Kevin Feeheley and some old high school buddies were driving to a party not long ago when they decided to take a detour to explore a haunted village they'd heard about near the headquarters of the National Security Agency.
The rumor was that government agents accidentally killed everyone in a town east of Laurel with radiation, buried their bodies in unmarked graves and left without even cleaning up.
As his car's headlights swung around a bend, Feeheley saw evidence to suggest the ghost story was true. A cluster of buildings stood in a forest clearing with their doors gaping open and curtains lolling out of shattered windows. A stone slab announced that 389 people were buried in an adjacent field.
"I wondered what in the world went on here?" said Feeheley, a 20-year-old title clerk from Glen Burnie. "My nerves were really shot."
Like other young thrill-seekers in northern Anne Arundel County, Feeheley had been drawn to the ruins of Forest Haven, a District of Columbia institution for the mentally retarded that the U.S. Justice Department closed in 1991 because residents were dying of abuse and neglect.
Twenty years after a judge ordered the district to begin transferring the residents to group homes, Forest Haven's 21 decaying brick buildings remain as a symbol of the failed policy of institutionalizing the mentally disabled.
Community residents and fire officials are demanding that the district tear down the ruins that have become a magnet for young ghost-hunters, arsonists and vandals.
"D.C. has been a very bad neighbor," said Pastel S. Puffinberger, 69, a retired carpenter who lives about 200 yards from the entrance to Forest Haven. "They should bulldoze the place. The kids are breaking in there, doing dope and smashing windows. It's pretty creepy."
But district officials say they have no plans to demolish or retreat from their outpost in Maryland. They are talking about new construction on the site, which infuriates residents.
The district runs the Oak Hill youth detention center next door and is discussing using some of the Forest Haven property to build a jail in fiscal 2000, said Rhonda Stewart, spokeswoman for the district's Department of Human Services.
Gayle L. Turner, an administrator for the district's Youth Services Administration, said that the district has tried to board up the Forest Haven buildings but that teen-agers keep tearing down the boards.
"Initially, our focus was on deinstitutionalizing the patients, not making sure the buildings were well kept," Turner said. "But we are looking into the buildings now. We hope to install a gate across the entrance in the next 30 to 60 days."
Maryland City volunteer Fire Chief Ray Smallwood said the district's neglect has allowed the buildings to become a safety hazard. Teen-age partyers and other trespassers have started about 14 fires this year, he said.
"A lot of kids come up here at night, for sex, for booze, for drugs, to hang out and light fires. They think it's fun. I guess they like it better than the mall," said Smallwood.
The U.S. Park Police, who patrol the federal land on which the district-owned buildings sit, have responded to 16 reports of problems at Forest Haven this year, twice as many as last year, said spokesman Sgt. David Mulholland. About half were for trespassing; the rest for minor crimes such as abandoned vehicles.
In September, police arrested a 44-year-old Odenton man who was found lurking around one of the abandoned buildings with gloves and a flashlight.
"He said it was the closest thing he could find to a cave and he was exploring," Mulholland said. "We gave him an A for creativity, but a citation for trespassing."
Police have found a few young ghost-hunters. In March, police arrested two Linthicum men, ages 18 and 19, in their cars outside one of the bunker-like cottages.
"They had heard the complex was haunted, and they wanted to check it out," Mulholland said. "Given the history of the place, your imagination could run wild."
Forest Haven was the site of one of the top 10 worst cases of institutional abuse in U.S. history, said Tony Records, a Bethesda-based expert on mental retardation.
As part of a wave of class action lawsuits that forced a revolution in the way governments house the mentally disabled, parents who found their children covered with bruises in Forest Haven sued the district in 1976.
With the help of the Justice Department, they forced the district to transfer the roughly 1,000 residents into smaller and better-supervised group homes scattered throughout the city over about a decade.
Records said that some of the Forest Haven buildings should be preserved as a museum.
"I believe Forest Haven's history must be maintained because our nation must not forget how these vulnerable people were treated," he said. "We need to remember so we don't make the same mistake again."
Many of those committed to Forest Haven from childhood through their premature death as young adults were only mildly retarded, Records said. Others had no mental problems but suffered from epilepsy or physical deformities.
Classified as 'idiots'
Congress built the brick campus in 1925 as a place to exile people classified as "idiots" from the nation's capital and hide them in a rural area, Records said.
The District of Columbia was feeling political pressure from the then-wealthy Logan Circle neighborhood to close the nearby Washington Home For Colored Idiots.
Some of those who built Forest Haven as a replacement for the Washington Home may have had good intentions. Residents lived in tree-shaded dorms with bucolic names such as Elm or Poplar Cottage. Counselors taught residents to tend crops, milk cows and work in the laundry room. There were baseball fields, a pool and gymnasium.
But as the years went on and the district suffered from financial crises, all recreation and education stopped.
The residents' bodies and bank accounts were abused. A district court in September 1981 convicted a Forest Haven worker of stealing $40,000 from residents' savings accounts.
Staff members locked dozens of residents, naked except for adult-sized diapers, in rooms stripped of furniture other than wooden benches, according to the 1976 lawsuit. Some residents were tied to beds and chairs, and some choked to death on food the staff fed to them while they were restrained. A doctor serving the institution was ruled to be "professionally incompetent" by the Maryland Commission on Medical Discipline in 1988.
When the residents died, the staff dumped them into unmarked graves in a field near the administration building. Nothing told passers-by that there were bodies beneath the grass from the first burial in 1928 until 1987, when families raised a single gray monument as a memorial to the 389 dead.
"Forest Haven is nothing but a warehouse for people," Betty Evans, a plaintiff in the 1976 lawsuit, stated in an affidavit. "Persons are sentenced to Forest Haven without ever committing a crime. And once committed, the only way to get out is to die."
'Let me not live in vain'
A tour through the grand Forest Haven administration building on a recent morning revealed why it attracts ghost-hunters.
In front of the pillar-flanked entrance rises a bronze plaque that proclaims its lofty ambitions: "Yet while I live, let me not live in vain."
The double doors stand open. Inside, steam swirls up a spiral staircase from a broken pipe, escaping through shattered windows. There is a gurgling sound of water pouring into the basement, evidence that nobody turned off the water in the abandoned building. Mushrooms sprout in a dripping passageway. A vine snakes through an open window.
Down a long hall, there are file cabinets thrown to the floor, spilling records. Chairs and desks lie legs-up. Paint curls from the walls.
In one room are typewriters covered in dust and cabinets stocked with medical supplies. Scrawled across everything is graffiti. "Lil' Mac," "Jenn," "Angie," "Gary '97," sprayed in fluorescent orange and black. Below this lies a jumble of beer bottles.
Amid the debris from a party is a medical report that tells the story of Ray, an 18-year-old orphan with deformed feet. The 12th child of a North Carolina woman, Ray was institutionalized at age 5 after his parents died, leaving him with no one to care for him.
"This child is not in a school program," the report states. "He is making some grunting sounds. He has a long history of striking his head and ears. Additionally, he strikes his face. As a result of his self-injurious behavior he has cataracts in both eyes and questionable vision in his right eye. The Thorazine has not made significant changes in his behavior."
Still a question of care
There is an irony to the class action suit that closed Forest Haven.
After the District of Columbia moved the last resident into a group home in 1991, the city suffered a financial crisis that for a time halted payments to the agencies that run the homes.
"Whether the former Forest Haven residents are now getting decent care is a huge question," Joe Tulman, a lawyer who represented the residents in the class action lawsuit, said in a recent interview.
That question is highlighted by the case of John Kennedy Jr., who is not related to the late president.
Kennedy's mother, Mary M. Muse, said she committed her son to Forest Haven in 1962 because he was impossible to control, mentally slow and suffered from seizures.
Social workers told her he'd get an education and quality care, said Muse, a 67-year-old retired school cafeteria worker who lives in the district. But shortly after he arrived at Forest Haven, all of his teeth were knocked out. When Muse went to check on her son, she found him standing naked against an outside wall with other residents. A staff member was blasting them with a hose to punish them for unruly behavior.
Muse worked for years to get her son out of the institution, adding her name as a plaintiff in the 1976 suit to close Forest Haven.
But Kennedy's return to the community hasn't been easy for either himself or the neighborhood, Muse said. Now 45, he drinks, uses illegal drugs, refuses to take his medications and has been expelled from a group home for his violent behavior and sent to prison for robbery, Muse said.
"I just can't get John to stay with the program," Muse said. "He's drinking, he's not paying his rent. I've even called the police on him, because I can't let him beat me. It's been a tough life for him."
Feeheley, who drove to Forest Haven hoping to find a haunted village, said he was more disturbed to hear the true history of the buildings.
"In a way, it's even scarier to hear what these people really went through," Feeheley said. "And it's shocking to think it was all at the hands of the government."
Pub Date: 12/03/98