Uneasy Affiliation: Police and Psychics

By Jill King Greenwood; Chris Togneri | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, April 13, 2008 | Go to article overview

Uneasy Affiliation: Police and Psychics


Jill King Greenwood; Chris Togneri, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


In the mid-1980s, a serial rapist was creeping into the homes of elderly women in Homestead and attacking them in the middle of the night.

Police worked hundreds of hours, chasing leads and exhausting the limits of technology.

Finally, then-police Chief Chris Kelly decided to take an unconventional approach. He consulted a Latrobe-based psychic to help investigators crack the case.

"I figured, what did we have to lose?" Kelly says. "We'd tried everything else."

Ultimately, police work led to the arrest of Dennis Foy, who was convicted of raping six elderly women and sentenced to 200 years in prison. But psychic Nancy Myer impressed Kelly with her knowledge.

She told him the names of victims who hadn't come forward, the locations of attacks, how the rapist was entering the homes and even the partial name of a victim who had yet to be assaulted, Kelly says.

"It was pretty amazing to see what she could do," says Kelly, now the police chief in Baldwin. He has consulted Myer on missing persons cases since the Foy investigation.

"I was skeptical at first and thought it was just hocus pocus, but she proved me wrong."

Others remain skeptical.

They say psychics hinder, rather than help, police investigations. And even as psychics increasingly are weighing in on high-profile cases, many investigators and psychic analysts question their motives, accusing them of manipulating families desperate for answers.

"They prey on people's desperation," says Joe Nickell, an author and senior research fellow with the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal in Amherst, N.Y.

Nickell has been studying psychic involvement in police investigations for four decades. Nickell says psychics take advantage of families who are clinging to hope and are discouraged by the pace of a police investigation.

"People in these situations are utterly desperate," Nickell says. "They'll listen at first, and it may take some time before the family finally gets jaded by what the psychic is saying. But in the meantime, the psychic is playing on their emotions -- and sometimes profiting."

Investigators are cynical because psychics tend to flock to high- profile cases.

When Laci Peterson, a pregnant schoolteacher in Modesto, Calif., went missing on Christmas Eve 2002, more than 10,000 people called into a tips hotline at the Stanislaus County District Attorney's Office, Modesto police Sgt. Jon Buehler says.

About 150 of the tips came from psychics. Almost all were useless, says Buehler, one of the lead detectives on the case.

"They were extremely vague," Buehler says. " 'She's by a rock. She's under a tree. She's in a body of water.' Well, OK, but give us something specific."

Buehler says the tips were a nuisance, adding: "Where were they on some of our other head-scratching whodunits? I am very skeptical. We would have to be extremely desperate and completely out of other options to ever go to a psychic."

He added that he is reluctant to accept a psychic's help, in part, because trial attorneys can use that information to a defendant's advantage.

"You can really get slapped around in court if a lawyer finds out you've cooperated with a psychic," he says. "I'd hate to be on the witness stand and be asked, 'Why did you use that voodoo witchcraft?' "

Ron Freeman, a former Pittsburgh police commander who spent 34 years in the homicide squad, says detectives often receive calls from psychics eager to help with investigations. Never did tips or information from psychics assist in solving a case or locating a missing person, he says.

"I never allowed these tips to distract the detectives from what they were doing," says Freeman, who headed the homicide unit for more than 14 years. "People would call, and you'd listen and be polite, but you didn't make their tips a No. …

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