Michelle Licona discusses the mystery of Nonna Lucia with retired NYPD detective Steve DiSchiavi in a screenshot from “Dead Files.” COURTESY DISCOVERY INC

When they took over Nonna Lucia Italian restaurant in August 2019, Julio and Michelle Licona were in the infancy of marriage and ready to embark on a joint life adventure. Two years later, their eatery was closed and they were meeting with mediums to try to explain the horror their life had become.

The Liconas were featured on a Feb. 26 episode of the popular Travel Channel paranormal series “Dead Files,” with their restaurant and the town of Bluffton the sole focus of the hour-long show.

“We never wanted to be on this show, but we were looking for some answers,” said long-time real estate agent Michelle Licona. “We knew these folks were the only ones that could give us the type of closure we needed. And to assure us we weren’t losing our minds.”

The show, now in its 14th season, features medium Amy Allan and retired New York City Police detective Steve DiSchiavi. The pair do separate investigations of the space and the circumstances surrounding reported hauntings such as the scene at Nonna Lucia.

Chef Julio’s culinary concoctions and Michelle’s attention to dinner service became an instant hit in town, earning the restaurant a slew of customer-chosen awards from local publications. The wall of award plaques became a point of pride and a realization of the duo’s vision.

Sadly, strange occurrences far outnumbered the volume of awards right from the beginning.

“Whether you believe in this stuff or not, when you experienced what we experienced, you’d believe,” Licona said.

At first, it was the sounds of children laughing in an empty room at the end of the night. Soon, every member of their staff reported they felt like they’d been tripped in the hallway outside the kitchen.

“We would see shadowy figures. We all heard plates rattling. Julio refused to go behind the bar because there was constant activity there. We’d see orbs of light moving around our office,” Michelle said. “I was sitting at the bar and felt like I’d been pushed from behind. I felt like I was slapped in the face and the side of the head. Julio said kitchen utensils would disappear and reappear hours later.”

Michelle converted a bathroom space to an office where she and staff repeatedly saw apparitions and constant orbs.

“One day, I came in early, before opening, turned off all the lights before I left mid-morning and then came back around 3 p.m. and my staff was surprised. My office lights were on, they heard constant tapping on the desk, so they thought I was back there all along.”

One night, the couple witnessed a balloon they thought was in their office travel around the restaurant like it was being held by someone.

“This wasn’t wind – this went on for an hour and a half. It was moving methodically, turning around corners, jumping over the bar like someone was pulling the string,” Michelle said.

The usually jovial Julio became depressed and anxious and lashed out in fits of anger he couldn’t explain. For Michelle, the stress of a quickly deteriorating marriage was paired with a slew of medical emergencies.

“I was sick to my stomach daily in the restaurant but felt better immediately after leaving,” she said.

Michelle had a heart attack and a stroke, suffered daily migraines and chronic vertigo. She was diagnosed with multiple autoimmune diseases and type 1 diabetes, rapidly evolving issues for the previously healthy Licona that doctors could not explain.

“I had five surgeries in a year. I would be greeting a table and feel my tendons tearing. They tore so badly, they had to be reattached with anchors to the bone,” Michelle said. “It was all excruciating, inexplicable pain all throughout my body.”

The couple kept the restaurant open for takeout during the COVID lockdowns but water damage from Hurricane Danny and the couple’s collective bad health forced them to close in early 2021.

The idea of applying to the show came out of last-ditch desperation.

“We were watching TV and saw this show,” she said. “Julio said, ‘You should apply.’ It took months before we heard from them. And then another month of prep work before they came to town.”

Allan and DiSciavi arrived separately in August 2021 and never talked about the case before they revealed their findings to the Liconas.

Allan was immediately startled before even entering the restaurant and said she felt pulled by a small army of apparitions wanting her attention. She felt overwhelmed by spirits inside the restaurant and encountered a disfigured angry man, first in a rocking chair and then repeatedly inside the kitchen. She saw images of fire and of decrepit structures and people fleeing the land.

Allan said that Julio’s extreme mood changes and depression were likely due to the spirit transferring his angry energies to the chef. She told Michelle that consistent exposure to these spirits could explain her onslaught of illness.

DiSchiavi did an extensive deed search of the property and then met with Dr. Lawrence Rowland of Beaufort, a historian and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at USCB, who told him of the plantation and slave shacks burned by the British Army on their way to attack Charleston in 1779.

DiSchiavi also met with an investigator who told of a 1913 incident in which a white woman accused a Gullah Geechee farmer of attacking her, and the subsequent shooting of an innocent black man, William Jackson, by investigators.

Retired Bluffton police detective Walter Criddle told DiSchiavi of the horrific 1988 murder of Bluffton native and Sly and the Family Stone guitarist Toney Hooks. Criddle’s description of the crime matched with Allan’s description of the spirit plaguing Julio.

The show ended with Allan telling the Liconas to have a medium come to clear the area of spirits and to have a Reiki master come to “cut the cords” and rid the property of its negative energy.

The couple had actually had local medium Dwanna Paul visit the restaurant a month before the show began filming.

“The show typically asks for an update video from the clients, but I had just been in the hospital suffering from Bell’s Palsy,” Michelle said. “Half of my face was paralyzed and my speech was slurred, so we didn’t send an update.”

The Liconas also had a Reiki master cleanse the space after the show finished taping. While negotiating with the insurance company over the hurricane damage, they learned the building had been put up for sale.

Michelle returned to real estate and Julio is currently working as a chef at Okatie Ale House.

“We’re still fighting for insurance money, I have medical issues that aren’t going away, but the two of us are infinitely happier,” Michelle said. “We had the most amazing customers that helped us build wonderful memories at Nonna Lucia. We want to open a restaurant again when the fit is right. Right now, it’s about us. We’re still recovering financially and emotionally. Julio is back to enjoying life and I don’t feel like I’m 82 anymore. This is the most alive I’ve felt in years.”

You can watch repeats of the “Hell’s Kitchen” episode of “Dead Files” on Discovery Plus, Philo, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video.

Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at timwood@blufftonsun.com.