Inside the Secret Sting Operations to Expose Celebrity Psychics

The idea of talking with the dead is one of those stubborn hopes that’s difficult for a culture to move beyond. Famous skeptics like Harry Houdini left precise instructions with his wife and friends as to just how he would reach out, if it were possible, after his death. Stanley Kubrick, in talking about his movie “The Shining” with Stephen King, confessed that he found optimism in stories about the supernatural. “If there are ghosts, that means we survived death,” he explained.

Gerbic got into the sting racket because of her mentor, James Randi, the famous skeptic who started his career as a magician, the Amazing Randi. After he began busting paranormal con artists as a hobby, Randi won a MacArthur grant that he leveraged into a variety of different venues, including annual ship cruises filled with skeptics, called the Amazing Adventure. On a 2009 voyage to Mexico, Gerbic met Edward, who was on board as the skeptics’ entertainment.

Edward himself is a mentalist and claims no powers other than to entertain. He once posed as an undercover clairvoyant to infiltrate the Psychic Friends Network, which became popular as late-night infomercials that offered psychic readings over the phone in the 1990s. For another Psychic Friends spinoff radio program, he climbed the heights of the organization and became the backup to the show’s Master Psychic. Edward wrote a book about his clandestine life as a medium, “Psychic Blues.”

After they became friends, Gerbic and Edward found themselves griping to each other that skeptics had become too much of a closed group, too often just patting each other on the back. Skeptics’ groups, Gerbic told me, “always seemed to be bogged down by bureaucracy and rules,” and she really wanted “to do something and stop talking about it.”

Then Edward happened upon a new way to lure people into the realm of reason. Instead of just busting psychics outright, he focused on helping the audience members discover the ruse. Edward was at a 2009 show featuring a giant of the business, Sylvia Browne, who was performing at the Gibson Amphitheater in Los Angeles, hosted by the TV celebrity Montel Williams. At the time, Browne was making a comeback from a few psychic catastrophes. Browne told Lynda McClelland’s daughters that their mother, who had disappeared, was alive and in Florida. Later, McClelland’s body was found near where she lived in Pennsylvania. Browne also predicted that an 11-year-old named Shawn Hornbeck in Missouri had been kidnapped by a brown-skinned man in dreadlocks and was dead. Then Hornbeck was found alive — kidnapped by a white guy with tedious hair.

During the Q. and A. session, Edward managed to get to the microphone. He told Browne he was possessed by spirits, fell into a trance and started to name them: “Lynda McClelland!” On YouTube, you can see Browne barrel onward, even as Edward pretends to collapse, and move to the next audience member with startling speed.

One day, at a skeptics’ meeting in 2011, Gerbic and some others realized that Sylvia Browne was just down the street. They decided to sabotage her show but with a slight twist. They couldn’t guarantee getting someone to a microphone; instead, they just handed out cards to people entering the show. The cards said nothing more than “Shawn Hornbeck” and “Lynda McClelland” — the idea being that for some audience members, a little curiosity and Google would handle the rest.