A toxic ghost story in Bradenton
Liz Reed got the chills last spring when her screen blinked back the words “MY CHILD,” “CANCER,” and “YOU ARE GUILTY” in quick succession.
BRADENTON — As a resource for contacting the dead, a downloadable app called “Ghost Hunting Tools” would appear to be the Swiss army knife of paranormal research.
The program has instrumentation for detecting electromagnetic activity, electronic voice phenomena and deciphering spirit messages by pairing them with “the closest matching meaning from the built-in dictionary.” But the software is flawed. In fact, the manufacturer’s disclaimer warns consumers it “cannot guarantee accuracy” and is “intended for entertainment purposes only.”
Liz Reed, co-founder of the Paranormal Society of Bradenton, agrees the results are spotty. And this is why she has more standardized devices at the ready when she leads ghost tours through downtown Bradenton and Bradenton Beach. And yet, Reed got the chills last spring when her screen blinked back the words “MY CHILD,” “CANCER,” and “YOU ARE GUILTY” in quick succession.
She remembers the date well, May 25. That’s when she and other local residents took their grievances to a joint meeting of the Manatee County Commission, the school board and the county health department. What the deceased, and the currently ailing, have in common is attendance at the old Bayshore High School in Bradenton. It opened in 1962 before being shuttered in 1998 and demolished.
They suspect contaminated water at the property on 34th Street Northwest and 57th Avenue West — where the current BHS sits — may have contributed to or even caused the deaths of family members. They contend that groundwater analyses of the property have been superficial and incomplete.
“My husband and I were sitting on the porch afterwards, talking about what happened at the meeting and all the people who’ve died,” Reed recalls. “I had accidentally turned (the app) on, and the words popped up.” She shows off the archived digital messages. “It was a real surprise.”
As with all data, the trick is in the interpretation. Accuracy aside, this much is objectively true: Liz Reed and her husband Ron lost their son Ricky, at age 18, to a rare bone cancer, in 1997. They claim he returned to them in unexpected ways almost immediately thereafter. But it would be years before the Reeds considered Bayshore as a potential suspect in his demise. The first questions were raised more than a decade ago, by Bayshore 1981 alumnus Cheryl Jozsa.
Jozsa lost her sister, Terri Lumsden, Class of ’79, to leukemia in 1999. After discovering several other Bayshore classmates died relatively young of similar illnesses, Jozsa created a Facebook page in 2005 as a forum for other concerned former Bayshore students. Hundreds have responded. Cancer, autoimmune diseases and birth defects dominate the self-reported statistics.
Especially noteworthy in those statistics, compiled on Bayshore students from 1978-97, are 25 cases of leukemia, 22 of which have been fatal. For University of North Carolina professor of biostatistics Richard Smith, those results are off the charts.
“Based on the estimated total number of students who attended Bayshore High during those years, and National Cancer Institute statistics on the incidence of leukemia, I estimated there should have been approximately 2 or 3 leukemia deaths in that population,” Smith said in an email. “The observed leukemia rate is ten times what would be expected, and I find it extremely unlikely that such a high rate of occurrences could have occurred by chance.”
Proving linkage difficult
Given the high incidence of cancer mortality in the U.S., however, proving linkage to a single source is a tricky proposition. Yet, because of Jozsa’s public activism, the state is preparing to take yet another look at the persistent controversy.
Tom Iovino, director of Florida’s Department of Health in Manatee County, says among the resources under consideration is the Florida Cancer Registry, which contains a database of cancer cases logged by doctors statewide.
“All the details are still being worked out before we decide the parameters of the testing,” Iovino says. “We’ll probably be making an announcement within a few weeks.”
Grounds-testing at the Bayshore tract, which also hosted Manatee Technical College before it was razed last year, has been periodically conducted for decades, with minimal traces of water contamination detected. However, those investigations have also raised questions about the removal of suspicious underground on-site fuel tanks, as well as missing or incomplete public records concerning the old school’s use of onsite well-water versus city hook-ups.
Last spring, Bradenton hydrogeologist David Woodhouse told county commissioners that investigators not only needed to test water samples at deeper levels — perhaps several hundred feet — they should also consider off-site sources of contamination. He directed their attention to what used to be Riverside Products, located a mile north of Bayshore.
Once listed as a low-level Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the now defunct manufacturing plant discharged carcinogens such as chlorinated solvents, petroleum hydrocarbons, and heavy metals into the local environment. “Plumes of these chemicals” have been mapped, Woodhouse told his audience, as they migrate southward and up-well through fractured limestone and into other water sources. Along the water-flow route is the Bayshore property. The new school is plugged into city water.
“I can’t understand why the hell they only sample in shallow water,” adds Woodhouse, who says that sort of testing could be completed for roughly $1,000, plus labor. “The fact is, there has been no deep-water monitoring.”
The EPA deleted Riverside Products from its Superfund list in July without explanation.
Wanting answers, odd events
The continuing controversy not only has Liz and Ron Reed wanting answers — they think their late son is getting impatient, too.
Ricky attended Bayshore in 1993 as a freshman, where he played football. Grades suffering due to a learning disability, he transferred to Gulf Coast Marine Institute, where he earned his GED.
Ricky began complaining of shoulder pain in 1995, and was prescribed anti-inflammatories for a presumed rotator cuff tear. A year later, after concealing a baseball-sized tumor on his shoulder for months, he tested positive for Ewing’s sarcoma. Surgery and a bone marrow transplant followed, but by 1997, the cancer returned with a vengeance. The disease took Ricky’s life that April, weeks shy of his 19th birthday.
Within days of the funeral, peculiar events began unfolding each morning inside the Reeds’ double-wide mobile home, which they also shared with daughter Jamie. You could almost set your clock: The sound of the sliding door opening to Ricky’s empty bedroom, footfalls down the hall to the bathroom, the bathroom door closing, running water, the gurgle of a flushed toilet, the door opening again, footsteps again, the bedroom door shutting.
“It was like a tape-recorder playing the same old track over and over,” Liz recalls. “We never saw any of this happening, we just heard the noise. It’s what we call residual haunting, it’s from the energy he left behind. We’d have guests who heard it and they’d say ‘What’s that?’ And we’re like, oh, that’s just Ricky getting ready for the day. It was a comfort to me because we still had a piece of him.”
In 2005, the family left the trailer for the house they inhabit today. What the Reeds say they perceived as Ricky’s presence became less ritualistic and more spontaneous.
As a teenager, when he wanted something, such as money or car keys, Ricky often approached mom from behind and gently cradled her neck in the hook of his elbow. Liz feels that sort of mysterious pressure from time to time. It doesn’t spook her. She’s been seeing things no one else can see since she was a kid. It’s one of the reasons she and Ron founded the Paranormal Society of Bradenton in 2013.
On Tuesday evening, Halloween, Liz Reed will present the results of the Society’s investigations into allegedly supernatural occurrences at Old Caples Hall and College Hall on the campus of New College. The free presentation is at 5:15 p.m. at College Hall.
Whether or not the public finds the evidence persuasive remains to be seen. For the mother of a son who will remain forever young, the mystery is no longer about life after death. The real puzzle is about what’s happening in her own neighborhood.
“I think Ricky wants answers for me,” Reed says. “I think he wants me to have peace of mind.”