Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Psychic Detectives

The Nightclub Psychic

Famous Dutch psychics, while unreserved about telling of their exploits, have proven to be less than truthful.  Gerard Croiset used psychometry and psychic impressions to find missing people and assist in criminal cases.  For more than 40 years, he amassed quite an impressive record, until it was shown that many of his "hits" had come from published accounts in newspapers or were not hits at allso-called guilty people were innocent and psychic profiles did not even come close.

Another Dutch psychic, Peter Hurkos, exploited this method of insinuating himself into cases so that his name would be attached to a case, even if he did not help or was dead wrong.  What mattered, it seemed, was the publicity.  Or so says Henry Gordon, who spent a year investigating Hurkos' cases for Joe Nickell's Psychic Sleuths.

Hurkos even went so far as to ask a skeptical journalist, Norma Lee Browning, to write his biography, and she appears to have bought into everything, citing a 90% success rate in his cases.  However, it's clear that she overstates Hurkos' involvement in some of the cases, and interprets mostly in retrospect, after the facts have become known.  The few risks she takes in offering Hurkos' insights on a case prove to be false or unverifiable.  What Hurkos did seem to achieve by asking her to write about him was to give her an investment financial, as well as her reputationin making him look good, so she may well have accepted much more than she would have had she not entered into the deal.  Colin Wilson, too, accepts many of the claims in his book Psychic Detectives, without investigating them beyond face value.  Yet on the other hand, Henry Gordon dismisses Hurkos outright without giving him his due; he did seem to see some things about people that he could not have known.  The truth about Hurkos probably lies somewhere in the middle.  He had an uncanny gift but he wasn't as good as he (or others) claimed.

Hurkos had a dramatic story to tell about how he initially became psychic.  In 1941 at the age of 30, he fell off a ladder in the Netherlands while painting a house and survived a four-story plunge.  He'd hit his head on the ground below and suddenly he found he had psychic powers, especially the ability to read a person by being in close proximity or touching an object associated with that person.  He visited the United States in 1956 under the sponsorship of a research society (who eventually fired him) and decided to remain.  He became a regular celebrity, offering psychic readings to Hollywood stars and going onstage.  Among his accomplishments by 1969, he listed his success in solving 27 murders in 17 countries.

One of his high-profile cases was the series of crimes attributed to a serial killer dubbed the Boston Strangler.

Between June 14, 1962, and January 4, 1964, 13 single women in the Boston area were victims of either a single serial killer or several killers. At least 11 of these murders were thought to be victims of a single person, with two added later.  Within 10 weeks, six were killed, the first four within 27 days, then two were killed in the same month, August, nine days apart. All were elderly.  A second wave began in December, with two dead, and not again until the following September, then November, then January.  These women were younger than the first six.  There were also two more elderly women in the spring of 1963.

All of these women were murdered in their apartments (except for one in a hotel room), had been sexually molested, and were strangled with articles of clothing.  With no signs of forced entry, the women apparently knew their assailant(s) or, at least, voluntarily let him (them) in their homes or failed to lock their doors.  Most of these women led quiet, modest lives, although one was involved in sexual research.

Of the 11 official stranglings, six victims were between the ages of 55 and 75.  Two possible additional victims were 85 and 69 years of age. The remaining five victims were considerably younger, ranging in age from 19 to 23.

At the suggestion of the lead investigator, the task force invited Hurkos into the case.  Two private groups paid for Hurkos services and expenses.  He was a difficult person, they later contended, and ultimately was arrested for allegedly impersonating an FBI agent (which his biographer asserts was a political move to discredit him).

Hurkos did identify a suspectone whom the task force had investigated. The suspect was a door-to-door shoe salesman with a history of mental illness.  Hurkos chased around the city, trying to prove that this man was the killer and ultimately confronting him.  However, there was no evidence to link the shoe salesman with the murders.  Eventually, the man committed himself to an institution.

The task force's credibility suffered from its association with Hurkos, but even after Albert DeSalvo confessed to the crimes, Hurkos maintained that he had the right man and the police were being fooled.  While it has become clear in recent years that DeSalvo may have falsely taken credit, it's nearly as clear that more than one person was responsible for the killings.

Then in 1969, Hurkos was asked to consult on another series of crimes, this time in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Seven young women had been abducted and killed near the campuses of Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan, and the killer appeared to be eluding the police.  Fear had turned to panic in the community, so a citizens group called the Psychedelic Rangers decided to act.  Archie Allen, one of the leaders, went into negotiations for Hurkos services.  The psychic had requested $2500, plus traveling expenses, so the group sent out a plea for money.  They received only a few donations, which amounted to $1010.  Hurkos was initially insulted (not mentioned by his biographer), but then agreed to come for the cost of his travelperhaps because it was a high profile case, and any success could only boost his career.  He arrived on July 21, 1969.

His method was to hold pictures of the murder scenes in closed envelopes, reciting reconstructions of the murders in remarkable detail.  (In a book about him, the author claims he went to the grave of a victim, and then went off into the woods and pinpointed the murder sites and how the victims were found, but given how far apart the crime scenes were, this is unlikely.)  Several officers commented later that he had turned them into believers, particularly the one who was accurately told that he had a gas leak in his camper.  However, many of the facts that Hurkos provided had already been published in newspapers.  A clever person could have boned up on all of that.  In fact, on July 14, before Hurkos arrived, a reporter from the Detroit Free Press had gone to California where Hurkos lived with photos of the victims, a map of the area, and some articles of clothing that had belonged to the victims.  He might have filled Hurkos in.

Several times, Hurkos insisted he could solve the case within the next day or two, only to recant.  He gave them a name, but it was just one more suspect to investigate.  He said the killer was a genius who was playing with the police.  He also called him a sick homosexual, a transvestite, a member of a blood cult, a daytime salesman, and someone who hung around garbage dumps.  He said the killer was about 5 feet 7, blond and baby-faced, 25 to 26 years old, and 136 to146 pounds. (In retrospect, after the killer was apprehended, Hurkos' biographer changed some of these observations to more accurately fit the suspect.)  Hurkos said that the killer drove a motorbike and went to school at night.  He was also associated in some way with a trailer.  Hurkos thought the murder count would reach nineteen.  It was now a battle between larger-than-life adversariesthe killer and Hurkos--and he assured the public that, as a representative of the good, he would triumph.

Two days after arriving, Hurkos received a call warning him to leave or be responsible for another murder.  Hurkos then received a note that sent him on a wild goose chase and raised everyones hopes, but indicated only that someonepossibly the killerwas taunting him. 

On July 27, Hurkos went on television and predicted that an arrest was imminent.  He hoped the killer was listening, because he was going to describe him.  Now he changed the description to a man who was six feet tall and had dark brown hair.

Then another young woman, Karen Sue Beineman, disappeared and this put pressure on Hurkos to deliver.  However, a photo of her gave off no vibrations, although he believed that something bad had happened to her.  He predicted that her body would be found by a roadway named Riverview or River Drive, and in fact it was found several days later in a ditch alongside Huron River Drive.  That was about one mile from where Hurkos was staying, as if in challenge.

Upon hearing of the bodys discovery, he hit his face and said, Her face was beat, beat, beat.  It was wrinkled, like a monkey face.  He described the disposal site accurately, but still could not name the killer.  When taken to the site, he didnt experience much in the way of vibrations, but said the man he saw was not an American and that he was associated in some way with a ladder.  That was all he could envision.

One account holds that a girl came to Hurkos hotel at 1:30 a.m. one night, and in the presence of three police officers, said that she felt her boyfriend fit the description.  She hesitated to give much information, but finally said that this name was John Collins and he rode a motorcycle.  However, there is no indication that the investigation of Collins was prompted by such a report, although it could explain the dramatic change in Hurkos description of the killer.

Hurkos biographer claims that he also led police to the wig shop where the last victim was seen getting on the motorcycle, but there was no mention of this by the police or newspapersor the witness.  In fact, it was the missing girls roommates, not Hurkos, who had alerted police to the fact that she had gone to pick up a wig.

The next day after the bodys discovery, Hurkos left the city, vowing to come back a week later to wrap up the investigation.  Before he could return, John Norman Collins was arrested.  That same week, the Manson family went on a murder spree in California, and Hurkos visited the murder sites.

On August 9, at the home of Roman Polanski, five people were slaughtered with guns and knives, including the pregnant actress Sharon Tate.  Then one of the killers used blood to write the word "Pig" on a door.  The following night, it seemed that the same perpetrators did the same acts to a married couple, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.  They carved "War" into the man's chest and used blood to write "Death to Pigs" and "Helter Skelter" on the walls.  Then they had a snack before leaving.

Hurkos sat in the room where Sharon Tate and her friends had been murdered, envisioning several perpetrators.  This was correct, but a good profiler or detective could have spotted that fact.  Hurkos saw three men, which was incorrect.  It was three women and one man.

Then Susan Atkins, in jail for another crime, spilled the beans and the killers were arrested, tried and convicted, along with their ringleader, Charles Manson.  In retrospect, Browning says that Hurkos knew about this ringleader, but that's easy to say once an arrest has been made.

Henry Gordon contends that nothing in Hurkos career measures up to his reputation, and it's clear that his supposedly skeptical biographer is not a very good investigative reporter.  Nevertheless, there appear to have been people who attested to a talent Hurkos had to picking up small facts that proved to be correct.  It's just not clear that his involvement in a murder case was crucial to solving it.  It certainly wasn't in any of these cases.

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