Failed “Psychic” Tip

June 21, 2011

Do "psychics" really solve crimes or help police find missing persons? Not according to an incident that drew not only Liberty County, Texas, sheriff's deputies, but also Texas Rangers, FBI agents, and cadaver-sniffing dogs, as well as a swarm of reporters and a TV helicopter.

The June 7, 2011, incident was ultimately found to be a false alarm. It all began with a tip from an anonymous "psychic" who claimed numerous dismembered bodies were in a mass grave at a rural home at Hardin. (It turned out the tipster was a grandmother nicknamed "Angel"—a self-described reverend whose ministry is supposedly devoted to the poor and homeless. She now says she doesn't call herself a psychic, while insisting she gets information from dreams, visions, and feelings! See "Liberty sheriff, tipster differ on call," online at http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/7604097.html, June 9, 2011.)

Asked to respond by the New York Times, who described me as "a former stage magician and private investigator who has written extensively about extrasensory abilities in order to debunk them," I mentioned that science had never validated the existence of any such powers. The touted success of most psychics, I said, was due to "retrofitting," people's after-the-fact matching of the psychic's "clues" with the actual facts. And I noted how bogus psychic tips had often caused police to waste valuable time and resources, as in the case of the Nutley, NJ, police spending fruitless hours excavating a drainage ditch at the behest of Dorothy Allison. The late, notorious police psychic (who also made numerous erroneous assertions in the Atlanta child murders case—see my blogs of October 18 and 26, 2010) had had visions of a missing boy being buried there. (See Erica Goode, "Police Rarely Turn to Psychics, Texas Report Aside," New York Times, June 8, 2011.)

I am proud of having worked to expose many phony crime-solving psychics. In 1994 my book Psychic Sleuths presented the results of a special "task force" I created to investigate high-profile clairvoyants. The results were devastating for the claimants.

In May of the following year, I was contacted by respected Philadelphia television reporter Herb Denenberg who wanted my advice on how to check out local psychics. Then he and his WCAU-TV "Newscenter 10" unit went undercover to test "so-called psychics," some of whom "prey on the parents of missing children" according to the subsequent investigative segment on which I appeared. Denenberg's team based their test on a fifteen-year-old named Kate, whom they alleged—falsely—had been missing since January. The psychics who were contacted described different scenarios: some saw the teenager experiencing "physical harm"; one collected a fee of $50 for seeing her "confined against her will," while another charged $180 for the clairvoyant information that the girl was a runaway who was "probably pregnant"; and although one visionary saw her just two miles from home, another envisioned her far away in Florida. None of the psychics ever divined the truth that the teenager was not missing or that they were part of a test.

Five years later, on May 11, 2000, the Inside Edition television show featured a similar exposé after contacting me. A producer and researcher discussed possibilities with me while reading my Psychic Sleuths, and I also told them about Denenberg's psychic sting. Subsequently, the show's reporters presented a childhood photo of a staffer to a professional "psychic" who divined that the "missing child" was dead, while a hidden camera recorded the session. Even when the targeted person was actually introduced to him, the alleged clairvoyant at first refused to accept the truth, then finally broke off the interview. (The segment went on to expose a claim by the notorious Sylvia Browne—made on the Montel Williams show—that she had solved a case that in fact continued to remain unsolved.) (See "Investigating Police Psychics," in my Real-Life X-Files, 2001, pp. 122-27.)

More recently, on March 2, 2011, Inside Edition conducted another such sting, this time netting phony psychic detective Laurie McQuary and others. McQuary's "sixth sense" told her the girl whose photo was presented to her had had "a violent passing" by being "hit in the head with a rock." McQuary was just one of ten psychics contacted, all of whom stated the girl had been murdered. In fact, the snapshot was merely one of the show's Chief Investigative Correspondent, Lisa Guerrero, taken when she was a child. As usual, the psychics had not seen what was coming.

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