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Sunday, April 14, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Expedition seeks paranormal pit

Seattle Times staff reporter

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ELLENSBURG — A topographic map spread on the hood of a car showed where the search party would start. There is a hole out there, they believe, a hole that not only appears to be bottomless but has, on at least one occasion, brought an animal back to life.

The hole, the story goes, exists outside of town on land once owned by a man who calls himself Mel Waters. For years, he said, it was used as the neighborhood dump for trash, old appliances, dead cattle. When the hole never filled up, Waters measured its depth by lowering weighted fishing line into it. After 80,000 feet, he gave up. Amazed by this odd place (which dogs and birds avoided), Waters called radio host Art Bell, whose late-night show on conspiracies and the paranormal attracts a huge national audience.

The hole is now lost. Waters — himself a mystery — said he sold the property and won't say where it is. Few people know who he really is. So far, Waters exists only on radio waves, with a story many think is bunk. But tales of a deep hole in Ellensburg have circulated for years. Hoax or not, Waters' appearances before Bell's 10 million listeners have elevated an old local legend into a national paranormal mystery.

Ever since Waters first called Bell's show in 1997, listeners have followed the story closely, posting each new clue on their chat page, melshole.com. They believe the hole is about 10 miles west of town on a place called Manastash Ridge.

Before the search party headed out the other day from its staging area at the Copper Kettle on Eighth Street, member Brian Christ of Ellensburg, who would wait at the base camp, warned the others they were in danger.

"People know you're out here, right?" he asked.

Christ was clearly nervous. He'd heard what Waters said happened after he went public — that soldiers in yellow gear cordoned off his property and threatened to "find" a drug lab on it if he didn't cooperate. He also knew other details Waters told Bell: how one neighbor claimed to have thrown a dead dog in the hole, only to see it later frolicking in the woods; how another saw a black beam emanating from the hole; how transistor radios brought to the hole play programs from the past.

Charlette LeFevre, a search coordinator, had another concern: lining up 30 people for an expedition photo. "On the count of three," she said, "everybody say 'Mel's Hole.' "

Search party strikes out

The quest for Mel's Hole is in its sixth year. A recent appearance by Waters on Bell's Coast to Coast AM show (heard in Seattle on KOMO-AM), convinced many it could be found. Bundled up for cold weather were, among other searchers, a physicist, a father and son from Seattle, three Los Angeles amateur filmmakers, a family from Enumclaw, members of a Vancouver, B.C.-based paranormal investigation team and a shaman.

The group struck out from the Copper Kettle toward Manastash Ridge, the site Waters had mentioned on the radio. Mel's Hole, they believe, could be a massive lava tube or what LeFevre calls a Mount Rainier blowhole.

But Pat Pringle, a geologist with the state Department of Natural Resources, said the area's landscape, formed more than 12 million years ago by a volcanic lahar, makes a hole of such depth unlikely. He admitted that odd things exist in nature, but doubts a hole like Mel's is possible in the brittle volcanic rock near here. Even if it is, he's sure the heat of the Earth would snap a fishing line long before it reached 80,000 feet.

LeFevre, though, remained convinced that Mel's Hole would be a great find — and possibly a sign of great danger. "Every geologist in the world should be here," she said. "They need to pay attention to this."

The searchers came prepared, carrying maps and metal detectors. One had a Global Positioning System reader. As they hiked up the trail, Red Elk, the shaman, assumed the lead. He said he'd seen the hole in 1961.

Betsy Wise of California walked with a metal detector slung on her back. She suffers from migraines and hoped to find an answer to the headaches out here. Others were drawn by a more spiritual impulse, viewing the hole as a clue to how the universe is ordered.

After 10 minutes, the group reached a cattle gate, where slash piles and clear-cut ridges defined the landscape.

Red Elk (or Gerald Osborne) wore a pouch around his neck that contained a half-dollar-sized piece of what looked like squashed pewter. He said the object, found in the middle of a road, was from a UFO.

The place to search, he said, was a jumble of tree limbs and stumps off to the right. "Dig in," he said. "I'm going to take a break."

A few people scrambled over to the pile. Others milled about. They discussed how to measure gases leaking from the Earth through the hole. They argued over whether a mass spectrometer, a frightfully expensive machine that measures ions, would help. They lamented not bringing a Geiger counter.

Sean Kennedy of the Paranormal Amateur Research Association in Vancouver, B.C., checked the coordinates on his GPS receiver. Inspired by "Ghostbusters" to plumb the unexplained, he considers searches like this just another kind of (serious) hobby. "Some people play golf," he said.

A searcher tripped over a snow-covered log. "Be careful of the logs," Kennedy yelled. "We were on a sasquatch expedition and someone snapped a leg."

Talk of the town

Long before anyone heard of Mel Waters, people in Ellensburg were talking about a hole so deep it wouldn't fill up.

Jay Nickell, 34, who grew up in Ellensburg, remembers a hole about seven miles from Manastash Ridge where, as a teenager, he and his buddies rode dirt bikes. On a few occasions, they came across a hole that sounds like Mel's: too deep to see bottom, and rocks hurled down it made no sound.

Among snowmobilers, talk is of a hole up on Manastash Ridge. Trish Swanson, who works at Central Washington University, recently drove past a hole that some friends joked was Mel's.

Rodney, who works at a snowmobile dealership in town and wouldn't give his last name, said a hole on the ridge — or at least the story of one — has been common knowledge in town for decades. "Lots of people talk about it," he said. "Could be something out there — but I've never seen it."

Skeptics traipse along

Up on the ridge, the search was bogging down. Red Elk had long since given up, preferring instead to lecture on a world called Inner Earth beneath the surface. With giant lizards that make sex slaves of humans, the place sounded a bit like the 1980s mini-series "V."

Many searchers know each other only through the Mel's Hole chat page. The expedition offered a chance to meet face to face. With no sign of the hole or trouble, the search turned into a social occasion.

Tim Withee of Auburn, the resident skeptic on the expedition, doubts there is a Mel's Hole. The others, he said, are too quick to accept Waters' story. "I don't think I'd call this search very scientific," he said. "It's like adult cartoons, that's what it is."

The Davis family, too, wasn't too keen on stories of giant lizards or black beams. But the Enumclaw residents, here for 17-year-old Nick's high-school project, agreed a super-deep hole was possible. The father, Kevin, grew up across the street from a coal mine. As a kid, he'd tossed rocks into the shaft, often never hearing them hit bottom.

"But we didn't drop cows or refrigerators," he said.

At base camp, Christ had big news. An offshoot of the party drove farther up the road to see if anything stood out. They stopped at an old driveway with a chain strung between two sagging posts. The area seemed promising.

"That's exactly the area where the hole would be," Christ explained. It became obvious there would be another search. People talked excitedly about what would be a truly great discovery.

Ask a scientist about Mel's Hole and you'll likely be laughed at. Tell a date you want to traipse around in the snow with a guy who believes in lizard people and you shouldn't expect a nightcap.

But the people searching for Mel's Hole don't expect everyone to believe them. They're used to being called crazy. For Los Angeles filmmaker Buddy Bolton, at least, what the public thinks is hardly the point.

"It's an exploration of faith," he said. "But there's an essence of reality to it that I think is undeniable.

"We heard Mel's voice."

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