After narrowly escaping death many times in his 56 years, he describes himself as a cat that has lost half of its nine lives.
Some view Steele’s appreciation for life as ironic, seeing as his life revolves around the dead. Steele is a paranormal investigator, or as it’s more commonly known, a ghost hunter.
Curiosity from a young age
Steele has always had a knack for attracting the paranormal, even as a child. Born and raised in Graham, he was 10 when he experienced his first strange encounter at his grandparents’ old two-story farmhouse in Hawfields.
“I was going upstairs and when I got to the top, I heard this voice saying, ‘Lee,’” he said. “I turned my head to the right — don’t see anything. I turn to the left — nothing. And then it happened a second time and even a third time, and that really got my attention.”
Steele said he asked everyone in the house at the time if they had called his name, and everyone said no. The event was what sparked Steele’s curiosity in the unknown.
Years later, in 1974, Steele enrolled at Elon University, then Elon College, to major in education. He wanted to become a physical education teacher, so he decided to try out for the football team to get experience playing a sport.
Since Steele had never played a formal sport, he jumped at the opportunity to manage the team. He worked as the manager of Elon’s football team for three years before he graduated in 1978. In his spare time, Steele didn’t pass up a chance to satiate his interest in the supernatural.
“In high school, I had heard about the old Glencoe Mill Village in Burlington,” he said. “People used to call it Munchkinland, which they got from the movie ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ I’d heard people say stuff about little people living there who would block the roads and play tricks on you, so when I was at Elon and finally had a car, I decided to drive out there with my sister and some friends.”
Steele never saw any “little people,” but what he did see was much more frightening.
“There was this guy who looked like he was a teenager standing on a corner right where the mill used to be, and I tell people that’s the closest I’ve come to what I would call a zombie,” Steele said. “He looked like a normal human, but he had a messed-up face and the color of his skin was kind of ashy, and he was completely fixated and staring down the road where the houses were, just staring into space.”
Steele and his friends watched the motionless man for several minutes until they finally got too scared to stay any longer. Later, Steele talked with several residents of the Glencoe Mill Village, who said there was a man recently shot and killed in a house near where Steele claimed to have seen the figure.
“I honestly don’t know if that event tied into what I saw, but it sure was pretty creepy,” he said.
A serious calling
Between the mysterious name-callings and seeing Glencoe’s silent zombie, Steele found himself transfixed by all things supernatural. His role as an investigator didn’t come immediately, though.
After he graduated college, Steele spent the next few decades working at University of North Carolina Health Care in the hospital’s intensive care unit doing data entry of patient medical records. Several years ago, he took on a cashier job at Walmart in Burlington, but Steele always knew he wanted more. He began searching for any local outlet to do something pertaining to his fascination with the paranormal.
And when Steele got a Facebook account in 2008, he stumbled upon the perfect opportunity.
“I had been looking and looking to try and find a local volunteer paranormal investigation group, and I finally saw something about a meet-up for a group based in Asheboro,” he said. “I started going to the monthly meetings, and I made them aware the very first night that I was serious about becoming an investigator.”
Steele soon became a regular investigator for S.P.I.R.I.T. Paranormal, the Southern Paranormal Identification Research and Investigation Team. He was recently promoted to case manager and research specialist, which means Steele is in charge of finding out as much information as possible about the history and current state of potential investigation sites.
“What I try to do is not go blind into a place and do an investigation,” he said. “It’s best to do all the research you can beforehand.”
Matthew Shelar, leading investigator at S.P.I.R.I.T., met Steele in 2009 at a group meeting. He said he could tell from the beginning that Steele would make a good team member because of his persistence and passion.
“When Lee sets his mind to something, he does it,” Shelar said. “When we have a case, he’s always good about gathering history and interviewing people. If there’s something out there that can be gathered about a place, Lee can do it. He’s a vital gear to the team, and we couldn’t do it without him.”
Although the idea of being a ghost hunter may seem like constant excitement, Steele said most people misunderstand the process of doing an investigation. It’s not like on television when supernatural things happen immediately, one after the other, he said.
“If you listen to some of my recordings, that’s one of the most boring parts in the process — having to review the evidence,” he said. “Sometimes you have minutes or almost hours of nothing, no activity. If there is anything supernatural there, it’s only going to manifest itself when it decides it wants to.”
Although these paranormal moments may not be frequent, Steele said it’s always incredible when they finally happen. And he experienced several of these happenings when he participated in his first large group investigation.
“Help me, help me”
The most exciting part of Steele’s career to date came when he was given the opportunity to conduct a paranormal investigation on the historic USS North Carolina battleship in Wilmington in April 2010.
The investigation was a collaboration between S.P.I.R.I.T. and the popular television show “Ghost Hunters International,” starring former host Dustin Pari.
“I was the only member of S.P.I.R.I.T. that was able to go, but I was incredibly excited,” Steele said.
It wasn’t too long before the group got its first sign of contact with the beyond. The investigation started in the ship’s mess hall, and Steele and his group were using specially-designed radio helmets to decipher EVPs, or electronic voice phenomenon, which are often believed to be the voices of the dead attempting to communicate with the living.
“We kept hearing a male voice saying, ‘Help me, help me,’” Steele said.
Steele had done previous research about the ship and learned that a man named Thurman ‘Tommy’ Thomas had died of a skull fracture after falling off a ladder.
And sure enough, when Steele asked the man his name, the voice replied, “Tommy.”
“What really blew my mind, though, was that we started hearing a female voice in the background,” Steele said. “I started trying to think who that was and how it tied in, but I couldn’t figure it out.”
The next day, Steele visited the ship’s gift shop and picked up a book that gave the full history of the Battleship North Carolina, including information on every individual who died while serving on the ship during World War II.
While reading a passage on Thurman, Steele made a startling discovery.
“The book was going on about how bad the injury was and how he was well-liked by the crew and everything,” Steele said. “But then I’m sitting there and I read a line that says he was just recently married, and I was like, ‘Whoa — the voice must’ve been his wife.’”
Danielle Wallace serves as programs director at the USS North Carolina and coordinated the investigation with Steele. Wallace said she didn’t believe the ship was haunted until strange things started occurring after she had worked there for a while, so she appreciates the work paranormal investigation groups do and likes to help them decipher their findings.
“Whenever a group does a paranormal investigation, I take what those groups have found and I try to make sense of it historically,” Wallace said. “I remember the group came back with EVPs from the hatches near the torpedoes, and that makes sense because one of the first things that would go through your mind when the ship was struck is that those hatches were going to be closed soon and you needed to get out.”
Alhough Wallace isn’t entirely convinced that ghosts exist, she said the evidence brought forth by Steele and his group has definitely given their job more credibility in her eyes, and Steele’s efforts in particular were very impressive.
“Lee always struck me as being someone who throws his whole self into what he believes,” Wallace said. “I remember he showed me a very elaborate book of research that he’d put together about the ship, so I could tell he’s a very enthusiastic, thorough and passionate person about all things paranormal.”
A near fatality
But not everyone thinks so positively of Steele’s chosen career path.
Steele was born and raised in the Baptist church and has very strong religious beliefs, but some find this contradictory.
“I’ve caught a bunch of flak from people at my church, which is sad to say,” he said.
Additionally, many blame Steele’s “meddling” with the supernatural as the reason why he got in a car accident shortly after his investigation of the USS North Carolina.
Steele had just driven to a team member’s home to drop off a camera he had used for the investigation, and on his way home, he was turning into an intersection when he was hit by an oncoming car going 50 mph.
“I couldn’t hit my brakes fast enough, and next thing I knew I heard a ‘bam,’” Steele said. “When the ambulance came, they got me out of the car and I knew right away from the pain I felt in my wrist that it wasn’t good — something was busted, and it was the worst pain I’ve ever been in.”
Luckily, the damage wasn’t severe. Steele was taken to a hospital in Asheboro, where doctors told him he had crushed all the small bones in his right wrist. The hospital staff contacted Darlene Oakley, Steele’s sister, to let her know what happened.
“He’s lucky to be alive,” Oakley said. “He got in this terrible accident all from taking a piece of equipment back, and then I was called at 2 a.m. and told I need to come get my brother from the hospital, and that did not put me in a good place.”
The car accident is a prime example of why Oakley said she does not approve of Steele’s chosen career.
“I’m not crazy about it, but that’s just me,” she said. “I think he’s into it a little too much. I just think he puts that over a lot of other things that I think he should see as more important.”
Not only was his family concerned, but Steele’s church also continued to disapprove of his actions.
“The first thing I heard when I got back to church after the accident was people saying, ‘If you hadn’t been chasing ghosts, that wouldn’t have happened,’” Steele said. “I wasn’t even chasing ghosts at the time — I was returning a piece of equipment. Still, that was kind of sad to hear, and that’s some of the negative stuff I deal with.”
Nonetheless, Steele continues to enjoy doing his job, regardless of whether society takes him seriously. He wants to host an investigation where anyone who’s interested can come along for the experience, and he specifically wants to invite skeptics.
“If somebody says, ‘Aw, that’s just a bunch of bull malarkey,’ like some people that I’ve talked to, I can say, ‘Well, you come with me then,’” he said. “Because after the Battleship North Carolina, after you spend the whole night on that ship, you’ll be talking otherwise. I guarantee you.”
‘The power of prayer’
Above all, Steele said helping people is what he loves most about his job.
He recently took on a case of a haunting at a home in which a woman lived with her husband and their little boy, and because a child was involved, Steele found the case very concerning.
“The lady said her husband was a truck driver and sometimes she’d have to spend nights in the house alone, and all of a sudden she felt like someone was following her, and she’d see dark shadows in the hallway,” Steele said. “Even her little boy brought her to his closet and pointed to the floor and said, ‘Mommy, there are weird noises coming from there.’”
Steele made sure to say a prayer before and after an investigation at her home — he claims one of the reasons he believes he got in the car accident after dropping off the camera is because he didn’t pray before and after doing the investigation at the Battleship North Carolina.
The woman decided to take Steele up on this idea, so after the investigation concluded and everyone had gone home, she went up to her son’s bedroom and prayed for the haunting to stop.
“She told me she finally got so frustrated that she couldn’t take it anymore,” Steele said. “She went upstairs and hollered, ‘I don’t know what’s causing me all this torment in my own house and not giving me and my family peace, but in the name of God, I demand you leave this house, leave me and my family alone and don’t bother us ever again.’”
After giving this prayer, the woman told Steele her family never experienced any problems again.
Steele smiled and said, “Sometimes that’s all it takes.”