Once upon a time I was obsessed with the American version of the psychic crime show Sensing Murder. Gloomy and elegiac, the episodes perfectly mirrored my outlook during the show’s initial run—trapped in a loathsome employment situation and beset by romantic strife, I fantasized about the carefree life of a TV psychic. My fondest wish was to travel the country in a modern-day version of the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine, stopping only long enough to rendezvous with grizzled homicide detectives and dispense closure to grieving families. No nagging bosses, no office politics, just crime solving on the open road—it would be like heaven, but with more crime scene photos.
I should make clear, incidentally, that I’m not a great believer in the existence of extrasensory perception; like many people, I’ve had one or two odd experiences that have left me open to the possibility, but I’m also aware that the average psychic’s greatest gift is not an ability to predict the future but a willingness to hornswoggle the desperate and the gullible. (Yes, Sylvia Browne, I’m talking about you.)
Despite my skepticism I adored Sensing Murder’s two featured psychics, Pam Coronado and Laurie Campbell. Supremely unpretentious, they reminded me of the women in my mother’s social circle in the late 1970s—professors’ wives who discussed Third World art in homey kitchens stocked with an infinite variety of herbal teas. I’ve always found the lack of guile and vanity in the post-hippie crowd comforting, and the casual wardrobe and plain-spoken attitude of Sensing Murder’s stars eased my niggling suspicion that most mystics are money-grubbing hucksters. These were women I could trust—to continue my Scooby Doo analogy, were they cruising aboard the Mystery Machine, both Coronado and Campbell would be beloved nerd girl icon and diehard knee-sock enthusiast Velma Dinkley.
Although I was vaguely aware that some of Sensing Murder’s crimes had since been solved I hadn’t given the show much thought in recent years until the all-knowing Netflix algorithms suggested Sensing Murder as a match for my morbid viewing tastes. I decided to revisit the two episodes in which the crimes have been definitively solved—Desperate for Answers and Prairie Predator—and see whether my unwavering faith in the integrity of post-hippie women of a certain age is valid or misplaced.
In the interest of science I’ve decided to discount all information, both correct and incorrect, that was common knowledge at the time of taping. The victims’ descriptions and causes of death could have been gleaned from past media accounts or a skillful cold reading of investigators’ responses—even the best poker players have tells. While re-watching the episodes I was interested only in the proffered descriptions and motivations of the perpetrators—information that at the time was completely unknown. The results were depressing, although not exactly surprising; let’s put it this way—if Pam Coronado and Laurie Campbell are traveling the open road in search of crime scenes
their Mystery Machine had best come equipped with a GPS.
Desperate for Answers
In the early morning hours of December 21st, 1997, free-spirited Boulder resident Susannah Chase was found mortally wounded in an alley near her home, her incandescent blond hair matted with blood. After an argument with her boyfriend the twenty-three year old University of Colorado senior had embarked on the ten-block walk home from a nearby pizza restaurant; she was within forty feet of her tidy brick bungalow when she was viciously bludgeoned, dragged into a vehicle, and dumped approximately a block away. Although a rape kit detected unidentified semen investigators were uncertain if Susannah been sexually assaulted during the commission of the crime, as she was fully dressed when discovered.
At the time of filming, Susannah’s murder had been unsolved for nearly a decade.
Pam Coronado’s pertinent information:
-police had already spoken to the killer
-the killer had a connection to the University of Colorado
-the killer was approximately Susannah’s age
-the motive was drugs or money, and the killer believed Susannah was stealing from him
-the crime was not precipitated by rape; the mystery DNA came from a “hookup at a party”
-the killer’s guilt was known by his studious roommate who wore glasses
-the killer had squabbled with Susannah over a TV
-the killer drove a dark sedan from the late ‘80s/early ’90s
Laurie Campbell’s pertinent information:
-sees stacks of money associated with the crime
-the killer had previous trouble with the law
-the killer drove a darker car that’s not new
-the killer has dark hair, a thin build, and a chemical imbalance
-Susannah’s death was part of a conspiracy
Resolution: In 2008 the foreign DNA from Susannah’s rape kit was linked to Diego Alcalde, a Peruvian national and long-time sexual predator; his girlfriend’s DNA was present on the baseball bat used in the crime. Alcalde had twice been arrested for assaulting women in the weeks after Susannah’s death, and his DNA had been swabbed while he was serving a ten year sentence for kidnapping in Wyoming—the victim in that attack, like Susannah, was a diminutive blonde.
On June 26th, 2009, Alcalde was sentenced to life without parole in the Colorado penal system.
Pam Coronado’s accuracy: although she correctly opined that the killer was close in age to Susannah, absolutely every other conjecture was false
-at the time of filming the police had not yet spoken to Alcalde
-Alcalde had no connection to the University of Colorado
–Alcalde, twenty-seven at the time of the crime, was close in age to Susannah, age twenty-three
-Susannah did not know Alcalde, and thus there was no drug involvement and he didn’t believe she was stealing from him
-the crime was in fact a sex crime, and the assertion that Susannah had engaged in a random encounter with a stranger was false (and borderline libelous)
-it is unlikely Alcalde had a bespectacled roommate with knowledge of the crime, as if such a witness existed he would have been subpoenaed to testify at trial
-as Susannah and Alcalde were strangers, they clearly hadn’t squabbled over a television set
-Alcalde did not drive a dark sedan from the late ’80s/early ’90s; at the time of the crime he owned a 1979 Datsun 280Z, a bright blue compact
Laurie Campbell’s accuracy: Campbell correctly prophesized that Susannah’s killer had dark hair and a criminal record, and her description of his car as “darker” and “not new,” while more nebulous than Coronado’s prediction, was closer to the truth
-there were no stacks of money associated with the crime
–correctly predicted that Alcalde had a criminal record; his first arrest for sexual assault occurred in 1995
–correctly predicted that his car’s bright blue paint job was darker than many shades on the visual color spectrum, and was “not new”
–correctly predicted that Alcalde had dark hair, although he’s of medium instead of thin build; if he has a chemical imbalance it has never been diagnosed
-Susannah’s death was not part of a conspiracy, as she and Alcalde were strangers
Post Mortem: Due to both psychics’ dogged insistence Susannah knew her killer the show’s narrator states detectives plan to reinvestigate Susannah’s peripheral social circle, an inarguable waste of law enforcement time and effort.
Both psychics’ assertions regarding Alcalde’s motive were baseless, leading me to believe they had no special insight into the crime whatsoever. The few morsels that the psychics did guess correctly, such as the perpetrator’s age range and hair color (dark—not brown, not black, but simply “dark”—as is approximately 80% of earth’s population) are so broad as to be laughable. Had the detectives put out an APB for an early-twenties dark-haired male of indeterminate race in a car that is “darker” and “not new,” they’d be driven from law enforcement by the ensuing global derision.
On July 30th, 2003, Angela Kristin Lee, age twenty-two, was found beaten and strangled in her home in the rural hamlet of Gillespie, Illinois; her son Deyton, age four, was present during the crime but unharmed. The young mother had no known enemies, her body bore no indicia of sexual assault and nothing of value was missing from the crime scene. Unable to determine a motive, the police investigation was at an impasse.
Pam Coronado’s pertinent information:
-Angela knew her killer and trusted him
-Angela was slain by a single assailant
-the killer had dark hair, and was of medium build and average height
-the killer was Angela’s age or a little older
-the killer drove a full size, light colored pickup truck
-the killer was familiar with the neighborhood
-the killer grew up on a farm
-the killer is a kid no one would suspect
-the killer didn’t tell anyone, is too afraid of getting caught
-the killer’s motive was revenge and jealousy
Laurie Campbell’s pertinent information:
-the killer has dark hair and bigger build
-there is a connection between Angela and her killer; the crime was not random
-the killer is someone Angela knew
-the killer is a rough type of person who favors mesh baseball hats (as opposed to fitted chapeaus)
-the killer has a connection to agriculture (although she admits agriculture is the prominent area industry)
-the killer is a “creepy” loner
-no one would be surprised when the identity of the killer is revealed
-the killer has a narrow face
-the killer outweighed Angela
Resolution: On November 12th, 2008, Anthony Ashby pleaded guilty to the first degree murder of Angela Kristin Lee. Ashby was implicated in the crime when the barrel of his gun—seized during an unrelated arrest—was found to contain Angela’s DNA; a piece of broken screw discovered at the crime scene also perfectly matched a broken half-screw on the gun’s grip. Ashby and Angela Lee were apparently unacquainted, and although Ashby has never revealed the motive for her murder the prosecutor dropped home invasion and burglary charges in exchange for his guilty plea, thus implying that Angela was slain in a residential burglary gone awry.
At the time of the crime Ashby worked at Cavallo Bus Lines, a transportation company located across the street from Angela’s home. The night before the crime Ashby’s coworkers saw him skulking around the Lee residence, and on the night of the murder he was spotted fleeing the scene at approximately 9pm in his blue Chevy Blazer. Ashby, age twenty-nine, was subsequently sentenced to thirty-three years in prison; he is eligible for parole in the year 2040.
Pam Coronado’s accuracy: she correctly guessed Ashby’s age range, familiarity with the neighborhood and lack of an accomplice, although all other assertions were false or unconfirmed
-Angela did not know or trust her killer
–correctly predicted Angela had been slain by a single assailant
–correctly predicted Ashby was approximately Angela’s age (he is one year older than Angela)
-at 6 feet tall and 235 lbs. Ashby is tall and strapping, not medium height and build; although Ashby’s goatee indicates his hair is chestnut brown his head is shaved in every available photo, although his follicular status at the time of the crime is unclear
-Ashby drove a blue Chevy Blazer, not a full size, light colored pickup truck
–correctly predicted Ashby was familiar with the neighborhood
-whether Ashby grew up on a farm is unclear; as an adult he worked in several commercial industries and had no connection to agriculture
-“a kid no one would suspect,” does not adequately describe Ashby; the fact that his gun was seized during a separate crime indicates further criminal conduct
-Ashby had apparently confessed to at least one person, his wife, although whether this admission occurred before the show aired is unclear
-Ashby’s motive was not revenge and jealousy, as he and Angela were strangers
Laurie Campbell’s accuracy: she correctly guessed the killer would have a “bigger build” and outweigh Angela, but otherwise her predictions were inaccurate or unconfirmed
–correctly opined Ashby has a bigger build; whether his hair was “dark” or nonexistent during the commission of the crime is unclear
-there was no connection between Ashby and Angela; the crime was random
-Ashby was not in fact someone Angela knew
-Ashby’s affinity for mesh baseball hats is unknown
-as an adult Ashby had no connection to agriculture
-whether Ashby presents as “creepy” is a matter of opinion, but at the time of his arrest he was married, and thus could not be classified as a loner
-some people were very surprised when Ashby’s identity was revealed—namely his parents, who acted abominably during the court proceedings
-Ashby does not in fact have a narrow face; his face is oval
–Ashby did outweigh Angela Lee, a petite woman
Post Mortem: Again, neither psychic gave law enforcement a scintilla of helpful information—the allegation that Angela knew her killer was inarguably harmful to the investigation, as it encouraged detectives to concentrate on Angela’s social circle, which did not include Ashby.
The knowledge that the killer was in his twenties, had (presumably) dark hair and outweighed his female victim is comically broad; pretty much every adult man in America weighs more than a slender woman, and in photos Angela Lee appears quite svelte. Also, as previously stated, approximately 80% of the earth’s population has dark hair (and it’s unclear if this proclamation was even correct—Ashby’s head may have been shorn during the commission of the crime). Although such predictions are technically accurate they did absolutely nothing to aid law enforcement in the search for Angela’s killer.
Alas, it’s clearly time to have my bullshit meter recalibrated; my faith in Sensing Murder’s psychics was woefully misplaced, and now I’m consumed with a burning question—do Coronado and Campbell truly believe they’re blessed with second sight, or are they consciously playing the odds? Statistically speaking, most murder victims know their attackers; and since most of the population has dark hair, it stands to reason that most murderers have dark hair. Men in their 20s are more violence-prone than older men, and 99% of automobiles on the road would fall under the rubric of “not new.” If you gave these predictions for every cold case in existence chances are at least one conjecture would prove true in virtually every crime.
Despite the death of my dearly-held dream of piloting the Mystery Machine whilst Coronado and Campbell lounge in the back weaving macramé and singing oldies, I do have some psychic predictions I’d like to share with you. Somewhere, as I type these words, a murder is occurring. The killer is a man, and his hair is not ginger. He’s wearing some type of garment, probably pants, and he has an affinity for cotton fabrics and cold beverages. His vehicle, as you may suspect, is categorically “not new.”
All merriment aside, it’s disheartening the families of Susannah Chase and Angela Lee had their grief exploited and their time wasted. Even more egregiously, every single minute the police spent chasing the baseless leads Campbell and Coronado provided was funded by the taxpayers’ dime—the alleged psychics got valuable publicity from the show and everyone else got the shaft. Many people deserve an apology for Sensing Murder’s transgressions, and not just the folks who paid ten bucks for the DVDs on Amazon.
Years ago—watching enraptured as Campbell and Coronado gallivanted through crime scenes and hobnobbed with homicide investigators—I believed the one thing holding me back from a free-wheeling career as a TV psychic was an unfortunate lack of psychic ability. I was wrong. The one thing holding me back from a career as a TV psychic is my human decency, and being wrong has never felt so right.