Psychics break hearts

Posted: May 25, 2005 12:00 AM

"I was a little out of my mind, you know, with desperation, and all I wanted to do was find her."

 I understand why Kathy Kupka felt that way: Her younger sister had disappeared, and when police found no sign of her, Kupka suspected her sister had been killed.

 She put up a huge billboard offering a $25,000 reward. Soon, psychics began calling her with messages from beyond -- beyond the credible, that is. They said things like, "I know where your sister is."

 Kupka says she got phone calls urging her to contact Sylvia Browne, one of America's most famous psychics. Browne's Web site says, "Visiting here explains the Meaning of Life." Browne claims that she can talk to the dead and they tell her where they are. So Kupka managed to get on a TV show on a day when Browne was doing her stuff. "I was so super-hopeful," she said. "I was like, oh, that's it, we're definitely going to find her."

 On the show, Browne quickly said Kupka's sister was dead in New Mexico -- and communicating to Browne.

 Back in this world, police investigated Browne's lead. It was a phantom.

 "It was so devastating," Kupka told me. "Desperation makes you do things that reasonable people don't do."

 ABC News asked Browne to talk to us about this. She agreed but then backed out at the last minute. She had told us she solved thousands of cases. But several years ago, a magazine examined 35 of Brown's "cases." It couldn't find proof she'd solved any of them.

 At least Browne didn't ask Kupka for money. Nor did the next psychic Kathy tried, Karl Petry. But he did take her to a hazardous-waste facility and tell her that her sister was inside a manhole.

 Kupka says police checked this lead out, too, and found nothing. Petry says the body must have washed away.

 ABC News went to another psychic, Kathlyn Rhea, who some police officers say has helped them find bodies.

 Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, suspects that something a little less magical than psychic powers is producing the officers' enchantment. "They simply are misremembering the hits and the misses," he says. (Browne claims on the Web to have predicted Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston's marriage wouldn't last. Wow. What a gift of prophecy! How could anyone have expected that? And how many things did she -- and we -- predict that never happened? People tend to forget those.)

 "The psychics go to the police department," says Shermer. "They give lots and lots of statements. 'I see the body in a -- body of woods, some water, a railroad track, and so on.' When the body is finally found, they retrofit the statement to see how it fits with what actually happened. So, 'Oh, yeah, that psychic said something about a railroad track.' Yeah, but the psychic also said something about 100 other things."  Often psychics say, the body is "near water," but water can mean an ocean, stream, puddle, bathroom, underground pipe, or most anyplace. If the body is found by a puddle, someone might say, "Wow, the psychic said 'near water.'"

 Rhea claims she finds missing people all the time -- sometimes three or four a week. The FBI maintains psychics have never helped solve a single missing-person case.

 Rhea charges a fat fee. ABC News managed to get a special, low price: $1,800. Rhea explained to Kupka and the private investigator Kupka hired that Kristine had been murdered. Rhea was confident that she knew where Kristine's body was. Rhea told us to go 30 miles north of Kristine's old neighborhood, looking for a road that branches off like a Y, something that looks like a country church, and something with the letter S. We tried to follow her instructions, using map companies, contacts with police, and numerous trips, but it turned out there were hundreds of Y's and V's in the road and all kinds of signs with S's. We were stumped. When I complained to Rhea about that, she said, "What do you want me do, the leg work?" Facing yet another useless "psychic vision," Kathy collapsed into tears.

 "My heart just fell," said Kupka. "I was like, she doesn't know."

 Psychics don't know. But they do break hearts.