By M. Caroline Riser
Edited by Jonathan Battaglia
Jerry Pera had always believed in the paranormal, but it wasn't until he saw an apparition of his best friend, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq, that he decided to join a paranormal investigation team.
Jill Miller of Prosperity, who met Pera when he attended recruiting school at Fort Jackson, was itching to start a paranormal group after ghostly encounters of her own. Together they formed A-Team Paranormal Investigations, now up to seven ghost hunters from throughout the country under the slogan "You deserve peace of mind."
Miller, who recently resigned as a corporate background investigator, said A-Team's members have "a passion for the paranormal."
When she was 7, Miller said she encountered a spirit of her deceased grandmother in the kitchen at her grandmother's Newberry home.
"We want to help others because we didn't have anyone to call on," she said.
Miller said the A-team works for free and that its members are not interested in recognition. Each member pays for gas, meals and lodging during investigations.
"When families call you and their child won't sleep in their bed, it feels good to go and catch that evidence to find out what it is," Miller said.
Robert Smith called the A-Team in early March after hearing unexplained noises in his Ridgeville home.
"They really know what they're doing," Smith said. "The things they found were extremely shocking, but things are better now."
Smith said Angela Middleton, the team's psychic, communicated with spirits about personal family stories that only he and his wife knew about.
Miller said the team always invites one person from the home to join the investigations, which take place on weekends and last three to six hours.
"We want them to experience it themselves, and they are who the spirits are used to seeing," she said.
Miller said the team uses audio recorders and video cameras as well as electromagnetic frequency detectors to identify high-energy spirits. Noncontact thermometers measure temperature drops and spikes, which Miller said could mean spirits are present.
The team's most unusual find has been what Pera said is a full-body apparition caught on camera at an inn in Savannah, Ga.
Miller said movies and books are increasing interest in the paranormal, but Barry Markovsky, University of South Carolina sociology professor, said people's social nature attracts them too.
"If you're undecided about believing and you're surrounded by best friends who are really supportive and are true believers, chances are you're going to be influenced by them," said Markovsky, who teaches a paranormal psychology class.
The A-Team uses Middleton, of Columbia, to communicate with spirits.
"If I'm there, anything that wants to talk will come and talk to me," Middleton said.
Her son Charles accompanies the team, and Middleton said if she gets "too far in" when communicating with spirits, Charles brings her back to reality by speaking their code word, "bubblegum."
Miller said she and Pera find out everything they can by initially walking through a scene.
"Then Angela does a walk through, and she helps tell us where we're going to catch activity. It never fails, that's where we get the evidence, where she tells us to set it up," Miller said.
Bob and Chasity Manville of Leesville were skeptics when they joined the A-team in 2011 to learn more about the paranormal. Chasity said she became a believer after her first investigation. Bob says he frequently heard unexplained voices at a friend's house as a teen.
"You're like, did I really hear that? But with the stuff we've seen and heard, I can't be a skeptic," he said.
Andy Evans, now a team member, scheduled an investigation after hearing voices and footsteps in his Batesburg home.
"Moving into a house that has all this going on, it sort of made me into a believer, and now I wanted to learn more about it," Evans said.
The A-Team members say they know of over 20 investigative teams in South Carolina. Elliott Davis, the owner of one of them, Sumter Ghost Finders, says he is hesitant to hold investigations because clients often "find things they don't want to find."
"Most people just run out and do the investigation, but I'm going to give you a talk first to try and discourage you from having an investigation. I'd say just leave it alone unless it bothers you," Davis said.
Miller said finding evidence is key.
"If it doesn't show up on video, and you can't hear it on audio, it didn't happen," she said.
Following an investigation, the team gathers at Miller and Pera's Prosperity home to review evidence, 35 to 40 hours' worth. The team is firm that no matter the results, nothing is certain.
"Anything that's not normal is paranormal, but we won't ever really know what's going on until we're gone unfortunately, and then we may not even know," Miller said.
Markovsky, a skeptic, nonetheless said he's surprised more people don't believe in spirits. He predicts that unexplained events will keep groups like the A-Team busy.
"Our brains are wired to find patterns in our environment," he said. "You combine that pattern-seeking tendency with cultural factors or religious factors for instance that say our souls will live forever, and it makes sense."