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Usually Right - in Hindsight
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In the 1970s, the CIA expressed a keen interest in determining the possible existence of reliable, paranormal intelligence gathering methods. Much of this focus was rooted in the agency's concerns that Russia might be using psychics to uncover secrets about our defense systems. Another, surprisingly robust, topic of CIA evaluation, however, was the effectiveness of psychics in law enforcement settings. In other words, the United States government wanted to know if ESP, distance viewing, and out of body experiences could help solve crime in America.
By the time the CIA began assessing paranormal phenomena's potential impact on criminal investigations, the subject - for some - was already old news. In the 1950s and 60s there was already a man who branded himself as a "psychic detective." Born in the Netherlands in 1911, Peter Hurkos arrived in the U.S. in 1956. This was 15 years after a fall from a ladder, Hurkos claimed, awakened his latent psychic abilities.
Questions about Hurkos' gifts nagged him from the start - but they never stopped him from making unreliable claims. For instance, in 1960 he told an audience at Massachusetts Institute of Technology that he would sit for any testing, any time, anywhere. He rescinded this offer after the one test to which he agreed detected no paranormal abilities of any kind.
As the old cliche goes, though, the entertainment industry has never been known to allow the facts to get in the way of a good story. The same year that he lectured at MIT, Hurkos' life story was dramatized on the television program "One Step Beyond." He made several appearances on popular talk shows like Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" and the Merv Griffin Show. Unfortunately for the police, he made a number of uninvited appearances as well - at some of the most notorious crime scenes in the nation's history.
Hurkos' first major stop on his American crime tour was Boston where, in the early 1960s, at least 13 women were assaulted and strangled. Dubbed the "Boston Strangler" by two investigative reporters following the case, the killer terrified women in New England and around the country. Though often not welcome, Hurkos pestered Boston police - all the while touting his fanciful claims that he had already solved dozens of murders elsewhere. In the end, Hurkos offered a detailed description of the man he said committed the murders. The problem was, it in no way matched Albert DeSalvo - the man who confessed to several of the murders and was later linked, by DNA, to others.
In December of 1963, Hurkos pulled into a gas station in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. He told gas station attendants he'd just solved the JFK assassination and was on his way to Las Vegas to work on the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra, Jr. More surprising, he told the attendants he was an FBI agent, and even presented a rifle outfitted with a telescopic sight to prove his claim. Wisely, the attendants waited until Hurkos drove away to call the police. He was soon arrested for impersonating an FBI agent and forced to pay a fine. As it turned out, though, this was not a new technique for the supposed psychic detective. He'd apparently previously posed as law enforcement to obtain case details he would then present as paranormal intelligence.
Apparently unfamiliar with the word "shame," these revelations didn't deter Hurkos from inserting himself in other high-profile cases. In 1969 he conducted a "psychic reading" of the home at 10050 Cielo Drive, the scene of the brutal murders of the very pregnant Sharon Tate and several of her friends. Hurkos spouted some mumbo jumbo about the slayings being the result of an occult ritual gone bad. Later he claimed to correctly identify Charles Manson as the killer - although it was well-known that Susan Atkins had already revealed this information to her prison cellmate.
Toward the end of his career, Hurkos became more of a B-list celebrity than a psychic. In 1976, he appeared in the film "The Mysterious Monsters," a documentary exploring the world's three most famous cryptids: Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot. In an interview about the film, Hurkos said he'd actually been searching for Bigfoot for seven years.
Hurkos died in 1988. By that time there was another self-proclaimed psychic detective stealing the headlines. And, as it turned out, Greta Alexander was every bit as accurate - at least, in hindsight - as Peter Hurkos had been.
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From Clouded in Mystery Publisher Stephanie Hoover:
Greta lived in rural Illinois and was primarily known in the midwest. That didn't stop her from billing herself as "America's best-known psychic" in the dozens of county fairs and local lecture halls at which she appeared.
Like Peter Hurkos (and a coincidentally large percentage of other self-proclaimed psychics) Greta's abilities came by way of an unfortunate accident. She didn't tumble from a ladder - but, according to her, she was struck by lightning while sleeping in her own bed. Upon recovery, she claimed to be able to hear spirit guides telling her the private thoughts and future fortunes of people with whom she came in contact.
Greta offered her services to a variety of police departments in and around Illinois. She suggested solutions for missing persons cases and other crimes. Greta's accuracy rate was not great, but - like all successful psychics - she mercilessly plugged those instances where her generalized predictions even remotely meshed with the facts.
The best-known case into which Greta insinuated herself was the vicious murder of University at Buffalo music professor Thomas J. Clifton in Erie County, New York. On June 15, 1978 - as was his habit - Clifton rode his ten-speed bike to Buffalo Beach (today called Bennett Beach) on Lake Erie's coastline. There the professor regularly sunbathed in the nude.
At about 11:30 that morning, two women spotted Clifton's lifeless body floating in the shallow water just offshore. He had been stabbed 29 times. Two of the strikes were so savage that they punctured Clifton's lungs.
Police believed he had been attacked while lying face down on his towel, attempted to escape his killer by running away, and then fell into the lake. They had little actual evidence to go on save one witness who heard a man - presumably Clifton - cry out. This same witness also saw a woman walk away from the beach toward a gray station wagon, then drive away.
42-year-old Clifton was a beloved friend and well-liked professor. Apparently, things weren't quite as rosy in his marriage. Investigators uncovered a woman with whom Clifton had had an affair, but she was never a serious suspect. More interestingly, as it turns out, was the discovery that Clifton's wife drove - in an astounding coincidence - a gray station wagon. Still, police never had enough evidence to charge her, either.
Unfortunately, the case quickly went cold.
A year later, Greta Alexander was called to the scene to provide psychic clues that might help the police finally solve the case. Although Greta often said she never charged the police a dime for her "assistance," she clearly had no such qualms about charging the victim's family. The Cliftons paid Greta's airfare - along with a $150 per diem fee for her "work."
Thirteen months had now passed since Thomas Clifton was murdered - more than enough time for Greta to have heard of the case and read the newspaper clippings which offered precise details of the location and method of murder. And, like Peter Hurkos, she certainly had the smarts to call the local librarian or police desk and simply ask about the investigation.
Nonetheless, as Greta walked the beach where Clifton died, at least one police escort was enthralled with her supposed psychic revelations. "It was AMAZING," Detective Samuel DeJohn gushed. "She led us to the exact location where we found the blood trail, and pointed to the spot where Clifton was killed."
Greta also told police that she "sensed" there had been a violent argument on the beach that day - a ludicrously transparent observation.
DeJohn and his colleagues were far more reticent about discussing the parts of Greta's predictions that were completely bogus. For instance, she said Clifton's bike would be found near Clifton's home. It wasn't. She said police would find the murder weapon in that same area. They did not. After receiving payment, Greta Alexander went back home to Illinois. The murder of Thomas J. Clifton remains unsolved to this day.
In the late 1970s, Stu Gluckman - an employee of the Research and Analysis Section of the Department of Justice in Sacramento - wrote a memo titled "Use of Psychics in Law Enforcement." In it he said, "Even though they are being consulted by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, psychics are not commonly used in investigations."
While it is clear from Gluckman's approach to the report that he, himself, had an open mind regarding the use of psychics, he had the good sense to offer this advice to professionals considering that option: "Beware of psychics who are more interested in notoriety or money than in solving the case. Psychics who are primarily interested in using their ability to help others usually wish to remain anonymous."
Best available statistics suggest that less than 35% of police departments have ever consulted a psychic and the number of cases considered "solved" by psychics is miniscule to non-existent.
There is little question that psychics - usually well after the fact - have tried to claim credit for finding missing persons and evasive murderers. They accomplish this through the tried and true method of "retrofitting" predictions to match the facts, or, by flat out dishonesty.
Don't believe it…? Ask yourself this: why would a psychic know where to find a dead body, but NOT the identity of the person who took his or her life? Why would a psychic know whether or not a kidnapped child is dead or alive, but NOT where that child is being held? It just doesn't seem to meet the common sense test, does it?
The truth is, the identification and capture of most criminals is done the old fashioned way: by investigation, analysis, dogged determination and, yes, a little luck. While psychic detectives are searching for their next publicity opportunity, real detectives are searching for clues.
[See Stephanie's related article "Psychic Tricks" here.]