In the news today - a tip from a professed psychic that led police in Liberty, Texas, to dig up someone's property in search of a mass grave. The Drudge Report and many major media outlets, jumping the gun just a bit, breathlessly announced that the skeletal remains of as many as thirty children had been found.
Actual number of bodies found: zero.
Naturally this embarrassing incident will lead to a good deal of guffawing about the idiocy of believing in psychics. It probably should also lead to some guffaws about the idiocy of trusting the media to accurately report a breaking story, but somehow I doubt this is the angle the Fourth Estate will play up.
Despite some public failings of psychics, [former Assistant Us. Attorney General Stuart] Grabois said he was personally astounded by one back in the 1980s when he was investigating the disappearance of New York 6-year-old Etan Patz; not because the psychic was able to find the boy who had been missing since 1979, but because most of the other leads she described panned out. The woman, a schoolteacher referred to Grabois by a state official, knew things about locations she could not have seen before and even predicted children's clothes would be found in certain locations, Grabois said. She also gave an accurate description of the prime suspect in Patz's disappearance, a man currently in prison on other charges, he said.
Though the boy was not where the psychic said, she was so specific with other facts that Grabois "took a second look" at her as a possible accomplice in the case before clearing her of any involvement.
"To this day I still shake my head," he said. "I have no explanation for the accuracy of this woman."Despite his experience, Grabois said he does not believe psychics generally help solve cases. Garrett said other investigators may disagree.
"There are detectives that state that psychics have helped them find people, they've helped them find bodies," Garrett said.
Sometimes, like in the case of an Australian psychic, it's just not the right body.
Last year an Aboriginal elder claimed she had a vision of a missing 6-year-old in a wooded area outside Syndey, according to a report by The Associated Press. But when she went to investigate, she instead found the dismembered torso of an adult woman.
Also last year, a psychic appeared to have predicted the location of the victims of what police believed to a serial killer on Long Island, the New York Post said. The psychic said that a body would be found buried in a place looking over the water and there would be a "G" on a sign nearby. In December 2010 investigators uncovered the remains of several victims on Long Island's Giglo Beach -- but none were buried.
A few more stories on this topic can be found in my "Psychics and Crime" archive. I've also got a long and rather combative* post on "psychic detectives" here, which points out that Vernon Geberth, who wrote the standard textbook on homicide investigation, believes psychics can be and have been useful to the police. "Investigatively speaking, there has been sufficient documentation of successes to merit consideration of this technique on a case-by-case basis," Geberth writes in his book.
Sadly, spectacular failures like the Texas debacle and Sylvia Browne's many public screw-ups (scroll down the linked page) are more likely to be remembered than the successes.
*"Combative" ... or, frankly, sort of obnoxious. I wouldn't write it like that today.