Claims of psychic visions are common in high-profile cases of missing persons.
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The search for a missing 11-year-old California boy came to a tragic end recently when the body of Terry Smith Jr. was found. The boy's mother reported him missing July 7, and his body was found three days later not far from his home in the rural town of Menifee, according to news reports.
A woman named Pam Ragland, who claims to have psychic or intuitive powers, is being credited by police and others as having located the boy through her visions, according to news reports.
Driven by recurring visions of the boy, a distinctive home and a tree, Ragland searched the area where the boy was last seen, and to her surprise, found a home and tree matched those in her visions, even though she lived 60 miles away and had never been there. Ragland and her children searched the area and discovered Smith buried in a shallow grave near the tree.
The case is strange and intriguing, but not unexplainable. Clues to solving the mystery may lie in psychology and statistics.
Because Ragland had never met the Smith family nor been to their property, how could she possibly have recognized their home from her psychic visions? The answer is simple: She very likely saw it on television. Ragland stated that she had been following the extensive news coverage about the missing boy, and that she had her first visions while she was watching a news report about the search for Smith.
Television reports included photographs and video footage of the Smith home and property, and whether or not Ragland remembered paying attention to those images, she had indeed seen the Smith property before she arrived there.
Therefore the fact that a house and tree in her vision "matched" the house and tree where Smith was finally found is not surprising, and merely evidence of her not remembering where she saw an image, not psychic powers.
Psychics or statistics?
Why would Ragland suddenly get a (correct) vision of Smith's location? She has stated believes that she and her children are "intuitive" and that the senses, ideas and intuitions that come to her are meaningful and important.
In high-profile missing persons cases, it is common for police to be inundated with hundreds or thousands of visions, hunches, and feelings from psychics, most of which are contradictory and all of which turn out to be wrong. Despite popular belief and claims to the contrary, there is not a single documented case of a missing person being found or recovered due to psychic information.
Like Ragland, many psychics state they genuinely believe in their powers and abilities, and are sincerely trying to help. Over the course of many missing persons cases and tens of thousands of visions and predictions, eventually a few of them will turn out to be correct simply by chance.
In this case, however, Ragland's chance of correctly guessing where Smith's body would be found was much better than pure chance.
It is a statistical fact that most homicide victims, including children, are killed by a family member. There are exceptions, of course, but the odds are good that a missing or murdered child will be found in or near the family home. Given the profile of the alleged killer, reported to be Smith's 16-year-old half-brother, it's likely that the boy's body would be found near where he was last seen (the family's home), and not, for example, hundreds of miles away.
Pam Ragland could not have known this, of course, but police and searchers had already identified the Smith property as among the most likely places where Terry Smith Jr. might be found. In other words, Ragland's visions of the Smith house, which likely came to her through TV news reports instead of ESP, happened to also be the most likely place where Smith would be found.
It's also worth noting that Ragland's visions of Smith were, by her own account, wrong. She described a young boy lying on his side with his eyes closed: "I couldn't understand why he wasn't moving," she said in an Associated Press interview. "He had his eyes closed, but I just thought he was sleeping."
Yet her vision of a peaceful sleeping boy was wrong; instead what she and her children found near a tree on the Smith property was described as a blackened, bloated head with half of the nose and an eye missing.
Ragland did not show up at the Smith property by random chance, nor psychic vision. Instead, after driving to the town of Menifee where the search command center was located, she met an off-duty fireman who volunteered to drive her around the area. Ragland may or may not have known that the property they were visiting was that of the Smith family — where she would soon recognize the scene from her 'visions' or news coverage — but her fireman guide certainly did.
Once Ragland and her children were on the Smith property, it may have been the smell of Smith's decomposing body, not a psychic vision, that located the corpse. Ragland's daughter Sydnee found the boy's body while investigating the stench, according to reports.
There remain many unanswered questions in this case, including some about Ragland's role in Smith's recovery. Police, quite understandably, have investigated the possibility that she might have had some role in the disappearance.
Yet there is another, more likely option: Ragland is neither psychic nor involved in any crime, but simply someone who unknowingly mistook a television news scene for an intuitive vision, and whose instincts correctly told her where a missing boy was statistically most likely to be found — and eventually was.
Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of "Skeptical Inquirer" science magazine and author of six books including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries" and "Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking." His Web site is http://www.BenjaminRadford.com.