The owners of a Texas ranch raided by police based on a psychic’s bogus information about a massacre have sued the psychic, winning a $6.8 million judgment.

The case began on June 6, 2011, when a psychic using the name “Angel” (later determined to be a woman named Presley Gridley) called police and described a horrific scene of mass murder: dozens of dismembered bodies near a ranch house about an hour outside of Houston, Texas. There were rotting limbs, headless corpses and, chillingly, children in a mass grave.

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Deputies from the Liberty County Sheriff’s office went to investigate and soon dozens of officials from the Texas Department of Public Safety, the FBI and the Texas Rangers were on the scene — not to mention cadaver dogs, news helicopters and gawkers.

It all turned out to be a false alarm. There were no dead bodies. The psychic was wrong — or lying. Though the incident became a national embarrassment, police refused to apologize, saying that procedures were followed and that the severity of the claims warranted an investigation. Whether a tip comes from an ordinary citizen, an anonymous informant or a self-proclaimed psychic, information about mass murders cannot be ignored.

Suing the Psychic

The ranch owners, Joe Bankson and Gena Charlton, were not so understanding and filed a lawsuit. According to the Houston Chronicle, “A self-described psychic who triggered a media frenzy when she told authorities a Liberty County couple had a mass grave on their property has been ordered to pay the couple $6.8 million. A Dallas County judge issued the judgment May 7 against Presley “Rhonda” Gridley, the sole remaining defendant in a lawsuit filed a year ago.”

Other defendants originally named in the suit included six major media outlets, as well as the police, though claims against all the others were dropped. The lawsuit blamed the sheriff’s office for repeating Gridley’s claims to reporters, and stated: “Over the course of the day, media defendants began to exaggerate and eventually make up facts about Plaintiffs, including that a mass grave existed on the property, including the bodies of children.”

District Court Judge Carl Ginsberg found that Gridley had made defamatory statements about Bankston and Charlton when she falsely reported the massacre to the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office. Ginsberg found that Gridley’s statement injured the reputation of Bankston and Charlton, exposing them to public hatred, ridicule and financial loss. The plaintiffs stated that their house was trashed in the police raid, and that they had lost friends as a result of the psychic’s false claims.

That a psychic gave police wrong information about a serious crime is unremarkable. In fact, following high-profile missing persons cases, police often receive dozens or even hundreds of tips from psychics. Psychic information often wastes police departments’ time and resources following up on false leads. 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. Psychics have consistently failed to find missing persons, including high-profile disappearances like Natalee Holloway and Holly Bobo, the Tennessee woman abducted in April 2011 who remains missing despite efforts by dozens of psychics.

Sometimes the information scares and inconveniences the public as well. In 2004 a psychic told the TSA that a bomb was aboard a Dallas-bound American Airlines flight. The psychic’s bomb report resulted in a search by the TSA and Port Authority police. Despite a thorough examination with both equipment and bomb-sniffing dogs, nothing suspicious was found. Yet the flight was still cancelled.

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The case brings up interesting issues about responsibility for providing accurate information to police. Making a false report of a crime is itself a crime in many places, though prosecutions tend to be rare unless it’s a costly and blatant hoax. Part of the reason is that police don’t want to discourage potentially helpful tips from the public. As the famous post-9/11 slogan says, “If you see something, say something.” Because real terror threats are rare, by definition most reports of suspicious packages and activities are false alarms. Police don’t want to prosecute people who sincerely suspect something is amiss, but they also don’t want to waste time and resources on hoaxes and misinformation.

A psychic forced to pay damages for providing false information is unusual, and may cause psychics to think twice about making claims they can’t back up. Many psychics advertise their services as simply entertainment. But there’s nothing entertaining about a false report of a massacre on someone else’s property.

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