A landmark year for extrasensory fail.
Don’t Help Me, Rhonda
On June 6, 2011, an unassuming ranch near the town of Hardin, Texas (about an hour outside Houston) was swarmed by Liberty County sheriff’s deputies, FBI agents, Texas Rangers, and officials from the Texas Department of Public Safety. News choppers buzzed overheard as law enforcement fanned out over the property with cadaver dogs. Backhoes were brought in to excavate random spots.
This huge search effort was triggered by two phone calls to the Hays County Sheriff’s Office from a woman who identified herself only as “Angel”. She said the remains of at least 32 “sacrificed” children were concealed in the walls of a building on the property of Joe Bankson and Gena Charlton, and that messages were scrawled on these walls in blood. She also said the lives of three more children were in danger, hinting that two of them were Jasmine and Mariana Pinales, who had been abducted by their 14-year-old sister in May (weirdly, they were no longer missing at the time of Angel’s phone calls – they had been found alive two weeks earlier, near Austin). Angel admitted she had received this information secondhand, from the ghosts of the children, but authorities felt obligated to investigate nonetheless. For one thing, Angel seemed familiar with the ranch. She knew its location and its layout, even though she didn’t seem to know much about the owners (she incorrectly identified the unemployed Joe Bankson as a carny).
The search quickly caught the attention of KPRC-TV and KHOU-TV in Houston, and news outlets around the world picked it up that afternoon. After Reuters erroneously reported that bodies had actually been found, Ed Lavendera of CNN tweeted that “at least 20” bodies had been found, someone at ABC News tweeted “‘Dozens of bodies’ found in mass Texas grave”, and the New York Times tweeted that up to 30 dismembered bodies were discovered. The Houston Chronicle reported a foul stench and traces of blood at the ranch. If Bankson and/or Charlton were responsible for all the bodies said to be buried there, he/they would have been the most prolific serial killer(s) the Houston region had seen since Dean Corll and his two teenage accomplices, back in the early ’70s.
Later in the evening, the AP revealed that the tip about bodies at the ranch might have come from a psychic. This was the first hint that the story could be bogus. The news agencies started to qualify their statements, tweeting phrases like “unconfirmed reports” and “conflicting information” (the Washington Post has compiled a timeline of some of these tweets).
The second hint? The search produced nothing. The blood mentioned by the Chronicle had come from a May suicide attempt by the boyfriend of Joe Bankson’s daughter, the source of the bad smell was trash, and there wasn’t a single headless corpse anywhere to be found. “Angel” turned out to be an area psychic by the name of Presley “Rhonda” Gridley. In an interview with KHOU, she made it clear that her information about dismembered corpses and endangered children at the ranch came solely from Jesus and 32 “angels” (the departed spirits of the children supposedly murdered by Bankson and Charlton). She did not explain how she was able to give a physical description of the property when her other details were so horrendously off.
Incredibly, she has never been charged with making a false report to police.
The entire incident echoed a fruitless search conducted in central Washington state in 1989. In that case, investigators were acting on a tip from the late Ted Gunderson, a retired FBI agent who considered himself an expert on ritual abuse, human sacrifice, and other things Satanic. During a taping of one of Geraldo Rivera’s many shows on the dangers of Satanism, Gunderson declared that a knowledgeable source had told him about mass graves containing countless the bodies of Satanic murder victims somewhere in Mason County, Washington. In response to the concerns of county residents, multiple agencies conducted helicopter and ground searches of the area. No trace of the “Satanic burial ground” was ever found.
That Geraldo broadcast I mentioned was mostly about the mass grave found in Matamoros. In that case, a group of drug runners with strange, cultish beliefs had ritualistically murdered several people to increase their luck and fortunes (that worked out really well for them). This was a big deal at the time. Now, drug cartels have considerably larger mass graves, and Geraldo isn’t saying boo about them. Huh.
In the Washington case, no private property was damaged, and no one’s reputation was harmed (unless you count Gunderson and Geraldo). The Texas case was much different. Bankson’s and Charlton’s land was riddled with holes, their house was trashed, and friends and acquaintances grew deeply suspicious of them. Last year they filed a lawsuit against the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office for unlawful search and seizure, and against several media outlets (including most of those mentioned) for defamation. They also sued “Angel”, naming her as “Jane Doe” because the woman would not reveal her real name. They ultimately dropped the sheriff’s office and the media from their suit.
On May 7 of this year, Gridley was ordered to pay the Charltons $6.8 million in damages. This spells the end of the weird case for most people, but troubling questions remain. Why did Gridley target Bankson and Charlton, two people she apparently did not know? How did she know the layout of their property when she lived 800 miles north of it, in Stanton? Why has she not been charged with making a false report?
And when will the next massive, fruitless searched be launched on the say-so of some self-proclaimed seeress or cult expert?
Louwana Miller was terrified when her 16-year-old daughter, Amanda Berry, failed to return home from her job at a Cleveland Burger King on April 21, 2003, just one day before her 17th birthday. Amanda had phoned to say she would be getting a ride home from work, and that was the last anyone heard from her. Miller knew her daughter hadn’t run away from home.
One week later, Louwana received a call from her daughter’s cell phone. A male voice said, “I have Amanda. She’s fine and will be coming home in a couple of days.” But Amanda never appeared.
Almost exactly a year after Amanda vanished, 14-year-old Gina DeJesus disappeared from the same street. The two girls were featured on America’s Most Wanted and Oprah. Then Montel Williams decided to invite Louwana on his show to ask the late Sylvia Browne about her daughter. Browne was accurate, at first. She correctly stated that Amanda had been wearing a jacket, and seemed very confident that only one person was responsible for her disappearance (at the time, Miller and the authorities believed three men were involved). She even gave a description of the perp that was remarkably on-target: “sort of Cuban-looking, short, kind of stocky build, heavyset…”, though she got the age wrong (21 or 22). Then she broke the bad news: Amanda was dead. Her body was “in water” somewhere.
Louwana Miller never entirely gave up the search for her daughter, but she did scale back her efforts after Browne told her Amanda was dead. Her health declined steadily. She died of heart failure in 2006.
On May 6 of this year, Amanda, Gina, and a third missing woman named Michelle Knight were rescued from a Cleveland house owned by Ariel Castro. All three had been abducted and subjected to sexual assault and abuse by Castro. Amanda had given birth to a daughter without medical assistance the year after her mother died.
Castro was Puerto Rican, not Cuban, and was in his 40s when he abducted his first known victim, Knight, in 2002.
The media was quick to pounce on Browne’s mistake, but this was just one of numerous epic blunders she had made over the years. She misled more grieving people than I can count, either giving them false hope that their deceased loved ones were alive, or smashing their hopes by declaring falsely that their loved ones were dead. She went to her grave without apologizing to even one of these people.
Furthermore, she didn’t even accurately predict her own death. On a May 2003 appearance on Larry King Live, she said she would die at the age of 88.
An Unsuccessful Success Story
Psychic detectives have an abysmal track record when it comes to actually solving crimes, as a previous series on this blog shows. One psychic seemed to have defied expectations this past summer, however, when she located the body of an 11-year-old boy in Menifee, California. Terry Smith Jr. had been reported missing by his mother on July 7. The community and law enforcement quickly mobilized to search the area.
On July 10, Pamela Ragland phoned the tip line set up for information related to Terry’s disappearance. Identifying herself as a psychic, Ragland said she had been experiencing visions of Terry lying on his side, as though sleeping. Riverside County Sheriff’s investigators, desperate for any lead, encouraged her to visit Menifee. She and her children were taken to the Smith property by an off-duty fireman. Within an hour, the Raglands came upon Terry’s remains. His body had been placed in a shallow grave beneath a tree.
The media lavished attention on Ragland’s astonishing “hit”, pointing out that she somehow knew her way around the Smith property. But a closer examination reveals that Ragland was literally stumbling around in the dark. After seeing the Smith home on TV, she was familiar enough with the property to point out a few landmarks. No psychic ability required. She didn’t even find Terry’s body; her 12-year-old daughter did. The only mystery connected to this story is how the grave was overlooked for days.
Skylor Atilano, Terry’s 16-year-old brother, has been charged with his murder. Skylor did not have access to a vehicle, so by necessity would have had to dispose of his brother’s body in the immediate area. Perhaps Ms. Ragland suspected as much, since Skylor was admittedly the last person to see Terry alive.
Sleazier Than Fiction
Jude Devereux is one of the top-selling romance novelists in the world. In 1991, she decided to end her four-year marriage to Claude White, and she feared that he (in an interesting reversal of gender roles) would take her to the cleaners in court. That was when she happened to meet a woman named Joyce Michaels in the Manhattan studio of a friend. Michaels revealed she was a psychic, operating out of an office in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and offered to help Devereux get through her divorce with relatively little trauma – for a price, of course. She then told Devereux precisely when White would file for divorce, and on what day the papers would arrive at her home.
Devereux says she was deeply skeptical of this seer until the papers arrived. Now convinced that Michaels possessed extraordinary powers, Devereux gave her $1 million to somehow make the divorce process easier. Michaels had convinced her the money was cursed, and promised to cleanse it of “evil” at the cathedral (a classic scam).
Devereux was so satisfied with the “results” that she continued to consult Michaels for years, giving her up to $20 million for various readings, consultations, and blessings.
What Devereux and other clients of Joyce Michaels didn’t know was that the woman was really Nancy “Rose” Marks, the matriarch of a family of psychic scammers who often used aliases. She did not have an office in St. Patrick’s cathedral. The Marks clan defrauded so many people that police set up a sting operation to catch them, codenamed Operation Crystal Ball. Several members of the extended Marks family were arrested in August 2011.
Nancy Marks was convicted of 14 counts of fraud in September, after Devereux and other victims testified against her.