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Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Huntsville's Walls Unit home of ghosts, ghost stories

By MICHAEL GRACZYK
Associated Press Writer

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) - For some, it's the strange noises. Others talk about people flitting through walls, or just appearing briefly in the musty darkness.

The now-vacant, paint-peeling, brick and concrete cells and worn wood stairs rutted by thousands of men's footsteps at Texas' oldest prison know for sure.

But the only sounds during a stormy night this week came from the squeak or rumble of a visitor opening the more than century-old, iron-barred cell doors.

The ghosts at the Huntsville Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice never have waited for Halloween.

"There was several times I'd wake up at night and feel like something was staring at me," inmate Charles Carter said. "This was for real. I'd see things go past my cell late at night, down the run. There'd be nobody out there.

"All of a sudden your hair is just standing up on end. There's nothing you can do."

Carter, 62, of Dallas, lived for six years in the prison's old East Building, leaving in 1985. A few years later that section of the prison was closed, a victim of its antiquity.

Carter was doing cleanup duty on a walkway about 1:30 a.m. once when he spotted a prisoner sitting silently on a bunk. He made a mental note to speak to the inmate on his return to his own cell.

"It was vacant," Carter says. "That's the God's truth.

"I tend to believe there's such a thing like ghosts. I know the experiences I've had personally."

He's not alone.

Rod Kukua was a rookie corrections officer in the mid-1980s when he was doing a nighttime head count. All the cells were locked, the inmates inside.

"I saw an inmate standing on the next row up, just standing there," he said. "He didn't say anything. I was wondering what he was doing out of his cell. When I got down to him, I was going to ask him what he was doing.

"When I got to him, he was gone."

He asked a prisoner in a nearby cell where the inmate went. The prisoner replied there was no inmate out there.

"I knew the door was locked," said Kukua, now a corrections captain. "It kind of just freaks you out."

The prison is known informally as the Walls Unit, so named for the some 20-foot red brick walls that surround the place. It was Texas' first prison, established in 1848, and accepted its first prisoners a year later even while construction was continuing. Today, it houses about 1,500 convicts.

Among the thousands of inmates to call the Walls home was Raymond Hamilton, a convicted bank robber and one-time member of Bonnie and Clyde's gang, who escaped from death row here only to be recaptured and executed.

John Wesley Hardin, a famous Old West gunslinger credited with some 30 killings, used his prison time to study law after being convicted of fatally shooting a Texas sheriff's deputy. He eventually received a pardon, got a law license and established a practice in El Paso before he was gunned down in 1895 while playing dice in a saloon.

More recently, it's been the site for the execution of 285 convicted killers since Texas resumed carrying out the death penalty in 1982.

But the tales of ghosts perpetuate in the oldest sections, which include the former nine-cell, dungeon-like death row and space where the state's electric chair first delivered its fatal jolts in the 1920s.

"If I had my say-so, I'd say there's some spirit there," Carter said. "Too many weird things happen."

Like the strange sounds.

"I've heard all kinds of noise and couldn't explain what it was," Carter said. "It would be late at night. It was just a moaning sound."

"One particular time, I remember there was about three of us standing within 15 feet of the door," said another inmate, Chester Haas. "There was no one in the first few cells. All of a sudden I'm hearing 'Psst. Psst.'

"There was tapping on the floor ... sounded like a metal scraping sound on the floor. We started looking. We looked out the window. We couldn't see anything.

"My only thought was: `I'm not going to say anything because this sounds kind of crazy,'" said Haas, 49, of Dallas. "If there is any haunted places around, I would think there are some spirits in this building right here."

Warden Neill Hodges dismisses the stories.

"These old buildings will pop and creak," he says. "I've never heard anything."

The tales, though, are legendary.

One involves a corrections officer, seated at a table at the end of the row of cells, who swore he saw an inmate walk through the wall that separated the old death row from the general population cells.

As Kukua tells the yarn: "He got up and asked an inmate: 'Did you see that inmate walk through the wall?'"

The reply was: "Yeah. He does that all the time."

Inside one of the old death row cells, drawn on the wall in pencil, is a calendar where an inmate counted off his final days. The prisoner also left behind a poem:

"Death is death, life is life, Survival is the name of the game. But when you play the hand of life, death always has your name."

Another wrote: "I am the unwilling led by the unknowing, doing the impossible for the ungrateful."

Haas believes that since the place is no longer inhabited, it's even more eerie and mysterious.

"If they told me right now to go back there myself and gave me a flashlight, I wouldn't want to," he said. "It's spooky."

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