Filming was well under way when news of the ghost began to circulate. They were shooting the final scenes of the movie K-11, a prison thriller, at the abandoned Sybil Brand Institute women's correctional facility in City Terrace east of downtown.
One of the crew members, who declines to be named, was upstairs in the solitary-confinement area fussing with the ventilation system. It was a hot day, and the abundance of lights and wires was only making it hotter. Talk about a creepy place. Pigeons had flown in through broken windows, died of thirst and been eaten by rats. Their skeletons littered the floors, heaped upon years of accumulated filth.
As he worked -- alone -- the crew member got the distinct and eerie impression that he was being watched.
Suddenly, despite the ambient heat, he felt a "cold sensation" crawling up his leg. Fingertips ruffled his hair, gently, as a lover might. He ran. Feeling sheepish, he forced himself to turn around. That's when he saw her: a lady in white. Or, rather, a girl in a hospital gown. She was thin, with pale skin, intense blue eyes and chopped-off black hair. Her feet were bare. She stared at him for a minute, then walked away.
He told the on-premises sheriffs about the girl. "Oh, yeah, that's Sally," they said.
"What do you mean, 'Oh yeah that's Sally'?" asked the crew member. "What's that?"
The sheriffs told him about a prison inmate whose parents were on their way to visit. They were killed en route in a traffic accident on the 405 freeway. Distraught at learning of her parents' death, Sally hanged herself in the shower.
Like a child's game of telephone, word of Sally's latest manifestation spread. It got around to actor Tim DeZarn, who was at the prison filming, too. In the movie, he plays one of the guards. DeZarn decided he would see about the ghost. He would free Sally's spirit.
Sitting in his Culver City home a few weeks later, wearing a frown and a shirt that says "I'm Bringing Grumpy Back," he recalls the experience. Because he's the kind of guy who thinks better when he draws, he reaches for a pencil and sketches the scene.
"The hallway goes around like this, and down here it's all dark," DeZarn says. "And in here are all these cells" -- he sketches the cells -- "and here it's dark, dark, dark and a little brighter at the end."
He remembers that he sat at the top of the stairs near the entrance to eat some peanuts. Courage gathered, he walked the hallway, opening each of the cell doors. "OK," he called out into the darkness, "I'm coming in." Silence. "You don't belong here anymore." More silence. "You're not part of this world anymore. Your parents are probably somewhere out there waiting for you." Silence, still.
He sighs now, rubs his hand across his face. "I don't even know if I believe this shit." He fiddles with the slip of paper. "I told Sally, 'One of the reasons I want you to go is so you can find my son and tell him I need to see him.' "
DeZarn's teenage son, Travis, was killed four years ago in a car accident. It was a foggy Saturday night, and the boy was driving along winding, mountainous Palisades Drive coming home from visiting his girlfriend when he was hit broadside by another vehicle. His car was ripped in half. He died instantly.
No one thus far -- not the police, the coroner or Travis' parents or friends -- can figure out what caused the crash. Drugs and alcohol ruled out, DeZarn suspects his son might have swerved to avoid hitting a deer. But the chaos of old skid marks at the scene makes it impossible to tell. It is a notoriously dangerous spot.
"Maybe because I'm so angry, that's why I haven't seen Travis yet," DeZarn says. "But I just wanted to hear from my son and feel his presence."
He does not consider the idea so far-fetched. He's had experience with ghosts before. When he was 12 he saw one. It was his Uncle Howard. DeZarn was out in the woods on his family's property when he saw a light by the barn.
He pulls another scrap of paper now from the little tray on the table. He sketches the barn. The woods. The darkness. The light. Uncle Howard's ghost was the light. The specter spoke: "Timmy, I need you to take care of your adoptive brother." Message conveyed, Uncle Howard disappeared.
"It was like someone closed their hand on him," DeZarn recalls. He cups his hands together as if extinguishing a flame. DeZarn was much nicer to his brother after that.
In four years he's had no extrasensory perceptions of his son. Not a single icy tingle down the spine, or rattling doorknob or wisp of vapory mist. He has, however, had dreams of Travis diving deep into the earth. These dreams are always unsettling and sad. In DeZarn's darkest moments -- moments to which he can scarcely admit for fear of scaring his wife and daughter -- he wants to die, too.
Instead, he runs. Up and up and up stairs. Eighty-one flights total, one for each year of his and his son's ages combined. DeZarn is 59. Travis was 18 when he died. This year he'd have been 22.
DeZarn doesn't believe in an interventionist God to whom you pray and "he does shit for you." But he believes in a collective energy shared by everyone. Maybe Travis can't contact him through the interference. Travis was his first thought, DeZarn admits, when he heard of Sally's ghost. "Maybe she can help get a message to my kid."
He flicks his pencil back and forth as he talks. "Even though I've had these experiences," he says, "I'm a real doubting Thomas."