Visit to Haunted Jail helps local families during the holidays

Visit to Haunted Jail helps local families during the holidays

As if a century-old jail that once housed the worst of Williamson County isn’t scarey enough, the narrow walkways and cell blocks will be especially creeped out this month as thousands of visitors wind their way through for a good cause.

First opened to prisoners in 1888, the old Williamson County Jail was closed in 1992 after it had been home to untold numbers of violent felons including the likes of more modern criminals like Henry Lee Lucas. Today, the jail is undergoing a horrific transformation as volunteers outfit it for a haunting like none other in Central Texas.

“People come through here and tell us it is the scariest haunted house in Central Texas, and some get so scared while they’re waiting in line outside that they never make it through the door,” said Sgt. Gary Haston.

Officers from the Williamson County Sheriff’s Department and employees from throughout county government are volunteering their time this month to make the old jail a frigtening attraction — all to raise money for the Brown Santa program. Every year, the Brown Santa charity of the sheriff’s office provides gifts for hundreds of economically disadvantaged families during the holidays. In 2010, Brown Santa raised enough money to provide gifts for 2,100 children from 800 families living in the unincorporated areas of Williamson County including the Liberty Hill area.

Captain Fred Thomas, president of Williamson County Brown Santa, said the haunted jail, now in its third year, is the primary source of funding for the charity. And putting it all together is a collaborative effort between the sheriff’s office and other county departments, which volunteer every year to decorate jail cells.

Haston said each Halloween, the jail gets more scarey as volunteers get more creative. But it may be the things one can’t see that make the jail an uncomfortable place to be — even in the daytime.

“Oh, it’s haunted. There’s no doubt about that,” said Lee Bankston, who provides maintenance and security support for both the old jail and the current one. Like so many others who have worked in the jail, Bankston shares stories of unexplainable events and witnessed for himself as ghost hunters captured images on film of what appeared to be someone standing in a jail corridor.

“We were at that end and the flash on the camera went off down here,” he recalls as he shows The Independent where the ghost appeared. “It caught (on film) someone’s legs from just below the knees.”

Lt. Rick Pena worked one of the last shifts in the old jail before it was closed in 1992. He said he regularly was one of only two officers assigned to a shift watching over as many as 200 prisoners. He said it was not unusual to hear sounds of wind blowing through the jail when the windows were closed and all was still outside. Occasionally, a window would break for no apparent reason and the heavy iron doors would slam when no one was nearby.

But perhaps the most unsettling thing were the voices that could be heard at the quietest of times — voices that were loud enough to startle sleeping inmates. Pena said prisoners regularly complained about them. “It’s hard to explain,” said Pena, who was hesitant to attribute the unexplainable occurrences to paranormal activity.

“But there were a lot of things happening there that just didn’t make sense or couldn’t be explained.”

Pena, a former Austin police officer whose first job with Williamson County was in the old jail in 1987, remembers vividly an unexplainable experience he had on a night shift as he was preparing to distribute medications to the inmates.

“I had all the meds in a box labeled for each inmate and was about to pass them out when someone called out to me and I had to walk away for a minute,” he said. “When I got back, all the pills were mixed up.”

Pena, now 55, was one of only two officers on duty that night supervising a crowded jail, he said. His first thought was that his partner was playing a practical joke. But once again, something happened on a cell block to distract him from the task at hand, and when he returned a short time later, the pills were all back in the correct containers just as they had started. The other officer denied any involvement, and Pena said he never figured out what happened.

Haston, who works in the law enforcement division of the sheriff’s office, said in recent days as he has been decorating in advance of the Oct. 21 opening of the haunted jail, he has heard all kinds of unexplained sounds.

“The other day I was on the second floor and I heard someone calling my name,” he said, adding that he was the only one in the building.

Haston said the voice was so clear that he went downstairs and looked outside. There were no cars and no sign of life. He added that in one particular place on the second floor, he has repeatedly attempted to attach a black plastic decoration to a wall using various types of adhesive. While the same material will hold on other parts of the same wall, every time that he leaves and returns to it, it is has fallen.

“When I’ve been here working by myself, I’ve heard doors slam and felt cool breezes from nowhere,” he said, adding that all of the windows and doors were closed at those times. “I’ve actually seen the doors close by themselves.”

Haston said after working on the jail’s horror decor for a couple of years, he has learned a few things about how to keep visitors intrigued and on their toes.

“It all starts outside…,” he warned.

Before You Go: The haunted house is not handicapped accessible. Tours require climbing stairs and walking for about 20 minutes. Nightmare on Jail Hill 312 Main Street, Georgetown 7-11 p.m. Oct. 21-22, Oct. 28-29 $10/Adults, $5 Children ages 9-12 (Children 12 and under must be accompanied by a parent. Children 8 and under are not admitted. No refunds.)