October 19, 2021

A Ghost Story

by Crime Show

Background show artwork for Crime Show

At first, the house on Beryl Road seemed unremarkable -- just a typical suburban home in Northern Virginia. Then, a young couple moved in and started experiencing strange, ghostly phenomena.


This episode mentions suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, free, confidential help is available 24/7 by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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Transcript

Emma Courtland: Hey, just a quick warning before we get started. This episode is a ghost story, but everything I'm about to tell you really happened. The people are real. The animals are real. And their deaths are real. We also mention suicide in this episode, so please take care when listening.


Rose Donovan: I was just sitting in the newsroom, and going through the last edition of that day's paper.


Emma: This is Rose Donovan. In 1982, she was working as a reporter in Alexandria, Virginia.


Rose Donovan: And every day we ran just a little police beat column. You know, arrests, you know, if there was a fatal car accident or, you know, something kind of newsworthy. And I saw the address on Beryl Road. And I remembered it.


Emma: A few months earlier, Rose had written a story about a house at that very address. But now, according to her paper's police blotter, the house on Beryl Road had just burned down in a terrible fire.


Rose Donovan: I remember being shocked. This was the house I had just written about. You know, that was a little scary.


Emma: So Rose picked up the phone and called the fire department to find out what had happened. And they told her in the early hours of the morning, they'd gotten a call about a two-alarm fire. And when they'd arrived at the scene, they talked to the neighbors who started asking some really weird questions about the house being haunted.


Rose Donovan: They're firefighters, you know? They don't believe in that kind of stuff. But the one guy that seemed really spooked about it was the shift commander who had been on duty. And he said there were a lot of things that were kind of fishy about this that I just can't explain.


Emma: The thing was, the firefighters hadn't been able to figure out what had caused the fire. They'd looked in all the places you'd think to look, but they'd found nothing. The fire was just inexplicable—as were the deaths of the couple who'd gotten trapped inside. So Rose wrote a second story about the house on Beryl Road, though this one was much more serious than the first.


Emma: And then that story got picked up by national outlets, and all over the country, headlines were blaming the deaths of two people on a ghost.


Rose Donovan: "Death in the Haunted House." "Ghost Kills Two." "Fatal Fire Raises Ghostly Questions." "Most Terrifying Story of the Year."


Emma: I'm Emma Courtland. This is Crime Show.


Emma: Months before Rose Donovan had ever heard of the house on Beryl Road, the only thing that distinguished it was its lack of a story.


Jim McClenon: I would just say it was a regular house.


Emma: This is Jim McClenon. He visited the house many times before it burned down.


Jim McClenon: There was really nothing unusual or special about the house. It had a large window that looked out into the backyard. I remember that. And it had a basement.


Emma: The reason Jim spent so much time at the house was because he's sort of a collector of ghost stories.


Jim McClenon: I was an early Ghostbuster, I guess you might say.


Emma: I know. But the thing is Jim, like Rose, is not a nut job. He's actually one of the most credentialled people I've ever interviewed.


Jim McClenon: Well, I have a PhD from the University of Maryland. Got a master's in social work. I'm a retired sociology professor. I worked at Virginia Beach Psychiatric Center for eight years.


Emma: But back in the '80s, Jim was just a young graduate student in sociology trying to figure out what to do for his dissertation.


Jim McClenon: I had just come back from Vietnam, you know? And I had just a very, very difficult time in Vietnam. It's beyond explanation.


Emma: After the war, Jim had questions—big existential ones. And he wasn't finding the answers in his sociology department. So he started looking elsewhere.


Jim McClenon: I was meditating. I was into meditation, and that curiosity sent me to the Journal of Parapsychology. And I was reading the articles and they said that there's a connection between meditating and extrasensory perception.


Emma: Extrasensory perception. A category of psychic abilities that includes telepathy, telekinesis and precognition. None of which Jim believed in at the time. But they were being studied within the walls of traditional academia by a small group of scientists that were calling themselves parapsychologists.


Jim McClenon: At that time period in the United States, the parapsychologists were very much focused on laboratory research. They did experiments in their laboratories. The goal was to try to verify the existence of extrasensory perception.


Emma: If you're like me, when you hear this, your mind immediately goes to movies like Poltergeist and The Exorcist. Fictional movies. And you're not wrong. Within mainstream academia, parapsychology is definitely considered pseudoscience. But this was the Cold War, and there were rumors that the Russians were developing telekinetic super soldiers. So of course, the US government launched their own paranormal research programs. Paranormal research centers were popping up in different places all over the country. Jim got involved in the one at Duke University.


Jim McClenon: That was the heart of parapsychology in the 1960s and '70s and '80s.


Emma: Which is where Jim came to hear the story of Epi and Gary Belofsky—the couple who lived at the house on Beryl Road. Epi and Gary hadn't lived there long. It was just a rental, not their forever home. But they'd made a home of it. They had pets and plants, and a few roommates to save on rent.


Jim McClenon: They were in their late 20s. They were both attractive people. They were regular people. They were fun-loving people. They were friendly.


Emma: The Belofskys didn't seem weird or even eccentric. They were young and in love. But there was this one thing: something in their new, happy home felt off. So they'd called the paranormal institute at Duke University for help, and been referred to Jim, who'd jumped at the opportunity to visit. Because what Jim wanted more than anything was to know for certain that there were more things in heaven and on Earth than he was reading about in his sociology.


Jim McClenon: So I called them up, and Epi invited me over. I came over to their house.


Emma: They told Jim about some of the things they'd been experiencing.


Jim McClenon: They began experiencing glass breaking inexplicably almost from the beginning.


Emma: There was a window pane that cracked mysteriously. And a collection of antiques. One by one, those had started breaking too, smashing to the kitchen floor, seemingly of their own accord. There were also weird sounds. The gutters rattled, and there were loud bangs without any discernible source.


Jim McClenon: The fire alarm going off inexplicably. And that happened more than once, the fire alarms going off inexplicably.


Emma: After that, something really weird had happened. One night, when the Belofskys had some friends over for dinner ...


Jim McClenon: They had these decorated balloons that they had for some kind of party.


Emma: And as each guest sat down at the table, one by one, the balloons ...


Jim McClenon: They inexplicably started bursting. All of them.


Emma: These were just some of the stories the Belofskys told Jim on his first visit to the house. Over the next nine months though, he'd hear plenty more.


Jim McClenon: I would contact them every week and write down whatever stories they would tell.


Emma: And, per his training in sociology, Jim didn't question their stories. He accepted whatever they said, no matter how far-fetched it seemed. The idea wasn't to look for what was true, but for what was true to them. During most of the calls, the Belofskys reported the same kind of mischief. But then one night, something new happened at the house on Beryl Road. Something that changed everything.


Jim McClenon: Epi had a dream of a woman who had spoken to her. And the woman had told her that while she was at work, this woman was hanging out with her husband, you know, kind of mocking her or something. But she didn't take it—this is a dream, you know? She didn't take it that seriously.


Emma: At least not at first. But then other people in the house started to say they'd seen something, too.


Jim McClenon: They saw the apparitional image through the window, through the windows of the house. A woman. They saw a woman.


Emma: And then one day, one of Belofsky's roommates heard from a neighbor that a woman named Mary—just like the lady in Epi's dream—had died in their house less than 10 years ago. According to the neighbors, Mary had actually died by suicide.


Emma: Epi was certain …


Jim McClenon: ... that the woman in her dream was Mary.


Emma: So I don't know anything about ghosts, but my very basic understanding from movies is that ghosts come back because of some great suffering, some unfinished business. Eternal unrest, all of that kind of stuff. And Mary's death would certainly qualify, assuming the neighbors were telling the truth. So Jim called a friend to find out.


Jim McClenon: So I had a friend who was a police officer where I lived, and he got a hold of the police report for me. And it was pretty clear in everyone's mind this was a suicide. She had left insurance papers on the table, and had a history of that type of thing.


Emma: Where was Mary discovered when she had committed suicide?


Jim McClenon: Hanging from a beam in the basement.


Emma: Hanging from a beam in the basement.


Emma: The basement. Which happened to be right underneath the kitchen, where the smoke detectors were sounding endlessly, and Epi's antiques were constantly breaking. But even after all these strange occurrences and the sad story of Mary's demise, Jim still didn't buy that the house on Beryl Road was actually haunted. At this point, his perspective on the whole thing was sociological. Because Epi and Gary believed, that made Mary's ghost as good as real because the effect she was having on them felt real. And Jim wanted to do something to help them with that.


Jim McClenon: So I suggested that we have a kind of like a party. And we call on the spirit, and the idea is you help the spirit go to the light. I'm not a powerful believer in spiritualism, but the idea was to help the people. You want to help the people as much as you can, you know? So that's what we did.


Emma: By this time, Jim had been visiting Epi and Gary on and off for several months, and the three of them had become pretty friendly.


Jim McClenon: There was a certain level of partying going on. A pretty high level of partying. That's a phenomenon that I participated in. [laughs]


Emma: [laughs]


Emma: So when Jim suggested having a party to try to communicate with the ghost of Mary, he meant a party.


Jim McClenon: They invited me over. We drank a bunch of wine, smoked a little bit of dope, you know?


Emma: And then they called on Mary's spirit. And ...


Jim McClenon: Nothing happened. I was hoping something would happen, but nothing happened, you know?


Emma: So nobody saw anything?


Jim McClenon: No. No one saw anything. No, nothing. I had no experiences myself at any time at the house.


Emma: Remember, Jim hadn't only come to the house on Beryl Road to try to help Epi and Gary. He was also hoping to have his own paranormal experience. But after so many months—and a seance party—he hadn't seen a single spooky thing. So when Epi told Jim his services were no longer needed, Jim wasn't that disappointed.


Jim McClenon: They told me that nothing had happened, that Mary had just completely at peace. There's no reason for me to come back.


Emma: At least that's what they told Jim.


Jim McClenon: So I went up to Wisconsin. And I was up in Wisconsin when the next part of the story unfolded.


[00:12:57.19]***


Emma: A few months after Jim's failed 'seance party,' in October, Epi and Gary were contacted by another outsider. This time, it was Rose Donavan, the newspaper reporter.


Rose Donovan: I was the city hall reporter. I covered courts and cops and city council meetings, planning commission meetings, a lot of boring things. And so when I got this assignment, it was like, "Oh, well, this will be fun."


Emma: Rose's editors had asked her to write a story for Halloween. Essentially, just a spooky puff piece about the haunted houses around Alexandria—of which there were many, because Alexandria is an extremely old city. The air there is thick with memories of some of our country's most triumphant—and shameful—moments. There, the footsteps of Washington and Jefferson echo off the cobblestone streets, and you can buy a ticket to visit the ghost of Robert E Lee, who's said to haunt his childhood home. But Rose wasn't interested in those dusty old ghosts. She'd gotten a tip about Epi and Gary Belofsky, the young couple who's haunted house story was making its way around the city.


Rose Donovan: This was not an old town property full of history and full of death and suffering and, you know, war or whatever. This was a split-level house in the suburbs, so that was what made it more interesting and spookier, frankly.


Rose Donovan: So I called them and I talked to Epi. And what I remember is that she didn't want to talk to me. She wouldn't let me come out to the house. She would only do it over the phone. And I think she felt like this is a weird story, and I don't want people to think I'm a weirdo. But she also said she didn't think the ghost wanted publicity. So she was a little afraid to talk to me. She didn't want to kick things up any more than they already were.


Emma: Because, Epi said, the last time they'd involved an outsider, a guy named Jim they'd called from the parapsychology center at Duke University, the haunting had actually gotten worse.


Rose Donovan: She said after he left, Mary acted up. And I think that was one of the times that the smoke came out of the kitchen sink.


Emma: Epi and Gary had made a kind of peace with Mary and her broken dishes and rogue smoke alarms, but after the seance party, after Jim had left, the occurrences had become more mysterious. The smoke unfurling from their kitchen sink was among the most confounding.


Rose Donovan: And so she decided that Mary didn't want to be disturbed, and didn't want her story out there.


Emma: But Rose wasn't worried. She was, after all, a newswoman, and didn't really believe in ghosts anyway. So in spite of Epi's warning, she went ahead and published the story as a Halloween puff piece about the haunted house on Beryl Road. In it, Epi is quoted as saying this about Mary's ghost. Quote, "I feel kind of protected by her. She likes us as much as we like her. If she didn't like us here, she could easily have scared us out."


Emma: Halloween came and went without any word from the Belofskys, until one night, when Rose was sitting in the newsroom reading the paper, and happened to see this news item about the terrible house fire that had killed two people.


Rose Donovan: I saw the little headline. I think it said "Fatal Fire," and the address on Beryl Road.


Emma: Rose couldn't believe it.


Rose Donovan: This was the couple that I wrote about. They died in this fire. And it was shocking, especially, you know, I mean, because that's what newspapers—we cover that kind of stuff all the time. But this was real. These were two people—you know, this was people like me and my age, and people I'd interviewed just a few months earlier.


Emma: Rose got in her car and drove to Epi and Gary's house, but there wasn't much house left to see. Because in between the other modest suburban homes on Beryl Road, in the place where the house should have been, Rose found nothing.


Rose Donovan: It was destroyed. And there was kind of a shell left of it. And that's all there was.


Emma: So blackness, basically?


Rose Donovan: Yeah, very dark. Charred. Sooty. A big burned out hulk of a house.


Emma: Epi had told everyone that the house was haunted. And now she and Gary were dead, and no one had a great explanation for why.


Rose Donovan: The facts are they came home from a party very late at night, early in the morning, 3:00-3:30 in the morning.


Emma: The night before, Epi and Gary and their two roommates had gone out, enjoyed their Saturday evening, and then climbed into bed. Less than an hour later, the fire had started.


Rose Donovan: The fire went up the stairs. And I think Epi was upstairs. She made the first 911 one call from a phone in the master bedroom.


Emma: But it was too late. The fire had gotten too big. Epi couldn't get out.


Rose Donovan: The windows, they said, were too high in the bedroom. They were too high for her to reach. She was a short woman. And so it seemed like she was trapped and she couldn't get out.


Emma: While Epi was stuck upstairs, Gary had gone downstairs to try to rescue their pets.


Rose Donovan: They'd had a litter of kittens that had just recently been born, and so it seemed probable that Gary had gone downstairs trying to gather up kittens closer to where the fire was. And he'd been overcome by smoke.


Emma: But the strange thing was the two roommates they'd been out with that night? They got out of the house alive, with apparent ease. It was just Epi and Gary who hadn't been able to make it out. Trapped and separated, they'd died on different floors of the same house, caught in a fire that had no explicable cause. The fire department had looked in all the usual places, and they came up empty handed. There was no electrical malfunction. No pot left on the stove. No candles left burning. All they could say was that it was an accident of undetermined origins. But there was one thing the investigators had been able to determine: where the fire had started.


Rose Donovan: From the way the fire investigators traced the path of the fire, it started in or near the kitchen sink.


Emma: The kitchen sink. Right above the spot where the woman named Mary had died by suicide. And right where Epi and Gary claimed to have experienced the most paranormal activity.


Rose Donovan: It's really hard not to put those two things together.


Emma: To Rose, this made it feel like a story. But as a journalist, she wasn't sure if she could write it. And neither were her editors when she brought it to them.


Rose Donovan: Yeah, can we write a story that suggests that this ghost burned the house down? And, you know, I don't know that I thought about intentionally killing the couple, but is it okay to write a story about something supernatural, something that we don't we don't know? We don't know if it happened, but it was hard not to make that connection right away.


Emma: This didn't feel like a run of the mill fire. And reporting it as such somehow felt less truthful. It took some time, but eventually Rose's editors agreed: she would report the ghost story. So she called the person who seemed best equipped to comment on that story: Jim McClenon, the Belofsky's former Ghostbuster.


Jim McClenon: I was up in Wisconsin and I got a call from a newspaper reporter, and she informed me that there had been a fire and that they had been killed.


Emma: When Rose told him what had happened, Jim's first reaction was skeptical. The fire couldn't have been paranormal. During the months he spent with them, he'd seen no evidence of paranormal activity. Besides, Gary and Epi were both smokers. They probably just didn't put out their cigarettes before going to bed. But when Jim looked back at the notes he took during his time with the Belofskys, he saw the same thing Rose did: connections he couldn't simply explain away.


Jim McClenon: When I looked at my own notes, it seemed to me that the phenomenon was suggesting or hinting that there might be a fire. I mean, the smoke in the house, and the smoke coming out of the kitchen where the fire originated, and the fire alarms going off. And then the phenomena becoming active right before, it seemed like the phenomena was giving a kind of warning. And here's what concerned me: I think that he disconnected the fire alarms because of it going off.


Emma: Wow.


Jim McClenon: Yeah.


Emma: In disconnecting their fire alarms, Epi and Gary had literally silenced a warning. Unquestionably costing them time in a situation where time is everything. So whether or not Mary's spirit was the source of their disturbances, of the smoke in the sink or the rogue fire detectors, the fact is they'd acted as if she was. And that action may have cost them their lives.


Emma: The Monday after the fire, Rose published her story with the headline: "Death in the Haunted House: Fatal Fire Raises Ghostly Questions." But for all the questions it raised, the story was void of answers, because there simply aren't any. Neither the roommates nor the neighbors nor the fire department have ever been able to explain how the fire started, or why the Belofskys were unable to escape. And neither could Jim. The last time he spoke to Rose, she asked him outright, but all he could tell her for certain was that, "You will never know. As long as you live, you will never know."


Emma: Crime Show is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. This episode was written and produced by Cat Schuknecht and me, Emma Courtland. Crime Show is produced by Jerome Campbell, Cat Schuknecht and Jade Abdul-Malik. Our senior producer is Mitch Hansen. Editing by Devon Taylor. Production oversight by Collin Campbell. Additional production help by Peter Gillstrap. Fact-checking by Nicole Pasulka.


Emma: Theme song by So Wylie. Mixing and sound design by Daniel Ramirez. Additional sound design by Marcus Bagala. Original music by So Wylie, Dara Hirsch and Marcus Bagala.


Emma: Special thanks to Rachel Strom and Taylor Haggerdorn.