Thursday, 9 June 2011

Texas psychic speaks out

The Houston Chronicle has been speaking to the woman it claims is the "psychic" who sparked a massive and pointless search of a house on Tuesday.

They don't name her, except by the pseudonym Angel, but "sources close to the investigation" confirm that it is her. She is a 48 year old grandmother who describes herself as "a reverend for a ministry that helps the poor and the homeless". She lives in a trailer, inevitably, but "spends much of her time travelling to do God's work". At the moment, though, she is "hunkered down" in said trailer, hoping to remain anonymous. She could probably do with a superinjunction right now.

So what do we learn? First, she has had dealings with the police before - based, it seems, on her psychic visions. At any rate, the police source confirmed that previously shared information with law enforcement agencies in Texas. This time's information does also seem to have come to her via a vision. She says that she went to the police on Monday "after confiding with two friends who were having similar visions that three children could be in trouble." What she did not tell the police - so she says - is that there were twenty to thirty dismembered corpses buried at the property. Her "information" related to the missing children, of whom she says "I think they are hungry and thirsty. They are still alive."

It's not clear whether she is referring to children who are known to be missing. But in any case, she is emphatic that she did not tell the police to look for dead bodies. This, of course, is in direct conflict with early press reports of the story, which (on the basis of police briefings) clearly stated that the psychic had spoken of a mass grave. Where the figure of twenty or thirty came from is unclear - but again, the source seems to have been the police.

What seems to have happened is that officers enquiring about missing children saw a blood-spattered door and smelled rotting flesh and drew their own conclusions. It was only after these suspicious discoveries had been made - during a low-level, routine visit - that the police applied for a search warrant. They did not tell prosecutors that the source of their information was a psychic.

Which brings me to what I called the "crucial" question - were the police who followed up the original tip aware that they were acting on "psychic information"? It's still unclear. Angel is obviously quite open about the source of her tips, and has worked with police before. Perhaps not these police, however. County Sherrif's spokesman Rex Evans is quoted as saying that "they did not know after their first conversation with her that she claimed to be a psychic."

The first conversation led nowhere - the police went to what Angel later said was the wrong address. If at this point she had revealed that her information was psychic in nature, then perhaps the police should have let the matter drop. But here we meet a conundrum - because according to the police she provided a detailed description of the house which suggested that she knew it intimately. Put it another way, the correct sceptical response when faced with accurate information is to assume that it is NOT psychic in origin, even if it originates from a psychic - and, therefore, to take it seriously. It was because she appeared to know something, not because she was "psychic", that the police felt bound to follow up her lead.

The case, though, raises wider questions about the use of self-styled psychics by the police. The New York Times has a good article about the "long and uneasy relationship between law enforcement agencies and people claiming extrasensory powers". It is, they say, "occasional at best." However, the report quotes a survey by Skeptical Inquirer which found that 65% of America's 50 largest PDs never employed psychics. Which suggests, rather worryingly, that more than a third did so - if only on a case-by-case basis and when the psychic came to them.

The NY Times spoke to one Chicago psychic, Jacki Mari, who claims to have "helped solve more than 400 murders and missing persons cases around the world". Asked about the Hardin case, Mari sounds spectacularly clueless. "My first feeling was that something did happen, but I didn't see a bunch of bodies lying around". Later her mystical powers told her that there was nothing to worry about, "even before the news media frenzy over the search in Texas died down." Or so she now says.

Fortunately, the great Joe Nickell is on hand to provide a skeptical perspective. He explains the process of "retrofitting" - how psychics manage to claim credit for discoveries even when most of the information they supplied is false, so long as they have said something that - coincidentally - turns out to be accurate.

But why are some police officers receptive to psychic tips in the first place? I wonder if it has something to do with the romance of their own profession. These days, criminal investigation can be a highly scientific, technical, process - all statistics, DNA sequencing and data compiling. Yet in their hearts, many detectives remain wedded to the idea of the hunch-driven sleuth who solves crimes in a not wholly rational manner. Like a psychic, in fact.