by Robert Hamilton, Deputy Sheriff (Ret.)
Names of people have been changed to protect their identity.
There are two jails in Imperial County. One is the minimum-security jail, located just south of El Centro, California that has been around, it seems, since forever. The other is the main jail, located about two hundred yards away and was built in the early 1980s. Both jails have a haunting history of ghosts and strange happenings that can’t be explained. The following are two accounts of things seen and heard by inmates and officers, including myself.
The minimum-security jail is also known as the Camp. The graveyard shift at the Camp is the quietest shift. With the lights on half power, it’s spooky, and staying awake is difficult to do. In November 1984, the Camp had only three officers for the two hundred or so inmates housed at the facility. During the graveyard shift, officers’ duties consisted of putting the inmates to bed, conducting security checks in the dorms, and perimeter checks of the facility. The perimeter checks included the perimeter fence, which had six different alarm points that sounded when touched.
The alarm points were known as drop one through drop six. Although the drops were tested every shift, the alarm at drop four had a habit of sounding for no apparent reason during the graveyard shift. This had been an issue for a while. Maintenance crews had checked the fence at drop four numerous times and always found no faults within the system. Some officers believed the drop four alarm would go off due to a stray cat or dog, since the county dog pound was across a dirt road from drop four. But some officers believed the alarm went off for different reasons.
On a balmy Sunday night at two thirty in the morning, the drop four alarm sounded for the third time; a check of the area turned up no explanation for the alarm. At three ten in the morning, Officer Joe Bain from the main jail called the Camp. He said a perimeter check was being conducted at the main jail, and the officers on duty reported a man standing in the yard of the Camp at drop four. The Camp’s tower officer, Fabian Cruz, looked out of the tower window and saw no one in the yard.
My partner, Officer Jon Hernandez, and I conducted a head count and quickly determined no one was missing from our facility, so we went outside to locate the person spotted in the yard. At the same time, Officer Cruz called dispatch and requested patrol to respond about a man by drop four. As the patrol units were responding, my partner and I were about forty yards from where the man was seen. The officers from the main jail radioed that the man was still next to the fence at drop four. But there was no man.
Although we didn’t see anyone, Officer Hernandez and I noticed the animals at the dog pound were restless. The night seemed heavy but with a strange electrical charge in the air. It is hard to explain; it’s one of those feelings you would have to experience.
We radioed to the main jail that there was no one in the yard. Officer Bain, sounding confused, radioed that he saw us but could no longer see the man. At this point, a patrol unit arrived. A perimeter was set, and the search began.
The search started by drop four and headed south toward a vacant field where the old county hospital was. We entered the field, a place where the hospital dumped medical trash. We left the area before getting hurt. The patrol officer, Deputy Henry Alba, radioed that he saw no one south of the Camp. Oddly, we found no shoe impressions next to drop four.
As all the officers returned to the Camp, a veteran sergeant, Dave Sanders, came on duty and asked for a description of the man spotted at drop four. The receiving officer who had seen the perpetrator said the man was about sixty years old and was wearing a blue shirt and blue jeans. The other officers who had seen him agreed. The receiving officer continued, saying the man was standing next to the inside fence at drop four, pushing on the fence. The officers said they could not understand why we could not see the man setting off the alarms. The patrol units were released, and the sergeant went into the sheriff’s office, returning with a photograph.
Sergeant Sanders showed us the photograph, and the officers who had seen the man excitedly confirmed the person in the photograph was the same man they saw next to drop four. The photograph was of Officer Mullens, now deceased.
Sergeant Sanders told us the story of Officer Doug Mullens. He was one of the first officers to work at the Camp. He started work in the 1960s or early 70s. Before retiring, he always wore a blue shirt and jeans to work; this was before uniforms were required and issued.
Officer Mullens died about ten years after he retired. Since his death, strange occurrences have happened at the Camp, especially at drop four. Officer Mullens had been assigned to the drop four area when inmates were in the yard. He often set off the alarm at that drop to keep the tower officer on his toes.
Sergeant Sanders said that today was not usual—this was the anniversary of Mullens’s death. However, the sergeant said Officer Mullens had often been seen and heard from before.
Although a newer facility than the Camp, the main jail began its legacy with a suicide. When the facility opened in the early 1980s, the modules had twenty one-person cells. The modules had a dayroom where inmates could watch TV, play cards, or relax outside their cell.
The female inmate module was known as X-ray. In the beginning, there were two or three female inmates housed in the module at a time, given the space. The graveyard shift worked with one female officer, who would run the security checks on the female inmates.
When the jail first opened there was a module called Zebra tank, the protective custody tank used for male inmates. The male inmates at the time were locked in their cells twenty-three hours a day. That tank was used to house child molesters and other high-risk inmates. The child molesters had to be segregated from the general population. There is a code among inmates: a crime can be committed, however if a person hurt a child, that person has signed his own death warrant. The hard-core inmates have their own code: hurt a child, and the inmates will do whatever they can to get to you to end you.
X-ray and Zebra modules share a common wall. The way to enter these two modules is by key. The hallway has a steel door on each end.
After the jail opened, there was one child molester housed in Zebra tank his cell number was nineteen. The molester, John Wensley, was a self-proclaimed Satanist, who had a tattoo of the word “Satan” across his forehead. On a fateful night, locked in Zebra, Wensley decided to go to hell. Or so we thought. Wensley tied a towel around his neck and hung himself from his bunk. Strange occurrences were noted and logged: banging doors and strange noises coming from the module, or occasionally cell nineteen would be found open when no one was in the module or in the cell. The strange events were most notable on the graveyard shift when things were quiet.
Crime continued to rise, as well as the inmate population. The modules that held one or two inmates were converted, and the jail went from holding twenty inmates to forty inmates. Even with the influx of inmates, Zebra tank was always the last tank to be filled. Zebra module was later converted for female inmates only.
As time went on, some female inmates would ask about a man who looked at them at night. The inmates that made the reports said the man would laugh devilishly as he looked at them; others said the man would stare at them before he “just disappeared.”
In October 1989, the strange occurrences in Zebra module went from odd to unnerving, and the graveyard officers experienced events that dramatically changed some of their beliefs. At this time, several female inmates began to ask Officer Charlie Miller, who was doing security checks in Zebra tank, about the new officer at Zebra. The inmates said he was strange looking, although they could not see him clearly. The weird officer would rattle the doors and was always softly laughing. The inmates continued, saying the strange officer would sometimes seem to just disappear.
These inmates were told that no male officers do security checks in the female dorms. This was true. I or any floor officer that was clear would stand at the module door while a female officer conducted the checks. The inmates were also told no officers, man or woman, were in the X-ray tank at the time they said they saw someone. This was confirmed by the housing officer and the cameras in the hallway. The inmates seemed confused and a little scared but continued saying there was a man coming in.
One week, after the first report from the guard, a female inmate was housed in Zebra tank, cell nineteen. The inmate’s name was Veronica Valenzuela, who was documented to suffer from mental health issues and was in administrative lockdown in Zebra for her protection. Veronica had always been a model inmate the past few times she had been incarcerated at the main jail. So, it was odd when two days later, Veronica told our female graveyard officer on duty, Deputy Monica Bell, that she was afraid of the male officer laughing and rattling her door at night. Deputy Bell was confused. She nor any other officer had been in the module during the time Veronica detailed.
The next night, about two thirty in the morning, a scream from Zebra tank ripped through the facility. As the floor officers hurried to the tank, the housing officer radioed that the fire alarms had also sounded. Upon arrival to Zebra tank, they found cell nineteen on fire.
Veronica was in the corner of the cell screaming, “Get him away from me!” She was pulled from the cell and taken to the medical ward while the fire was put out.
Veronica was so terrified she could not complete a sentence. Thankfully, she was not injured or burned. When she calmed down enough, she told us what happened. She said the “officer” came to her cell again and rattled the door. This time she told him to leave her alone. Instead, the man entered her cell. However, he did not open the door. The cell doors are metal with a window in the front, and he seemed to just walk through it. She realized that he was not an officer, but a man wearing an inmate’s jumpsuit that was tattered and torn. The man had an evil laugh and seemed angry. He told her, “I’m going to take you to hell.” His eyes started glowing a sinister red, and his laugh intensified.
Shaking, Veronica told us that she hadn’t known what to do, she was scared. So, she threw her sandals at the man, and her sandals passed through him. That’s when her sheets and wastebasket burst into flames, and she screamed. She said when the officers arrived, the man vanished. A search of cell nineteen turned up no clues as to what caused the fire.
A week after the incident, on the graveyard shift, the female inmates again complained about a man coming into the X-ray module. That night, the intercom was turned on in X-ray so we could hear anything going on inside the module from the housing area.
We heard some of the women making noise, which was normal, but officers responded to the tank when we heard two women yell out, “Who are you?” and for him to “Get away from the door!” Within ten seconds, the officers were at the tank door.
Two inmates said the man was back, walking around laughing evilly. The officers were confused; none of the laughing had been heard over the intercom. To finally figure out what was going on, Officer Bell hid in a vacant office next to Zebra as the rest of us left the hall. We left the intercom on. Within twenty minutes, the inmates calmed down and everything was quiet.
Suddenly, we heard something bouncing around in the dayroom, located in the middle of the module at X-Ray. We arrived at the tank within five seconds.
Officer Bell said she saw a plastic cup fly off the top tier and bounce off the floor. She was in a state of shock as to how this could have happened. The control panel was open, but the cell doors were closed. The plastic cup was the kind served with meals and would not fit under the cell doors. Officer Bell told me there was no way someone could throw anything from the top tier without being seen. We checked cell doors for any tampering of the locks. No tampering was found.
The tank seemed to be charged and unsettled. Although nothing else happened that night, the inmates slept with the lights on.
I was soon transferred to the patrol division, but as long as I was on the force, I heard about the strange occurrences still plaguing Zebra tank, centered around cell nineteen.
Robert Hamilton was born in Poughkeepsie, New York and grew up in a small village called Wappinger Falls. After his parents divorced, he moved to Florida before making Southern California home. There, he fulfilled his dream of becoming a deputy sheriff. Fifteen years later, his career came to a crashing end after experiencing a job-related injury that caused him to be honorably retired. As a deputy, Robert saw and heard things that were without explanation: ghosts, evil, and just strange events. This was not new to him, as he had seen and heard things as a small child. Psychic? No, he’d be rich. Robert enjoys reading stories of the unexplained, and flying his drone.