A Ghost in the Flood

By MNR News posted 10-26-2023 14:48

It wasn’t going to be an easy sale. The house was a wreck. The seller was being dragged into court by her children. And then, a haunting apparition appeared.
At first, Doneva Carter noticed nothing unusual about the little home on Newton Avenue North (pictured, right). Set on a quiet, tree-lined stretch near North Commons Park in North Minneapolis, the three-bedroom, two-bath house had been home to many families since it was built in 1915. Carter had sold dozens just like it during her two decades in the real estate business. 

But this particular transaction was different.

Zuri Xiong*, the seller, a recently widowed Hmong woman who spoke only a few words of English, was locked in a dispute with her adult stepchildren. Apart from bearing the grief of losing her husband, she suddenly faced eviction from her home. 

“The day he died, the children told her to get out,” said Carter. According to Hmong custom, they argued, she had no right to the property where their father had just passed away. Since she was not their biological mother, the inheritance was entirely theirs. They were determined to sell the home and not share a penny from the sale with Zuri Xiong.

“She had nowhere to go,” Carter added. Even though her husband had clearly stated he wanted her to remain in the home if he died before her, there was no will legally establishing this or any other directive. Seeing no alternative, Zuri Xiong vacated the property, taking only a few belongings, and leaving all the furnishings behind. Now, she rented an apartment she could scarcely afford.

“Fortunately, Zuri Xiong reached out to a Hmong community organization that provides social services and advocacy for people with legal issues,” Carter said. From there, she was connected to a prominent Minneapolis attorney who represented her pro bono in the dispute with her stepchildren. When it came time to sell the property, the lawyer solicited Carter to handle the real estate side of the transaction.
As a co-founder of Wonderland Realty in Minneapolis, Carter had made it her mission to serve others, and help change their lives for the better. Serving on numerous association and local government committees, she was dedicated to helping people with limited means purchase homes of their own. Her posts included board of directors for the Minneapolis and Minnesota Diversity Committee, and membership on Minnesota Realtors®’ (MNR) Government Affairs Committee, where she supported the recently passed First Generation Homeowners’ Downpayment Assistance fund. Given Carter’s deep experience, selling the widow’s home and helping her start a stable and secure life should not have been a tall order.

Calling in the Ghost Busters

It was a brisk fall day in 2021 when Carter stopped by to check on the unoccupied Newton Avenue property Zuri Xiong had vacated. The home had not been maintained very well over the years, and it needed a lot of work to be ready for market. Apart from adding to her to-do list, she wanted to make sure the property was safe and secure.

“Before I even opened the front door, I could hear the sound of rushing water,” Carter recalled. “’What the hell?’ I said. And when I walked in, the house was flooded.” A water pipe had burst. 

An immaculate dresser, Carter never left her house without stylish high heels and a matching ensemble. The prospect of crossing flooded floors and trekking down to the water main in a basement pooling with ankle-deep murk was horrifying.  

“By the time I get to that valve, my clothes are wet, my hair’s wet, and with my long fingernails in the way, I just can’t turn it off. So, I’m just freaking out.” Eventually, with some persistence and ingenuity, Carter twisted the valve shut. The roaring water slowed to a trickle, but the house was now literally and metaphorically underwater. It would be a long soggy road to closing. But Carter was not easily deterred. Following a quick call to a cleaning service that deals with house floods, two men arrived in a truck with an impressive array of equipment. 

“They looked like a couple of Ghost Busters,” Carter said, recalling her first impression of the friendly young men in coveralls who carried complex, steam-punkish cleaning machines. She was impressed by how jovial and good humored they were. As if sucking all the water out of a flood zone was a weekend romp. Waiting in the warmth of her car while the technicians drained the domestic swamp, Carter made calls and tried to reclaim some of her lost business day. When the men finally emerged from the house, she noticed their demeanor had changed. They seemed uneasy, even agitated.  

“They weren’t giggling anymore,” Carter observed. “They were just looking at each other, kind of nervous. I thought maybe they found extensive water damage inside the walls. Something really bad. So, I asked them what was going on.” 

The case of the phantom photo bomber
“We saw something,” said Phillip Nelson**, senior member of the cleaning duo. “In the basement.” Staring down at his phone, he flipped through images on the camera app. “Here,” he said at length, and handed Carter the device.“At first, I didn’t know what I was looking at. I wasn’t sure what he was trying to show me. Then I noticed it,” Carter said. On the far wall of the basement in a dry area beyond the shallow puddles, she saw the shadowy figure of a man. His head nodded, as if in prayer or contemplation, and one knee was bent, resting a foot on his other leg.  
“Well, that’s a picture of your shadow,” Carter offered an obvious and reassuring explanation. No, Nelson insisted, his shadow could not have fallen on the wall because where he stood taking photo, the light would have cast it behind him. He was also emphatic that it wasn’t his co-worker’s shadow either. Suspecting they might be pranking her, Carter studied the young men’s faces closely. 

“They were pretty shaken up, so I could tell they weren’t just playing around,” she concluded. Although Carter has never seen a ghost, and says she is not sensitive to paranormal phenomenon, she is open to the possibility that other people have experiences that defy ordinary explanations. Before the house cleaners drove off, Nelson shared a copy of the photo with Carter. From time to time, she pulls it up on her phone and studies it.

Had Nelson actually captured an image of a ghost? Was it the spirit of Zuri Xiong’s husband searching for her in the empty house? Or was it some other long deceased resident of the 108-year-old home, clinging to the familiar contours of a vanished life? Or was it something else entirely?

“There’s many weird things that happen in the world,” Carter said. “Personally, I believe everything has a frequency. People who see supernatural things are on that frequency. And fortunately for me, I’m not tuned into that.”

A nation of haunted neurons
Of course, finding recognizable patterns in seemingly random shapes and textures is a known quirk of human perception. In neuroscience, it’s referred to as pareidolia, the brain’s tendency to impose structure and meaning on disorderly visual inputs. Who hasn’t gazed at clouds and seen floating bestiaries of lions, lambs, elephants, and dragons? For decades, psychologists utilized pareidolia to probe their clients’ inner depths by asking them to reveal what they saw in random inkblots. And there are innumerable stories about the Virgin Mary found on a piece of toast or an angry troll emerging from a tree trunk, or a brooding alien seen in the shadowy contours of a boulder on Mars. So, whether the specter captured by Nelson’s camera is proof of ghostly realms or overactive human neurons is entirely up to the beholder.
Yet for millions of people, ghosts are a fact of life—or more aptly afterlife. The Pew Research Center reports that 18% of Americans believe they have seen or been in the presence of a ghost. And according to a poll from Ipsos, a marketing analytics firm, 46% of Americans believe ghosts are real, even if they’ve never seen one. 

With so many of us believing that things going bump in the night might come from beyond the grave, are Realtors® obligated to tell prospective buyers that a house might be haunted? The answer, quite simply, is no. According to Minn. Stats. § 513.56 and 82.68, sellers and real estate licensees do not have to disclose that a property was the site of a suicide, accidental or natural death, even if these events are the source of stories about hauntings. 

Life after closing

Whether the photo taken in the basement of that Newton Avenue home was full of spirits or shadows, Carter was reluctant to set foot in it again.  

“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the spirit world, but I don’t mess around with it either,” she said. 

Still, she didn’t hesitate to step up for her client. Going far beyond her fiduciary duties, she often drove Zuri Xiong to appointments with her attorney, and put in extra hours to find a buyer. Finally, in early 2022, it all paid off. Carter found an investor willing to take on the house’s long list of repairs and renovations. And the attorney helped Zuri Xiong reach an equitable agreement with her stepchildren. The house closed in March. 

Zuri Xiong has a nice little nest egg now, and she’s building a new life,” Carter said. “That’s why I got in this business, and that’s why I’m sticking around. I’m here to help people find a place they can call home.” 


*The name of Carter’s client has been changed to protect her privacy.
**Nelson, whose name has been changed, declined to be interviewed for this story. His statements about the spectral incident and the photo were recounted by Carter.