The cold seemed to issue from the dark maw of the old brick building. The whole scene was surreal in the extreme. There we were, a group of us, in the cold before the old building, attempting to contact a ghost. Not just any ghost, but one of the best-known ghosts in Ventura, California.
For decades the little brick building was rumored haunted by the spirit of a man lynched in 1869. The little thick-walled building started life as a water filter, constructed by the Spanish Padres in the early years of the Nineteenth Century. It was attached to a seven-mile aqueduct which filtered the water and ran it through underground pipes to the many fountains at Mission San Buenaventura, the ninth and last mission founded by Father Junipero Serra. The building was nick named “El Caballo” (the horse) because, so the story goes, the water font was carved to resemble a horse’s head, the purified water coming out of the horse’s mouth (the Spanish and their Native converts did have a sense of humor). After California became part of the United States a rain storm caused a landslide that took out a section of the aqueduct. Without water to process, the small filter building was abandoned. But in just a few years the structure would take on a new role. The City of San Buenaventura (today known as Ventura) was incorporated on March 10, 1866 and as a new community, it needed a jail. The old filter was converted into a single cell jail by adding an iron door and cutting a slit like window through the walls. It was at this time that the ghost story came into being.
In 1869 a stranger rode into the dusty town of San Buenaventura. No one ever learned the name of this man but everyone was sure he was rich, from his fine clothing to the huge wad of cash he was prone to show at every opportunity. He went into the largest saloon and bought drinks for everyone. He told them he was heading for Los Angeles on business and would rest here the night before continuing on. He drank away the evening and, the last anyone saw of him he was drinking with Lucas Garcia, an unsavory local character.
The next day the stranger was gone. No one suspected anything was wrong because he said he was planning to leave the following day. But, people noticed that Lucas Garcia all of a sudden had a great deal of cash on him and he had no job. The local lawman took it upon himself to do a little investigating. He walked over to Garcia’s adobe home and look around. He discovered a newly turned plot of soil in the back yard. It was about three feet wide and six feet long. It looked very much like a grave. He dug down and found, not far from the surface, the body of the stranger. The cause of death wasn’t in question, the man’s skull was crushed in.
Garcia was arrested and questioned. He said the stranger had, out of the goodness of his heart, given him all of his money! The stranger had left early in the morning before sun up and someone else must have killed him and buried the man in Garcia’s yard to implicate him. It was a story that seemed un-believable.
The lawman locked the suspect in the brick jail and rode to Santa Barbara for instructions. Santa Barbara was, at that time, the county seat. As the sun went down the town folk gathered in the saloons and talked of how good the stranger had been and how bad Garcia was. He was thought to be behind almost every crime in the community. Their anger grew hot and it wasn’t long before a mob was formed and, with burning torches, they marched up Valdez Alley to the little jail. One of the leaders of the mob shot off the padlock of the iron door and they rushed in to pull Lucas Garcia out. He was screaming that he was innocent of any crime but the mob jerked him to a tall pear tree on the corner of Main Street and Ventura Avenue. Someone produced a rope and Garcia suffered western justice.
In fairness to the community, the mob seemingly wasn’t motivated by race. Latinos made up the largest percentage of the local residents. It is evident that no one really liked Garcia and all agreed that Ventura would be a better place without him.
From that time on the small brick building was said to be haunted by the ghost of Lucas Garcia. Stories were told that , when the moon was full, at the stroke of midnight, a voice would issue from the structure calling out, “ I am innocent!”
Because of its lurid past, and rumors of ghosts, the small building on Valdez Alley was included on a walking tour of haunted places in Ventura. Only on this night an experiment was planned. It would be an attempt to communicate with the departed spirit to discover if he was really innocent of murder.
The attempt would use dowsing rods to ask yes or no questions. Such experiments have worked well in England. When the rods crossed, it was “yes” and when they drew apart it was “no.” A simple code and one that I didn’t think would produce much. I was proven wrong that night.
From the experiment a strange story emerged, an account that may well provide a few answers to the riddle of Lucas Garcia. The contact admitted he did kill the stranger, but it was an act of self defense. The stranger wasn’t a nice man at all. In fact he recognized him as a fellow criminal and murderer. The stranger was trying to buy respectability with his ill-gotten wealth. In the night in question they retired to Garcia’s adobe and continued to drink. The stranger saw Garcia as a threat, he knew his bloody past and might tell others. He needed to silence Garcia once and for all, but, before he could act, Garcia sensed the danger and bashed in the man’s skull with a wooden stool.
Garcia admitted he had killed others before. He said he had put five men in their graves before this incident. Because only yes and no answers could be given with the rods, the name of the stranger was never discovered. I do admit that, as the rods moved in answer to questions, the air became very still and a distinct chill seeped into the place. Was it the fog from the nearby Pacific Ocean or was it the icy presence of Lucas Garcia? All present agreed it was a bizarre night. Is Garcia guilty or did his act of self-preservation take out a greater bad man? Who can say for sure?