Trespassers enticed by ghost stories a constant problem, says owner of Nevada City’s HEW building |

Trespassers enticed by ghost stories a constant problem, says owner of Nevada City’s HEW building

The HEW building sits vacant and boarded up in Nevada City.
Elias Funez/ |

The Nevada County Sheriff’s Office received 68 calls for service in 2017 at the former Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) building near Nevada City, according to Sheriff Keith Royal.

Deputies responded to concerns including break-ins and suspicious vehicles at the vacant building, Royal said, and arrested violators with active warrants and on charges including drug possession and trespassing.

Royal attributes the violations to transient individuals using the building for shelter and juveniles using it as a place to party.

Bill Litchfield, who purchased the property on Willow Valley Road from the county in 2011, attributes repeated break-ins to various websites touting the HEW building as a haunted, abandoned insane asylum.

“For years, I’ve been trying to get these various sites to take down the crazy claims they have about the building,” he said. “But it’s a lost cause. As soon as I convince one site to take it down, another one pops up.”

Trespassers break into the building nearly every weekend, Litchfield said.

A tragic history

The 12-acre historic property was once the site of a hospital, built by Nevada County in 1860 and in operation until 1975. In the 1980s, the county began using the building to house low-risk inmates from the overcrowded old jail and later used the building to host its Behavioral Health Department and other offices.

On Jan. 10, 2001, Scott Harlan Thorpe, a 40-year-old Behavioral Health Department client, opened fire inside the building, killing 19-year-old Laura Wilcox, an intern at the building, and 68-year-old Pearlie Mae Feldman, who reportedly brought a client to an appointment that day.

Judith Edzards, a 49-year-old county supervising health technician, was shot several times but recovered from injuries. Daisy Switzer, a 35-year-old county employee, suffered a broken pelvis and other injuries when she jumped from a second-floor window to escape.

Thorpe then went to Lyon’s Restaurant on Nevada City Highway, where he fatally shot 24-year-old Michael Markle.


The county vacated the HEW building in 2006, citing deteriorating structural conditions and years later sold it for $95,000 to Litchfield, who tentatively planned to build housing at the site.

In 2013, Litchfield signed an agreement with the Nevada Street / Willow Valley Road Neighborhood Association that detailed development guidelines.

According to the agreement, Litchfield was to build 33 units on the property.

But Litchfield said those plans were put on the back burner. Building a development consistent with the neighbor’s standards, Litchfield said, wasn’t economically feasible.

Renovation costs would be hefty, Litchfield said, due to the presence of lead paint, asbestos and other hazardous materials inside the building.

He still plans to someday develop the property, he said, but couldn’t say when that might happen.

Because the property is in Nevada City’s sphere of influence, the city would have the option to annex the parcel if development plans were proposed.

Laurie Oberholtzer, a member of the neighborhood association, said the group was pleased with the agreement it signed with Litchfield. She hopes any future development plans will stay consistent with the contract.

Neighbors in the area keep watch at the building and are in regular contact with Litchfield, who Oberholtzer said is quick to respond to issues of vandalism or trespassing.

“We all keep an eye on it,” she said.

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Pera, email or call 530-477-4231.

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