Uneasy affiliation: Police and psychics
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. 1 priority and send them to the top of the list.
"I checked these things out for decades. Never did any tip amount to anything credible."
Some psychics understand their involvement often is unwelcome. They said they are driven by a desire to help, not by potential celebrity.
Gregory Kehn says he has assisted police investigations for more than 30 years. Kehn, formerly of Girard, Ohio, spends his winters in Florida and summers in Lily Dale, N.Y., a spiritual community.
Kehn and other psychics say investigators are less skeptical of their assistance than in the past.
"It's becoming more acceptable," Kehn says. "I think there are more people out there who are really recognizing the difference between analytically checking something out and intuitively checking it out."
Kehn says he never contacts police; he waits for them to ask for help. Detectives do so when an investigation hits a dead-end, he said.
"They come to me and say 'This case is making us crazy. We've run out of leads,' " he says. "Many times I've been able to help."
Kehn says he does not charge for his services. He says he doesn't work with police often because reliving crime scenes takes an emotional toll.
"I've known a number of people that pursued (police work) and wanted to be known for it, and I really find it burns them out," he says. "There is so much pain. They just burn out and walk away from it."
Suzanne Vincent and Jean McKenzie Vincent, sisters in Butler who claim psychic abilities, say they have been involved in investigations for decades. The family of Indiana County dentist John J. Yelenic consulted them about his 2006 slaying.
Mary Ann Clark, Yelenic's cousin, says the sisters immediately sensed that the murderer was in law enforcement. Trooper Kevin J. Foley, 42, of White, Indiana County, later was arrested and accused in the slaying.
The sisters say they do not charge for their services, but try to help because they can.
"This is not something I wanted to do," Suzanne Vincent says. "We were afraid for our safety because we we're pointing fingers at killers. (Plus), it's like driving overnight to Florida -- it's very exhausting."
Adds Jean McKenzie Vincent: "You don't want to be a psychic. You don't want to be getting this stuff. You don't choose this. I wouldn't do this if it didn't help people."
When visiting a crime scene, they said, spiritual guides bring them mental images, sometimes in the form of rolling film in their minds, like a movie, and other times as mental snapshots.
"It's like a transparent Polaroid," Suzanne Vincent says. "You can see it, but not all of it."
In 2005, when Donald Liscsak, 27, of Blairsville went missing, his mother, Sandra Kozar Liscsak, contacted the Vincent sisters, she says. They told her the missing man would be found dead, just off a busy street, near a tree with a split trunk, Liscsak says.
Eleven days after Liscsak went missing, state police found him dead in his sport-utility vehicle, which had crashed into a tree in the median of Route 119 in Indiana County. Passing cars did not notice the SUV, because the impact had splintered the tree's base and knocked it over, camouflaging it from passing cars, police said.
That sold Sandra Kozar Liscsak on the sisters' psychic abilities.
"They're the best people in the world at what they do, and they can help anybody," she says. "I would have been in the mental hospital if it weren't for them. I just wish more of the police departments and everyone else would realize they're willing to help people."
The Vincent sisters want to find out what happened to Cherrie Mahan, who was 8 years old when she disappeared in February 1985 in Winfield, Butler County. She has never been found.
Janice McKinney, Cherrie's mother, says a friend introduced her to the Vincent sisters.She says she was skeptical about their abilities, but the sisters knew about specific medical problems ailing her husband.
McKinney hopes they can lead her to her missing daughter.
"I've always had a strong feeling that Cherrie is OK, but I just didn't know if she was alive or dead," McKinney says. "It's a heartache to me. The 23 years of not knowing, or to never know, is terrible. All I want is an answer. Whether she's dead or alive, I just need to know.
"I'm not a firm believer, but if they can give me an answer ..."
McKinney and the Vincent sisters plan to visit Cornplanter Road, where Mahan was last seen, later this year in hope that they will divine clues.
State Police Trooper Frank Jendesky, who is in charge of Mahan's case, says psychics have offered tips, but none have panned out.
Yet, he is willing to listen.
"We'll sit down and talk with them when they feel they can help the case," he says. "We don't want to be misled. But we have to see what they say."
Myer, the Latrobe psychic, has worked alongside police in the United States and across the world for almost 40 years.
Although she has consulted on almost 700 cases, she doesn't believe her contributions alone have solved cases, and she cringes when she sees those claiming to be psychics weighing in on investigations.
"People who are good at this are very rare, but there are many who think they are good, and that's frustrating," Myer says. "We can give them good information and the missing pieces of the puzzle, but it cannot be one-sided. They have to follow it up with good police work.
"They can't just go into court with the information they got from a psychic. We lead them closer. They have to solve it themselves."
Psychics and police
High-profile investigations that have attracted psychics' services:
• Police in North Dakota received more than 600 psychic tips when trying to find college student Dru Sjodin, 22, who disappeared outside a Grand Forks shopping mall in November 2003. None of the tips panned out. Her body was found five months later in Minnesota. Her killer, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., was sentenced to death.
• Carlie Brucia was 11 when her abduction was caught on a surveillance camera outside a Sarasota, Fla., gas station in February 2004. Hundreds of law enforcement officers combed wooded areas nearby while the child's family consulted a psychic. The psychic provided addresses to check, and the family hired a private investigator. After Carlie's body was found, police said the case was solved when the man later convicted of her kidnapping, rape and murder told a jail cellmate where her body could be found.
• When 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford went missing from her Homosassa, Fla., home in February 2005, more than 400 psychics came forward. Lunsford's body was found three weeks later, buried in a shallow grave about 150 yards from her home. Investigators said it was police work, not psychic intuition, that helped them find Jessica. Her killer, John Evander Couey, 49, was sentenced to death.
• Police investigating the April 2005 disappearance of Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar used DNA evidence and forensic experts and consulted a psychic. Gricar remains missing.
• Despite hundreds of psychic tips about the disappearance of Natalee Holloway, 18, the Alabama teen hasn't been found. She went missing in May 2005 while on a high school graduation trip in Aruba.
• Similarly, numerous psychics offered help after the disappearance of British toddler Madeline McCann during a May 2007 family vacation at a Portugal resort. McCann, 3, hasn't been found.
Marking an anniversary
Two years ago today, dentist John J. Yelenic was murdered in his Blairsville home. While his accused killer, suspended state trooper Kevin J. Foley, 42, of White, Indiana County, awaits trial, Yelenic's family will have a candlelight vigil at 7 tonight in front of his house at 233 S. Spring St. The public is welcome.