Psychic detective claims are among the most difficult and time-consuming to investigate; for example I spent about 18 months investigating and solving the “best case” for psychic detectives as claimed by Skeptiko podcast host Alex Tsakiris. In my over 15 years of investigations I’ve covered many dozens of claims of psychics and psychic detectives. Of those, about a half-dozen stand out as being particularly interesting or intriguing–not just yet another psychic making dubious claims, but some novel twist that at suggests a closer look is needed to understand what’s going on.
This is one of those cases:
Ten-month-old Lisa Irwin went missing October 4, 2011, from her home in Kansas City, Missouri, and was presumed to have been kidnapped. The case attracted nationwide attention, sparking an Amber Alert and several massive searches including of neighborhood and a nearby Kansas landfill–twice.
Weeks came and went without an arrest, clue, or even a suspect. Enter Stephanie Almaguer, a woman in Dallas, Texas, who claims to be psychic. Almaguer said that information about Baby Lisa’s death came to her in a vision, and she sketched the area she saw in her vision. That sketch was later circulated to the family, police, and volunteer searchers.
About a week later dozens of volunteers searched for Baby Lisa in an area roughly described by Almaguer, in some woods near a closed casino about two miles from her parent’s home. They found nothing, and the psychic “turned abusive.”
Almaguer was described by many news media outlets including Fox News as having helped in the case. Doug Magditch of KDAF-TV described Almaguer’s involvement in the case-and a strange twist:
“Psychic Stephanie Almaguer says she had an ‘out-of-body’ experience, showing her where to search Lisa Irwin. The day Baby Lisa went missing, Almaguer says she had a vision. ’All of a sudden I felt like I was there,’ said Almaguer. She put pen to paper drawing everything she saw, and posted it on her blog. ‘If I don’t put it on there and it is important, I may have helped keep somebody lost,’ said Almaguer. Then, something… unexplainable: ‘The things that I posted, came to happen. The names, everything,’ said Almaguer. The things Almaguer saw exist in Kansas City. ‘It’s amazing. You feel like, ‘Wow, this baby may be found,’ said Almaguer. The post convinced a few dozen people to search the area Saturday. ’I didn’t tell these people where that place was. They told me based on what I had given them,’ said Almaguer.”
Even though everyone admits that the psychic information was wrong (four years later Baby Lisa remains missing) Almaguer and others insist that there must be some validity to her powers because otherwise how could she, without leaving her Texas home, have accurately described the Kansas City area the volunteers searched? Isn’t this proof of psychic powers?
At first glance it does seem remarkable. But what Magditch considers “unexplainable” and Almaguer considers “amazing” is in fact exactly the opposite if you understand what happened: Almaguer, after hearing about the case, had a vision about where the missing baby might be and drew what she saw in her dream. After Almaguer made the sketch from her vision public, hundreds or thousands of people saw it via her Web site, Facebook page, and other Web sites devoted to missing persons and finding Baby Lisa. Some of those people who were trying to be helpful took Almaguer’s rough sketch and looked for potential matches in and around Kansas City, where she was last seen. Almaguer’s description is very vague (including “some kind of tall structure,” “an old crumbling concrete slab foundation,” a “hidden drain or culvert,” etc.) and could match literally hundreds of locations in the region.
Of course Almaguer’s information roughly “matched” a location described, photographed, and sent to her by one of her correspondents (where the searchers later looked)-that’s the reason it was sent to her in the first place! It’s like posting a photo of your uncle online and asking anyone to send photos of people who look like your uncle; then being astonished when, out of the thousands of potential responses, a few of them look like your uncle. This is quite aside from the niggling detail that searchers who went to the location Almaguer sketched in her vision found absolutely nothing.
While it’s easy to point out that a psychic was (once again) wrong, the fault is not entirely hers. After all, unlike many psychics Almaguer did not actually misdirect police and searchers to the wrong location. She never claimed to know the specific physical location of Baby Lisa–only to have a rough idea of what the area where the baby might be found might look like (she also cautioned that the features on her sketch may be “symbolic” and not literal, which should confirm the uselessness of her information to those desperately searching for a structure which may or may not be tall in fact, but is “symbolically” tall). The matching of Almaguer’s visions to any real location was done by well-meaning but misguided locals, and of course she happily accepted the match as validation of her powers.
Instead of accepting any responsibility for the misinformation, Almaguer insisted that she’d been right all along, posting on her blog that “Some of the media has crucified me, lying about what really happened at the search. The searchers found a well that described images I’d sketched, exactly in the spot (described area) I’d indicated.” (Actually, that’s not true; according to Magditch of KDAF-TV, “Almaguer did not see the well in her vision.”)
She also complained about “all the lies, gossip, and hatred surrounding not only me/my participation in trying to help in the Baby Lisa Irwin case, but the hatred towards even my family/children….because people believe [I] was lying about the baby’s whereabouts to gain cheap publicity.”
Police said that this is not the first bogus psychic information they have gotten about Baby Lisa; all the others provided bad information as well. High-profile psychic failures are nothing new. Despite claims to the contrary, there is not a single documented case of a missing person being found or recovered due to psychic information. And despite Almaguer’s obvious failure in finding Baby Lisa, she insists she is doing a public service and will continue to provide psychic information about missing persons.
Despite the fact that Almaguer’s involvement in the Baby Lisa case was an unqualified failure, many news reports of the case used headlines like “Psychic Helps in Baby Lisa Search.” Since many people don’t read past the headlines, that will likely be the impression that the public gets, instead of the more accurate headline: “Psychic Completely Fails in Search for Baby Lisa.”