Self-styled psychics, tarot card readers and pet communicators are offering their skills to help locate Laci Peterson, the expectant Modesto mother who was reported missing Christmas Eve.
In a case involving a $500,000 reward and widespread national media attention, some may seek money or notoriety, law enforcement officials said. Others are genuinely trying their best to help.
Of the 1,400 tips that Modesto police say they have received, at least 100 have been from people holding themselves out as psychics, said officer Matt Lengel, who is working the police tips line.
The Bee also has received dozens of tips. They range from the potentially useful to the bizarre. One speculated that Peterson was carrying an alleged clone baby that was the subject of news reports last week, after a religious sect claimed to have created the clone.
Another urged investigators to contact Sonya Fitzpatrick, whose show, "The Pet Psychic," appears on the Animal Planet cable television network.
Federal and local law enforcement officials were nearly unanimous in saying that information provided by psychics was either too general for use or simply inaccurate.
The FBI received dozens of letters from psychics regarding the Yosemite-area sightseer slayings in 1999. None of that information was helpful in tracking down Cary Stayner, who was convicted of the killings, said Frank Scafidi, a special agent based in the FBI's Sacramento office.
"There was not one shred that was even close," Scafidi said. "Nothing was on point. Nothing was of any value."
Scafidi said that in his 19 years with the FBI, he has never seen psychics brought in to work cases, but noted that other law enforcement agencies have enlisted help from psychics.
"Psychics essentially have about a 50 percent chance of being right," said Kelly Huston, a spokesman for the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department. "If it's a psychic that knows the general techniques of intuition and piecing together the parts of a puzzle, they may appear to be accurate. But a good detective can often come up with the same accuracy of a psychic."
Law enforcement officials said diligence requires them to follow up on leads, but noted that time could be wasted tracking down frivolous psychic claims.
"We, as a routine, don't look at psychic information until other leads are exhausted," Modesto police Detective Jon Buehler said. "If we have viable leads from witnesses, statements and things like that, we have to explore those first. But we don't discourage anybody from calling in."
U.S. government has had experience
Others are not as skeptical of psychic abilities.
U.S. defense agencies spent millions of dollars from 1975-95 on a technique dubbed "remote viewing," which is the use of psychic ability to perceive distant objects or people, said Jessica Utts, a statistics professor at the University of California at Davis.
Utts was part of a two-person team hired in 1995 to evaluate the program's laboratory work.
A Defense Intelligence Agency summary made public in 1995 said U.S. officials had employed remote-viewing psychics to try to uncover Soviet submarine designs and Chinese nuclear testing.
Utts said the bulk of the operational material on the program was still classified.
In her report on the laboratory program, Utts wrote: "Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well-established. The statistical results of the studies examined are far beyond what is expected by chance."
In the tests, the remote viewers were able to accurately describe hidden objects one-third of the time, Utts said Friday. Statistically, people would have been able to guess the objects about one-fourth of the time, she said.
"The data convinced me," Utts said. "I still don't know what the explanation is. I definitely thought it was something that couldn't be explained by normal means."
The other member of the review panel, Professor Ray Hyman of the University of Oregon, concluded that the mathematical study did not prove that psychic functioning had been demonstrated.
Joseph McMoneagle, one of the original remote viewers recruited by the Army, said he and his colleagues were not always accurate, but they were able to track down hostages and downed airplanes.
The program was disbanded partially because of the stigma associated with psychics, he said.
"Everybody wanted to use it, but nobody wanted to be caught dead standing next to it," McMoneagle said. "There's an automatic ridicule factor. 'Oh, yeah, psychics.' Anybody associated with it could kiss their career goodbye."
McMoneagle said he helped find missing people for law enforcement agencies in Washington, San Francisco, New York and Chicago, but said confidentiality agreements with the agencies would not allow him to go into specifics.
"Everybody is so quick to ridicule it, and I understand that," McMoneagle said. "Ninety-eight percent of the people are kooks."
Bee staff writer John Coté can be reached at 578-2394 or firstname.lastname@example.org.