Real-life ghost whisperer
One woman’s haunting breathes new life into Chico’s most mysterious cold case
Thirty-four years after Marie Elizabeth Spannhake was abducted in Chico and, police believe, murdered by a notorious North State criminal, the case has been reopened. New information regarding the location of her body, in the forest of Shasta County, was brought to Red Bluff police by a local psychic two years ago. Now she’s been told, after all this time working with investigators, that she can finally relate her story.
Ten years ago, Jodi Foster hopped on a train with her 2-year-old daughter, Hannah, and made her way from rural Montana to Chico. She had fond memories of this town, where she’d spent a summer in 1997 caring for her grandmother. With the help of a few friends, she found a nice, two-bedroom apartment on Parmac Road and moved their modest belongings with hopes of creating a home.
But within mere hours of being in the new apartment, Foster got an uneasy feeling. It was as if someone was watching her, she said. Unable to put her finger on what was wrong, she pushed the feelings aside, reassuring herself that her cute, clean apartment was just fine.
Something lingered, though, and before long she started having dreams, vivid accounts of strange events and places she’d never been. The first of these dreams took place in her new apartment complex. There was a young man, in his late teens or early 20s, with bell-bottom pants and glasses. He was with someone Foster couldn’t make out, and it felt like, in the dream, these people were stalking a girl.
Another dream placed her in a meadow, with a large lava rock in front of her. She could see snow-capped mountains in the distance and sensed the smell of farm animals. She heard the sounds of a stream nearby and also saw a small marker that read “A17.”
It wasn’t just dreams that haunted her in that apartment. Lights turned on in the middle of the night, her clocks—all of them—mysteriously read the wrong times, objects moved on their own, blinds opened and closed with no help. What’s more, most of these events occurred in the wee morning hours, between 2 and 6, and a good portion of them happened at 3:37 a.m. exactly. What that meant, she wasn’t quite sure.
Hannah also had visions of the girl. She called her “My Liz” and drew pictures of the guardian angel who kissed her forehead at night. The angel had dark-brown hair worn in a flip.
“I thought she was one of my mom’s friends,” Hannah, now 12, said during a recent interview. Only 2 at the time, she had thought the girl was real.
“Who do you call?” Foster asked. “Who do you call when all the lights in your home turn on in the middle of the night, or your telephone cord starts swinging like a jump rope? The police? I called the police once, and they thought I was crazy.”
The final, and most graphic, of the dreams Foster had while living in the Parmac Road apartment was extremely detailed. She saw a girl, with dark-brown hair, in the basement of a home. A man was there with her, and Foster watched as he hung the girl’s naked body by her hands to the ceiling. He seemed to be enjoying this, and his enjoyment only grew as he fondled the girl and whipped her, eventually shooting her in the stomach. He continued to fondle her before slitting her throat, which sent blood streaming down her body.
In this dream, Foster watched the man take a gold watch from the girl’s wrist before leaning over to bite off her nipple, both of which he then placed in a small wooden box along with a lock of her hair. He then walked upstairs, to where his wife was rocking back and forth on the couch, crying. He told her to go down and see what he would do to her if she did not listen to him. She complied, walked downstairs to where the girl still hung from the ceiling, and proceeded to clean off her body.
The couple then took the body from the rafter, wrapped it in a baby-powder-blue blanket, and put it in the back of their small blue car in the driveway. Then they were off, driving through a town and then onto Highway 44 before turning onto a dirt road that had a sign that read A17. They parked and the man got out with a shovel and dug a shallow grave. Then the couple carried the body to the grave and buried it.
That’s when Foster woke up.
Janice Hooker was clearly nervous. She had left her husband a few months back and decided it was time to talk with police about what he’d done—to her and others. She agreed, after a promise from the Tehama County district attorney that she would have immunity, to tell her story.
It began in 1973, when she was just 16 and impressionable. She’d met a nice man, or so she thought, and they fell in love. His name was Cameron Hooker, and they married two years later.
One thing that immediately bothered Janice about Cameron was his desire to hurt her. He took her into the woods on multiple occasions and hung her from a tree with leather wrist straps. She didn’t care for the pain, but married him anyway. When the whipping got violent she declined to be a part of it anymore. But her husband still had cravings.
During a shopping trip to Chico on Jan. 31, 1976, the Hookers saw a young woman walking along Mangrove Avenue around 4 p.m., Janice told police. They offered to give her a ride, and she hopped into their two-door Dodge Colt. They stopped at her destination, at the corner of Rio Lindo Avenue and Parmac Road, and Janice opened the door to let the girl out. Cameron changed his mind, she said, and grabbed the girl by the wrist and pulled her back into the car. Janice said she later learned, from looking at the girl’s driver’s license, that her name was Marie Elizabeth Spannhake.
Janice’s memories from this evening were foggy at best when she finally told her story to Red Bluff police in late 1984. Transcripts from that interview show a frazzled Janice, often misunderstanding questions and sometimes remembering events and then remembering them differently a few moments later. The picture she painted, however, was eerily similar to the visions Foster had upon moving to Chico. Some of the details from that interview, to this reporter’s knowledge, have never been made public until now.
Driving north on Highway 99, Cameron pulled over and took out a wooden box that he’d built. He put it over Spannhake’s head and continued driving until they reached Red Bluff, where the couple lived. Before driving home, however, they stopped to get a bite to eat at the Jolly Cone on Antelope Boulevard.
Once at their Oak Street home, Cameron went inside, leaving the two women in the car. Spannhake was hysterical, Janice said. She tried to calm her down, telling her everything would be OK. But it wouldn’t.
“It was like his toy, you know?” Janice told police. She had stopped letting her husband whip her, so he needed another outlet.
Cameron carried Spannhake into the basement and hung her from hooks in the rafters. Janice stayed upstairs, on the couch, in shock.
Here’s where the story gets muddled.
At some point in the evening, Janice said, Cameron and Spannhake were in the bathroom upstairs. He’d tried to cut her vocal cords but didn’t do it correctly, and he called to Janice to hold a towel up to Spannhake’s neck. “It didn’t work,” he told her.
Then Cameron took Spannhake back down to the basement, where she was once again hung from the rafters. She was naked. Janice said she didn’t know exactly what happened while they were down there. “I don’t want to know,” she said. Cameron came up to ask for a piece of paper and a pencil. The girl wanted to say something but couldn’t speak, he said. He came back up with the note, which Janice read. It said something along the lines of “I’ll give you anything you want if you let me go.”
The next thing Janice remembered, Cameron came upstairs distraught. “He said, ‘What did I do?’” she said. Spannhake was dead. He’d shot her at least twice in the stomach with a pellet gun—“that was a torture thing,” Janice said—and then strangled her, he told his wife. He asked her to get a blanket so they could wrap up the body and bury it. She helped him carry Spannhake’s body out to the car, and then they drove up to Redding and east on Highway 44 toward Lassen Park.
It was snowing, Janice remembered, and when Cameron pulled off onto a dirt road, the ground was muddy. He got out with a shovel and dug a hole about three feet deep, and she again helped him carry the body to the grave and bury it. They trudged through the snow, she told police.
They didn’t keep any of Spannhake’s belongings except for the watch she’d been wearing. The rest they brought out to a camp area and burned in a barbecue pit. Cameron kept a watch and used it for a number of years until one day at work at Diamond International Lumber Mill it got crushed in one of the conveyors.
“I laid in bed for weeks, so sick,” Janice said.
After the frighteningly vivid nightmare, Foster moved out of her apartment. She couldn’t take it anymore. She made an appointment with Butte County Behavioral Health, thinking she might be crazy, and for a few days she stayed next door with a friend. One afternoon, as she was taking a walk around the complex with her daughter, she met an older man who told her an interesting story.
She wasn’t the first person to be haunted in that apartment, he told her. In fact, nobody seemed to live there very long. Then he told her of a couple who lived in Red Bluff who had been in the papers for kidnapping a girl and keeping her as a sex slave for seven years. She hadn’t been the couple’s first victim, he told Foster. The first girl they abducted had lived in her apartment.
She was shocked. Perhaps this girl was trying to talk to her. Perhaps her dreams meant something after all.
Marie Elizabeth Spanhakke moved to Chico from Cleveland, Ohio, in December 1975. She moved in with her fiancé, John Baruth, at 125 Parmac Road. According to police interviews following her disappearance, Spanhakke was just 18 years old and had been looking for work in January 1976. She’d applied at a few employment agencies and had secured a part-time job as a model at a local camera shop.
Spanhakke was an attractive brunette, 5-foot-5 and 110 pounds. On the afternoon of Jan. 31, she and Baruth, six years her senior, went to the flea market inside the Eagles Hall at 19th and Mulberry streets. They got into a fight and Spannhake left, first asking directions home as she wasn’t quite familiar with her new town. She headed out on foot.
That was the last anyone saw of her. Baruth, worried because she hadn’t come home, filed a missing-persons report Feb. 2. He said nothing was missing from the apartment, clothes were as they should be, toothbrush and suitcases still in place.
A few odd pieces of evidence led the police first to suspect Baruth in Spannhake’s disappearance. For one, more than one person mentioned Spannhake had grown tired of their relationship and wanted out. Spannhake’s mother, who lived in Cleveland, said Baruth might have been into the drug culture, though he said he’d given that up. Then there was a strange phone call he received while the detective was at his apartment. The person on the other end simply hung up. He said that had happened multiple times since Spannhake’s disappearance.
In the end, the police invited Baruth to submit to a polygraph test and he agreed. He passed.
A canvass of the area surrounding the Eagles Hall yielded next to nothing, as did a number of interviews with vendors there. When talking with the manager of the Parmac Road apartment complex, police learned that Spannhake had been good friends with a young woman named Elaine who lived in a nearby unit. She’d moved out Jan. 31 and was not located for a police interview.
In 1984, Janice Hooker decided to leave her husband. She had participated in too much pain and had had enough. A few conversations with her pastor and other women had led her to the realization that the love she shared with Cameron was not normal. The sadism had come between them, in the form of another woman.
Colleen Stan had been hitchhiking from Oregon down to Westwood, near Lake Almanor. It was May 1977 and, standing on Antelope Boulevard in Red Bluff, she passed up two potential rides before coming upon a decent looking couple in a small blue Dodge Colt, the woman holding an infant. Though her instincts strongly urged her to run from this couple when they stopped at a gas station for snacks, she resisted her better judgment and trudged on.
Before long, they took a side route onto a dirt road, pulled over and the man, Cameron Hooker, put a knife to her throat. Then he grabbed the “head box” and put it on Stan.
Stan was 20 years old when she was picked up by the Hookers, about the same age as Janice. She was 27 when she was let go in 1984. The story hit national headlines, possibly the most sensational news to come out of this area ever. It was dubbed the “girl in the box” or “seven-year sex slave” case.
Cameron went to trial in late 1985. Janice and Stan both took the witness stand, describing in great detail the torture and brainwashing Stan had gone through, spending the better part of those seven years inside a wooden box beneath the Hookers’ bed. The defense attorney made the case that Stan was a willing participant in most of the 10 felony counts of sex abuse Cameron was charged with. After all, she’d been allowed to go on family outings, had been seen by neighbors working in the garden, had even been granted 24 hours with her family in 1980—and she never tried to escape.
Stan had a serious case of brainwashing and Stockholm syndrome, the prosecution argued. Shortly after her abduction, she was presented with a “slave contract,” was given the name “K” and told she must obey her master, Cameron, or be taken away and tortured to the brink of death. Janice did nothing to dispel these claims, once telling Stan that she was just as much a slave as K.
Janice had been granted immunity in exchange for giving the police any information regarding the previous abduction and murder of Spannhake, as well as the kidnapping and torture of Stan. She’d given the police plenty of information regarding the Spannhake case, but her efforts to show law enforcement where the body was buried had been futile. So while Cameron faced 11 felony counts—10 of them sex-related and the 11th a kidnapping charge—Janice faced none.
Cameron Hooker was found guilty of the kidnapping and rape of Colleen Stan and sentenced to 104 years in prison. He is currently serving at the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility at Corcoran State Prison, south of Fresno.
“I’m just glad he won’t be able to hurt me or anybody else again,” Stan said during a press conference following the trial.
Hooker will be eligible for parole in 2012.
In the years that followed Foster’s move out of the apartment on Parmac Road, she continued to have dreams about the girl she grew to know as Marie Elizabeth Spannhake, or Marliz, as she used to be called. They were infrequent but kept her thinking about her strange haunting. After a long time of ignoring the issue, she finally decided to do some research.
A visit to the Enterprise-Record offices yielded the first pictures Foster had ever seen of Spannhake. They were shocking, as they matched closely the depictions Hannah had drawn as a child, hairdo and all.
Then came a strange string of coincidences. A random meeting yielded information that Colleen Stan may have moved to Chico. Another acquaintance told her that Janice Hooker, now going by her maiden name, Lashley, had worked at Butte County Behavioral Health. The third such coincidence landed her on what she believed to be Janice’s doorstep. Driving in town one day, she suddenly got hysterical and had to stop the car and get out to calm down. At the mailbox of the house she was in front of was a woman who looked exactly like Janice. She later learned, and this reporter confirmed, that the address was in fact that of Janice Lashley.
Then she got a call from a television show, Psychic Kids, wanting to profile Hannah for an upcoming episode. A friend had apparently tipped them off. She agreed, and the camera crews took over her home for a week in 2008. After the taping was finished, the show’s producers were surprised that Hannah showed no fear of her psychic visions.
“Weren’t you afraid?” they asked her, looking at detailed drawings she had made of the girl she called “My Liz.” She said, “No.”
“It’s not all about being scared,” Hannah said in a recent interview. “It’s about having a gift,” Foster agreed.
“They asked us if we wanted to go to the mountains to try to uncover the body,” Foster said. “Somehow I knew I wasn’t supposed to do that, so I said no.”
In the end, the producers decided against airing the episode. That was fine by Foster, but she did learn something during the taping. She’d received a psychic and psychological evaluation. It served to strengthen her belief that she wasn’t crazy, but rather gifted. Shortly thereafter, she decided to contact the Chico Police Department. She spoke with Sgt. Rob Merrifield.
“He listened to my story and referred me to the Red Bluff Police Department,” Foster said. “But he told me, ‘Stranger things have happened.’ ”
Merrifield is a self-professed skeptic. He doesn’t believe in psychics, he said. But when Foster contacted the police in Red Bluff, they were excited to hear from her—surprised, but excited. Apparently, the day she called, at the exact time she called, officers were meeting to discuss whether to reopen the Spannhake case. Her phone call sealed the deal, she said.
Sgt. Jason Beeman was close-lipped about the case during a recent phone conversation, but he confirmed that, yes, Foster had contacted the Red Bluff Police Department and, yes, she did give them information regarding the Spannhake case. He said that because it was an ongoing investigation, however, he could not release any specifics.
“There’s no question in my mind over whether or not he killed her,” Merrifield said of Cameron Hooker and Spannhake. Without a body, however, it’s mostly Janice’s word against that of her accomplice. That wasn’t enough to stand up in court.
Foster is convinced they’ve made some headway, and she hopes that she’s helped in some way. For a stretch of time, she said, she received phone calls from Red Bluff police on almost a weekly basis. A year ago, a detective made an appointment with her and a Department of Justice investigator. They talked for three hours in a local Starbucks. They had a map, and she gave them the most detailed description she could of the location where she believes Spannhake’s body is buried, down to exactly how many miles it is from Red Bluff. She herself has never made the trip and declined an invitation from this reporter to travel there.
“I’m afraid it will influence my memory of my visions,” she said. Plus, the police specifically asked her not to go there, and she didn’t want to render herself useless if they need further information.
Janice Lashley is a registered associate social worker in Butte County and has been since 1998. She keeps a low profile, but Merrifield said he believes she’s maintained a friendly relationship with the Red Bluff Police Department. She now works for Colusa County Behavioral Health. A voicemail message was not returned.
Stan also lives in the area, working as an office manager. She spoke out last year after the Jaycee Dugard case hit newsstands. She did not respond to an e-mail request for an interview.
As for Foster, she’s writing a book about her experience, to be titled Perfect Miracle. (In the interest of full disclosure: This reporter is editing Foster’s book.)
“I know she’s tried to contact other people over the years in that apartment complex,” Foster said of Spannhake. “Maybe because I’m a sensitive psychic I was able to experience more of the hauntings than others. I was able to have the sensitivity and eventually logically put it together.”
Since her experience in 2000, she has talked with numerous other people about being haunted in the same apartment and in the complex in general. Some merely witnessed strange occurrences such as radios turning up to full volume on their own. Others saw visions of a girl—most were young children.
“When I’ve thought of my experience, I’ve asked myself, what is the perfect miracle?” Foster said. “Is it finding the remains and bringing closure to an old case, or is it bringing to light what happened and where the people who were involved are now? I’ve come to the conclusion that becoming aware is the perfect miracle. [The story] couldn’t lie dormant. I want people to be aware and to be able to make choices.”