Levy Case a Psychic Failure

March 10, 2009

The arrest of a suspect in the May 1, 2001, killing of Chandra Levy serves as a reminder of the effectiveness of investigation over the vague pronouncements and sometimes outright mispronouncements of so-called psychic sleuths—those who claim to use paranormal powers to “assist” law enforcement in solving crimes.

Levy, age 24, had just completed an internship with the United States Bureau of Prisons when she disappeared. She had left her Washington, D.C., apartment wearing jogging clothes. Some suspicion fell to the older, married man with whom she was having a relationship, Representative Gary A. Condit (D-Calif.). Although police never considered him a suspect, the negative publicity destroyed his political career.

For over a year, Levy’s disappearance gained media attention, prompting public concern. At every opportunity I challenged the psychic community with a plea to tell us where Chandra was and not merely to play the old game that is the mainstay of their approach. That involves throwing out vague clues like “water” or “the number seven” and then attempting to match them with the facts once they are known—a technique called   retrofitting . (See my   Psychic Sleuths , Prometheus Books, 1994;   Real-Life X-Files , University Press of Kentucky, 2001, 125–126.)

The psychics were all over the place. Since Chandra had looked up a Rock Creek Park site on her computer on the day of her disappearance, some “saw” her still in the park. One felt she was alive, possibly in a Brookline apartment, while another visualized her as dead, “in or near water.” James Van Praagh thought she had been tricked into a car with the promise she “was going to Condit’s.” Sylvia Browne envisioned her “down in a marshy area.” And so on. In fact, Levy’s remains were in the park, on a steep, wooded slope. A dog accompanying its owner on a morning outing sniffed at a site; when the man swept away loose debris, he found a skull and alerted authorities. Not one of the countless self-proclaimed psychics had been able to locate the site.

Neither did psychics show success in identifying Levy’s murderer. That fell to police making use of several witnesses and other evidence, according to an Associated Press story (Brian Westley, “   Arrest warrant issued for inmate in ’01 killing of Levy ,”   The Buffalo News , March 4, 2009). Ultimately, the Levy case amounted to a national test of psychics’ professed abilities. Although some will attempt to claim otherwise, they failed.