Whenever a person, especially a child, goes missing, you can guarantee that the psychics/mediums won’t be too far behind. Most of them no doubt believe sincerely in their special powers and that they are only there to help, but they can cause a great deal of harm — emotional, psychological, even economic — and interfere with the real investigation.

Every time a media outlet reports on a medium’s involvement approvingly, they provide more marketing material for this industry and more tacit approval for the psychological manipulation of desperate vulnerable people thrust into the centre of a media storm. that is reprehensible, particularly given the clear indication that these people do not help.

Christine Corcos, Associate Professor of Law at Louisiana State University and author of a book on the 1944 trial of psychic Helen Duncan, notes:

Law enforcement officials who allow non-law enforcement trained personnel to participate are putting both the cases and their jobs at risk. The fact is that few, if any, police departments actually admit to using psychics. Most officials [say] that psychics simply waste time predicting that bodies or missing persons will be found near water, or trees, or buildings with red roofs. Experienced detectives combing particular areas can do as well, and will not raise false hopes among the families and friends of the victims.
I Sleuth Dead People

Few families are prepared to reject any possible chance of finding missing loved ones, or to publicly criticise psychics under such circumstances. But those who don’t want to be manipulated in this fashion have reported being badgered and tormented by people claiming to have useful information which turns out to be hurtful hype.

In one notable Australian case, Don Spiers, the father of missing girl Sarah Spiers told the ABC’s current affairs programmeAustralian Story about the awful effects of having over 200 people claim to have information from dreams and other psychic sources:

[A] big problem that we’ve had has been clairvoyants. They have been a huge torment to myself and my family in giving cryptic clues as to where Sarah might be. I remember one night in the early days I was down Salter Point, you know, thrashing around the swampy areas down there at 11 o’clock at night. Um…probably walking around bawling my eyes out and getting nowhere. I mean, a lot of times I’ve known I shouldn’t have listened, but I’ve always thought that maybe they’re using that excuse of being a clairvoyant to give me some honest facts.
He Who Waits, 9 February 2004

And in response to Deb Webber’s remark on the Aisling Symes case, came this online comment:

I am the brother of xxx, who was abducted in xxxx and remains a missing person today.

With regard to psychics, mediums and the like, I can tell you that in the months and years following my sister’s disappearance, my family was contacted by no less than 100 of these people.

No two of them were able to agree on the location of my sister, alive or dead.

And the police were obliged to follow up each and every one of them, on the chance that the information was real, i.e. someone pretending to be a psychic to convey something they knew about the case.

So not only do these freaks inflict profound emotional harm, they are also an enormous waste of police resources.

I too am appalled by TVNZ’s actions.

Past Cases in New Zealand: Psychics No Help

In 1975, 18-year-old hitchhiker Mona Blades went missing. The British psychic-medium Doris Stokes claimed to have assisted the New Zealand police to recover her body, but this is untrue as no indication of Mona Blades’ whereabouts has been found to date and the police hotline remains open.

In 1983, the Kirsa Jensen case saw over a hundred offers of advice and assistance from psychics, clairvoyants and dreamers. Ian Holyoake, the officer in charge of the investigation into the missing Napier teenager, said: “[It] did not advance the investigation one bit. Most of the information was not specific as to any area where a body might be located, but some was quite graphic in detail and disturbing by its very nature”.

In 1992, the disappearance of 2-year-old Amber-Lee Cruickshank, near Lake Wakatipu, brought “letters from clairvoyants, card readers, star watchers, prayer groups, crystal readers, palm readers, spiritualists, people who have visions, premonitions and total lunatics”. None of them assisted the search. Initial claims saw her being found “near water or trees”; a 2007 episode of Sensing Murder said that she had been abducted.

In 1992, clairvoyants from Wellington and Tauranga and a medium from the Spiritualist Church told the family of missing Wellington man Michael Kelly that he was still alive. They appealed to the basest of racist stereotypes when claiming that Kelly had been assaulted and abducted by “rough-looking” tattooed Maoris, dumped at Oriental Bay for up to five days, and then shifted a few days later to Titahi Bay. Police received calls from members of the public concerned about cars being driven by Maori guys, and family and friends conducted private searches of the identified areas. Kelly’s body was eventually found by a building worker at the bottom of a light shaft in central Wellington; it appeared he had fallen as a result of what was described as late-night “ebullience”.

In 1993, the then-Police Region Commander for Otago and Southland, Ian Holyoake, surveyed the New Zealand police force to see what psychic assistance had been rendered over the years. He came to the conclusion that, unlike practical shows like Crimewatch or public appeals for witnesses, there had never been any accurate, useful psychically-derived information that was instrumental in leading to a successful conclusion.

In 1998, Nelson clairvoyant Margaret Birkin and four other psychics went out on a boat to look for missing Blenheim friends Ben Smart and Olivia Hope. Birken stated that she knew where the pair was to be found. Despite additional searches with the assistance of professional divers and coverage by the Holmes show, she failed to help locate the pair, whose bodies remain undiscovered.

In December 2001, psychic Kathy Bartlett joined searchers looking for missing teenager Elon Oved. Sadly for the family, her examination of the “aura” at the scene was of no help, and it was another anguishing couple of months for his family before his body was found by a search-and-rescue team member.

In March 2003, Kerepehi woman Sara Niethe went missing. After a $20,000 reward was offered for information, several psychics called police saying that they had had visions of where she and her car could be found, but neither has ever been located.

In October 2009, Deb Webber of Sensing Murder, had a vision of missing toddler Aisling Symes in a ditch. The extensive media coverage at the time had included images of ditches, drains and mangrove banks; the child was later found drowned in a drain. Like many vague comments, this one was neither specific nor helpful. Remember, Deb Webber has been recorded on film talking to dead people who never actually existed. See more on the Channel 7 expose here.

Police Policy

Scotland Yard Statement:

Scotland Yard never approaches psychics for information. There are no official police psychics in England. The Yard does not endorse psychics in any way. There is no recorded instance in England of any psychic solving a criminal case or providing evidence or information that led directly to its solution.

Los Angeles Police Department Policy:

The Los Angeles Police Department has not, does not and will not use psychics in the investigation of crimes, period. If a psychic offers free information to us over the phone, we will listen to them politely, but we do not take them seriously. It is a waste of time. [In a study of psychic case claims, the LAPD said] no information that would have been investigatively useful, such as first and last names, licence plate numbers, apartment house locations etc. was accurately produced by any of the subjects.

Sensing Murder? Sensing Nonsense

by Vicki Hyde, from “Oddzone”, New Holland Press 2006
Cleared for reprint, no charge, just source acknowledgement required

So what sort of things should you look for when watching a program like Sensing Murder which claims psychics can help solve unsolved cases?

  • Look for extravagant claims which have minimal evidence supporting them.

In the episode A Bump in the Dark, about the rape and murder of Alicia O’Reilly, show host Rebecca Gibney opened one segment stating:

The psychics had established key facts about the dead girl’s personality.

One had said Alicia was a little shy, which didn’t match her mother’s description of an out-going, highly energetic, rather rambunctious personality. The psychics had described Alicia as happy and friendly and playful, but these are common attributes for any six-year-old girl, and very unlikely to be challenged as untrue.

  • Listen for truisms being touted as amazing revelations.

Psychic Kelvin Cruickshank pronounced:

It sounds a little weird, but she must have been buried in a white coffin.

However, there’s nothing weird about a young girl being buried in a white coffin, as it’s a fairly common practice for children’s funerals.

  • Listen for obvious cueing and changes of tack or spurious affirmations when an error is noted.

Cruickshank, in looking at Alicia’s drawings, spots her pet – “her dog”, he announces. Off-camera you can hear someone say “a cat”. The film crew knew there was a cat in the household, as it had been part of the mother’s story. “O cat is it?” says Cruickshank, “oh it is too.”

See if you can identify a clear factual statement that can be checked out.

This is harder then it sounds, as clear unequivocal statements are not part of the psychic stock in trade. It can also be difficult to check facts without having personal contacts or knowledge to draw upon. That said, there was at least one readily checkable fact in the Sensing Murder programme about Alicia O’Reilly.

Cruickshank made much of Alicia talking about children’s television show What Now?, and how that must have been a Saturday morning treat for her, adding that this clearly indicated her murder took place in the 1980s. This was made more dramatic by a voice-over noting that Alicia had been murdered in 1980, apparently supporting Cruickshank’s assertion.

However, according to TVNZ, What Now? didn’t go on air until nine months after Alicia’s murder.

Perhaps the implication there is that TVNZ shows are good enough to appeal to spirits in the after-life! What do you think?

Or as Philip Matthews said, writing in The Press

Sensing Murder might be the most important TV show of our times. It all boils down to this: the show is either a colossal fraud, an entertainment conspiracy the size of Watergate, or it’s the most amazing and incontrovertible evidence of paranormal activity ever recorded.
And it has to be one or the other. It can’t be neither.
Sensing Murder: Sleuths or scammers?