Playing with Hope - Psychic Detectives

By Alex Ballingall

Even though Jason Jolkowski has been missing for nearly a decade, his mother still receives regular phone calls from people who claim to be psychic. They tell her they can find out what happened to her son, that they can reveal the answers she so deeply craves.

“This one said he's alive. This one says he's dead. This one tells you these visions of a brutal murder,” says Kelly Jolkowski from her home in Omaha, Neb. Once, a psychic even guaranteed he could tell her what happened to Jason – but only if she paid $25,000.

Jolkowski says such psychics re-victimize families by exploiting their hope and desperation for a solution. She also believes they can impede legitimate police work by giving the public the impression that investigations are under control.

When she hears what psychics have to say, she calls it nonsense. When they come asking for money, she calls it fraud. In both cases it’s harmful, she says.

“It’s like, how dare you? How dare you play this game?”

In October 2003 Jolkowski founded Project Jason, an organization that helps families in the aftermath of having a loved one go missing. After experiencing this herself, Jolkowski now encourages people to be skeptical of psychics when faced with a similar crisis.Jason was 19 when he went missing

“Early on, we didn’t know any better,” Jolkowski says. “You’re so numb that you can’t even think straight. And in addition to that you’re just so desperate. It’s like you’ll do anything to find your child.”

Jolkowski says what usually happens is that people claiming to be psychic either collect fees from families desperate for answers, or they “consult” them for free to boost their own credibility and fame.

Of the hundreds of cases she’s familiar with, nearly all of them involve a psychic in one way or another. “Especially a case that has a lot of media, they'll come out of the woodwork,” Jolkowski says.

The result, she says, is never anything more than more anguish and uncertainty for the families of missing people or murder victims. She adds that she’s never seen any scientifically reliable evidence to suggest psychic abilities have ever been responsible for solving a crime or finding a missing person.

And yet, there are countless self-proclaimed psychics in North America who claim to be able to do just that.

Sarnia psychic sparks local controversy

One of them is a “psychic criminal profiler” from Sarnia, Ont. called Robbie Thomas. His website boasts that he has “successfully assisted” police in both murder and missing persons cases.

It also displays a statement written by the aunt of Tori Stafford, the nine-year-old girl form Woodstock, Ont. whose body was found more than three months after she was kidnapped and murdered in the spring of 2009. It expresses gratitude for Thomas’s support during the family’s harrowing experience.

A spokesperson – who went only by the name Tom – from Thomas’s office confirmed the psychic had “consulted” the family during their ordeal.

But Thomas’s opponents say they don’t believe in his skills. One man calls himself “the Sarnia Skeptic,” and conceals his true identity to provide evidence that Thomas isn’t a real psychic. If he was, says the Skeptic, then Thomas would be able to identify him.

“I’m not out to destroy Robbie as a person, I just want him to change his ways,” says the Sarnia Skeptic.

The tension between Thomas and his opponents has even stirred up some controversy in the lakeside city. During one of Thomas’s speaking events held last March at Sarnia’s Imperial Theatre, a rumour erupted that there were men handing out white, unmarked envelopes filled with anthrax to people entering the venue. The theatre doors were locked and the police called in.

A local salesman named Dave Jones was one of the men handing out envelopes that night. “There was no assault, no anthrax,” he says. Instead, the envelopes contained instructions on how to trick people into thinking you’re a psychic.

Family 'distraught' by psychic

As an example of this, the Sarnia Skeptic points to the decades-old unsolved murder case of 14-year-old Karen Caughlin. The girl’s family, which has been working with the Ontario Provincial Police to keep Karen’s case in the public eye since she was killed in 1974, lashed out at Thomas after he claimed to be involved in the criminal investigation.

In a letter provided to the Sarnia Skeptic and published on his blog, Karen’s sister Kathy Caughlin describes how Thomas approached the family in 2005. She says he told them Karen’s case would be solved within six months.

That was six years ago.

“Imagine how we felt when he said that?” says Kathy Caughlin, who now lives in Calgary. “We weren’t just upset, we were completely distraught.”

Thomas also tried to get the family to sign a waiver that would allow him to talk about Karen’s life in one of his upcoming books, Caughlin says.

Even though they turned him down, Thomas kept citing Karen’s unsolved murder case in the promotional material for his upcoming speaking tour. He also repeatedly took down information posters about Karen’s case and placed them in his office to increase his credibility, says Caughlin.

“We want this man to stop exploiting our dead sister and the horrific manner in which her life was ended,” she says.

Critics say 'psychics' disrupt real investigations

One of her main worries expressed in the letter is that by claiming to be using his psychic abilities to solve Karen Caughlin’s case, Thomas was impeding the ongoing police investigation.

Jolkowski echoes this concern, saying that when psychic investigators claim to be involved in missing person or murder cases, they can give the impression that everything is under control. That may dissuade people from coming forward with tips, or it could make the investigation seem less urgent.

“We always have to fight to keep a case alive and to keep people looking no matter what,” Jolkowski says.

Thomas eventually removed all mentions of Karen Caughlin’s unsolved murder case from his website, according to John Ramses, Thomas’s former business partner. But for Kathy Caughlin, the anger and pain she says Thomas caused for her and her family is inexcusable. Caughlin maintains that if Thomas ever mentions her sister’s name again, her family will sue him.

According to his spokesperson, Thomas was too busy for an interview. When invited to answer to his critics, he didn’t respond.

But Angie Aristone, a self-titled psychic from London, Ont., was willing to speak on the record. She says there are a lot of fake psychics, and that it’s heartbreaking to hear that psychics can add to a family’s trauma in a difficult time.

Aristone admits to having worked with such families in the past, but says she would never approach a family if they weren’t ready and willing to hear from her.

“It doesn’t get any worse than that. That’s like human exploitation at its deepest and darkest level,” Aristone says.

Police rarely use psychics

Although people like Aristone and Thomas mention having worked on murder and missing persons cases, most police organizations say they have never used psychics in their investigations.

Wes Veenstra, a veteran missing person’s detective from the London Police Service, says he takes any tip he can get, regardless of who provides it. Through his entire 35-year career, he’s never heard of any investigation in which a psychic was used.

“I couldn’t qualify it as being scientific,” he says.

Staff Sgt. Doug Warn of the Sarnia Police Service expressed similar experiences, adding that his organization doesn’t ever use psychics like Thomas in their investigations.

“We have to be able to justify every fact in court,” Warn says. “Our job is to deal in facts.”

Still, many families do speak with psychics, usually out of desperation, Jolkowski says. She describes how she felt tremendous pressure from those around her to accept psychic readings after her son disappeared. She says this comes from how many people are uneducated about the implausibility of psychic abilities.

“There's all the influences of the media and TV shows,” she explains. “I've actually had people insinuate that I was a bad mother and I didn't care about my son because I would no longer have anything to do with the psychics.”

Jolkowski says there’s also an aspect of guilt that causes people to turn to psychics for a solution to their pain. No matter what one believes, says Jolkowski, there’s always the hope that the next psychic may be on to something. Maybe this psychic is for real, maybe this is the one with the real answers – or so the logic goes, she says.

“You’re always kind of haunted by that,” she adds.

But now, just a few months before her son Jason’s 30th birthday, no self-proclaimed psychic has ever been able to help her figure out what happened to him. Much like Kathy Caughlin, Jolkowski sees psychics as nothing more than deceptive profiteers of the desperation of families in crisis.

She says psychics either give you false hope where there is none or kill hope when it should be there.

“No one has the right to do that,” she says. “No one."


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Out of the Dark: The Ghost Hunting Chronicles is a blog providing detailed investigations of the Out of the Dark team, paranormal news and editorial.

It will also feature the past investigations of paranormal investigator and author John Savoie.