Nerve Ghosts

I used to be a forensic photographer. I did work all throughout the Midwestern United States during the 1990s and early 00's, including some cases where the Feds got involved. After some time, that line of work became unpalatable to me for whatever reason, and I've only done artistic work for the past decade. I suppose that's part of the reason why I'm confident in releasing some "keepsakes" I snatched from one of the strangest cases I've ever photographed. I am almost positive that nobody would care if I spoke up about this case nearly two decades after it's been closed, anyway. To keep it simple, it was just a suicide victim. Nothing more, nothing less. The only interesting details here are the things the guy left behind and some of the circumstances surrounding the investigation.

I'll try to keep things in a positive light since we are talking about an actual lost soul here, so I'll start off with some Creepyfacts™:

  1. The guy lived straight in the middle of the Superior National Forest, near the Canadian border.

  2. I don't know anything about property values in Minnesota, but I'm going to go out on a presumption and say that he was loaded based on what I saw.

  3. He had enough spotlights and cameras bolted onto his house and steel poles around his property to put a major league baseball stadium to shame.

  4. Every interior door in the house was removed and neatly stacked in the guy's garage when we showed up.

  5. The house had a sprinkler system installed, and it was apparently rigged to spray some kind of noxious agent instead of water if anybody tripped the security system.

  6. Although the house had been without power for months after the victim stopped paying his bills, there was a generator or a huge battery keeping those "vital" systems alive. The ranger who was unlucky enough to attempt a welfare check on him ended up in the hospital for a few weeks.

  7. The victim had filled his crawlspace with foam for some unknown reason. Excavators didn't find anything of note when they removed the substance and dug around, but it remained yet another off-putting step the guy took to feel safe.

  8. There was a small but well-equipped complex of some kind underneath the basement that was sealed off with a commercial-sized vault door.

  9. The FBI took command over the investigation team for God knows what reason.

  10. They DID NOT like anybody outside of their ranks being in the house

I'd make an eleventh point stating that the suicide victim with the Resident Evil mansion never got into the news, and that I didn't even learn his name, but ten is a nice round number, and I digress. With those facts out of the way, let's continue.

I was lucky enough to get a spot on the investigation team because the house was so remote, I was in the area at the time, and because I had done some really successful work with the feds as a photographer and expert witness in the past. I was the only "outsider" there who didn't get harangued for so much as disturbing a dust flake, but that's besides the point. They trusted me, and that's the only way I could have brought anything to share today. I was staying about a half-hour north of Minneapolis in October of 2002 to do work on gang cases. It was a little while after I had eaten my dinner that a call from an FBI contact came in; they knew I was in the same state as the house and wanted me to head up right then and there. I had already induced a food coma upon myself, and I knew the drive would take a long time, but federal work always has benefits…. They offered to chauffeur me, too. I was a little excited to be directly solicited and given a little bit of a red carpet treatment. Local agencies think they can get away with having a beat cop take photos with a point-and-shoot, so an opportunity to go with the pros didn't need any consideration. I figured I could sleep during the ride.

I drove to their office in Minneapolis to get briefed and meet my driver. Sometimes investigators are privileged with some information about what they'll be seeing so that they may mentally prepare—other times, nobody has a clue what they'll be walking into. I was only told that my driver (who was a detective), myself, and a pretty large team of forensics experts were going to meet another team of special agents in the Superior National Forest. The leadership said that it was likely a suicide, which was when I felt my first intimation that something unusual happened. The second indication came when everyone who was to be part of the convoy headed north had to sign a 312, which is a government NDA contract. There's a bunch of laws related to confidentiality in criminal investigations, but I'm not aware of any that prescribe the use of non-disclosure agreements. Regardless, a 312 isn't something you sign when you're going to hear or see top-secret stuff. The agreement I signed doesn't mention any criminal penalties, so I'm not afraid. It would be funny if they had given me the wrong form, though, wouldn't it?

About four hours later, we were in the middle of nowhere. The sun had long set, and we were deep in the woods. We practically set ourselves up for a Bigfoot encounter or a nightmare situation akin to Deliverance, but I had the benefit of being in a convoy of law enforcement officers. Dark forests aren't too bad when you're sitting next to a bunch of guys with guns! Inspired by the environs around us, the forensics guys shared some ghost stories. Halloween was only about a week away when I first went up, so the men were in the mood to scare each other. The detective who drove—a small guy who seemed too frail to be an agent—just kept his eyes on the road and his mouth shut the whole way. I think that it was only a coincidence, but some of the things I found while I investigated the victim's place make him an interesting figure.

To put the size of the victim's estate into perspective, it took the last half-hour of the trip to get to the center of his property. The border between his land and the government-owned woods around it was demarcated by a tall wire-mesh fence and a large enough clearing between the trees surrounding it that nobody could hop over using branches. There were no signs of infrastructure before his property except for the road in front of the convoy, but once we passed the gates, which had been opened for us by other agents, the spotlights and cameras I described earlier started popping up everywhere. Flanking the road on either side were steel mounts with lights and cameras on them. Of course there were a ton directly in front of us, but the number of mounts that glinted as we passed by did not decrease as I looked out towards the periphery of the bright cone cast by our truck's headlights. This guy was serious about leaving no blind spots in his system; he must have spent tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars to have such a large radius hooked up. I remember pointing out the cameras in the woods and making a cheap joke about the X-Files, knowing it'd get a hearty chuckle out of a bunch of FBI specialists. That joke got the men into a discussion about the show, which I hadn't actually yet seen, so I tuned out the banter and looked out the window again. I remember noticing that some of the higher-mounted cameras were pointed at the trees above us, not the ground.

The team that we were supposed to meet wasn't very large. They were only there to secure the site and make sure that no other nasty "security devices" would spring upon the investigators. In total, I think there were only about 15 people at the site once my crew got there, which is a bit small for a possible danger-zone. The house wasn't particularly big for a building on a property that probably contained a larger landmass than Singapore, and aside from all the missing doors, nothing stood out on the above-ground floors. The victim had some nice furniture and the largest plasma screen I had ever seen at the time—that was all. Well, I take it back. The house was huge, but the size of the property made it seem puny. We all had to outfit ourselves with respirators before we went in. Although the brass was certain that the stuff that came from the sprinkler system was capsaicin concentrate and water, dealing with any unknown chemical agent mandated respiratory protection. Pepper spray sprinklers aside, the corpse had been untouched for a good few months from what I could tell, and anybody who got remotely near it had to muzzle up to keep their lunch.

The power was obviously out when we entered the home, so the whole team had to work with the light from our flashlights. The detective who shuttled us got into a pissing match when he told the state police to go get lanterns. One of the local guys tried to drag me into the fray by asking if I had lighting equipment (as photographers are wont to bring) as I was led to the basement stairs, but I just referred him back to the chain of command. I never figured I'd ever give someone a bureaucratic runaround, but I was too afraid of falling off the landing in the dark to give him the time of day. The whole "jurisdictional infighting" thing was also something I never had thought actually happened, but that little agent was apparently impatient enough to make it happen.

The cadaver was in a full bath bathroom in the basement. I won't go into too much detail about him out of respect. He had done a lot to keep the scene "clean"—presumably so the person who found him wouldn't have to deal with too gruesome a sight—and I believe that he didn't want anyone to be disturbed by what he left behind. I began my tasks that evening by photographing him. Usually the rich have a support network large enough to prevent a "forgotten body" situation, but I suspect that the victim was a hermit.

Once I finished photographing the cadaver, I left the room and let the forensics collectors go at him. I wished them luck, knowing that my stomach couldn't handle manhandling someone in such an advanced state of decay. I was motioned to the other end of the basement by the wave of a flashlight. When the stray beams of the lights hit the thing the agents wanted me to get a shot of, the short tract of darkness between me and the men at the end of the room felt a little larger. I made my way over, and they all pointed their lights at a large door with a stainless steel finish and an electronic lock. I had heard about safe rooms in the past, and I wasn't surprised to see one in the home of a paranoid hermit, but the initial sight of it still put me off. Big door must mean big bad, right? I set up shop and took some photos, then I got the rest of the basement, and then the forensics guys wanted me to get more shots of the cadaver and the tub they found him in from different angles.

The local cops came back with more lights than a Lowes could bat its eyes at. They were still pissed at all of us, but at least we had light. We all split into small teams to cover the whole house, but nothing came of it. We couldn't find a suicide note, let alone a code to open the vault door, which was still operational and locked down tight. The cops asked the investigators if they knew what was behind the door, but nobody had a clue. They asked the leadership, but I didn't pay attention to what the brass said. I only remember one of them walking by after the conversation ended. He looked like somebody stepped on his toes, so I guess the brass' answer landed somewhere between "We don't know," and "We know, but we won't tell you." These guys were definitely getting paid overtime, so I have no clue why they cared…. Well, I suppose I can't say that after doing what I did.

It took a few days to get the vault open. Apparently it was too thick and reinforced to make good progress with cutters or torches, and explosives were obviously posed too many risks. It's kind of surprising, but there aren't many ways of safely dealing with a "sealed vault door" situation that are both time-effective and safe. Makes you think about how screwed bankers would be after an earthquake. In the end, the feds just had to throw every tool they could get at the thing until the mechanism was exposed and they could jimmy it open with a blacksmith's toolkit. They considered calling the manufacturer, but they couldn't identify the door's make or model.

The day that they popped the vault, I got another call inviting me to come photograph what they found inside. Having had my curiosity piqued by the oddities I encountered on the property, I agreed. While I was getting prepared, I made a decision that I honestly shouldn't have: I took a tiny digital camera with me, only intending to get a shot of the remains of the door. The cameras used for CSI are owned by the Department of Justice and kept under lock and key for many obvious reasons, and I definitely wasn't going to risk stealing footage from an agency-owned device.

This time, the investigation team was even smaller, but there were a lot of agents around, including that one detective. When I got to the house, I saw that the Minnesota State Police invited themselves and their own forensic science division. The detective from yesterday was up at bat with a captain from the Duluth division, and although his voice was really subdued, his arguments were biting. Watching the captain go at it with him reminded me of a dog snapping at a shrewd feline. I guess reality imitates art such that ranking officers get into cliched pissing matches over jurisdiction just like in cop dramas. After having seen the X-Files, I can look back at that memory and compare it to Mulder getting shut down by the Smoking Man. What with the shit that was down in the sub-basement, I'd say that it's a fair comparison to make.

The vault door was wholly rendered. It was burnt, torn, plied out of form, you name it. It almost seemed as if the feds were desperate to get in there. The FBI is just the equivalent of a federal police agency with extensive investigative abilities; it isn't the Pentagon, which makes the whole thing feel sketchy. That said, I guess they were obligated to go in. Anything that tickles the imagination will also kick up at least a dozen conceited, contradictory conspiracy theories so long as an alphabet agency or the Internet is involved.

Behind that one-and-a-half feet of concrete was a dedicated research facility of some kind, or, as I can't help myself from exclaiming every time I mention it, a "goddamn laboratory". The place had probably as much floor space as the entire first level of the house. And because it was pitch black in there save for the light cast by our lamps and three construction lights brought in to illuminate the door, it felt twice as large. I asked around about getting the power to the residence restored, but apparently the feds already tried and failed. They got the utility provider to restore service to the house, but nothing happened. The house used contemporary circuit breakers, so no fuses could have blown. They concluded that there was electrical damage to a line somewhere on the property and gave up. What was strange about this was the fact that the security systems all throughout the property still functioned, but nobody had a clue where the power for it all was coming from until we got into that vault.

The guy had a shed-sized battery array set against the back wall of his lab. It turns out that they were connected to a series of solar and diesel generators out in some remote clearing deeper in the estate. The things were still fully operational, which blew my mind and still does. They had to have been running without supervision for months, and setups like those were not known for their stability or performance in 2002.

Power-issues aside, the most prominent… things… in the complex were a strange machine and a set of cabinets that seemed to contain parts for it. I can't even begin to speculate on what it was supposed to do, so I can only release the image I have of it to the world and let the experts make their explanations—

That's right. I have a picture of the damned thing. There's no such thing as unsubstantiated evidence in my old line of work, so I brought the goods:

Sorry for the poor quality, but a digital camera from 2002 can only do so much in low-lighting conditions. I couldn't use the flash on it either, or else everybody and their great aunt would know that I was sneaking pictures. Thankfully, one of the construction lamps was pointed directly at the thing from behind the door, so the instrument is pretty well exposed.

Before anybody asks, the metal cylinders surrounding that huge acrylic plate aren't tin cans. I'm not sure what they are, but I have another shot of one that was taken to an evidence lockup in Duluth.

(You can even see my dark, imposing figure in this! I sure was a looker back then, being a shadowy reflection and all.)

To give some clarity to these fairly blurry old photos of mine, the cylinders were almost perfectly reflective, save for some interspersed rings where they seemed a little rougher. Some of them had a little dip in the end like the one above, but all of the ones attached to the machine in the first image were cut uniformly. If anybody can identify the material they were made from, then please share it with the rest of us.

The machine in the first image, which seems to have been labelled the "looking glass" by the victim according to some documents I had found elsewhere in the lab, kind of resembled the wheel of an old sailboat. I only got a small portion of the machine in the shot, and it was likely partially disassembled when I captured it. Outside of the frame were two handles that seemed to both control the machine and enable it to be moved around, since it was suspended from the ceiling by a highly articulate series of joints and rods. As you can see in the first picture, there were about eight wires running around the circumference of the machine behind those metal studs. The black reflective thing that takes up most of the shot was a huge plastic cover… something of a screen, I suppose. It reminded me of an oscilloscope display. One of the forensics guys put his light right up against the acrylic, but there wasn't a phosphor sheet or back-panel to reflect any light.

The wires all converged behind that plastic crown on the device and ran up the length of the suspender and into the ceiling. What I presume to be the power cable for the machine, an abnormally girthy braided black line that ran up from behind the plastic crown, is also not pictured. To the right of the machine were the cabinets, which took up a good chunk of the room. I think the eight wires were split in the ceiling and ran into the cabinets, since many smaller lines of the same color (red and blue) as the ones on the machine fed into each cabinet from a large port on the ceiling. The cabinets were all huge aluminum boxes with glass panels on their fronts and mesh vents in the back. Each box contained a mess of circuitry, a huge transformer or PSU (either or), and one of those cylinders pictured in the second image. I only had a chance to get a picture of the cylinder before a ruler was placed down for a legitimate evidence photo, but each of them were about eight inches tall. I don't have any reference for the ones on the machine, but I'd say that the diameter of the acrylic cover was about two to three feet.

Every cabinet door had a laminated label on it. Not all of the labels were the same, and not every cabinet was the same, for that matter. I think the larger cabinets, which headed off each row on the machine-side of the room, were named after various bands of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum. I can't give an exact label, but the names went along the lines of "[low number]-[high number] [exponent]Hz". I'm likely to be wrong, but I remember seeing "Hz", so I can only assume that it was talking about wave frequencies. The next few cabinets in each row had generic names like "Proc 01", "Proc 02", and so-on. There were a few cabinets that had original labels, and those were the most memorable. "Absolute", "Prompt", "Safe", and "Composite". All of them had slightly different insides than the others. The one labelled "Absolute" (I don't recall if the labels were capitalized like this) had a huge transformer and what I could swear were one or two vacuum tubes in it. The one labelled "Prompt" looked like fifteen desktop motherboards glued together in a grid, with the cylinder sitting in the middle of it all. The one labelled "Safe" might have been the only cabinet without a cylinder, if I recall correctly. In fact, it barely had any circuitry. It looked more like a fuse box than a computer. The last one, "Composite," had more wires leading into it than the others, and I think it might have had more than one cylinder in it….

Now, I did turn my decision to write about my experiences that one week in upstate Minnesota into quite a plan, and I did have an outline written, but as the night goes on and I become more fatigued, my mind is coming across new memories and details…. Hopefully my mind makes up for whatever mistakes come out of the oven, but I'd rather focus on the content than the presentation for now.

There was a fifth special cabinet. It was far towards the back of the array and separated from the other boxes by an air gap of about three feet. It was horizontally instead of vertically aligned, and it was the only box without a transparent cover. I initially remembered this to be a counter top, but it had a label that just popped into my mind. It was called "ANALOGUE", and I'm certain the letters were in all caps for this one. I never claimed to have a lick of a clue about what any of these things did, but big letters signifies importance, right? Also, do not be confused by the lettering. It was called "ANALOGUE" not "ANALOG", and I'm certain the difference was important. Whether you trust my memory or not is up to you, but I'm certain it was called that way.

The left side of the lab was dedicated to the security monitors and what I assume were control consoles for the machine. That's where we found the notes the guy left behind, including the closest thing we were going to get to a suicide note. It rambled on and on, much like I'm sure I am right now, but a few phrases stuck out, and they inspired both the title of this post and the moniker I'll use from now on to talk about my findings. "Nerve ghosts" and "entropio forms". Those two terms put a brick in the pants of half the investigators and a third of the agents. I personally took them to be nothing more than inane, mystical, wishy-washy jibberish words, but I can see why they'd scare the shit out of anybody who entered the twilight zone that was this guy's estate. Mysterious suicide, uncooperative leadership, giant vaults, hidden labs with unspeakably expensive equipment: all of these circumstances will lower the bar for suspension of disbelief in anybody who encounters them consecutively. As people used to say when I was young (the geekier ones, at least), it was all "far out."

My memories of the contents of the notes are a little hazy, and I might have to mull them over after I post this and get off, but from what I can recall, the guy didn't believe he was killing himself. He made mention of an "offer to travel," and he kept referring to train bells. He feared that his body had been tainted by a "nerve ghost", which was some kind of malevolent entity that made depressed or anxious people disappear or commit suicide. The only reason why he was still alive after it attacked him, he claimed, was that people who use the "looking glass" (likely the machine in the first picture) and encounter "entropio forms" are resistant to its psychoactive effects. There was something a little disturbing about how eloquently he phrased everything—I figured madmen would have mad grammar, too—but there were some even more bothersome things in his papers. Remember the soft-spoken detective? Of course you do. Well, he makes reference to a race or a species of people or entities (he is hazy with the distinction), and the physical description… and behavioral description… he gave for them matched that of the detective by more than just a small amount. Something something black hair. Something something grey eyes. Something something tiny and stringent. The guy got really moody with his writing whenever he referenced them. He was borderline obsessed with some kind of "purity" they possessed, which gave me an inkling of a hunch of a feeling that he might have been a Nazi-type. I remember telling the detective about the papers on the drive back, and he just nervously laughed it off. He made a really funny Scientology joke that I can't remember and left it at that.

I didn't get the chance to read and memorize everything the victim wrote. There was simply too much, and much of it was too complex for a simple ex-CSI wedding/architecture photographer to understand. Some of the papers got snatched away from the Duluth lockup where we were examining materials by feds who weren't in the Justice Department, so there was certainly something going on down in that sub-basement, but I've happily lived with the conclusion that it was just some computer or optics scientist gone off the deep end thanks to the loneliness and paranoia wrought by the wilderness. I have more memories to go over, and if I can find my old camera, I can try to see if there's anything cool that I didn't upload in the intervening years between then and now. I'll make an attempt to clean up this post (if it needs cleaning) after I get some shuteye. I'll leave off with some stray thoughts and questions that I've harbored over the years:

I spoke about the house in the past tense for a bigger reason than grammatical correctness. I looked for the place on Google Maps recently, and every semblance of human development has been effaced. No more generators and solar panels, no more house, no more light poles or fences. It might have been that the forest service took back the land and went to town on the place, but it's still funky that the only physical remnants of that poor man's life and work sit on my HDD and somewhere on a federal database.

What the hell were those cylinders? They couldn't have been computer parts, and they'd make for terrible heatsinks, but they were stuck into nearly every computer cabinet in the lab. Some of them reflected these strange iridescent rainbows when we shined our lights on them.

The leadership told us that we had a suicide on our hands before we even got to the house, but we didn't leave things to the state. The FBI isn't a big, scary, alien/Illuminati/WTO/MiB/spaghetti monster-run agency like everyone who watched TV in the 90's makes it out to be, but if the aforementioned fact doesn't scream "ulterior motives", then I might as well start trusting everything that comes from the NSA's mouth, too.

Why were there cameras pointed into the trees? Did the guy expect someone to try and hop branches all the way to the damn house? He obviously owned a handgun, but why didn't he hire any guards if he was so afraid? He definitely had the money, and if he had the money, then he had the connections.

I remember reading about the machine, but I still have to think about those documents. If I can track down some old-timers in Duluth, I might be able to get ahold of some of the documents they managed to keep. They seemed to be opposed to the idea of the feds keeping secrets, after all, but it's a matter of seeing if they also had to sign an NDA.

What in God's holy name are "entropio forms"? The closest word I could find to "entropio" was clearly "entropy," but what does thermodynamics have to do with all this nonsense? The guy referred to "entropio forms" as entities of some kind, and I think he was deathly afraid of them to the point of sometimes dropping the title and just labeling the entropio forms "Them" with a capital T.

What damaged the line running to the house? The electric company confirmed that the problem wasn't on their end a few days into the investigation, and the property line was entirely below the ground. The machine drew enough power that it required an auxiliary current from the generators, and its power cable looked like the midsection of an anaconda, so perhaps it caused a fault somewhere?

Did the state sanction the construction of an underground supervillain lair in one of its national forests?

Last but not least: How does a story like this go completely unspoken of until now? This is the kind of thing that spawns legends, but so far I'm the only person to say a single peep about what lies beyond the vault threshold.


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