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Operation Ice Cream Cone

Guerrilla Skepticism

Susan Gerbic

February 10, 2015

This is the second half of the psychic project Operation Bumblebee. This part of the project I named Operation Ice Cream Cone, for no other reason than it made about as much sense as anything else. My goal is two-fold: first to catch a psychic in a hot-read and second to report back in detail to the skeptical community in order to train and encourage others to continue where we left off. If you have not already read about the first part where we went to psychic Chip Coffey’s Los Angeles and San Jose shows then read about it here.

As I left off in the last report, we had been unable to catch Chip Coffey in a hot-read. It is very possible that Coffey does not use hot-reading; he managed to get through his show in our opinion with nothing more than cold-reading tactics. We spent over $900 and months preparing for the two shows we attended, but I decided we would try one more time. This time we were going to use a phone psychic.

We closed down all the fake Facebook pages so that only friends could view them. We dumped people who were not in the project. Then we hid (not deleted) most of the references to us seeing Chip Coffey. Australian Michelle Franklin joined the project and took over a fake Facebook page. We changed names and photos on most of these pages and scrubbed clean our threads and the “about” page for each personality.

I selected Heather Henderson to be the sitter, and once she agreed I took over the Facebook page she had been running, changing the password and email. I didn’t want Heather to know what the specifics of her story were; this was a control so that the psychic could not say he read Heather’s mind. She didn’t know what her own story was.

The next thing we needed to do was to find the next psychic. I wanted this person to be mid-range in price, $200–300 for a half hour reading. We needed it to be someone who was okay with recording the phone call. I wanted it to be someone who has done some TV and claims to have some upcoming “exciting news” happening soon. And they must have a strong Facebook presence. In other words, I wanted someone comfortable with social media and hungry; someone who was busy and willing to take some risks. Not too long of a waiting list. And they must claim to be a medium.

I spent hours going through websites, videos, web searches, and testimonials. Recording and having permission to record was extremely important to our sting, otherwise how would we be able to gather the evidence to prove what we had discovered?

I finally settled on James Van Praagh. He no longer does private phone readings, possibly because of this reading. But Van Praagh does endorse a list of psychics. And if we caught one of these people, I felt that that would say a lot about Van Praagh’s psychic abilities. I narrowed it down to seven mediums and then went into more depth researching them. After reviewing their websites, some seemed very dated; others very professional and current. Some seemed more social media aware with links to Twitter, Facebook, and other common social outlets. Some mentioned podcasts and YouTube; others used words like “tape recording” and wanted to connect only by phone.

After rating these seven, I got it down to two: Joseph Tittel and Tim Braun. Both were running their careers like professionals, everything very modern and social media aware. Braun called us back first, and we accepted.

Though these psychics want you to call or contact them by email or website, I didn’t want to go that route until I had contacted them on Facebook and received a personal response back. I wanted to be sure that they had the opportunity to look at Heather’s Facebook page.

private message to Tim Braun asking for private reading to contact deceased son
response from Tim Braun - he does not use Skype and cannot guarantee particular spiritual contact
post to and response from Joseph Tittel
message to Tim Braun arranging appointment
another message to Tim Braun arranging appointment

It was necessary for us to make Andrew look like a normal thirteen-year-old and Heather like a normal mother. I did not want to give too many details but wanted to bring out his personality and give the medium some interesting things to discover.

Andrew died in September 2010 after being on a cruise in the Caribbean. He had been given a camera for that trip and was enjoying taking photos. He also loved non-traditional pets and had an elderly (widowed) next-door neighbor named Joe who kept snakes and lizards that Andrew thought of as his own. He went to Joe’s house a couple times a day to take care of his pets. We posted photos of these pets along with their names in a photo album on Heather’s page. Dan/Amanda posted a memory of how Andrew loved strawberry ice cream and remembered that he wanted to open an ice cream shop when he grew up.

sailboats in the water
old photo of person walking on beach
person in area full of plants
large reptile

The main story we worked on for weeks was that the next door neighbor Joe had died. Heather was very upset and wondered if Andrew had welcomed Joe to the spirit world. She said she had been having dreams that Andrew wanted to tell her something; she was really worried that they would not find each other. Heather spent the weeks waiting for the reading to happen by helping Joe’s son clean out the house his father had lived in for over forty years. They had garage sales. She also asked if anyone wanted the glass aquariums that the lizards and snakes had lived in—all of them had died years ago and were hopefully there with Andrew (and now Joe).

Facebook post about memories of fabricated deceased son
Facebook post about memories of fabricated deceased son

Finally we had a date, Tuesday November 18 at 4:00 p.m. with Tim Braun. At that point we escalated posting on Braun’s Facebook page, liking his posts and talking to his fans. I sent several more posts hoping to get a response, but really it was just in the hopes he would take another look at Heather’s Facebook page and see all the bait we had left there.

post about reading from Tim Braun

Finally the date arrived. Heather and Emery have a recording studio as they are the hosts of Ardent Atheist and Skeptically Yours podcasts. I had given Heather a script of everything she needed to know, and told her where she could elaborate. She was told to agree to just about anything Braun told her, and sound vague if needed, as she does not know what we have written on her Facebook page.

Heather was wonderful: she cried and laughed and really sounded the part. I have the entire phone conversation here along with a transcript of what was said. Braun started and ended with a meditation for Heather and encouraged her to practice meditation every day for twenty minutes, then she would find that she would better be able to connect with Andrew on her own.

Heather’s mother (who really is dead) and her mom’s sister (who does not exist) came through right away. Braun said that the women were stepping back and letting Andrew come forward. He came through quite clear (Braun said this many times throughout the sitting). He saw him riding his motorcycle or bike out in an open field. Hanging with friends, one special friend Ryan or Brian was mentioned a couple times. Andrew said he was enjoying school now that he was in spirit; he was studying (Braun said he didn’t know what he was studying) but Andrew was making a lot of friends, but missed some that were still alive. Andrew apparently didn’t like school here on Earth, but is sure enjoying it now that he is dead. He can eat anything he wants and it won’t affect his health or make him fat, and he can materialize anything he wants. He is eating a lot of Cool Ranch Dorito chips and burgers.

The messages that Andrew wants to make sure Heather understands are that he misses her, thinks she was a great mother, but Andrew wants his mom to stop smoking (she does not smoke), start reading the books she keeps buying but does not finish, give his favorite bike away that she is holding onto, and she does not have to continue visiting his grave. She should remember him in her heart like his dad does. (Dad is also nonexistent.) Heather was very vague if the father of Andrew was around, so Braun asks “Are you living with the father?” Heather explains “yes, but we don’t get along well these days.” “Well Andrew wants you to cut his dad some slack,” he says, “Don’t be so hard on him, Mom.”

Andrew wants to talk about a tree or trees that have grown really big. Braun isn’t clear if these trees were planted in Andrew’s memory or not. Braun then asks if Heather has another son that is still living. Heather tells him that there is another child named Emery. Braun has a really hard time understanding this name, and eventually near the end of the sitting is calling him Emmerson. (This child is also nonexistent.)

Braun is adamant that Andrew wants Emery to know that he is watching over him, trying to help him out. He wants his mom to start focusing her attention on this remaining son. (The nonexistent son wants his nonexistent mother to start focusing on her other nonexistent son.) There is no vagueness; he says he is clearly talking to them. And there’s no confusion who they are talking to, Heather is the one all the messages are for.

Braun asks how Andrew died and Heather explains that he was hit on the head with a baseball during a game. Braun tells her that there was no pain; except for some reason Braun’s own head is hurting as Andrew explains that he was hit in the head. Also Andrew wants his mom to know that there was nothing she could have done to prevent it and that it was sudden and he didn’t suffer. She should not feel guilty or upset; Andrew reports that he didn’t want to die, but that he is very happy where he is. And when the time comes (years and years Braun assures her) Andrew will be there to welcome her to spirit.

There was no mention of a cruise vacation and Heather asked, as I told her to, about the vacation that they took right before he died. Braun says that Andrew does not seem to want to talk about that. But he mentions that if Heather goes to Florida, Andrew will be there with them.

Braun signed off without trying to get a hook in Heather. Despite that, Heather had agreed to most everything that Braun said; he didn’t aggressively try to get her to return for another reading. He was polite and professional the whole time, encouraging her to seek out grief counseling with a support group of parents who have lost children. He said that if she wanted to call back that would be fine but warned her that his waiting list was two to three months long. He asked her to leave a comment on his Facebook page if she enjoyed the reading and to share it with friends because he was trying to raise his “likes.” I was really surprised how businesslike and professional the whole experience was.

No mention of Joe, or of all the pets that he had. Yet there are at least four dogs in spirit with Andrew. Heather asked if one is a black lab and Braun said he has no idea, only sees dogs. No mention of strawberry ice cream, no mention that Andrew wanted to open an ice cream store when he grew up, in fact no mention of anything that was on the Facebook page at all. Nothing, a total failure of all the preparations we had made for weeks. I’m convinced that there was nothing more we could have done to put that Facebook page under Braun’s nose. Everything he needed to get a hit was clearly located in plain sight if he would have clicked on the links.

So again, just like with the Chip Coffey event. We way over prepared. We were careful and detailed. In the end we proved that in the cases of Coffey and Braun, neither used Facebook to get a hot-read, at least this time. I don’t think it was because they were “on to us” or suspicious in any way. I personally think that either they don’t ever hot-read or they didn’t in these cases. I think that there is no reason for them to bother. It is much, much easier to cold-read throughout the readings. Braun kept to general statements that you would think are fairly universal about a thirteen-year-old boy. He didn’t like school, rode a bike, misses his mom and friends, loved junk food and dogs. What more do you need? That fits just about every male thirteen-year-old living in America today.

We didn’t catch either psychic medium in a hot-read. We lied in both operations, which some skeptics seem very concerned about. We gave over a thousand dollars to psychics and some people have asked “Where is the sting?” And all of the above are true. I stand by our work and am happy to address all of these concerns if asked. As far as the sting, yes there hasn’t been a sting yet. It’s going to take some reporter somewhere to contact the psychics and get their side and then report back, and that is going to make one great story.

Susan Gerbic

Susan Gerbic's photo

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. You can contact her at SusanGerbic@yahoo.com.