Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Were the Texas Police wrong to believe a psychic?


This is a story about credulity. It is about a credulous woman, a credulous police force, a credulous media and a credulous internet. It is also a story about jumping to conclusions. Almost everyone who was involved in or who heard about the story jumped to one conclusion or other. Including me. What follows is the story as I can best reconstruct it. Much remains unclear, including one crucial detail - the detail, in fact, on which the story turns.

Hardin, Texas is a tiny place with a population of around 800 - an appropriate setting, perhaps, for a slice of Southern Grand Guignol. Except that what began as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre ended up more like the Keystone Cops.

On Monday afternoon, it seems, local police received a call from a woman who claimed that there were up to 30 bodies buried at a house in the area. Some of them, she said, were the bodies of children.

According to Rex Evans of the County Sherrif's office, speaking later, an initial investigation revealed nothing. But the following day the woman called again, told the police that they had gone to the wrong house, and directed them to the home of a truck driver named Joe Bankston. This time the police found suspicious evidence. There was blood on the back door and a bad smell emanating from somewhere inside. "The smell of decomposition was overwhelming," said the police spokesman. This, combined with the detailed description that the caller had given of the house gave the police and, perhaps, the fact that Bankston's estranged son is a convicted sex offender, persuaded police to execute a search warrant.

A full-scale search ensued, involving sniffer dogs, the FBI and the Texas Rangers. 15 carloads in total. The story went viral, with Twitter carrying the first excited reports. It soon hit the newswires, with the Associated Press reporting (in an item since withdrawn) that police had actually found 20 bodies at the house. That was premature. As filmcrews and news helicopters arrived at the scene, and the tale reached Sky TV and the website of the Daily Mail late last night, an interesting new detail emerged: the woman who reported the grisly details to the police was a "psychic".

It turned out that there never were any bodies. The bloodstain was the residue of a suicide attempt by Bankston's daughter's ex-boyfriend (not ex in the parrot sense, thankfully). The bad smell came from rotting meat left in a broken-down refrigerator. The sex-offender son (the precise nature of whose offence, serious or trivial, has not been revealed) had not lived there for more than a year. The household's only previous contact with the police had been when a neighbour complained about Bankston's dogs. Bankston claimed to know the woman concerned, and that she was "mentally unstable".

The story swung around. The major questions now concerned the wisdom of the police in trusting the word of a "psychic", and the media's apparent instant acceptance of claims that the police had found a mass grave. The police were said to be looking for the psychic - whose identity (despite Bankston's reported comments) remained a mystery, it seems, even from them. They were "actively trying to locate the caller", said Evans - perhaps with a view to charging her with wasting their time, though some would say the only time they had been wasting was their own.

As one wag said, the tragedy is that in future genuine psychics who came forward with information might not be believed. My own initial thoughts were not far from those of Brendan O'Neill:


You couldn’t have asked for a better snapshot of the astonishing credulity and weakness for crankiness amongst people in positions of power today. Police are now trying to track down the psychic. But when one psychic can impact on the world in this way, it is quite clear that the problem is *us*, and our capacity to believe the worst and our penchant for hocus-pocus, rather than them. It’s a daft world indeed that can allow itself to be led astray by an eccentric on the end of a phone.


But is such a reaction, no less than the police's or that of the Associated Press, a case of jumping to conclusions based on insufficient information? Despite all the coverage, we still do not know (that is, I have so far been unable to discover, despite reading most of the local news reports) whether the mystery caller told the police that she had been vouchsafed a mystical vision, or whether the fact of her being a psychic was purely incidental. And this, surely, is crucial. At this point all I can do is note that the police so far have not said that they began the search on the basis of "psychic" information.

What we do know is that, according to the police, the woman was able to provide a detailed description of the property, inside and out. She "knew things about the layout of the house and the property, the contents of the house, how the walls were configured." The police concluded that she must either have lived there or have known it intimately. They now want to know how she knew and whether she had any motive - such as a grudge - to make a hoax call.

It's easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to put the police reaction down to a combination of credulity and incompetence. Perhaps they watch too many cheap horror movies. Perhaps they are dumb enough to put their trust in psychics. Clearly, they put two and two together and made rather more than five. But put yourself in their position.

They receive a call from someone who appears to have detailed information about a major crime. She is a psychic - perhaps not the most credible of witnesses - but she appears to have first-hand knowledge of the property's layout. The house owner has had previous contact with the police on account of his large fierce dogs. One family member has been convicted of a sex crime.

Add to that the remoteness of Hardin and of the house itself, which was on unincorprated land (in other words, in the middle of nowhere). The sort of place where one could bury bodies in secret. The owner's job - as a truck driver - would have provided endless opportunities to meet vulnerable, anonymous people. FBI figures released two years ago showed that at least 500 women have been murdered by truck drivers in the USA. Many of them by serial killers.

Above all, when officers call round to investigate, they find a blood-spattered door and an overwhelming smell of decomposition.

Of course they instituted a major search. It would have been irresponsible not to, even if the likelihood of finding anything was low.