The Liberty Theatre, on a World War II-era air base in Orange County, Calif., is Bill Jimenez’ kind of place. Unfashionable, forlorn, adjoining what used to be the base morgue, the theater has a chaotic history, with repeated reports of unusual noises and sightings of oddly dressed people who mysteriously appear and disappear.
In other words, it’s just what a ghost hunter loves.
The first time Jimenez, a retired police officer who investigates paranormal phenomenon, visited the restored theater a few years ago, he sensed a restless energy and saw a “black shadow come by me,” he said, as if on cue. “I immediately felt a coldness … If an entity wants you to see him, they’ll make it happen.”
Over the years, Jimenez, 60, said he has encountered and recorded images of scores of spirits, which he prefers to call entities. Some have distinct human form; some possess vague shapes, a head or maybe just an arm; others are floating orbs of light. According to Jimenez, many are benign and can be reasoned with — but a few have reacted violently, and he said one even threw him to the ground: “He was not evil, he was just protecting his territory.”
Jimenez leads a four-person team of investigators called Paranormal Investigative Technology, or PIT, that includes two other former police officers, Glen Mayernick and Salvador Vela, and Mayernick’s daughter Aimee, who acts as the team’s psychic and medium. Jimenez once led an elite unit of the California State Police in charge of protective services for several of the state’s governors; Mayernick and Vela were members of the California Highway Patrol.
“I was a highly trained law enforcement officer all of my life,” said Glen , who used to provide security for state buildings. “That meant a lot to me. I don’t try to convince anybody of anything; that’s not my interest in the paranormal. My interest is in the investigation and to make sure there’s no buffoonery going on.”
Investigating ghosts, Jimenez said, is a lot like investigating a crime. PIT, based in Los Angeles, treats a ghost like a suspect, applying a cop’s sixth sense to each case, and interviewing witnesses individually according to techniques learned as police officers.
The team uses infrared cameras and, because they believe ghosts are concentrations of electric energy, electromagnetic detectors. They also use thermal imaging equipment to detect pockets of heat and cold, also supposed evidence of ghosts.Video: Meet some real-life ghost hunters
PIT does not solicit any of its services, nor does it charge any fees. “We don’t get paid,” Jimenez said. “We buy our own film, buy our own gas. We do it to help people. A lot of them are afraid to open up. They think it’s something bad or something weird.
“The minute you start charging money, you lose trust,” he adds. “We don’t guarantee anything. We try our best. If we start charging and we don’t solve someone’s issue, they’ll say, ‘He ripped me off and didn’t solve anything.’ ”
The Liberty Theatre is a likely setting for a PIT mission. Built in 1942, it used to be the site of live USO shows and movies and newsreels for troops; today it’s a community theater open to the public, even though it’s on a military base. It’s also trove of reported apparitions, including a sailor in an old uniform, a nurse in a window, a projectionist, and a mysterious set of disembodied black shoes that walked across the stage of the narrow building.
None of the reported entities has ever acted threatening. But last May, an actor who once performed in the theater was charged with killing and dismembering a man in the building, leaving some of the body parts in the attic above the dressing room. Since then, “all hell has broken loose,” said Jeff Hathcock, the manager of the theater. “Shadows are appearing everywhere. People are getting strange text messages.”
Actually, Jimenez said, ghosts are everywhere, even if we don’t know it. They congregate in hospitals because so many people die there, he said, and in cemeteries because some hope to reclaim their bodies. Many are lost, frightened and confused, not realizing they have died, he added.Video: Meet a real-life ghost hunter
For example, he said he once communicated with a ghost who, he discovered, had been hanged 100 years earlier and didn’t realize it. He also claimed he has encountered the playful ghosts of children who befriended living children, and helped one woman rid her home of a ghost by returning an old lamp that was supposedly the favorite reading lamp of a man who recently died.
A ghost, Mayernick said, is often a soul who gets “stuck here for one reason or another …maybe he is focused on his anger and his rotten life, not realizing all he has to do is go and cross over.” Like all his teammates, he was raised Catholic, and grew up highly superstitious. Still, he regards himself as the team skeptic.
More from TODAY.com
'She was all over me!' Regis dishes on what it was like co-hosting with Kathie Lee
Today's TrydayFriday was a laugh-out-loud, fun-filled show as Kathie Lee invited her old pal Regis to guest co-host for Ho...
- 7 things we learned about Julia Roberts ... 7 years after her last visit to TODAY
- Baby boy doll with realistic-looking penis shocks some parents
- From 'Face Balls' to foot fetishes: The weirdest moments in TODAY's Take
- From soda to negative talk: Join TODAY for a #30DayDetox of bad habits
- 'She was all over me!' Regis dishes on what it was like co-hosting with Kathie Lee
Jimenez, in contrast, said he has seen dead people all his life but learned at a young age not to talk much about it for fear of being labeled crazy. While still a police officer he began looking into cases of ghosts on his own time, but tried to do it secretly. “I came out when I was about to retire,” he said, “because I figured, ‘What can they do to me now?’ A lot of people made fun of me, but I didn’t care because I wasn’t doing anything illegal or morally wrong.”
Once he started openly talking about his work, Jimenez discovered that just about everyone has a ghost story.
“I went to this party where there was nothing but attorneys,” Jimenez said. “I mentioned to one of the attorney’s wives that I still do some ghost hunting, and within an hour everyone was around me telling stories. It was like campfire stories. Once you open the subject, you realize we all have experienced a lot of things that just can’t be explained.”
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints