Bad Science

Psychic Devastates Dead Student's Family

psychic powers
Families of missing persons sometimes consult psychics when they feel the police aren't doing enough. (Image credit: © Benjamin Haas |

Harsha Maddula, a Northwestern University pre-medical student from Long Island, N.Y., went missing Sept. 22, last seen leaving an off-campus party in Illinois. Police and volunteer searchers were unable to find him, but Maddula's family said reassuring words from psychics had raised their spirits.

Apparently, psychics contacted by the Maddula family's relatives in India said Harsha was okay and would be found: "He's still alive. Don't worry.'"

The next day, however, Maddula's body was found in Wilmette Harbor near his dormitory. He'd been dead for nearly a week, hidden from searchers in the water between two boats. There was no sign of struggle, robbery, or assault; though toxicology tests are still underway, police believe he was likely the victim of an accidental drowning.

This is only the latest of many cases where grieving families of missing persons have been given false hope by psychics. Despite the failure of psychic detectives to locate missing people, desperate families often turn to psychic and soothsayers. [Top 10 Unexplained Phenomena]

It happens regularly: grieving families hoping psychics will recover their missing loved ones are always disappointed. Still, even if they don't believe in psychics, they conclude that nothing else has worked, so there's no harm in trying.

Indeed, as a news article on Michigan noted, the mother of a missing woman will be seeking advice from a nationally-known psychic next week: "The mother of Venus Stewart, who has been missing since April 2010 and is presumed to have been killed by her estranged husband, has been invited to appear on the syndicated talk show 'Dr. Phil,'" according to The news article went on to say the mother Therese McComb of Colon, Mich., would fly to Los Angeles next week to tape the show, which will air in November. On the show, famed psychic John Edward will try to contact Stewart's spirit to possibly get information about the whereabouts of her body.

"I'm desperate' to find Stewart's body and have closure," McComb said. 'This is about a desperate mother. That's what it is," she added.

If Edward can lead police and the McComb family to where Venus Stewart is, dead or alive, it would be the first time it's happened. Instead of leading police to missing persons, psychics typically offer vague feelings and impressions, and contradictory, fruitless "information."

In high-profile cases, hundreds of different psychics often give hundreds of different opinions about where a person is; sadly none of the information leads to their recovery. As McComb said, these are the actions of desperate mothers, those who have nowhere else to turn. Yet, however well-intentioned the psychics are, grieving families deserve truth instead of misinformation and false hopes. 

Those who listen to well-known psychics on daytime TV shows should note famous psychic Sylvia Browne's appearance on "The Montel Williams Show" in which she told the parents of missing child Shawn Hornbeck that their son was dead: kidnapped and killed by a very tall "dark-skinned man," his body would be found in a wooded area near two large boulders. In fact, Hornbeck and another boy were found very much alive January 16, 2007, in the home of Michael Devlin, the Caucasian man who'd kidnapped them. Every detail of Browne's psychic vision was wrong.

At least the anguish of being wrongly told their son was dead faded when Shawn Hornbeck was found alive. Sadly, the same did not happen for Harsha Maddula's family, told by psychics that he was alive when he was not.

Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of six books including Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His Web site is

Benjamin Radford
Live Science Contributor
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is