 9 to 1 a.m. to be part of a paranormal investigation, you can do so,” Rogers said. “It’s one of the more interesting agenda items we’ve had.”

Reisner and JCPT only investigate sites when they have a property owner’s permission. Their work in outdoor spaces is done with full knowledge of local law enforcement agencies.

“There’s no investigation worth the risk of being arrested,” Reisner said, sadly acknowledging that not all paranormal teams have maintained a similar standard.

“We’ve made requests that have been turned down, and that’s disappointing. But it always better to have permission. We make a point of letting law enforcement know when we are doing an investigation, and have been fortunate enough to have good relationships with those departments. They seem to appreciate the head’s up, and we’ve not had any incidents.”

Little, if any, taxpayer expense will be incurred as part of the Linn County training. A county worker, probably someone from the Sheriff’s Office, will need to unlock the site, then return after the investigation to close the building. The building’s water supply has been disconnected, although electricity still is available. Since the vast majority of paranormal work is done without overhead or bright lighting, any utility use will be minimal.

Investigators bring their own equipment, which causes no damage, and have a vested interest in leaving the facility in the same condition as they found it.

Finally, JCPT will not be directly profiting from the investigation, or using skills honed at the site for future commercial activity.

There are, of course, some taxpayers who may find use of the building concerning for the simple reason that they do not believe in the existence of paranormal activity and therefore view investigations as a waste of time. But even hard core skeptics will find it difficult to to deny that these volunteers are providing a no-cost service for Iowans who believe they need such services. And, unlike what happens on television shows or in books, most of those who seek and connect with ethically-operating groups like JCPT have greater peace of mind following an investigation. Bottom line, this is a publicly owned building with an expiration date. The more groups that can find a use for it, the better.

No one is requiring or mandating a leap of faith. Pieces of video, photographs or audio clips that may result from last night’s activities will be open for debate.

In fact, if something emerges, I’ll post it as a column so readers have a platform for discussion. At the very least residents can have Linn County debate more entertaining and less scary than the never ending power struggle between the auditor and supervisors.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on May 10, 2015. Photo credit: Liz Martin/The Gazette