From October 1979 to May 1981, an unknown serial killer was believed to have murdered 27 African American boys in the Atlanta, Georgia area. Statistically speaking, most serial killers are white, so law enforcement initially thought that the killer was likely to be a white racist.
The police and the FBI received many tips during this investigation, including those from professed psychics. One such woman called me and indicated that the killer was a white male who had been interviewed by a detective early on in the investigation. She said that during the interview, the killer lit his own cigarette with a match bent in a particular way from a matchbook. It was a detail the detective would remember, she said. We spoke to every FBI agent and detective assigned to the case but no one recalled this incident.
An FBI profiler who was working on the case pointed out the obvious though— that since most of the boys were taken from black neighborhoods where a white man would stand out, the police should be looking instead for a black serial killer. The killer would then dispose of his victims in a nearby river to confound the forensic evidence that could be gathered from the bodies.
Wayne Williams, an African American, was subsequently identified on a bridge over the river in question, at a time a new body was dumped into the river. He was arrested, and later tried and convicted. Case closed.
Some psychics claim to see remote images. Some “read into the future” by looking at the palms of our hands (chiromancy) or tea leaves (tasseography). Some rely on information from “spirit guides” and may even practice cleidomancy, divination through interpreting the movements of a key suspended by a thread from the nail of the third finger on a young virgin's hand while psalms are recited. Others hold an object related to the crime in their hands and get impressions of the victim, the crime, or the criminal (psychometry). One psychic network claims success in just over 20 percent of their cases, something that appears far less successful than that of a mere guess in a 50/50 situation.
It's possible that some psychics are just really good interviewers or body language-readers. Some of them will roll out names and numbers, waiting for some response from the person, and then they will enhance that point of information to fit the situation.
My point is this: If psychics were truly successful and if their results were not simply the consequence of trickery (at worse) or good interviewing skills (at best)— then why don't law enforcement agencies have psychic detective squads, a real X-files Unit, or other ways to integrate these paranormal investigative capabilites?
Reason to believe
You know, we all want to believe in something. Some want to believe that Elvis is alive and a part of the Federal Witness Protection program. Others want to believe that TWA 800 did not explode in mid-air in July 1996 due to an electrical/fuel tank problem, but instead had been shot down by a U.S. Navy missile as incorrectly offered up by former White House press secretary Pierre Salinger. Some choose to believe that unidentified black helicopters frequently carry Russian Special Forces troops (Spetsnaz) across America for secret night time training missions. That Area 51, also known as Groom Lake, not only housed the development of the B-2 stealth bomber and the F-117 stealth fighter, but (as watching reruns of nine years of Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully will show you) was also the secret storage location for alien spacecrafts that have crashed over the years, perhaps including the very aviators that manned these intergalactic flying machines.
Each of us can believe what we choose, but in the criminal justice field, crimes are solved by investigation and information— not by rubbing sticks together, huddling over a Ouija Board, or talking to a spirit guide. A 17th-century dowsing sleuth was tested in Paris and failed every test given to him. A 1991 test of a London-based police psychic concerning her ability to use psychometry to solve crimes suggested that she had no such skill. And a standing $1 million reward for anyone who can prove paranormal power still remains unclaimed.
What happens many times is that professed psychics allow themselves the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. After the case is solved, they make their previously vague predictions somehow fit the crime and the criminal.
I've had psychics tell me the victim was killed near a body of water (the murder took place along Lake Michigan, come on…); that the victim was buried in a shallow grave (most killers don't necessarily take the time to dig a “deep” grave); or that the victim was in a remote location (that's right, we haven't found her yet, so she could be somewhere remote).
A last resort in an hour of need?
Lastly, many, particularly parents of a missing or kidnapped child, turn to psychics and other claimed paranormals as a last resort in their greatest hour of need. I would never deprive any parent the opportunity to avail themselves of every legitimate investigative tool that could help them find and save their child.
But to seek the counsel of psychics outside of law enforcement is simply not wise. There are many in this world who will tell you anything to gain your confidence— or access to the contents of your checking account. In such emotionally-charged situations, one's common sense must run alongside one's overwhelming concern.
Trust the police and know that you can sleep at night by having done everything you could to support the investigative efforts in your loved one's behalf.
Yes, the truth (about crime) is out there somewhere, but it will probably not be found by mediums visualizing the crime scene, nor will they be in those who claim to see through the eyes of the killer.
Whether they profess to see dead people or simply rely on a claimed sixth sense that the vast majority of us do not possess, psychics' track record hovers around mere chance rather than statistical certainty. I'd dance with the devil or talk to anyone who had information that could possibly save the life of a missing child, but until psychics establish the track record of multiple successes like those of criminal analysts, I wouldn't bet the farm on their ability to name the next Pope, or tell us who really shot JR or JFK.
(For information on "Protecting Children from Predators" and other home, travel and personally related security issues, see )
Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of Inc. Dr. Van Zandt and his associates also developed , a website dedicated "to develop, evaluate, and disseminate information to help prepare and inform individuals concerning personal and family security issues." During his 25-year career in the FBI, Mr. Van Zandt was a supervisor in the FBI's internationally renowned Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was also the FBI's Chief Hostage Negotiator and in his current position, was the leader of the analytical team recognized with identifying the "Unabomber."