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June 1, 2012
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Tahoe history: Paying a spooky visit to a haunted casino

BROCKWAY, Calif. — The best bargain for a Lake Tahoe visitor might be the $10 tunnel tour and a free drink at the Cal Neva Resort in Crystal Bay and Brockway on the North Shore. It's likely the area's most historic building and it has an incredible view.And then, of course, there are the ghosts.Hans Weig recently showed a tour group the cabin where Hollywood starlet Marilyn Monroe frequently stayed and the Indian Room, which straddles California and Nevada, making it convenient for proprietors to rearrange gambling furniture when alerted to law enforcement inspections.He also told the story of how a 1937 fire destroyed the original structure. But coincidentally, there was enough recently purchased lumber at the site for a 500-man crew to rebuild the casino in 30 days. However, a pamphlet provided by the Cal Neva said it took 100 men 40 days. That's how much of the history is at Tahoe and the Cal Neva — a story based on some kind of fact but, what with all the shenanigans and goings-on, plenty of room is left for interpretation.However, this tour ended with a walk through subterranean passageways and an undeniable palpability: there is something to the ghost stories. Several of the visitors captured shooting streaks of lights — orbs — on cellphone cameras. The videos and still images gave folks a prized Tahoe souvenir and an excuse to cash in their drink tokens at the circle bar.

Who might these spirits be? There are plenty of possibilities. Is one Monroe, who was found dead days after visiting the lake?Or perhaps Frank Sinatra, Cal Neva's most notable — but hardly the most notorious — owner? Maybe folks bumped off by the mob, or gamblers who paid the ultimate price when they could not fulfill their debts? Or how about native American Washoe Indians, who were exterminated from the area?Certainly, there have been plenty of premature deaths around the place. Consider:• Cal Neva's second owner Norman Biltz put a shotgun in his mouth and committed suicide, as his father had done before him.• The wife of the third owner, James MaKay, died in one of the lodge's cabins of a drug overdose.• The man who was the fourth Cal Neva owner was killed in a 1931 gunfight.• Walter Hempel, a longtime employee, was murdered in 1949 in his car parked near the site.• A 22-year-old casino change girl was murdered in 1971 by a 19-year-old bar back.Former Cal Neva tour guide Carl Buehler wrote about strange experiences in the 2010 book, “Mind Blowing True Ghost Stories.”The food and beverage manager took a cellphone image of what looks to be the shape of a human with facial features. He snapped the shot after he felt a chill, “not like a cold chill from freezing temperatures, but like the feeling of ‘something cold' passing right through his body.”The incident occurred at what is considered the epicenter of the ghost sightings, the stage in the Frank Sinatra Room. A music promoter, “Late-Nite” Billy Drewitz, considered a couple of years ago making the venue back into a nightclub. He contemplated using Sinatra's old office beside the stage but was told because of the ghosts no one had ever been able to stay in it very long.

“A few things happened,” said Drewitz, explaining the first incident came when he and a couple of his staff were in the office after a show had ended. A stench from a nearby room grew increasingly odoriferous as the crew grew uncomfortable.“It was like something was in there with us, and the girl that I was with was so scared she had to leave,” Drewitz said. “There was a loud clank and it came from the showroom. Like sheet metal. It was so loud it startled you out of your seat. “Coincidence, who knows? I do know the showroom was completely locked up, and then 20 minutes later there was a sound exactly like that again. It was like someone was telling us they were there.”Weig said it is common for rattled visitors to check out in the middle of the night, especially those staying in Monroe's cabin.Perhaps knowing the Cal Neva's reputation makes it more likely to experience a ghost. Sinatra and his pals are long gone, but the Cal Neva continues to be a top musical venue. Ozomatli recently performed there, and saxophonist Ulises Bella didn't know about the ghosts, but when he was told about them, he said he was disappointed.“I'm always one of those guys who says I want to see a damn ghost already,” he said. “The floating orbs, maybe it's a manifestation of some sort of energy that we don't understand, yet or maybe it's the people that the mob knocked off.”The tunnels were used during Prohibition to transport booze from a boat on the lake up to the casino. The tunnels, now filled in, are said to have been connected to other nearby casinos and hotels which also would sell the illegal hooch.A tunnel underneath the circle bar, and next to a stairwell where Monroe's ghost was seen and a light mysteriously goes on and off, is a place Weig speculated most of the murders at the casino took place.That's where several orbs were photographed on this tour.


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Jun 1, 2012 12:15PM Published Jun 1, 2012 11:45AM Copyright 2012 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.