Tag Archives: Ryan Roenfeld

Seeking Darkness in the Woods

August 20, 2018 by and
Photography by contributed
Illustration by Derek Joy

Touring Hummel Park with Midwest Paranormal History Tours

story by Lisa Lukecart

Jamie Nestroyl walks up the short stone steps in the middle of the “Devil’s Punchbowl” at Hummel Park. The wind rips through the bowl one way, then rapidly switches directions. It feels like someone is watching, somewhere off in the covert corners of the woods. Tree roots sever the worn path, reaching skeletal fingers across the dirt. The hushed silence of the dense foliage seems an eerie reminder of rumored satanic rituals. 

The thick, humid air suffocates Nestroyl as the sun descends into twilight. Along with friend Kacie Ransome, they step from the stairs onto a road curving off into sinister shadows.

“Ohhhhhh…that’s scary. Take a picture of it,” Nestroyl says. 

She is dressed comfortably for the hike in a white Midwest Paranormal History Tours t-shirt, blue jeans, and tennis shoes. As Ransome takes out her phone, Nestroyl turns around. 

Her blue eyes widen…widen…widen…as the primordial urge to flee tickles her spine.

Someone, no, something is standing in the middle of the road. It appears human in form with legs, arms, and a torso. Her boyfriend is 6 foot, 4 inches tall, but this thing is at least eight feet and more massive than any mortal man. Sure, it could be a tall person…but not with yellow glowing eyes. Oh no, it definitely wasn’t human.

The creature stares at them. The shadowy figure reveals no other discernible details. No clothes, no face, no hair. It reminds her of a grainy old photograph. And yet, the fading sunlight doesn’t penetrate its bleak blackness. 

It’s darker than the dark, Nestroyl realizes. 

Nestroyl’s limbs freeze and her chest feels heavy, as if weighed down by a cinder block. She swats at Ransome. When her friend turns around and catches a glimpse of those crazy gleaming eyes, Ransome bolts, screaming as she retreats. Nestroyl doesn’t stick around, either. She follows her hysterical companion, sneakers slapping down the stairs.  

 A dozen fellow hikers in their group rush over to discover the cause of commotion. The ghost hunt was on, but Nestroyl (the founder of Midwest Paranormal History Tour) knows the “Shadow Man” is gone. For now. 

This isn’t Nestroyl’s first brush with the unknown. She has seen full apparitions and really alarming things since she was a child. Now, as a side job, Nestroyl takes folks on supernatural tours to cemeteries, forts, and hikes all around Omaha for an apt-priced $13. Hummel Park is one of her destinations.

Hummel has a wicked history of freaking people out. Hell, even the entrance sign looks like a gravestone. The old pavilion, since torn down, once issued a written warning to “abandon hope all who enter.” Reports of inverted pentagrams, swastikas, and other graffiti have littered the walls. The Devil’s Punchbowl was rumored to be a place of satanic rituals, including animal sacrifices in a smoky fire pit. Most are unsubstantiated rumors, but the urban legends and myths have blackened the beauty of the unmanicured wild pathways. Several are rooted in evil reality while others are just tales told around campfires. 

The legends are tangled and distorted since most have been passed down by word of mouth. One of the urban legends suggests that cannibalistic albino people live in the trees at Hummel, ready to sink their sharp teeth into exposed flesh. Another version of the story claims that they perform the satanic rituals and live in a remote cabin somewhere in the woods. 

Some people claim to have seen the ghost of Jacob Clatanoff, an actual German immigrant who once lived there in the 1900s. His wife supposedly murdered him and then ran off with her lover. Or take the old hermit. He’s missing a nose in some cases, fingers in another. Either way, he’s out to get wanderers. Or try the Devil’s Staircase (also called the Staircase to Hell, or Morphing Stairs). Count the steps up. Then down. Get the same number? Probably not. The stairs are cracked and broken so getting the correct answer isn’t likely. Oh, if the count is the same, feel free to ask the devil for a wish. The price? Your soul. 

People have allegedly killed themselves in Hummel Park, plunging to their demise on the steep eastern side of a natural cliff called the Devil’s Slide. The Omaha Police Department reports most suicides are initially documented as simply a death report, which makes it difficult to search for an exact number at Hummel. 

It has been said that the trees bend and bow in terror because of all the lynchings during the Red Summer of 1919. Even though many of these crimes went unreported or undocumented, it is highly unlikely any happened at Hummel, and there is no historical evidence to support the theory.

After witnessing the shadowy figure on the road, Nestroyl still insists that “there is no way these 202 acres aren’t cursed.” 

Lisa Reda, who has been a member of the UNO Paranormal Society since 2014 and has her own group, Paranormal Energy, has not seen any evidence of supernatural activity in the park. After a meeting four years ago, members decided to do a short investigation of Hummel on a bright sunny afternoon. Spirits have no concept of day and night. Most of the infrared and ultraviolet equipment, though, is optimal after the sun has set. And nighttime provides less noise contamination. Most of what the group found could be explained. For example, any meter readings probably came from power lines. 

“Just because we didn’t get any evidence, doesn’t mean nothing is there. Anytime there is a slightest natural explanation, you have to go with the natural explanation first,” Reda explains. “But if you were going to kill someone and ditch a body, this is the place to do it. Paranormal aside, it is just a creepy place.”

Aside from the urban legends, Hummel Park also has a long and unfortunate history of real-life horror: petty crimes, stolen vehicles, assaults, rape, and murder. Nevertheless, teenagers continue to sneak in for spine-tingling fun, attempting to call up spirits with Ouija boards and violating the park curfew in the process.

Two years ago Greg Sokolik III, along with four friends, went to Hummel near midnight (it closes at 9 p.m., earlier than most parks) for just that kind of an adventure. The 20-year-old says he left right after he was approached by a woman in a tight mini-skirt and tube top who asked if he wanted a “missus for the night.”

“Pick up a prostitute. Dump a dead body. That’s Hummel Park,” says Sokolik, referring to the infamous murder of Laura LaPointe. The victimized sex worker’s nude and bloody body was left in a ditch near the park. An empty brandy bottle and a six-foot-long tree limb were close by her corpse. Four other prostitutes beat her to death for money, a sum of $25 in total. 

Victims of crimes at Hummel have included innocent children. The heavily wooded area made headlines again with the tragic murder of 12-year-old Amber Harris. She was found in a shallow grave at the park in 2006, nearly six months after her disappearance. A cross necklace clung to her remains. Roy Ellis was convicted of killing her and sentenced to death. Ellis allegedly liked to intimidate women, and his former girlfriend told investigators that Ellis drove her to Hummel, dug a grave, and threatened to put her in it.

Ransome lived a block and a half from Harris at the time of her murder. 

“It’s more real to me now than just high school ghost stories,” Ransome recalls. 

Tracy Stratman, the recreation manager for the City of Omaha Parks, has been fighting Hummel’s gory reputation for years. Hummel has been cleaned up to make it a positive experience for visitors. The day camp is focused on nature-rich activities such as hiking, camp games, and even a chicken coop. Camp counselors no longer tell ghost stories or urban legends.

“We see Hummel as a hidden gem for the city of Omaha,” Stratman says. “Our goal is not to scare participants off, but to have an experience they love and to embrace the park.”

And yet, people are still drawn in by the macabre. Nestroyl, along with a few others on her tour, claim to have seen the shadowy figure two other times. 

As the tour concludes, 37-year-old Dustin Sims, his girlfriend, and daughter are counting the steps. He is here for the legends. 

Once, Sims recalls, he visited the outskirts of the park on a late wintry night. He could hear a young child violently screaming inside. 

Did he help or call the police?

“No!” Sims responds, incredulous. 

Why not?

“Because it’s Hummel Park,” he says.

Visit mphtours.com for more information or to book a tour with Midwest Paranormal History Tours.

Historical photos courtesy of the Durham Museum’s Bostwick-Frohardt collection


The History and Mystery of Hummel Park

story by Ryan Roenfeld

Hummel Park’s murky forest conceals tales of dark lore in the loess hills, rising from the Missouri River floodplain on the northern outskirts of Omaha. Behind the dense foliage, there is Satan’s slide and stairs that supposedly change steps with every climb. There are also groves of old oaks, a disc golf course, and folklore aplenty.

The family of N.P. Dodge donated the 202-acre park to the city in 1930. Hummel Park took its name from the amiable Joe Hummel, Omaha’s long-time city park commissioner from 1912-1939 (excepting two terms). It was Hummel, a reliable cog in Tom Dennison’s political machine, who was lauded as “father of Omaha Parks” upon his death at age 79 in 1942.

A few centuries earlier, almost 220 years ago, Manuel Lisa first established the fur-trade post (dubbed Fort Lisa near the park). European demand for furs and fashionable beaver hats drove much of the area’s exploration and economic exploitation. From 1812 until 1823, Fort Lisa was considered the “most important post on the Missouri River” by historian Hiram Chittenden. This was where expeditions north and west were outfitted and launched into the mountains and where the Omaha, Pawnee, and Ioway traded furs for goods. From 1814 until his 1817 resignation, Lisa served as the government Indian Agent as the fur trade and American policy then went hand-in-hand. After Lisa’s 1820 death, the post was taken over by Joshua Pilcher, who abandoned Fort Lisa for Bellevue.

The exact location of Fort Lisa has been lost to time, unlike Cabanne’s Post (also located in the neighborhood and overseen by Jean Pierre Cabanne) established by Bernard Pratte’s “French Company” in 1823. It was from this post that 116 men left in 1824 for Taos (still part of Mexico at the time). By 1825, Cabanne’s Post had become part of the Western Department of Astor’s sprawling American Fur Company, which set about establishing a monopoly on the Missouri. 

Cabanne’s Post was where Peter Sarpy first apprenticed into life along the river, and in 1831, “Ioway Jim” killed a member of the Omaha Nation near Cabanne’s Post, the first recorded murder in an area known today for Hummel Park. It would not be the last. Like Fort Lisa, in 1833, Cabanne’s Post was abandoned in favor of Bellevue.    

A monument to both posts was dedicated by the Daughters of the American Revolution in October 1928. It was rededicated in 2008 and then, within a week, “pretty well demolished” by vandals. Vandalism would plague the park, as would the dumping of trash. In April 2006, volunteers picked up 200 bags of garbage there, including tires, boards, barrels, and furniture, and they discovered the remains of a “1956 or 1957 Chevy” abandoned in a ravine. 

One of Hummel Park’s oldest legends—that it was the site of a colony of albinos—may be explained by the 1934 organization of a 250-acre camp adjacent to the park by Nebraska nudists. All those pale bodies must have looked awfully white, but that history seems to have been covered up. 

Hummel Park history is filled with picnics, egg hunts, nature hikes, and a beloved summer day camp dating from 1949. There is also a very real history of sexual assault, death, and murder. Some incidents took place in the park itself. Others occurred in the rural area nearby but close enough to leave a lingering reputation.


A Timeline of Dark History at Hummel Park

Disturbing Crimes Reported by Local Media

December 1933: 19-year-old Rose Engel was killed in the park when the car she was riding in overturned on a curve.

October 1947: A 19-year-old admitted to drinking heavily before his car smashed into a hayrack filled with University of Omaha students at the park; 20-year-old Freddie Freelin was killed.

January 1949: Two motorcyclists discovered George Rux’s frozen corpse on the outskirts of the park.

October 1950: Two men armed with a hatchet and hammer attacked two soldiers and their dates at the park and then forced the two women, one 15 and the other 21, to leave with them. Both were reportedly raped and then released on a random Omaha street corner.

August 1954: A reported sexual assault of three women at Hummel Park.   

February 1960: The “frozen body” of a woman was discovered near the park.

November 1970: 15-year-old Lori Jones was found dead, shot three times, after her companions claimed they’d left her sleeping inside a car at Hummel Park.

April 1973: A 20-year-old woman was carjacked in Omaha and forced to drive to Hummel Park, where she was raped and then driven back to the city where her assailant fled.

April 1983: The brutal softball-bat murder of 18-year-old prostitute Laura LaPointe happened southwest of the park. Her body was discovered “nude in a ditch” and four other prostitutes were later convicted.

May 1984: Two men were arrested for sexually assaulting a 25-year-old woman at knife-point in Hummel Park.

July 1984: Police had no suspects in the death of 21-year-old Michelle Lamere, who was intentionally run over and left to die north of the park. 

September 1985: A 36-year-old woman reported she was sexually assaulted at Hummel Park.

June 1986: A 34-year-old man was charged with the sexual assault of a 17-year-old Omaha woman at the park.

June 1992: Central High School sophomore Jeremy Drake was killed at the park over stolen car stereo speakers. Drake’s body was discovered by a woman walking her dog.

December 1999: Scott Addison was lured to Hummel Park to sell a stereo where he was beaten and stabbed. His two assailants left him for dead and Addison wrote their names in his own blood on the trunk of his car before he walked a quarter mile to find help.

June 2005: Jose Lucio survived being shot in the back in the park by a member of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) gang.

May 2006: Someone “ghost hunting” in Hummel Park discovered the shallow grave of 12-year-old Amber Harris. Roy Ellis was convicted of rape and murder and was sentenced to death.

February 2008: 16-year-old David Murillo lost control of his Honda in the park and died after he was ejected when his car went into a ravine.

December 2013: Washington County deputies found the body of an unknown man north of the park whose death was considered “suspicious.”


This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Wicked Omaha

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Musty newspapers, photos, archives, public records, presentations, and endless hours of research. Sure, the life of a modern folk historian sounds glamorous, but it’s not all like Raiders of the Lost Ark. In many ways, history is an occupation reserved only for those obsessive truth-seekers disconnected from their place on the space-time continuum.

Local historian, author, teacher, and Glenwood native Ryan Roenfeld has been making history entertaining for nigh on two decades. The 44-year-old nontraditional UNO student describes himself as a “hick-from-the-sticks.” A quasi-Luddite with a passion for the past, he doesn’t have a cell phone but he uses Facebook.

“I don’t know how I got so interested in history,” Roenfeld says. “Most folks see history as dry and dull, but it’s not. It really is—good, bad, or indifferent—the story of why things are the way they are.”

While decrying the modern age, Roenfeld helped popularize one of Omaha’s most frequented social media sites: Chuck Martens’ “Forgotten Omaha” Facebook page.

As one of three administrators, Roenfeld has seen “Forgotten Omaha” grow to more than 45,000 likes over the last year.

“I was surprised at the interest. Omahans didn’t know as much of their history as I thought,” says Roenfeld, who also teaches classes on Omaha history for Metropolitan Community College at Do Space. “History really is the story of us all, and I like telling people their stories.”

A folksy populist with an encyclopedic knowledge of colorful locals and criminals, Roenfeld tells the lesser-known tales of underrepresented populations, colorful characters, and swept-under scandals. He has self-published a dozen books and contributed to many articles on topics ranging from old postcards, railroads, steamboating, and local 19th-century brewers. To date, his most popular book has been Tinhorn Gamblers and Dirty Prostitutes, a colorful history of vice in Council Bluffs, which offers a glimpse at the city’s exploitation of prostitutes in the late 19th century.

“The highlights are always the lowlifes,” Roenfeld says. “People like hearing stories of cowboy shoot-outs in the street. People think the Old West happened in Arizona, but this area was really the archetype for every Wild West trope.”

The popularity of Western depravity was also obvious to Roenfeld’s publisher, The History Press. Roenfeld’s latest book, Wicked Omaha (not to be confused with David Bristow’s book, Dirty, Wicked Town [Omaha], published by Caxton Press in 2000), looks closely at “Hell’s Half-Acre,” Omaha’s red-light district in the 1880s.

Hell’s Half-Acre stretched from the Missouri River to 16th Street and from Douglas to Cuming streets. The city portrayed in Roenfeld’s Wicked Omaha makes all the stereotypes of Deadwood seem trite.

“People don’t realize that anything went in Hell’s Half-Acre,” Roenfeld says. “It was a different Omaha, when the saloons ran all night and strangers were victimized by every scheme going, all right downtown, nothing secret about it. Brothels were illegal, but ran in the open. There was drug addiction, suicide, and systematic exploitation. Prostitutes paid ‘fines’ monthly to keep operating. If they couldn’t pay, the city gave them a few weeks before they were hauled in front of a judge to either pay up or get shut up.”

Wicked Omaha made its debut Thursday, March 9, at the UNO Criss Library’s Read Local Author Showcase. Roenfeld plans to present his book at Omaha’s W. Dale Clark library May 6. The book is sold at The Bookworm, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and elsewhere.

Visit arcadiapublishing.com for more information.

This article appeared in the May/June edition of Omaha Magazine.