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CSICOP Assists in Philadelphia TV Station’s Psychic “Sting”

News & Comment

Joe Nickell

Volume 19.6, November / December 1995

A cleverly conceived and strikingly effective psychic expose was conducted in May 1995 by Philadelphia WCAU-TV’s Herb Denenberg.

A starting point for the investigation was Jody Himebaugh, whose 11-year-old son Mark disappeared November 25, 1991. Although Himebaugh conceded that the likelihood of his son being found alive was very small, more than 100 alleged psychics had contacted him with their visions. He said they typically saw a "dark car,” “the number 5,” or similar “clues” that were never any help. (After a case is finally resolved, the psychics typically interpret their vague pronouncements to fit the actual facts. This is called retrofitting. See my Psychic Sleuths, Prometheus Books, 1994.)

Prompted in part by the Himebaugh case, Denenberg first consulted with CSICOP investigators. Then he and other members of his Newscenter 10 unit went undercover to test the alleged powers of “so-called psychics,” some of whom, the investigative segment announced, “prey on the parents of missing children.”

As the focus of their test Denenberg’s team utilized a 15-year-old named Kate. Although film clips showed her playing softball in her front yard, various tarot card readers and “psychic advisors” — as well as certain 900-number clairvoyants — were told that the schoolgirl had been missing since January.

In response, some psychics saw her experiencing “physical harm"; one collected a fee of $50 for seeing her “confined against her will"; another charged $180 to report that the girl had run away and was "probably pregnant"; and, while one psychic envisioned her only two miles from home, another saw her far away in Florida. Not one among the several psychics ever divined the truth about the teenager — that she was not missing — or about the true purpose of Channel 10’s investigation.

When confronted with the evidence that their psychic powers were inoperative, the alleged clairvoyants chose not to appear on camera. However, a spokesman for “Miss Ruby, Psychic Reader and Advisor,” conceded she should have foreseen the sting operation, and she refunded the TV station’s money.

Denenberg’s investigative report also featured Frank Friel, who has 30 years of experience in law enforcement. He stated that he had never had a psychic provide a valuable clue, and he criticized the alleged seers for their phony offerings, which he described as “catastrophic to the well-being” of the families concerned, and, indeed, "out-and-out fraud.”

Himebaugh said psychics took an “emotional toll” on families. He said he had twice ended up in the hospital suffering from anxiety attacks brought on by psychics’ false hopes.

Whether or not Denenberg’s efforts are successful in retarding future psychic activities in the Philadelphia area, he and Channel 10 are to be commended for a fine piece of investigative reporting — one in which a paranormal claim again fails to withstand the light of scrutiny.

Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.