2013: A Very Bad Year for Psychics

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?

Sylvia Browne

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.

Psychic Detectives

Part I: Intro/Gerard Croiset and Peter Hurkos
Part II: Dorothy Allison and Noreen Renier
Part III: Sylvia Browne, Psychic Clown
Part IV: Other “Notables” (including Allison DuBois)
Addendum: Uri Geller

Psychic Detectives: Addendum

I mentioned in Psychic Detectives: Part I that Uri Geller claimed he had worked with the FBI. The FBI denies it. But Geller has indisputably been involved with crime-solving on a smaller scale, and it would be interesting to see how successful he was.

Geller is primarily a telepath and a psychokinetic (think Carrie, minus the prom). Unlike most psychics, he rarely makes predictions. When he was informally tested at the Stanford Research Institute in the early ’70s, the examiners didn’t even try him out on their pet project – remote viewing. However, he did show some promise in reproducing sketches that were not visible to him, and it is this sort of eyeless sight that could theoretically enable him to recreate a crime scene or find a missing person.

In 1992, Geller got the chance to do just that when the mother of a missing teenager asked him to locate her. Helga Farkas had vanished in Budapest shortly after her high school graduation the previous year, and her new sports car had been found abandoned. Geller announced to the family and to the Hungarian press that Helga was alive and would soon be returning home.

Authorities later learned that József Csapó and his associate Benedek Juhász had kidnapped Helga for ransom, then killed her when the public attention became too intense. Csapo was convicted of her murder in 1998. Her body has not been recovered.

Psychic Detectives Part IV: Other “Notables”

Part I: Intro
Part II: Dorothy Allison and Noreen Renier
Part III: Sylvia Browne, Psychic Clown

Arthur Price Roberts

Roberts was one of America’s first psychic detectives. Little is known about him, the main source of information being Frank Edwards’ book Strange People (Lyle Stuart, 1986). Edwards reports that Roberts remained illiterate throughout his life because he feared that learning would dilute his gifts, which he used to predict disasters and identify criminals in the ’30s.
In 1935, Roberts warned Milwaukee police: “Going to be lots of bombings – dynamitings! I see two banks blown up and perhaps the city hall. Going to blow up police stations. Then there’s going to be a big blowup south of the Menomonee river and it’ll be all over.” Edwards writes, “As Roberts was known for his predictions, extra precautions were taken. Eight days later the village hall was blasted to bits. Two people died and others were injured. The next day the dynamiters blew up two Milwaukee banks and two police stations. In spite of extra patrols, a sixth explosion took place. It was heard up to eight miles away. The garage where it had been centered was obliterated. Two young men, Hugh Rotkowski, and Paul Chovaonee, were inside when the fifty pounds of dynamite for their sixth bomb accidentally detonated.”
These bombings did occur, but Edwards got many of the details wrong. There is no indication that Milwaukee authorities were in any way prepared for the bombings, and the bombers were Isador “Idzi” Rutkowski and Paul “Shrimp” Chovenec. With information about Roberts being so scarce and unreliable, it would be foolish to declare the case an example of successful psychic detection. Likewise, Edwards’ descriptions of Roberts’ other cases are too vague for them to be identified and confirmed.

Chris Robinson

British psychic Chris Robinson, a former janitor, sees visions of future crimes and disasters in his dreams with 50% accuracy. He claims to have predicted several IRA attacks of the early ’90s, 9/11, Chernobyl, deaths in his family, etc. All are unconfirmed. You’d think that years ago he would have started recording his dreams and secreting his predictions in a secure location in front of witnesses, to be confirmed later. Somehow he just never got around to doing that. Futurist and paranormal enthusiast John Peterson’s Arlington Institute is attempting to do something similar with its online “Whether Map“, but it’s not operative yet. In the meantime, Robinson hopes that we’ll take his word for it all.

Robinson calls himself a dream detective, and couches his abilities in Christian terms (though not as strongly as Sylvia Browne does). However, Chris openly admits that his gifts really aren’t of much benefit to society yet. From his website: “At first I was accepted by Scotland Yard and other local police forces as being a credible source of information even though it was impossible most of the time to act in a meaningful way to prevent the crimes foreseen taking place. This proved to be very frustrating and after 10 years of the authorities monitoring and working with me there [sic] interest faded. The reason was that no academics in the UK or elsewhere seemed remotely interested in working with people like me on research into this subject.” I think it’s much simpler than that: Chris’s tips weren’t useful in preventing crime, and the tests he has undergone produced unimpressive results.

In 2001 Chris traveled to Arizona to be tested by University of Arizona professor Gary L. Schwartz, and produced what he considered decent results. But when Richard Wiseman and Dr Susan Blackmore tested him in controlled experiments, his performance was lackluster (and that’s being generous). Chris seems to believe he was a success despite the poor results, and blames his failures on skeptics. One has to wonder why he bothers subjecting himself to tests at all, since he summarily rejects all scientific psi testing that does not support his own conclusions. For instance, on his website he promotes “the girl with X-ray eyes“, who has also failed miserably at tests of her superpowers.

Allison DuBois

To be blunt, Allison DuBois is barely worth mentioning here. Her mediumistic experiences and her “internship” in the Homicide division of her local district attorney’s office in Pheonix have been the subject of her three books, Don’t Kiss Them Good-bye, Secrets of the Monarch, and the weirdly titled We Are Their Heaven (really? dead people have nothing better to do than watch us get on with our boring lives?), and Gary L. Schwartz vouches for her abilities as a psychic. She was the inspiration for the popular TV series Medium. But unlike Patricia Arquette’s character, DuBois admits her information usually doesn’t solve crimes. Some of the law enforcement agencies she claims to have worked with have declared she had no involvement with their cases, and others say she didn’t provide any useful information. It’s quite telling that Pheonix investigators never turn to her for help. Detective Alex Femenia denies she provided any useful information in one of her few claimed successes, the Baseline rapist case. Her insights into high-profile cases are less than astonishing (she told MSNBC she saw Natalee Holloway “near the water”, which is an outrageously safe bet when someone disappears on an island). In short, her image as a psychic soccer mom and a “criminal profiler” doesn’t seem earned.

Mary Ann Morgan

Morgan is a trim, middled-aged blonde best known for her involvement in the Laci Peterson case (the Petersons hired several psychics in an effort to find “the real killer”, including Noreen Renier and a pet psychic who interviewed the only living witness in the case – Laci’s dog).
On an installment of Psychic Detectives, she was credited with locating the body of Loretta Bowersock in the Arizona desert. Bowersock’s boyfriend, Taw Benderly, claimed that she vanished while they were passing through Pheonix en route to their home in California. There were some holes in his story, big enough to arouse suspicion, but his suicide took him out of the running as the prime suspect. The case remains officially unsolved.
Moore was brought into the case by Loretta’s daughter, Terri. Though Terri gives some credit to several of the psychics she hired, including Morgan, her account of the case makes it clear that psychic Tammy Holmes was actually the one who contributed most to the discovery of Loretta’s body. Holmes was in such close contact with the spirit of Ms. Bowersock that she was able to tell Terri a little of what to expect in heaven: free purses.

Morgan also inserted herself into the Natalee Holloway case, accompanying Texus EquuSearch to Aruba. She pinpointed an area of ocean in which Natalee’s body had been dumped, and since her information dovetailed with the fact that a cage used by fisherman had been stolen around the time of Natalee’s disappearance, divers from EquuSearch and the University of Florida scoured the spot. Nothing was found. Dave Holloway says some of the information Morgan provided about the night his daughter died seemed accurate, but notes, “the jury is out until she finds my daughter.” (1)

Annette Martin

Once an opera singer, Martin promotes herself as a “medical intuitive”, a psychic detective, and a ghostbuster. As a detective, she runs a psychic detective agency called Closure4U. Sgt. Detective Richard Keaton of the Marin County Sheriff’s Department vouches for her help in solving cases, notably the disappearance of an elderly former paratrooper named Dennis Prado. On a map, she circled a small area of a park in which he was believed to be, and he was found within that area, but as in so many “psychic detective” cases her reading did not actually lead to the discovery of Prado’s body. Skeptic Joe Nickell pointed out to 48 Hours that Martin was able to draw lots of useful information from the police prior to drawing her circle.
As a medical intuitive, she channels the spirit of famed psychic healer Edgar Cayce.
Martin has had a long string of claimed successes over the past three decades, and has been involved with a few high-profile cases in California. Information on her cases is extremely sparse, and like Chris Robinson she doesn’t record any of her predictions for future confirmation. She claims she foresaw the death of John Denver in a plane crash 15 years before it happened, when he came to her for a reading, but has nothing to back up her story. She can’t even prove he consulted her.

Perhaps the strangest moment in Martin’s career: She became the first psychic to testify in a criminal trial when she testified for the defense in the Susan Polk murder trial. Polk, a deeply disturbed and delusional woman, was representing herself after her lawyer’s wife was brutally murdered by a neighbor boy. She accused him of doing the deed himself. She also insisted that there was a conspiracy among friends and neighbors to frame her for Dr. Polk’s murder; later, after her conviction, she admitted that she had stabbed him “in self-defense”.

Martin came into the picture because Polk was trying to convince the jury she was psychic, and that Felix routinely drugged and hypnotized her in order to obtain accurate forecasts of world events. In this way, he found out about 9/11 in advance and told Israel’s Mossad about it. You see, Susan insisted her husband was a Mossad agent even though he had no known connections to the intelligence agency, never worked in a government capacity, and had never even been to Israel. (I’ve written about some of Susan Polk’s other delusions and allegations here.)
Judge Laurel S. Brady called the psychic issue “tangentially relevant” to the case (2), but I think she was far too generous. Remember, Susan Polk was arguing that she had nothing whatsoever to do with her husband’s death, so his alleged hypnosis sessions didn’t have any bearing on Susan’s guilt or innocence.
Martin’s testimony consisted only of a rundown of her own work as a psychic detective; she was not allowed to weigh in on the reality of psychic phenomena. She said she had assisted in about 100 criminal cases and was successful in all of them, but didn’t provide any specifics.

One-Time Psychics

There have been numerous instances of non-psychics receiving flashes of insight that enable them to find a body, solve a murder, or locate a missing person. These cases are far more baffling than those of psychic detectives, because the non-psychics involved typically don’t continue to solve crimes after their experiences; they’re one-off events. The strangest such case occurred in 1980, when Los Angeles nurse Melanie Uribe went missing. A woman named Etta Smith told investigators she “sensed” Melanie’s body was in Lopez Canyon, but her information was ignored. So she went to the canyon on her own, and “felt” her way around until she discovered the body. Naturally, she was considered a suspect in the murder until three men were arrested and charged. In cases like this, it’s entirely possible that the person has gained information about a crime through normal means, such as gossip, acquaintance with the criminal(s) or someone close to the crime, etc., and simply doesn’t want to admit it. It’s also possible that once in a while, out of the blue, someone receives a message from a place or a time we don’t even know about yet.


1. Dave Holloway, R. Stephanie Good, Larry Garrison. Aruba: The Tragic Untold Story of Natalee Holloway and Corruption in Paradise. Thomas Nelson Inc., 2006.
2. Carol Pogash. Seduced by Madness. Harper, 2007.
3. “Psychic Detectives” by Katharine Ramsland, at TruTV’s Crime Library

Sylvia Browne, Psychic Clown

Psychic Detectives Part III: Sylvia Browne
I’m willing to give Noreen Renier the benefit of the doubt when it comes to honesty. Maybe she simply isn’t as gifted as she thinks she is, and is sloppy when it comes to doing follow-ups.
But Sylvia Browne won’t be getting any such slack. She is a bald-faced liar and an utter fraud, the dagger-nailed embodiment of epic FAIL. I’ll admit that her whiskey-and-cigs voice and deadpan delivery are weirdly endearing. She’s like the lovably gruff white-trash aunt who sits in her trailer all day, knocking back black coffee while she waits for bingo. I’m not taken in by this, though. She can call people “honey” all she wants; this woman is evil.
Browne has been making her living as a psychic since the ’70s, offering phone readings for hundreds of dollars and establishing the Nirvana Foundation for Psychic Research (now defunct). In the ’90s she gained national fame as a regular guest on Montel Williams’ TV talk show, Montel. She made weekly appearances until the show’s cancellation in 2008. She steadily churns out books on reincarnation, heaven, psychic healing, and assorted New Agey topics.
Her son, Chris, claims to be psychic too. Psychic ability often runs in families, as with the mother-and-son team of Bertie and John Catchings and the family of “lesbian psychic to the stars” Terry Iacuzzo. There have been psychics in Browne’s family for the past three centuries. Don’t worry if your family lacks the clairvoyance gene, though: Browne’s Hypnosis Training Center offers classes on how to hypnotize your children and bring out their psychic abilities.
Much of Browne’s information about the afterlife comes from her spirit guide and co-author, Francine. No one knows just how Francine entered Browne’s life, because she has given conflicting accounts of their first meeting.
She is also in contact with many different kinds of angels, as well as fairies and humanoid aliens, but insists there are no demons (as we’ll see in a post about Ed and Lorraine Warren, other psychics vehemently disagree). After her psychical research outfit went bust, she founded a New Age/Christian church called the Society of Novus Spiritus.
In 1992, Browne and one of her many husbands, Kensil Dalzell Brown, pleaded no contest to several charges of investment fraud and grand larceny. They had been selling securities in a gold-mining venture under false pretenses, telling investors that their money would be used for operating costs when it actually went straight to their (now defunct) Nirvana Foundation for Psychic Research. Shades of Peter Hurkos.
Browne is cast firmly in the folksy New Age mold, but lately she’s venturing into conspiracy theories and pop eschatology to attract an even wider audience. Her latest book, Secret Societies, deals with staples of conspiranoia culture: the Knights Templar, Freemasons, Catholics, and the New World Order.

I first realized that Browne was full of it when I watched her give a past-life reading on Oprah. A woman in the audience wanted to know why she had a phobia of leaving beverages unattended for even a few minutes, and Browne casually informed her that she had been poisoned in her former life as an Egyptian “high priestess”. Then came the kicker: “I know because they poisoned me, too. I was the high priestess right before you were.” How amazing, then, that they would end up in the same Illinois TV studio on the very same day! I wonder why Browne didn’t pick her successor out of the audience right away to share some old times? “Hey, you, remember when we were both murdered in ancient Egypt? Wasn’t that da bomb? Whatcha been doing lately?”

If I listed all of Browne’s other false predictions, lies, and errors here, I’d have Carpal Tunnel before I was halfway done. So here are just a few of her “greatest misses”:
  • She solved the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. She actually was interviewed by the FBI, but the only suspect she could describe was “Salzeman”, perhaps a reference to Emad Salem or Mohammad Salameh (if you’re charitable). However, Salameh had been arrested 12 days prior to her interview.
  • Saddam Hussein wouldn’t live to see his trial.
  • She predicted 9/11. She didn’t, and the information she put on her website on 9/12 wasn’t accurate either; it contained names of organizations and weapons that don’t even exist.
  • Clinton was falsely accused in the Lewinsky scandal.
  • Bill Bradley would win the 2000 presidential election. He didn’t even make it past the primaries.
  • Bush would bring the troops home in 2007. Not one of the predictions she made in ’06 was accurate; she actually advised people to buy property because it would be going up in value. Her predictions for ’08 weren’t any better; she said the auto industry would improve thanks to the introduction of new hybrids. At least she was smart enough to avoid making any stock market predictions.
  • During one of several appearances on Larry King Live, Browne claimed to be working on numerous criminal cases, including one with Detective Stephen Xanthos of the Rumson, New Jersey, police department. She said she was getting ready to close the case. Xanthos turned out to be a former policeman and former P.I.
  • She cracked the case of a serial rapist in San Francisco in the ’80s. The extent of her participation was declaring the man’s last name began with S.

When Browne is questioned about a missing or deceased loved one, she reacts almost instantaneously to whatever information is provided, as though her mind and the Great Beyond are in a neverending teleconference. This can’t even be called cold reading; it’s just wild-ass guessing. A woman says she has lost her mother and Sylvia automatically offers a statement that can’t be refuted: “She was a beautiful woman.” If she’s wrong, is this woman going to admit on national television that her mother wasn’t beautiful? Probably not. It’s the safest possible statement Browne could utter. But sometimes this hairtrigger response doesn’t work in her favour, and those occasions are very enlightening. During a taping of Montel, a tearful young woman with a New York accent rose to tell Sylvia that her boyfriends’s body hadn’t been found. Quick as a flash, Browne told her, “That’s because he’s in water…you can’t find somebody in water”. The woman looked puzzled, and for good reason: Her boyfriend died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. How did Browne get out of this one? She didn’t. She continued to insist she could “see” the firefighter in water. “Is there any way he could have drowned? He says he couldn’t breathe and he was filled with water.” Finally she grasped at her last straw: Perhaps water from the fire hoses drowned him in the rubble.

Maybe this kind of mistake could be overlooked, if it hadn’t happened again and again on Montel (and elsewhere). Just a few examples:

  • The parents of a 17-year-old girl named Michelle asked Browne how she had died. “She was shot,” Browne replied without hesitation.
    The mother’s brow furrowed. “But…she just collapsed in her room.”
    Again, Browne simply refused to admit any margin for error. She said something had hit Michelle in the chest. Told that the autopsy had revealed no external injuries, she snapped, “I don’t care. Something hit her in the chest.” I suspect she lost a few fans that day.
  • In 2004 the mother of missing teenager Ryan Katcher was invited on Montel to consult Browne. 19-year-old Ryan vanished in 2000. A friend said he drove Ryan to his parents’ Oakwood, Illinois home after a party and helped him lay down on the living room sofa, but by morning he was gone. His truck was also missing. Browne listened to the whole account of his disappearance, then explained that Ryan aspirated some of his vomit. Panicked, two friends dumped his body in “a metal shaft of some kind”, somewhere across the state line (Linda Katcher had already told her they lived near a state border). A third friend took the truck.
    In 2006, Ryan’s truck was discovered at the bottom of Kickapoo State Park Pond. Apparently, he had driven himself to the area while still intoxicated and accidentally drove into the water. He drowned.
  • The mother of 12-year-old Weyman Robbins asked Browne how her son died. He had been found dead in the backyard of his home in 2002, a bandana around his neck. Though the death was suspicious, investigators declared it a suicide. Browne declared that he had accidentally asphyxiated while playing the “choking game” with three other boys, and the boys didn’t want to step forward.
    In the end, private investigators hired by Misty Robbins found the killer: Her own brother, who had been living with her for seven years.

If there’s anything worse than telling parents their child is dead, it’s offering false hope to people that their missing loved ones are alive. As mentioned in Part I,

  • On a 2001 Montel, the daughters of Lynda McClelland asked Sylvia what happened to her. Lynda disappeared from her home in Forest Hills, Pennsylvania in 2000, shortly after visiting with her daughter Amanda and Amanda’s husband, David. Browne instantly announced that Lynda was still alive, which sent Marcie into tears. Browne went on to say that Lynda had gone crazy, and was taken to Florida by a man with the initials M.J. She advised the young women to check all the mental health facilities in Orlando. Two years later, David Repaskey (Amanda’s husband) told an acquaintance that he had been having an affair with his mother-in-law. When she threatened to tell Amanda about it, he strangled her and stomped on her throat until she was dead. He and friend Donald Wall, who were both involved in a burglary ring, then buried Lynda on a hillside close to the home of David’s grandmother. She never had a chance to go to Florida.
  • As mentioned in Part I, Browne told the grandmother of missing 6-year-old Opal Jennings that Opal had been sold into white slavery and was still alive in a nonexistent place called “Kukouro or Kukoura”, Japan. One year later, Richard Lee Franks (a sex offender with no known ties to white slavery or Japan), was convicted of kidnapping Opal. Three years after that, the little girl’s body was found roughly 13 miles from her grandparents’ home. She had been murdered within hours of her abduction.
  • In 1995, 23-year-old Holly Krewson went missing from La Mesa, California. In 2002, Brown told Gwendolyn Krewson that her daughter was working as a stripper in Hollywood, California. In 2006, the body of a Jane Doe found near Descanso in 1996 was finally identified as Holly’s. Sadly, Gwendolyn had died three years earlier.

Knowing her track record, another of Browne’s Montel guesses seems almost as unconscionable as her location of missing people. A woman (incidentally, the same one who was told her mother was “beautiful”) asked Browne what her mother had been trying to tell her as she lay dying in hospital. “This is not easy to tell ya, but your father is not your father,” Browne said. She didn’t appear to find this difficult to say.

Despite all these disastrous errors, a few fans of Browne have tried to rehabilitate her public image by posting video clips of notable successes. In one instance, she supposedly helped a woman locate a ring owned by her late sister. She also guessed that Chandra Levy would be found in the park where she was last seen.

Browne’s biggest mistake, from a PR point of view, involved the disappearance of Shawn Hornbeck. The boy’s mother and stepdad, Pam and Craig Akers, turned to Sylvia Browne in their desperation. The 11-year-old had gone missing the previous year, en route to a friend’s house, and there were no clues to his disappearance. On a 2003 Montel, Browne solemnly informed the Akers that their son had been murdered by a Hispanic-looking man with dredlocks. His body was in a wooded area about 20 miles southwest of their Missouri home, near two boulders. When she heard this news, Pam Akers lowered her head and began to sob. She had always held out hope that her son was alive. “Hearing that was one of the hardest things we’ve ever had to hear,” Craig Akers said. Hornbeck was found three years later, living in the apartment of the man who abducted him. Michael J. Devlin is not Hispanic and never had dredlocks.
This miss attracted a huge amount media attention, and may have been more damaging to Browne’s image than any other colossal mistake of her career. Her days as a psychic detective are effectively over.
Still, she tried to save face. Asked by the producers of CNN’s 360 with Anderson Cooper to provide documentation that she had actually solved hundreds of cases, as she claims, Browne provided little more than two testimonial letters from people to whom she had given psychic readings over the phone. One was from Sharon James, a woman who paid $700 to ask for Browne’s help in finding her missing son in 2003. She was assured that the young man was living in Tennessee, suffering schizophrenia. Two years after James wrote the letter, her son reappeared. He had not lived in Tennessee at any time, and had no mental illnesses.

The second most damaging error of Browne’s career was made on the January 4-5, 2006 broadcast of the paranormal radio show Coast to Coast AM. Soon after rescuers reached the 13 men trapped in West Virginia’s Sago mine and it was reported that 12 of them were alive, Browne informed host George Noory that she had known all of the miners would be found. “That’s what I said,” Browne told Noory, without a hint of surprise in her voice.
Noory accepts his guests’ stories of alien abduction, time travel, and Bigfoot encounters, but even he couldn’t let Browne’s comments slide a short time later, when it was learned the reports had been in error: 12 men died, only one survived. He bluntly asked Browne to explain herself. Rather than give herself a graceful out by explaining that her powers are far from perfect, she actually tried to convince the listeners that she had correctly predicted the deaths. “I said they would be found. I didn’t say dead or alive.” Well, of course people trapped in a mine would be found. Who needs a psychic celebrity to tell them that?

How has Browne gotten away with this for so many years? For one thing, people are reluctant to criticize Browne because she cloaks her psychic ability in the language of religion, referring to it as a gift from God. Her publicist calls her a “spiritual teacher” and a humanitarian. It’s far easier to criticize a psychic detective who says “I find stuff” than it is to criticize one who says, “I was sent by God to help you.” Nonetheless, some brave souls have confronted Browne’s nonsense over the years. Robert Lancaster started the website Stop Sylvia Browne, which contains many negative testimonials from people who paid for Browne’s phone readings. James Randi urged her to take his Million Dollar Challenge to prove her psychic abilities (she initially agreed, then backed down with a long string of flimsy excuses).

As for law enforcement, conspiracy theorist Ted Gunderson (known for his outrageous and entirely insupportable statements about Satanic crime) is one of the only former law enforcement agents to provide a testimonial for Browne, calling her “probably one of the most accurate psychics in the country.”

Sadly, he could be right.

Psychic Detectives Part II: Dorothy Allison and Noreen Renier

Dorothy Allison

Until her death in 1999, Allison enjoyed a fairly solid reputation as a psychic detective, despite her many exaggerated claims. This diminutive woman from New Jersey employed astrological charts and psychometry in her attempts to locate missing people, often over the phone, beginning in the late ’60s. She claimed she assisted law enforcement in thousands of cases nationwide, that she led police to the place where Patty Hearst was held captive, that she predicted Son of Sam would be caught by a parking ticket, that she named the Atlanta child killer as Williams, and that she cracked the John Wayne Gacey case.

Allison’s first case involved the 1967 of a teenaged boy in her hometown of Nutley, New Jersey. She approached police early the following year to report her psychic vision of the boy lying dead in a drainage ditch in a local park. Desperate for any clue, the police obligingly dug up a culvert in the park in search of a body. They didn’t find one; the boy’s body was later discovered in a pond. Even though this was a clear miss, word spread that Dorothy Allison had “found” a missing child.

In 1980, police in Paterson, New Jersey, consulted Allison on the whereabouts of another missing teenaged boy. She gave the exact location of an abandoned building, and said the boy’s body would be found in the flooded basement. Police painstakingly drained the entire basement in search of remains, only to come up empty-handed. The boy’s body was later found on the other side of the city, outdoors.

The Gacey murders were actually solved by police using ordinary methods; 15-year-old Robert Piest had disappeared right after Gacey offered him a job, and police found very incriminating evidence in his house, linking him to other missing boys. Confronted, Gacey confessed to killing one young man in self-defense and burying him in the crawlspace beneath his house, where investigators unearthed the remains of 28 other boys.
Allison had merely led police on numerous lengthy, costly wild goose chases in search of bodies.

In the case of the Atlanta child murders, “Williams” was just one of over 40 names provided by Allison.

Allison also claimed she saw the deaths of Paul and Karla Bernardo’s victims before they occurred. What really happened: Police in Niagara Falls, Ontario supposedly consulted her concerning the March, 1991 disappearance of a teenage girl named Melanie Hall. I have been unable to locate any information about this disappearance. If it occurred in March, this was before Leslie Mahaffey (the Bernardos’ first murder victim) was abducted. Allison described Melanie’s body as being encased in cement.
Melanie Hall’s body was not found, but in June Leslie’s body was discovered (encased in cement) in Lake Gibson. Allison predicted that a second girl’s body would be found soon (a very safe guess, as Melanie was still missing). The girl would be strangled and left in some bushes.
In April 1992, the body of Kristen French (the Bernardos’ second victim) was found in a culvert. She had been strangled.
Allison did not predict the death of either girl, did not identify the body of Leslie Mahaffey, and gave only partially correct details about the second body. She also didn’t locate the girl she was originally enlisted to find. Nonetheless, Leslie Mahaffey’s mother was impressed enough to recommend Allison to another Ontario woman one year later. Rose Lax wanted to know who killed her father, a Holocaust survivor and scrap-metal dealer named Morris Lax. Allison said his death was a revenge killing staged as a robbery, but her description of the killer was too vague to be of any use. His murder has never been solved.

Noreen Renier

Since the ’80s, Noreen Renier has been the best-known and most highly regarded “psychic detective” in the business, second only to Dorothy Allison. Former FBI agent and pioneering criminal profiler Robert K. Ressler has praised her accuracy, and pointed to her work as a showcase example of why law enforcement agencies shouldn’t shy away from bringing psychics into criminal investigations. In 1981, Renier predicted the shooting of Ronald Reagan while delivering a talk to agents at the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia. She claims to have solved hundreds of cases.
In short, Renier has a lot of street cred. But do her psychic gifts actually solve cases, and is her accuracy as remarkable as it seems?
To answer that question, I’m going to turn first to the woman’s own words: The second (2008) edition of her autobiography, A Mind for Murder. The book is written in a low-key style, giving the impression that Noreen was swept along her current path by forces far beyond her understanding. Smoking and gulping wine to steady her nerves, she simply goes wherever the spirit takes her. “Sure, why not? I’ll try anything,” is her mantra.

Noreen didn’t know she was psychic until she was nearing middle age. In 1976 she was a divorced mom with two college-age daughters, working in PR at the Hyatt in Orlando, Florida. Then she and two friends decided to try group meditation, and on several occasions sat around a kitchen table to chant mantras. During one of these sessions, Noreen felt a sharp pain and spontaneously went into a trance. When she emerged from it, her friend tearfully informed her that she had been channeling the spirit of the woman’s dead grandmother, talking of things only the two of them would know.

For the next several months, Noreen honed her powers by studying psychic phenomena, reading books on Edgar Cayce and the paranormal researcher J.B. Rhine, conducting more kitchen-table seances, and giving readings to hotel co-workers (this took up so much of her time that she was fired).
Noreen found she a particular knack for psychometry. She set up a booth in a hotel, then a nightclub, then a home office, where she gave private readings. Through contacts in the paranormal research community, she gradually began working with police who were desperate for leads. She discovered she possesses the ability to see violent crimes through the eyes of both perpetrator and victim, enabling her to give detailed physical descriptions of the perpetrators. She also experiences a great deal of the fear and pain felt by the victims. After some time, Noreen found she no longer had to visit crime scenes to gain such impressions; she could give accurate readings over the phone, while holding a personal possession of the victim.

According to Noreen, though her information rarely contributed directly to the apprehension of the criminal, it always proved to be remarkably accurate. She was soon invited to speak at the FBI Academy. She also gave college and university courses in ESP, hosted a weekly call-in radio show (1980-85), and gave demonstrations in prisons.

In each chapter, Noreen recounts one of her notable cases:
Noreen’s first murder case: In 1980, Noreen received a call from Chief Pat Minetti of Hampton County, Virginia (Noreen’s home state, to which she returned in ’79). He needed help solving the murder of “Sally”. At the station, Noreen was given Sally’s bloody dress, which so distressed her she asked for a glass of wine to calm her nerves (she smokes and drinks throughout most readings). The detectives gave her Scotch instead.
Noreen asked to be taken to the crime scene, a trailer. Seated on a blood-splattered sofa, she described the killer to a sketch artist and detailed how he stabbed Sally repeatedly before slashing her throat, then raping her post-mortem. The sketch revealed a boyish, browned-haired man in his early thirties. The detectives instantly recognized him as one of Sally’s neighbors. He and a female neighbor had found the body two days earlier.
Later, Noreen was handed the wires that had been attached to this man when he took (and failed) a lie detector test. She had a clear vision of the curved hunting knife with an ornately carved handle that he had used to kill Sally. It was in his trailer, in a drawer-like box beneath his bed.
It was at this point that Noreen learned the suspect was a police officer. The detectives asked her to pose as a secretary so that when he came to the station for another interview, she could speak to him directly and hopefully gain more info. She couldn’t.
The box was found beneath the suspect’s trailer, empty. But the man handed over a hunting knife that matched Noreen’s description. It yielded no evidence. “The police were sure he had killed Sally, but were unable to produce any evidence. He was a professional – he knew that without evidence, there would be no case. Our suspect is a free man today.”

Yes, he is. Because the killer of “Sally” (Dorothy White) was caught six years before the original (2005) edition of A Mind for Murder was published. DNA testing of crime scene samples identified a repeat offender named William Wilton Morisette III. Far from being a policeman, he did yardwork for Dorothy, her boyfriend, and others. He is serving a life sentence for the murder.
Why doesn’t Noreen Renier know this? She rarely receives updates on her cases, but it wouldn’t have been difficult to find out if this one was solved.
Why did she call Dorothy White “Sally”? Is it because she wanted to conceal the identity of the suspect for legal reasons? Or because she didn’t want her readers to know the crime was solved nine years earlier, and that her suspect wasn’t the killer?

A 1984 plane crash in Massachusetts is Noreen’s most controversial case, though I think the murder of Dorothy White is just as damaging to her credibility. It led to a 22-year legal dispute with a Florida skeptic that is still not fully resolved.
In early ’84 Noreen was hired by Jessica Herbert to locate the small plane in which her 29-year-old brother, Arthur, and three others crashed somewhere near Gardner, Massachusetts, on the New Hampshire border.
In her vision of the crash, Noreen became the plane. She circled an isolated airstrip when bright lights blinded her, turned sharply to the left, and was sucked down into an area of wooded hills, gorges, and quicksand. Noreen sensed that a large city was a certain number of miles away, that nearby towns began with the letters G, T, and O (though in the 2005 edition of her book, as noted by skeptic Gary L. Posner, she gave the letters as H, D, and N), and that a dirt red led down the mountain to a gas station/store with a rusty Texaco sign, owned by old woman who had several barking dogs and no teeth.
Noreen also saw something truly amazing: Arthur had survived the crash. He had stumbled out of the wreckage with a broken leg, carrying something.
The Civil Air Patrol’s lead investigator recognized the gas station. Jessica Herbert, her husband (FBI agent Mark Babyak), and FBI agent Jim Crouse rented a plane to survey the area. Bad weather stymied them, but a local man and his daughter, noticing the search plane, decided to conduct a snowmobile search on their own. They found the plane. Both would later attest that they searched this area not because they saw the search plane, but because it was well-known that the plane had gone down within half an hour’s flying time from the Gardner airport.
Authorities found the woman passenger decapitated and seated under a tree “as if someone had placed her there”. Arthur’s body was found “sitting on the side of a hill, his leg broken…It was clear to everyone that he had been alive when he left the plane.”

Skeptic James Merrill pounced on Noreen’s claim that she found the plane, when it was searchers who had done the hard work of slogging through woods and hills. Noreen hadn’t even left her Virginia home. He accused her of making fraudulent claims.
Noreen went on the defensive, suing Merill for defamation and winning. As part of the judgment, both parties signed an agreement to refrain from disparaging each other. But in 2005, Noreen’s autobiography contained passages critical of Merrill. He sued for breach of contract, and won a large settlement. He has continued his criticism of Noreen’s claims via a website. I find Merrill’s work confusing and rather nitpicky, but he has made many significant points about the Herbert crash, notably this: Arthur Herbert did not survive the crash. All four passengers died on impact. Noreen’s notion that Arthur walked away from the plane carrying the headless woman is a fantasy.

The murder of Debi Whitlock: This case contains a glaring inconsistency, even as recounted by Noreen herself. 32-year-old Debi Whitlock was stabbed to death in her Modesto, California home in 1988, while her little daughter slept. Her husband found her body a short time later.
Noreen was hired by Debi’s mom, Jacque McDonald, to conduct a phone session with Detective Ray Taylor of the Modesto Police Department. Taylor was “so impressed that he decided to fly all the way across the country to Orlando to pay me a visit in person and continue our conversation.” He later told America’s Most Wanted that Noreen gave “an eerily precise description of the murder.” (Renier, 185)
In the session, filmed by AMW, Noreen described Debi receiving a phone call from her killer. He was stocky but very strong, “handsome and rugged”. She spoke as both Debi and this man. As the man: “She’s not gonna leave me and get away with it. She stays with me till I say it’s over. I know she’s in love with someone else.” The impression we get is that Debi had a jealous lover – or was perhaps killed by her husband (police did suspect Harold Whitlock, and the public harrassed him until 1999). Noreen even quotes an investigator as saying Debi “might have been falling in love again.”
However, in 1999 a former drug dealer named the killer as Scott Avery Frizzell. He was an 18-year-old drifter when he killed Debi in the course of a burglary. It’s incredibly unlikely that he was her lover, yet Noreen does nothing to explain the contradiction between what she “experienced” and what really occurred. The worst-case scenario is that Noreen knew Harold Whitlock was the prime suspect when she did her reading, and tailored it to point the finger at him.

Not included in the book is Noreen’s encounter with Lois Duncan, an author of young adult suspense and horror novels that I enjoyed as a kid. In 1989 Duncan’s daughter, Kaitlyn Arquette, was murdered in what appeared to be a random drive-by shooting in Albuquerque. Noreen was able to “relive” Kaitlyn’s last moments, but couldn’t describe a perp. So Duncan turned to another psychic, Betty Muench. Muench used automatic writing to discover that Kaitlyn had been the victim of a contract killing because she knew too much about something dangerous. Duncan was deeply impressed by the wealth of detail in the psychic’s descriptions, which were later confirmed for her by private investigators who suspected Kaitlyn’s Vietnamese boyfriend had her killed to hide an insurance scam he and other Vietnamese men were perpetrating. Unfortunately, her detailed information wasn’t any more helpful than Noreen’s. The murder of Kaitlyn remains unsolved.

Coming tomorrow, Psychic Detectives Part II: Sylvia Browne

Other Sources:

– “All About Psychic Detectives” by Katherine Ramsland, Crime Library at Tru TV.com
– “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” by Rachael Bell and Marilyn Bardsley, Crime Library at Tru TV.com

Psychic Detectives Part I

Some of the world’s most famous psychics have dabbled in criminal investigation or searches for missing persons. Uri Geller, the Enemy of All Flatware, claimed he worked with the FBI, which has never been confirmed. Jeanne Dixon, arguably the world’s most famous psychic next to Nostradamus and Edgar Cayce, claimed that she tried to warn the White House about the assassination of JFK and foresaw the death of RFK as well. But the notion of “psychic detectives” didn’t really take hold until the ’70s, and has never enjoyed the mainstream popularity it has today, thanks to a plethora of books, TV shows, and online material about the subject. Just a few of the offerings: Medium (inspired by psychic “profiler” Allison DuBois), The Ghost Whisperer (produced by psychic/medium James van Praagh), Rescue Mediums, the books of Sylvia Browne, and Tru TV’s Psychic Detectives. If you had declared in the eighteenth century that you had a spirit guide who helped you solve crimes, you probably would have been shunned (if not prosecuted for sorcery). Today you stand a good chance of getting a TV contract, or at least long lineups at your local psychic fair.

Setting aside the mystery of how and why psychic phenomena seems to manifest spontaneously in ordinary people from time to time, we’re going to look only at the claims of people who make their living as psychics and/or mediums. Are their abilities dependable enough to provide investigative leads that can’t be obtained in any other way? Has any psychic detective actually solved a crime?

Even those who believe in the efficacy of psychic detection don’t have any cogent explanations of how it works. Many mediums and psychics subscribe to a right brain theory: Their intuitive, creative right brains are more active than their logical, analytical left brains. There is absolutely no evidential basis for this explanation of psychic ability. If the phenomena was purely mental in nature, psychic detectives would have little need for the various tools and methods they use to focus or manifest their powers, which include psychometry (handling personal possessions to receive information about their owners), dowsing (using sticks, pendulums, or other objects to lead them to a missing person or thing), astrology, spirit guides, automatic writing (taking dictation from spirits or channeling spirits while in a trance state), and (in the case of Noreen Renier) heavy smoking and drinking.

Like other professional psychics and mediums, psychic detectives make extensive use of non-paranormal methods such as cold reading. Their apparent successes can often be attributed to retrofitting (subtly altering the details of a psychic reading to conform to facts that are discovered later), selective thinking (picking out accuracies while ignoring inaccuracies), and the Forer effect (the belief that a vague, widely applicable description applies specifically to one person).

Law enforcement agencies generally find psychics unhelpful, or a time-wasting annoyance. However, in some cases psychics can actually damage a case, incite public hysteria (as with the warehouse excavations in the Beaumont case, discussed below), or further traumatize the loved ones of a missing person. For instance, in 1999 Audrey Sanderford of Saginaw, Texas stepped up to the dais during a taping of Montel and asked guest Sylvia Browne about her 6-year-old granddaughter, Opal Jennings, who had been abducted from the Sanderfords‘ front lawn one month earlier. Browne informed Mrs. Sanderford that Opal had been sold into white slavery and was still alive in “Kukouro or Kukoura“, Japan (there is no such place). Mrs. Sanderford sat down with visible relief. In 2000, Richard Lee Franks, a sex offender with no known ties to white slavery or Japan, was convicted of kidnapping Opal. Three years later, the little girl’s body was found roughly 13 miles from her grandparents’ home. She had been murdered within hours of her abduction.

The media tends to be more credulous and laudatory than law enforcement when it comes to psychics, publishing amazing stories about psychic crime-solving that don’t stand up to scrutiny. As this is where we get most of our information about crime, it’s easy for some of us to believe that psychic detectives are a boon to law enforcement. Closer examination of the facts surrounding a few of the cases reportedly solved by psychics might lead us to a very different conclusion…

The Early Days

If you plumbed the depths of myth and history, you could probably dredge up countless instances of what we would consider psychic crime-solving. But the earliest modern example I can find is the ultra-weird case of the Coppin sisters and the Franklin Expedition, as described by Jeffrey Blair Latta in his bizarre book The Franklin Conspiracy. Numerous psychics and mediums tried to locate the missing crews of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, but this is by far the strangest example (and, if the story can be believed, the most accurate).

In 1849, the three young children of Irish shipbuilder Captain William Coppin announced they were in communication with the spirit of their dead 3-year-old sister, Louisa (“Weasy“). Her spirit appeared to 10-year-old Anne Coppin as a blue glow, and communicated with her by writing on walls. After Weasy accurately predicted the death of a family friend, an aunt instructed Annie to ask Weasy about the fate of the Franklin Expedition. Annie did so, and immediately received a psychic vision of an Arctic scene: two ships nearly covered in snow, and a channel leading to them. Anne drew a detailed chart of this scene. A more startling revelation came some three months later, when a message appeared on the wall in large letters: “Erebus and Terror. Sir John Franklin, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Victory Point, Victoria Channel.” Years later, searchers concluded that the survivors had abandoned the ships in the Victoria Strait off King William Island and crossed the ice to Victory Point.

This occurred in the early days of the Spiritualism craze that swept America and Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. Mediums and clairvoyants emerged from the shadows to hold court in the parlors of middle- and upper-class enthusiasts seeking communion with the dead, wisdom from the afterlife, or simply some cheap entertainment. Five years after the Coppin children entered into communication with their dead sibling, the family of Victor Hugo would enter into an intense two-year period of communication with some of history’s most illustrious figures, via seances. So it’s not surprising that the Coppins turned to a ghost in search of answers. As we’ll see, psychic detectives tend to use the methods most popular in their own time and place.

Captain Coppin was an advisor to Lady Franklin for the numerous search expeditions, and he relayed his daughter’s message to her. She tried without success to persuade both the searchers and the Navy to look in the Victory Point area for her husband’s crew. William Kennedy, a fur trader who participated in the 1851 expedition, spent three days questioning Annie to glean as many details as possible. The family shied away from publicity, though; even Dickens, who was keenly interested in the Franklin expedition and wanted to write a book about Weasy, was turned away.

The story of Weasy Coppin is an intriguing historical footnote, but the directions given by a toddler’s ghost in no way contributed to the discovery of the Franklin expedition. To this day, the remnants of the ships haven’t been found.

At the end of the nineteenth century, there was British psychic Robert Lees, the man who supposedly learned the identity of Jack the Ripper via paranormal means.
As legend is told in books like The World’s Strangest Mysteries (author unknown), Lees (a psychic since his teen years) had a vivid psychic vision of the murder of Martha Turner in August, 1888. This was the first of the Ripper murders. After the third murder, Lees accompanied Scotland Yard investigators to the scene of the crime and followed an invisible trail all the way to a very posh house in the West End, which he declared the murderer’s residence. The investigators knew this was the home of a well-respected doctor who wasn’t likely to be a homicidal maniac, but they reluctantly questioned the man’s wife anyway. To their surprise, she revealed that her husband was a brutal sadist who had nearly killed their little son. The detectives were left with little doubt they had their man. His reputation was so sterling, however, that Scotland Yard engineered a cover-up and swore Lees to secrecy.

Ripperologist Stephen Butt has traced the source of the Lees tale to an 1895 article in the Chicago Sunday-Times Herald, instigated by a local group called The Whitechapel Club. None of the information in that article has been corroborated by any other source, with the possible exception of Lees’ own diary. Until his death in 1931, Lees claimed he had been a psychic confidante to Queen Victoria since the age of 19, and produced a single 1899 letter as proof. However, the letter is a simple thank-you note for a gift. Lees had no royal links whatsoever; he was a reporter and a little-known psychic medium who died in poverty.

Thirteen years after the Ripper murders, across the Atlantic, a Virginia psychic calling herself Madame Newman announced that she had solved the disappearance of 19-year-old Nell Cropsey. Nell had stepped onto the front porch of her family’s home in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, to speak with a beau named Jim Wilcox on the night of November 20, 1901. She never returned to the house. According to Madame Newman, Wilcox and accomplice had knocked her out with chloroform, driven her into the countryside, and murdered her. Her body could be found in a well near an old house.
Nell’s mother found her body floating in the Pasquotank River, which ran only a few hundred yards from the Cropsey home, and no evidence implicated Wilcox in her murder aside from strange testimony given by Nell’s older sister, Ollie. Nonetheless, public outrage against him ran high. At the conclusion of his second murder trial he was convicted, and served 15 years of his life in prison. He committed suicide shortly after his release.
This injustice soured Americans on the idea of psychic sleuthing for a while.

Though it doesn’t involve any crime or missing persons, the story of archaeologist Frederick Bligh Bond‘s 1908 excavation of Glastonbury Abbey deserves mention here. Bligh Bond claimed that all of his decisions on where and how to dig came from the spirits of monks who had lived at the site centuries earlier, speaking to him through mediums. According to his 1918 book The Gates of Remembrance, he found all of their information to be wholly accurate.

Enter the Dutchmen

The first twentieth-century psychic detectives to gain international fame were Gerard Croiset and Peter Hurkos. Both were Dutch, both were Resistance fighters during WWII, and both realized their psychic powers in their 30s. Another thing they had in common: Their crime-solving skills were virtually nonexistent.

Croiset, a psychometrist and psychic healer, was renowned for pinpointing the spot at which Scottish teenager Pat McAdam was murdered in 1967, but her body has never been found. He also failed to find Australia’s Beaumont children, or the two children of a Puerto Rican businessman. His only success came in 1976, when he claimed to have located the body of a missing Japanese girl. He said she would be found floating in a lake, and her body was found in a reservoir.

Croiset was brought into the Beaumont case by a friend of the family, his travel expenses paid for by Adelaide businessman Con Polites. The Beaumonts themselves didn’t like the idea, and had no faith in this quirky little Dutchman’s skills – a position that would be justified by subsequent events.
Croiset originally said the Beaumont children were buried in a cave within half a mile of the Glenelg beach where they vanished. They had not been murdered, they had been trapped by a cave-in while exploring. Later, he insisted the children were buried beneath the foundation of a warehouse that had been built about a week after their disappearance. Some Adelaide citizens were so convinced this could be true that they raised thousands of dollars to have the brand-new warehouse razed, and parts of its foundations torn up. Meanwhile, Croiset confided to journalist Jack Ayling and others that he actually believed the Beaumont children had fallen into a construction pit at the site of some newly-built flats near Glenelg.
In 1996 the warehouse was partially excavated again at the insistence of Con Polites. The Beaumont children were not found.

Croiset’s son, Gerard Jr., followed in his footsteps. Though he reportedly described the Andes plane crash with some accuracy, he never solved a single missing person case.

Hurkos said he gained his psychic abilities after falling from a ladder in 1941. Despite his injury he joined the Resistance, and was imprisoned at the Belsen concentration camp. After the war he started a nightclub act, and in the ’50s paranormal enthusiast Andrija Puharich brought him to the U.S. for extensive testing by parapsychologists. Rather than wowing scientists, he charmed Hollywood, befriending mystically inclined celebrities like Glenn Ford. Through his contacts and his shameless publicity-mongering, Hurkos became the first American psychic superstar of the twentieth century.
Though he claimed to have psychically solved dozens of murders and disappearances as well as the abduction of the Stone of Scone, the evidence is lacking. Scotland Yard flatly denied that he contributed in any way to the recovery of the Stone.

One of the men who financed Hurkos‘ immigration to America, department store magnate Henry Belk, turned to Hurkos when his 10-year-old daughter disappeared in 1957. Belk had been a patron of Hurkos, and even invested in a uranium mine on his say-so. Hurkos urged Belk not to worry; his daughter was safe. A short time later, she was found drowned in a pond on the family estate and the uranium mine went bust. Incidentally, these two events eerily echoed the fate of Belk’s grandfather, Abel Belk, who had been drowned by Union soldiers when he refused to disclose the location of a gold mine.

Hired by a friend of Roman Polanski to solve the 1969 murders of Sharon Tate and her three friends, Hurkos stated that three men, friends of Sharon Tate, had slaughtered everyone in the house after ingesting huge quantities of LSD and performing a black magic ritual called “goona goona” (a faux-Balinese term for love potion, used as the title of a 1930s sexploitation flick). He claimed he knew the names of the men and had given them to the LAPD. Later he claimed that he had named one of the three as “Charlie”, but even if that’s true, Manson himself was not at the scene. Sharon Tate had glimpsed him briefly on just one occasion; she did not know any of the killers (three women, one man). And all of the killers have denied they were on drugs that night.
Hurkos sold photos of the Tate crime scene to the press without consulting Polanski nor the Life photographer who took them. He also used his marginal participation in the case to advertise his L.A. stage show.

In the case of the murders of Michigan co-eds earlier that same year, Hurkos was spectacularly wrong. He said the killer was a “sick homosexual”, a transvestite, a genius, and a motocyclist who belonged to a “blood cult” (like goona goona, he never actually explained what this was supposed to be). This killer was twentysomething, blonde, rather short, and baby-faced. He worked as a salesman but liked to hang around at garbage dumps. A short time later, he said the killer was dark-haired and tall. This second description applied to the killer, John Norman Collins. He drove motorcycles, but every other detail was wrong.

Hurkos was caught fishing for information while “investigating” the Boston Strangler case in the early ’60s; he impersonated an FBI agent in order to interview people. Skeptics have documented his use of cold reading techniques (see James Randi’s Flim-Flam!). He also perpetrated what appear to be gold- and uranium-mining scams, and made some truly bizarre statements that can’t be verified (notably, that Hitler is still alive).

It’s interesting to observe what happens when multiple psychics converge on a single case. For instance, the psychics who offered information on the Atlanta child murders came to dramatically different conclusions: Dorothy Allison (who will be discussed in the next post) declared that she had correctly identified the killer as “Williams”, while other psychics claimed they had provided accurate physical descriptions of him. Texas psychic Karen Hufstetler, on the other hand, had intense visions of the murders but felt Wayne Williams was not the killer.

Part II: Dorothy Allison and Noreen Renier
Other Sources:

– “All About Psychic Detectives” by Katherine Ramsland, Crime Library at Tru TV.com

Wikipedia entries on Gerard Croiset and Peter Hurkos


Flim Flam!, James Randi. Prometheus Books, 1982

Helter Skelter. Vincent Bugliosi/Curt Gentry Bugliosi. W.W. Norton & Company, 1994.