Sunland Hospital in Pine Hills c. 1960

 

“…When we arrived on the site, we knew it was bad…The kid was lying in a pool of blood with some of the metal parts from the elevator sticking through his right side…By the time rescue got him out of the shaft, he was slipping away but Fortunately survived the fall down the shaft…I don’t know about ghosts, but there was one weird thing…One of the other officers called in and said he saw a child, around 10 or 11 looking out the 2nd floor window, so a few of us went to look, but didn’t find anyone there…He didn’t come from DCF (Department of Children & Families) We checked, and no one reported a missing child matching that description, so that was kind of weird…That place was always strange, even when was a working hospital so I’m glad it’s finally gone…” 

 

Anonymous Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy, 2001   

 

             Earlier last year I posted an expose on Sunland Hospital in Tallahassee, Florida; a location of particular interest for Floridian ghost hunters and others interested in the paranormal. While writing my first three books for Pineapple Press, I had the chance to personally investigate the majority of the locations I wrote about. I was most fortunate to have seen and investigated this particular location, known incorrectly as Sunnyland Hospital. It was a most changeling and somewhat dangerous mission, but having been bitten by the ‘ghost hunting’ bug, I knew I had to go and see it for myself. The end result was both harrowing and fascinating on many levels, but the main thing that stood out the most for me was the remnant feelings of great sadness and regret. Little could I have known how much sadness actually enveloped this location.

               My investigations took be far and wide across the state in search of these tidbits of arcane folklore, with favorable results, albeit some of my findings were profoundly sad. Although I can say with certainty that not all the locations were rattled with strife and evil, a few were without a doubt nefarious. The Sunland Hospital chain was without a doubt the most frightening and the saddest because it dealt with children and abuse, two words that should never go together in any way or manner. It was my journalistic nature that made me search and research (ad nauseam). And, I was my background in the mental health profession that made me physically and soulfully sick. 

             On January 15th of this year, I received a message from a lady named ‘Annie’ who was the mother of a little girl who was a patient of the Sunland Hospital in Pine Hills. She expressed her sadness for her child’s problems, and the obvious pain that went along with having to place a child away to receive the proper care, but it was the heartfelt tenderness that makes us realize the importance of such care when we are just unable to offer it for ourselves. And, though there is great speculation about Sunland Hospital and its said abuses that eventually closed the entire state-wide businesses down in 1983, we are able to see just how a few of the parents felt about these events that have certainly changed their lives. Below is Annie’s response:

“It saddens me to read these things. My daughter went to live in Sunland in Orlando when she was 18 months old. She was profoundly retarded from birth. A beautiful, wonderful child who brought joy to our lives. She had little interest in food, as newborn cereals and such and it would take hours to feed her, then she would throw it up and we would start over again. Her crib was in our bedroom and she awakened me many nights with her laughter at nothing. But it sounded joyous. She could not sit up or hold her head up. She had been close to death many times with pneumonia and I would go and stay with her at the hospital as she needed 24-hour care. Her doctor; a wonderful man who was very knowledgeable about her condition said she should be put in Sunland, as I had two other children that needed me more than she did. He made me aware that it was not an ideal situation but it was the only solution under the circumstances. It was unimaginable that we could leave her there but, we did. I spent several hours speaking with the head of the hospital and other caregivers there. The directors own son was retarded and had to have help with everyday living. They inserted a feeding tube to provide her nourishment. She had several bouts of serious illness. We traveled about 35 miles at least every other weekend and sometimes every weekend to spend a few hours with her. She passed away when she was four. It pains me to see these pictures and read these stories. I know there must have been abuses but I think we made a decision that seemed the best we could do at the time. She always seemed to be clean with no outward signs of neglect or obvious abuse and I checked her closely for physical signs. We loved her very much…”

             It is important at this point to make sure we as readers; whether causally interested in the paranormal, seasoned professionals in psychical research or writers looking for ideas, to respect the nature of this and all stories that involve the pain and suffering of the innocent. It is also important to understand that not all the children at this now defunct hospital were mistreated or abused. Instead, it was the late-in-arriving intervention that makes us look at this story with such gut-wrenching agony today, as the apathy of a few made the reputation we see today. Indeed, if investigative reporter Geraldo Rivera, or the famous Florida attorney John Morgan were born a little earlier, and had been made aware of these atrocities, than such misery might not have taken place. Regardless, I respectfully ask you the reader to appreciate the pain and sadness that did take place, which is evident by Annie’s response. Let us hope for a resolution for their grief, and that all those who have suffered, to truly be in a better place today. With that said, enjoy the story.

 

       

 The old Sunland grounds today

 

             Oftentimes known as “Sunnyland” or “Bellevue Hospital,” Sunland Hospital, located off Laural Hill Drive at 8800 Silver Star Road in Pine Hills was a hospital synonymous with suffering and mistreatment for many years. Although Sunland’s remains are almost completely gone today, the very name of Sunland resonates many thoughts of doom and slow death to the longtime residents of Pine Hills and surrounding neighborhoods and of course, any surviving patients that were unlucky enough to be placed there. The Sunland Hospital chain was run by the State of Florida and the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, (HRS,) a program that could be as beneficial as it could be detrimental.  Of the many excuses Sunland administrators constantly complained about were mostly financial related problems. Because such state run programs had only so much money to allow for assisting the severely retarded patients at all the Sunland locations throughout Florida, the level of care and the number of qualified nurses and technicians were limited.  As a result, these children were sometimes left alone without the company and healthy companionship for hours upon hours a day, where many of these children were forced to receive their food via feeding tubes instead of being fed by more conventional means…By a caring companion.

             Reports of children being housed in the same rooms as known violent offenders was certainly a poor decision, but when a night orderly was accused for the mysterious pregnancy of one of the patients, Sunland Hospital was once again put under a spotlight. Moreover, when a similar incident occurred at the Sunland Hospital in Marianna, Florida, HRS became centered in the investigations, which only fueled a series of intense inquires and inspections of all Florida hospitals. Fortunately, this inhumane neglect and lack of base caring would finally come to an end, when in 1978, the Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC), after careful review, filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of the patients for gross neglect and abuse. It seemed any hospital baring the name Sunland would be cursed, as the central Florida Sunland, much like its sister hospital to the north, Sunland Hospital in Tallahassee, would suffer the same fate. These hospitals, which both had ominous and sad reputations would come to an end in 1983, only to leave a more frightening and even evil reputation years after the closings.

             Three floors and 350,000 square feet of the central Florida’s Sunland Hospital was demolished in 1999 by Orlando Central Environmental Services Inc., a demolition and environmental services company. Because Sunland had such large amounts of asbestos in it, the procedures for its removal and its destruction was very costly. Moreover, because the land and everything on it belongs to the State of Florida, the state was completely responsible for all coasts, roughly 5 million dollars to remove. Although the land where the main hospital once stood has since been replaced by a large park and playground, just to the east of the property lie the only creepy remains of a sad and turbulent time. The original doctor’s offices, a nurse’s retreat and several planning offices, as well as some of the transitional housing still exist on that part of the property. The red brick, two story building once served as an office and sleeping quarters for Sunland’s physicians and nurses, which would later become offices for psychologists, behavioral staff and activity therapists. In recent years The Department for Children and Families, formally (HRS,) would use this building primarily for patient/client records and other related file storage. Today, it stands derelict and pointless, more an eyesore than for function. It attracts ghost hunters and the curious, and is routinely broken into at the dismay of the groundskeepers.  Overgrown with ivy and surrounded by oak trees, this colonial style building, with its porthole paned windows and attic-arch breezeways, stands silent. The windows are now dark with heavy deposits of rust covering them, as well as the large metal doors at its entrance. Sunland Hospital, thought to be dead to most, somehow continues to live…As if it were waiting for something. 

  When the main building still stood silent and alone, with its broken windows and walls covered with graffiti, the scene created a foreboding image for sure, and over the years, a strange fascination grew about it. Although most would just stand behind the 10-foot fence and gaze at the ominous grayish hulk, some were more inclined to break the law and enter the hospital’s old and dangerous remains. Indeed, many of Orlando’s youth have traveled inside the old hospital to hunt for macabre trophies, or to get a glimpse of the creepy interior, and oddly enough, some even went there to look for ghosts. Several of these brave explorers found more than just graffiti and old dusty hospital beds. They found something far more terrifying.

 

Old photos of some of the children at the Sunland Hospitals. Many of these children were transported to Tallahassee in order to make the transaction a legal and official one in order to garnish state funds.

 

 

 

  

The boy and girl scouts had honorary inductions for the higher-functioning children at the Sunland Hospitals.    

 

Strange Lights, Eerie Cries and Echoing Footfalls

 

            Over the years, many stories circulated about there being strange flashes of light coming from the third floor, as well as sounds of metal objects being dropped or thrown throughout the huge interior. There were several accounts of small children being seen walking around inside the empty hallways or on the roof, which would at times alert the authorities for an undivided search of the building. According to legend, an apparition of a hysterical young girl around 9 or 10 was reported screaming on the stairwell of the third floor landing, flaying her arms, her eyes closed in obvious pain and creating a sight that would have anyone running to her aid. When someone would approach this child, thinking they could help her, she would stand up, still screaming, and jump off the third floor perch. When a witness to this frightening event would run over to see where she had fallen, the child would be gone…Not a trace. This little girl in distress is said to wear a pale green dress, definitely of an older style. She was also described as having auburn hair tied in the back with freckles on her cheeks, making her look, as one witness said: “Like a cute little kid who just got lost.”  Although no one has since offered a plausible explanation for this tormented spirit, nor any information of a suicide that had involved a young girl flinging herself from the third story stairwell, there is a possible rebuttal to the many theories. While investigating the Florida Photographic Archives, I managed to find several interesting photographs of children from the 1960s or early 1970’s. Apparently, the Sunland Hospital system allowed chapters of both the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts for the higher functioning long-term children to function as a part of therapy. Interestingly enough, the Girl Scouts wore pale green dresses, much like that worn by the screaming spirit of the third floor…An interesting coincidence?   

             Although the identity of the little girl in green remains a mystery, there was another spirit witnessed within the creepy Sunland building, and although less frightening then the screaming spirit, there appears to be another lost child, who is said to forever be searching for something. When two teenagers were wandering on the third floor one late summer evening in 1992, they found evidence of the supernatural as they met this ghostly inhabitant. As the two trespassers were climbing the eastern stairwell, they observed a boy, who at first both thought was just another kid exploring the building until of course, he walked through a half-opened door. This young boy, around 10 or 11 seemed to be desperately searching for something, as he would duck from doorway to doorway searching for something or someone. The youthful ghost was said to have stopped and looked directly at the two explorers for a few seconds, then continued his search, which had him walking straight through a large metal door that stood halfway ajar. Needless to say, the two teenage explorers hastily departed the old building to begin a long line of haunted legends.

            Local legends about the haunted Sunland Hospital continued throughout the years, igniting the adventurous spirits of countless central Florida teenagers. Most of time, although illegal, these kids would sneak in, explore and tell ghost stories then depart without incident. Sometimes local law enforcement would be waiting near the fence where these intrepid explorers entered to arrest them for breaking and entering, which was done because the building was just not safe. On one occasion, however, an inevitable accident would take place. On one humid and muggy summer morning, in 1997, around 4:00 a.m., 20 year old Keith Murdock would learn a painful lesson. While exploring the third floor, thinking he was entering a dark room, which in truth was an elevator shaft, he fell three stories with a loud crash. Murdock’s friends, hearing the disturbance, became understandably concerned, and after searching several minutes for their friend, they finally found him lying in a pool of blood and unconscious. They feared the worst as a section of metal from the elevator’s mechanisms was seen jutting through his side. More than 30 minutes had passed when rescue workers finally found him, and although he sustained a fractured skull and extreme damage to his spine and stomach, he survived the accident. As fate would have it, this was the incident, which would force the main section of the Sunland Hospital to finally be torn down – Was this era of ghostly legends finally over? 

             Most paranormal investigators and layman ghost hunters believe that Orlando’s haunted Sunland is no more. Because the main structure of the hospital, its wards and patient rooms, the mess hall and all in between had been demolished, the hauntings must have stopped. After all, now that a quaint playground sits were the hospital’s huge foreboding hulk once stood, the old ghosts like the little screaming girl in green and the lost little boy must have moved past our corporeal world and onto the ethereal plane without a struggle. Many however, feel otherwise, as sections of the original hospital remain just around the corner. 

            In the last few years, self-styled ghost hunters and paranormal investigators have visited the site where the hospital once stood. Taking many photographs with conventional 35-mm cameras, digital cameras and infrared video recorders, these investigators have found substantial, if not controversial evidence of orb and other anomalous photographic phenomena. These strange balls of iridescent light have been caught on film between the main site and the parking lot where there have been reports of strong electromagnetic energy fluctuations. When searching around the parking lot, several of the investigators become aware of the aroma of roses, which in it itself is auspicious in the realm of psychical research. As the scent of roses is associated with a blessing or a holy event, the presence of such a scent may refer to the release of the aforementioned spirits. Because most investigation teams are not allowed to wear perfume or cologne, as it would distract from any olfactory phenomena, the scent of roses may be accounted as something significant to many professional researchers.

 

 Doctors and nurses offices today

 

             Most of the people who visit the location where Sunland Hospital once stood, are unaware of the hospital’s other sections, which still sit today. Just east of the parking lot and playground, and off behind a patch of tall pine trees, rests the two-story red brick doctor’s offices and clinic. Once used as office space for Sunland’s physicians and psychologists as well as a retreat for the nurses and other hospital staff, and later as office space for behavioral and activity therapists, this structure sits listless. Covered in ivy and mold, the windows stare blankly out onto the street. The metal doors now rusting, with paint peeling away, the building now serves for no other purpose than as a storage room for outdated equipment from the old hospital and as a glorified filing cabinet for old files and medical records. It sits off the beaten path and almost completely forgotten…But spirits are said to reside here too.

            Although there are only a handful of people that know the entire history of the Sunland Hospital system and the terrible enigma that was left behind in its wake, and even fewer who know how the mental health system operates, it is understandable why the other structure goes unnoticed. Although this building does not equal in paranormal events as the original building once did, strange things have been noticed on moonlit nights, which must not go unmentioned. Shortly after the destruction and removal of the old Sunland complex, those that once passed their summer nights sneaking around its dark and dinghy hallways soon ventured elsewhere. As these adventurers walked around the grounds, and reminiscing of their old escapades, they stumbled upon the doctor’s offices. During the day, this building looks downright creepy. At night however, it will send a chill up your spine.

             To one group of teenagers walking around the old Sunland haunting grounds, they would find much more than they bargained for. Apparently, during the autumn months in 2000, four teenagers in search of the haunted hospital came across a pile of dirt and sand where it once stood. All the ghost stories and haunted tales they had heard about when they were children came to a dead halt. Building up the suspense and mystery of this haunted hospital over the years made it unbearable when they found it gone, as all their fantasies were seemed dead. Downhearted, the four teens decided to walk around and up a deserted street. The street had obviously been there for a long time because it was riddled with potholes and overgrown with weeds and grass. As they walked down this street, they came across the old red brick building on their left. The building looked as deserted and as unused as the road they were traveling on, and with hopes in finding at least one ghost, they ventured up to the main doorway. The boys tried looking through the windows but it was completely dark inside, not even an exit sign inside to create some kind of light to see, and the windows were covered in soot and mold, which only added to the problem. They pulled on the doors to see if they were unlocked and sure enough, the one door on the left opened with a strained thud. The boys, although a bit startled, stood back and tried peering into the darkness, commenting on the musty smell of age. Without warning, they heard something fall within the black interior. Understandably, the four boys jumped back and started running toward the road when the door, which was so rusted stood open in place, suddenly slammed shut with a thundering crash.

            The boys ran back to the entrance where Silver Star Road connects, but managed to look back one last time to see if someone was chasing them. As they did so, they saw nothing but the dark building, so they stopped to catch their breath. While standing there, breathing heavily after their sprint from the unknown fright, they noticed a flicker of yellowish light ever so briefly within the building. Within a second, the flicker became a bright, encompassing light within, which remained on for a few moments and then went off as quickly as it had come on. Needless to say, the four boys abandoned their search for ghosts and called it a night. It wasn’t until much later that they found out one very odd aspect to their encounter — There has been no electricity or water in that old red brick building since 1985.

 

One of the old, rusted doorways that seems to have a life of its own

              

            Although there have been other strange stories regarding the old red brick building since that October night in 2000, from faces peering out the windows or balls of light bobbing up and down within, the incident the four boys encountered was the most frightening to date. Perhaps the spirits within, if any, were displeased with the lack of respect for the building, or perhaps these spirits were just giving them what they had wanted all along, but one thing is certain, this story is as time-honored as the little blond- haired boy that once searched the dark corridors of the old complex, or the little screaming girl in green who flings herself into some un known oblivion.

            The true story of Sunland Hospital, whether in Tallahassee, Gainesville or Orlando holds a visibly sad and controversial history for sure. The lives that were lost during the many years are documented. And, although I have such documentation, I will omit such proof here for one simple reason. It is just too sad. If visiting the site where Sunland in Pine Hills once stood, keep in mind that this property is owned by the State of Florida, specifically The Department of Children and Families. This property is presently open to the public, but any unlawful entry into any building will result in criminal prosecution, so remember to look from afar. Feel free to walk around the playground and park area. Take photos here if in search of orbs or any sundry ghosts, and see if you too can smell the light scent of roses. Take a stroll up the street where the old red brick building remains and see if you can catch a glimpse of a face peering through the window, or perhaps a flicker of light. And, although this quaint building may look vacant and dead…Just remember that slamming door!

 

 

Postscript

 

Greenwood Cemetery

 

            After my initial research, I found the remaining graves of some of these children who apparently had no homes or living family during their time at Sunland Hospital, or after their deaths. They rest today in the Greenwood Cemetery and Memorial Lawn at 1603 Greenwood Street, near downtown Orlando. As you walk toward the back section, near the fence line between homes and the cemetery, you’ll find these little, almost forgotten stones signifying the lost children. I have been told there are at least eighty-eight children, but found only a few. Of these children you will find the following here:

 

Alice Jeanne Morin 1957-1963

Liz Martin 1967-1973

David Joe Nix 1959-1962

Paul Heller 1960-1963

Jeffery Hindman 1957-1964

David Washington 1961-1964

Baby Boy Bell 1963-1965

 

 

        All that remains of the Sunland children

 

              These are the few graves that authenticate that Sunland Hospital’s children ever existed. The graves sit silent and weathered…And forgotten. If, dear reader you live in this area, or are visiting, could you not take a few moments and pay your respects for these children? Perhaps offer some flowers or even a little stuffed animal to let them know they are not forgotten? This would be a kind gesture in a very unkind world indeed. And, if you have little ones of your own, then perhaps such a visit will allow remembrance and thanks for your good fortune. If not for this, then know that they appreciate you.      

 

*Be sure to read about Sunland Hospital, in Tallahassee…Florida’s hospital of horrors.

 

Sources:    

 

Examiner.com (2010) Sunland Hospital. http://www.examiner.com/haunted-places-in-

             orlando/sunland-hospital-picture?slide=32286611

 Florida Memory Project: Division of Library & Information Services

             http://www.floridamemory.com/

 

Greenwood Cemetery http://www.greenwood-cemetery.net/

 

Jenkins, Greg (2005) Florida’s Ghostly Legends and Haunted Folklore Vol. 1. Pineapple Press

              ISBN-13: 978-1561643271

 

Sunland Hospital Blog Spot. http://facultynurseadventures.blogspot.com/2010/12/trip-to-

               orlando-sunland.html

 

 

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