Most cinema goers are capable of distinguishing fact from fantasy, most of the time. Crime films in particular are often of an escapist nature: the scripts, characters and plots are sensationalist and just as often, unrealistic. Spectacular car chases, implausible fight scenes, heroes who get beaten to within an inch of their lives, rolled in the mud, bruised and battered then get up and walk away without so much as a black eye or a blood spattered jacket, all these are essential ingredients of the thrill a minute “buddy buddy” and “cops and hookers” films churned out by the American cinema and, to a lesser extent, by others.
There are, however, some crime films which are much more realistic, even extremely realistic. Often, such films are based closely on real life cases with only the names changed and the odd sub plot woven in to enhance what might otherwise be a lacklustre story. This is forgivable, indeed understandable. The business of investigating serious crime, especially murder, is not a glamorous one; most police work is routine, even boring. People don’t want to watch boring films, so the script writer is obliged to spice up the plot a bit. This though can cause a certain amount of confusion when a film is based closely on fact, as in the case of To Catch A Killer.
John Wayne Gacy, the Beast of Chicago, murdered thirty-three young men and boys over a four year period until his eventual arrest in December 1978; the film To Catch A Killer, which runs to over three hours, is modelled closely on the book Killer Clown, co-written by Terry Sullivan,one of the team which prosecuted Gacy. (1) The overweight 5ft 9in Gacy is played by the muscular Brian Dennehy, a natural villain. At one point in the film, Lieutenant Kozenczak, the officer in charge of the case, turns (albeit reluctantly) to a medium, played by the appropriately named Margot Kidder. The medium gives Kozenczak some information which, although it doesn’t lead to his cracking the case, does turn out to be surprisingly accurate. She also tells him he has a cyst on his back, the pain of which will cease only when he nails his man.
The fact that To Catch A Killer is a very realistic film, unglamorous and with a very plausible script, and the fact that it attempts to (and succeeds in) portraying a sober criminal investigation, will undoubtedly mislead some people into believing that the incident with the medium has the ring of truth. What are the real facts?
In the film, a youth, Chris Gant, goes missing after apparently approaching Gacy, whom he thought intended to offer him a job with his building firm. Gant had followed the contractor out of his local store after Gacy had made a loud hint that he would pay the student twice the hourly rate he earned working at the store after school. The police latch onto this at once, call it a hunch if you like, but the newly promoted Kozenczak doesn’t think Gant is the type of kid to just take off. In any case, the circumstances of his disappearance are clearly suspicious, and as soon as he makes the most provisional enquiries about Gacy, he uncovers evidence of deviant behaviour with young men.
The police turn up at Gacy’s house almost immediately; in short order, they obtain a search warrant, impound his vehicles and generally make life uncomfortable for him, but although he is unable to make an immediate arrest, Kozenczak finds enough circumstantial evidence to convince him that Gacy had indeed abducted Gant. He orders Gacy placed under immediate surveillance, and all through the film Gacy is shadowed openly by a team of officers round the clock. The story is kept out of the papers, but Gacy, complaining of harassment, begins an action against the Des Plaines Police Department. Such is the curious nature of the American legal system that, if Gacy succeeds, Kozenczak will have to kill the investigation. The police are locked in a race against time; they have to unearth sufficient evidence against Gacy in order to obtain a second warrant to make a more thorough search of his house. Enter the medium.
Up until here, the film has been almost 100% accurate with only trivial exceptions. The youth who disappeared was actually named Rob Piest, but names in films (and books) are often changed out of respect for the relatives of the deceased or to protect the innocent.
In the film, psychic contact is now made, but Kozenczak is not easily impressed by such nonsense.
“A psychic?” he asks.
“She’s worked with a lot of departments round here,” is the reply he receives.
When the psychic phones him, his assistant takes the call and replies that he’s not in. “Yes he is,” says the mystical Miss Kidder, “and I don’t need any special powers to know it.”
That was true enough. Kozenczak though is under pressure, and in frustration, he makes an appointment taking the missing youth’s camera. The psychic gives an accurate description of the clothing the victim was wearing when he disappeared, but Kozenczak is unimpressed; she could have picked up that much from the brief report that had appeared in the press.
“You don’t believe in psychics, do you?” she asks, then she tells him about the cyst on his back and that it will go as soon as he brings in the killer. She also gives an accurate description of the killer’s modus operandi, describing how Gacy entrapped his last victim. Kozenczak’s skepticism vanishes and he begs her to go on.
At one point he says, “This may be the only way that I’ve got to catch his [Gant’s] killer.” If it is, then boy, has he got problems! Miss Kidder as the medium is unable to give Kozenczak any information which enables him to pin the rap on Gacy, but she does identify Chris Gant’s killer as a mass murderer and, ironically, sends Kozenczak off on a wild goose chase when he misreads her clues. Gacy had recently buried his uncle; adjacent to the cemetery was a construction site. Kozenczak is convinced that the medium’s reference to a mass grave means that Gacy had buried his victims on this site. Gacy’s conviction and ten year jail sentence for sodomy having come to light (among other things), Kozenczak and his team were already building up a profile of Gacy as a serial killer, although they couldn’t guess how many young men he’d really murdered.
However, in spite of Kozenczak’s obvious desperation, the medium has no more to offer. Gacy is eventually picked up when a further piece of evidence comes to light that establishes the presence of Chris Gant in his house; he had always vehemently denied meeting the youth outside the store. The police obtain their second warrant and dig up the crawl space under Gacy’s house; three months later they are still digging! A total of twenty-seven bodies are found buried at 8213 Summerdale Avenue, and Gacy is eventually indicted on a total of 35 charges, including 33 of murder. (2) The body of the missing boy is fished out of the river in April. (3)
Gacy was convicted on all thirty-five charges and sentenced to death on twelve counts. At the time of writing, May 1992, he is still on death row. So, where did the medium come in?
At the end of the film, a voice-over claimed that the methods used in this investigation are now the text book methods used to trap serial killers. A gullible person might take this to imply that the police often consult mediums and psychics: “She’s worked with a lot of departments round here.” - remember?
The incident with the medium is only half true. Kozenczak received a tip-off from an “anonymous woman” who had known Gacy and claimed that he had murdered five or six people including Rob Piest. She said too that she knew where the bodies were buried. (4) Kozenczak’s mysterious caller appeared to know also that Gacy had a scar on his finger. (5) She also knew about the link between Gacy and Rob Piest, even though this had not yet been disclosed. (6) No further details are given, but one need not postulate anything supernatural about this information, which may have been simply intelligent guesswork but was more likely based on inside information. Though she was right about him being a mass murderer, in view of the enormity of Gacy’s crimes, to say that she erred on the side of conservatism is a colossal understatement.
The “psychic’s” tip-off came at the time they were already working on the idea that Gacy was a mass murderer. In the film, she described grave sites, and gave Kozenczak enough information to convince him that she knew or had known Gacy. When Kozenczak confided this, one officer said, “Gosh, Joe, that sounds like something a psychic would say.” Later, somebody said, “I think Joe’s been talking to a psychic.”
In reality, the Gacy case was opened by an old-fashioned policeman’s hunch and was solved by routine but solid police work. In fact, if this had happened in Britain, the police would almost certainly have torn Gacy’s house to shreds without all the hassle of following him around and fretting over him bringing a $750,000 law suit against the police department. We take a slightly different view about violating suspects’ rights, and individual liberty in this country, especially where something as serious as suspected murder is concerned and where the suspect has a previous conviction for sodomy.
Apart from this medium nonsense, To Catch A Killer is an excellent film; it’s not particularly thrilling, but that is because it sacrifices escapist fantasy to realism. The ironic thing about the medium incident is that it misled the investigating officer into thinking the bodies of Gacy’s victims were buried elsewhere, when in fact they were literally under his nose. (7)
Of course, To Catch A Killer is not the first film to feature a “psychic detective”. There are at least two other excellent films cast from the same mould which throw in the same nonsense, albeit tangentially. The second of these is The Hillside Stranglers, which, like To Catch A Killer, subordinates escapism to realism. This is the true story of serial sex monsters and cousins Kenneth Bianci and Angelo Buono. This film, which was released in 1989, also has a very watered down romance thrown in as a secondary plot. The other film is of a somewhat older vintage, The Boston Strangler, which was released in 1968, features Tony Curtis as serial killer Albert de Salvo. (8)
Like the Gacy case, in neither of these cases did a medium/psychic or any other wanderer of the astral plane contribute anything (except possibly misinformation), to solving the crime. The fact is though that even “experts” in the field sincerely believe that mediums/psychics have and do regularly assist the police with their enquiries. One such “expert” is author Richard Broughton who claims in his Parapsychology: The controversial science (9) there is “...a collection of cases in which a psychic has definitely helped investigations. Psychics have led police to bodies or have described locations so accurately that police could find them. Psychics have saved precious time in locating lost children and uncovered vital clues in criminal investigations...For many of these cases sworn law officers have stated that the case would not have been solved without the psychic’s help.”
Broughton is Director of Research at the Institute for Parapsychology, Durham, North Carolina, but any slightly skeptical reader who wades through his 400+ pages of nonsense dressed up as science will rapidly conclude that he would be more deserving of a place on the board of the loony Aetherius Society. Any man who marvels at D.D. Home yet slags off James Randi obviously has an exceedingly poor appreciation of the scientific method. Randi, incidentally, reveals in his Psychic Investigator (10) that after several years of research into psychics “aiding the police”, Dr Martin Reiser concluded that they had never contributed anything useful to any investigation, at least, not in Los Angeles. Anyone who has any doubts should read Sorry You’ve Been Duped, by Melvin Harris. (11) Chapter Four: The Clueless Crime-Busters and Chapter Five: The Yorkshire Ripper and the Psychic Circus, give an objective appraisal of the real “contribution” made to police work by “psychics.”
Author Harris also reveals another contribution to the “psychic helps police myth” - the claims made by psychics themselves. This book is such an eye opener that it is worth looking in some depth at some of the claims it discusses.
The late Doris Stokes claims in her book Voices In My Ear that she obtained valuable information through psychic channels which all but enabled her to solve the case of the murders of three babies at Blackpool’s Victoria Hospital, and in a separate case, the murder of a 17 year old girl at Kirkham, Lancashire. (12)
In the latter case, according to Stokes, as she was reading an article in the Lancashire Evening Post about the murder of the girl (who had last been seen alive waiting for a bus), a voice whispered in her ear “Shepherd, Shepherd, Shepherd...” A picture of a field and building also flashed through her mind. The name Brian also came into her head. She passed this information on to a friend, who passed it on to the police.
“They were impressed enough to send Detective Sergeant [Brian] Woods round for a sitting.” she claimed. (13) A few days later, she got on the wrong train and ended up at Kirkham where she heard the girl’s voice saying, “My shoes are by the railway line”. (14) Further clues pointed to a bus driver. Some time later, a man named Brian Ball was arrested for the murder. He was a bus driver. There are two Brians in this story, but Brian Ball isn’t the only ball. The story is all balls! (15)
In the other case, the murders of the three babies, Stokes claims to have all but identified the murderer:
“‘...it’s somebody in the hospital,’ I told the detective.” (16)
She heard the name “Akmed” and claims also to have identified the murderer’s car and its location “while the detective scribbled rapidly in his notebook.” (17) She also received the impression of sand everywhere. When the murderer was arrested he turned out to be a surgeon, a Jordanian named Ahmed. The sand obviously has more to do with Stokes’ idea of Jordan than anything to do with the spirit world. Jordan also has the largest natural greenhouse in the world, the Jordan Valley.
Like the Kirkham murder mystery she “solved”, this story is total fabrication. One cannot rule out that she guessed that the murderer was actually employed at the hospital, but again that hardly requires any assistance from the astral plane.
Melvin Harris claims that he contacted the police and received a reply from Detective Chief Superintendent Brian Woods of Lancashire Constabulary HQ, Preston, to the effect that Mrs Stokes made no contribution to either case. (18)
I can back that up personally; I was sent a copy of a letter from the relevant police department by Mike Hutchinson, UK distributor for skeptical publishers Prometheus, which says exactly the same thing: that Doris Stokes lied through her teeth.
Of course, it is possible that the police lied, that Melvin Harris lied, that Mike Hutchinson lied or even that I am making this all up; the reader will have to make up his own mind, but if he chooses to believe Doris Stokes, he will have to have more faith in her veracity than the laws of physics as we currently understand them.
The history of psychic crime-busting (sic) is full of such cases. In August 1978, Devon schoolgirl Genette Tate disappeared, seemingly into thin air. In spite of a massive investigation and manhunt and nationwide publicity, no trace of either the girl or of her body was ever found. According to Melvin Harris in Chapter Four of his book (already cited), “psychics” were not exactly thin on the ground. The police received nearly 1200 letters from mediums ad nauseum with a variety of suggestions. None of these “psychics” contributed anything whatsoever to the investigation. And, according to Roger Busby, Public Relations Officer for Devon Police, “One of the first psychics on the scene, a medium from Cornwall, shook like a leaf when he visited the scene...and then predicted that Genette’s body would be found within two days and the offender arrested the following day...” (19) Later, he claimed in a newspaper interview to have been called in by the police.
The psychic circus continued in the Genette Tate case. Three months went by, and when the police had still made no progress, the wanderers of the astral plane decided to organise a hunt. According to a contemporary newspaper report, on December 10th, 200 people defied pouring rain to search an East Devon plantation for the 13 year old Aylsesbeare newspaper delivery girl. This “followed a week-long phone-in by a research group [sic] of psychics and mediums.” (20) Andrew Wilson who directed the group said people had reported “good vibrations” as they passed it. The mind boggles what these “good vibrations” were meant to signify: the poor girl’s body perhaps? Wilson claimed also to have received an indication from “one major European clairvoyant who is seldom wrong...” Obviously he or she was wrong in this case.
When no body materialised Wilson shifted ground by claiming that, “We were not looking for a body but for mystical clues.” (21) What these “mystical clues” could possibly have been remains to be seen, but they did find a strip of blue cloth. Nella Jones, a Bexleyheath “clairvoyant” [who was later exposed as a fraud by James Randi (22)] had told them to look for a piece of cloth. This cloth was sent away for expert examination. What is this meant to prove? Nothing further appears to have been heard of the cloth. The plantation had been searched twice by the police already but they co-operated with the hunt, it was claimed. By “co-operated” what is meant, obviously, is that the police allowed them to do what they pleased. Result? Zilch!
All this does tend rather to tarnish parapsychologist Broughton’s claim that psychics have led police to bodies, described locations so accurately that police could find them, found lost children etc. In his book, he does not back up any of these silly claims with hard evidence because obviously no such evidence exists. Just as obviously he has read the exotic claims of Doris Stokes et al, either first hand or third hand, and taken them at face value. It is little wonder that the title of his book is Parapsychology: The controversial science. That word needs more than a little explaining - not controversial, science!
But even if now and again a “psychic” does score a direct hit, there is no need to postulate a supernatural explanation. Remember, the police received nearly twelve hundred letters from “psychics” concerning the Genette Tate case. It would hardly have been surprising if one of these cranks had guessed correctly the spot where the girl’s body had been dumped, or even vaguely described her murderer. The police often make surprisingly accurate guesses about serious cases based on modus operandi of similar offenders, psychological profiles, possible motive, topography etc. Had one of these nearly twelve hundred psychics hit the jackpot, that would still not have constituted proof positive of psychic ability. It is not inconceivable though that if the police often receive many offers of “help” from “psychics”, that once in a while a “psychic” does make a direct hit. If this has ever happened, it may well have given undeserved credence to this “urban legend”.
For example, although there may well be an infinite number of ways to murder a man, most murder victims will be shot, stabbed, strangled, battered to death or poisoned. Likewise, there are some typical ways in which a corpse will be disposed of, and, as already noted, there are typical suspects. If you ask someone to guess a number at random between one and a thousand, you wouldn’t expect that person to be right. If on the other hand, five hundred people came forward and each made a random guess, you wouldn’t be too surprised if one or two were correct. Certainly you wouldn’t be surprised if several guesses were close. This is what could have happened in the Genette Tate case; though as things turned out they were all wrong - no trace of Genette Tate has ever been found.
There are though, at least two cases on which “psychics” have aided the police in controversial though not mysterious circumstances. James Randi cites the case of a “psychic” who provided the police with details about an arson incident. This information turned out not to be psychic but first hand, and he was promptly arrested. (23) Another case happened in Japan; this involved a businessman who murdered his family. (24)
It is an unfortunate fact that the “psychic detective” myth will continue to be perpetuated through both sensationalist and realistic films (like the otherwise excellent To Catch A Killer). And through the lies and fantasies of wicked old women like Doris Stokes, and also through the pseudo-scientific dross of credulous dummies like Richard Broughton. At least though after having read this appraisal and, hopefully, Melvin Harris’s excellent Sorry - You’ve Been Duped and similar books, (25) the reader will in future be in a better position to sort the wheat from the chaff. The plain truth is that no “psychic” has ever made any meaningful contribution whatsoever to solving any crime by “psychic” means anywhere or at anytime.
At the time of researching this article I wrote to several US police departments and asked them if they knew of any case of psychics assisting in murder or other enquiries. On May 30, 1992, I received a reply from Louis Diecidue, Commander of the Media Relations Section of the Metro-Dade Police Department, Florida. Part of his letter of May 22, read as follows:
“Like you, I have heard that persons reputed to possess psychic powers have made significant contributions to solving certain criminal cases. To my knowledge, however, no psychic has ever been used in a Metro-Dade Police investigation.” [Click here for a scan of this letter]
On July 17, 1992, I received a far more substantial reply from Mr Bruce E. Cardenas, Public Affairs Officer for the Los Angeles Police Department on behalf of Mr W.L. Williams, Chief of Police. Part of his letter reads:
“In 1979 and 1980, this Department conducted scientific studies which were designed to examine the usefulness of psychics in criminal investigations. In each study, it was concluded that individuals with psychic abilities [sic] were no more likely to provide useful information than could be expected by chance.”
Mr Cardenas appended a photocopy of an article from the Los Angeles Times, (undated but published in 1987) written by Al Seckel of Southern California Skeptics. The article includes a quote from Martin Reiser (mentioned by Randi):
“The LAPD has not employed psychics in criminal investigations
...In several publicized major cases where individuals who claimed psychic powers volunteered information about the crime, the information has not proven useful.”
Another quote is included, from LAPD Lt Dan Cooke:
“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.”
And, from a comprehensive analysis of psychic claims in solving major crimes, the following diplomatic quote is given:
“[A Scientific Evaluation] revealed little correspondence between media reports and later objective documentation.”
At the beginning of August I received a letter from the Deputy Commissioner, Public Information of the New York Police Department, signed by P.O. Scott Bloch. The enclosure contained a 1991 report on the N.Y.P.D. and the following statement:
“The policy of the Department is that we do not approach psychics in any investigation.
Individuals who claim to be psychics have called to volunteer their services, and we do not officially utilize them.”
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