I'm willing to give Noreen Renier the benefit of the doubt when it comes to honesty. Maybe she simply isn't as gifted as she thinks she is, and is sloppy when it comes to doing follow-ups.
I first realized that Browne was full of it when I watched her give a past-life reading on Oprah. A woman in the audience wanted to know why she had a phobia of leaving beverages unattended for even a few minutes, and Browne casually informed her that she had been poisoned in her former life as an Egyptian "high priestess". Then came the kicker: "I know because they poisoned me, too. I was the high priestess right before you were." How amazing, then, that they would end up in the same Illinois TV studio on the very same day! I wonder why Browne didn't pick her successor out of the audience right away to share some old times? "Hey, you, remember when we were both murdered in ancient Egypt? Wasn't that da bomb? Whatcha been doing lately?"
- She solved the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. She actually was interviewed by the FBI, but the only suspect she could describe was "Salzeman", perhaps a reference to Emad Salem or Mohammad Salameh (if you're charitable). However, Salameh had been arrested 12 days prior to her interview.
- Saddam Hussein wouldn't live to see his trial.
- She predicted 9/11. She didn't, and the information she put on her website on 9/12 wasn't accurate either; it contained names of organizations and weapons that don't even exist.
- Clinton was falsely accused in the Lewinsky scandal.
- Bill Bradley would win the 2000 presidential election. He didn't even make it past the primaries.
- Bush would bring the troops home in 2007. Not one of the predictions she made in '06 was accurate; she actually advised people to buy property because it would be going up in value. Her predictions for '08 weren't any better; she said the auto industry would improve thanks to the introduction of new hybrids. At least she was smart enough to avoid making any stock market predictions.
- During one of several appearances on Larry King Live, Browne claimed to be working on numerous criminal cases, including one with Detective Stephen Xanthos of the Rumson, New Jersey, police department. She said she was getting ready to close the case. Xanthos turned out to be a former policeman and former P.I.
- She cracked the case of a serial rapist in San Francisco in the '80s. The extent of her participation was declaring the man's last name began with S.
When Browne is questioned about a missing or deceased loved one, she reacts almost instantaneously to whatever information is provided, as though her mind and the Great Beyond are in a neverending teleconference. This can't even be called cold reading; it's just wild-ass guessing. A woman says she has lost her mother and Sylvia automatically offers a statement that can't be refuted: "She was a beautiful woman." If she's wrong, is this woman going to admit on national television that her mother wasn't beautiful? Probably not. It's the safest possible statement Browne could utter. But sometimes this hairtrigger response doesn't work in her favour, and those occasions are very enlightening. During a taping of Montel, a tearful young woman with a New York accent rose to tell Sylvia that her boyfriends's body hadn't been found. Quick as a flash, Browne told her, "That's because he's in water...you can't find somebody in water". The woman looked puzzled, and for good reason: Her boyfriend died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. How did Browne get out of this one? She didn't. She continued to insist she could "see" the firefighter in water. "Is there any way he could have drowned? He says he couldn't breathe and he was filled with water." Finally she grasped at her last straw: Perhaps water from the fire hoses drowned him in the rubble.
Maybe this kind of mistake could be overlooked, if it hadn't happened again and again on Montel (and elsewhere). Just a few examples:
- The parents of a 17-year-old girl named Michelle asked Browne how she had died. "She was shot," Browne replied without hesitation.
The mother's brow furrowed. "But...she just collapsed in her room."
Again, Browne simply refused to admit any margin for error. She said something had hit Michelle in the chest. Told that the autopsy had revealed no external injuries, she snapped, "I don't care. Something hit her in the chest." I suspect she lost a few fans that day.
- In 2004 the mother of missing teenager Ryan Katcher was invited on Montel to consult Browne. 19-year-old Ryan vanished in 2000. A friend said he drove Ryan to his parents' Oakwood, Illinois home after a party and helped him lay down on the living room sofa, but by morning he was gone. His truck was also missing. Browne listened to the whole account of his disappearance, then explained that Ryan aspirated some of his vomit. Panicked, two friends dumped his body in "a metal shaft of some kind", somewhere across the state line (Linda Katcher had already told her they lived near a state border). A third friend took the truck.
In 2006, Ryan's truck was discovered at the bottom of Kickapoo State Park Pond. Apparently, he had driven himself to the area while still intoxicated and accidentally drove into the water. He drowned.
- The mother of 12-year-old Weyman Robbins asked Browne how her son died. He had been found dead in the backyard of his home in 2002, a bandana around his neck. Though the death was suspicious, investigators declared it a suicide. Browne declared that he had accidentally asphyxiated while playing the "choking game" with three other boys, and the boys didn't want to step forward.
In the end, private investigators hired by Misty Robbins found the killer: Her own brother, who had been living with her for seven years.
If there's anything worse than telling parents their child is dead, it's offering false hope to people that their missing loved ones are alive. As mentioned in Part I,
- On a 2001 Montel, the daughters of Lynda McClelland asked Sylvia what happened to her. Lynda disappeared from her home in Forest Hills, Pennsylvania in 2000, shortly after visiting with her daughter Amanda and Amanda's husband, David. Browne instantly announced that Lynda was still alive, which sent Marcie into tears. Browne went on to say that Lynda had gone crazy, and was taken to Florida by a man with the initials M.J. She advised the young women to check all the mental health facilities in Orlando. Two years later, David Repaskey (Amanda's husband) told an acquaintance that he had been having an affair with his mother-in-law. When she threatened to tell Amanda about it, he strangled her and stomped on her throat until she was dead. He and friend Donald Wall, who were both involved in a burglary ring, then buried Lynda on a hillside close to the home of David's grandmother. She never had a chance to go to Florida.
- As mentioned in Part I, Browne told the grandmother of missing 6-year-old Opal Jennings that Opal had been sold into white slavery and was still alive in a nonexistent place called "Kukouro or Kukoura", Japan. One year later, Richard Lee Franks (a sex offender with no known ties to white slavery or Japan), was convicted of kidnapping Opal. Three years after that, the little girl's body was found roughly 13 miles from her grandparents' home. She had been murdered within hours of her abduction.
- In 1995, 23-year-old Holly Krewson went missing from La Mesa, California. In 2002, Brown told Gwendolyn Krewson that her daughter was working as a stripper in Hollywood, California. In 2006, the body of a Jane Doe found near Descanso in 1996 was finally identified as Holly's. Sadly, Gwendolyn had died three years earlier.
Knowing her track record, another of Browne's Montel guesses seems almost as unconscionable as her location of missing people. A woman (incidentally, the same one who was told her mother was "beautiful") asked Browne what her mother had been trying to tell her as she lay dying in hospital. "This is not easy to tell ya, but your father is not your father," Browne said. She didn't appear to find this difficult to say.
Despite all these disastrous errors, a few fans of Browne have tried to rehabilitate her public image by posting video clips of notable successes. In one instance, she supposedly helped a woman locate a ring owned by her late sister. She also guessed that Chandra Levy would be found in the park where she was last seen.
Browne's biggest mistake, from a PR point of view, involved the disappearance of Shawn Hornbeck. The boy's mother and stepdad, Pam and Craig Akers, turned to Sylvia Browne in their desperation. The 11-year-old had gone missing the previous year, en route to a friend's house, and there were no clues to his disappearance. On a 2003 Montel, Browne solemnly informed the Akers that their son had been murdered by a Hispanic-looking man with dredlocks. His body was in a wooded area about 20 miles southwest of their Missouri home, near two boulders. When she heard this news, Pam Akers lowered her head and began to sob. She had always held out hope that her son was alive. "Hearing that was one of the hardest things we've ever had to hear," Craig Akers said. Hornbeck was found three years later, living in the apartment of the man who abducted him. Michael J. Devlin is not Hispanic and never had dredlocks.
This miss attracted a huge amount media attention, and may have been more damaging to Browne's image than any other colossal mistake of her career. Her days as a psychic detective are effectively over.
Still, she tried to save face. Asked by the producers of CNN's 360 with Anderson Cooper to provide documentation that she had actually solved hundreds of cases, as she claims, Browne provided little more than two testimonial letters from people to whom she had given psychic readings over the phone. One was from Sharon James, a woman who paid $700 to ask for Browne's help in finding her missing son in 2003. She was assured that the young man was living in Tennessee, suffering schizophrenia. Two years after James wrote the letter, her son reappeared. He had not lived in Tennessee at any time, and had no mental illnesses.
The second most damaging error of Browne's career was made on the January 4-5, 2006 broadcast of the paranormal radio show Coast to Coast AM. Soon after rescuers reached the 13 men trapped in West Virginia's Sago mine and it was reported that 12 of them were alive, Browne informed host George Noory that she had known all of the miners would be found. "That's what I said," Browne told Noory, without a hint of surprise in her voice.
Noory accepts his guests' stories of alien abduction, time travel, and Bigfoot encounters, but even he couldn't let Browne's comments slide a short time later, when it was learned the reports had been in error: 12 men died, only one survived. He bluntly asked Browne to explain herself. Rather than give herself a graceful out by explaining that her powers are far from perfect, she actually tried to convince the listeners that she had correctly predicted the deaths. "I said they would be found. I didn't say dead or alive." Well, of course people trapped in a mine would be found. Who needs a psychic celebrity to tell them that?
How has Browne gotten away with this for so many years? For one thing, people are reluctant to criticize Browne because she cloaks her psychic ability in the language of religion, referring to it as a gift from God. Her publicist calls her a "spiritual teacher" and a humanitarian. It's far easier to criticize a psychic detective who says "I find stuff" than it is to criticize one who says, "I was sent by God to help you." Nonetheless, some brave souls have confronted Browne's nonsense over the years. Robert Lancaster started the website Stop Sylvia Browne, which contains many negative testimonials from people who paid for Browne's phone readings. James Randi urged her to take his Million Dollar Challenge to prove her psychic abilities (she initially agreed, then backed down with a long string of flimsy excuses).
As for law enforcement, conspiracy theorist Ted Gunderson (known for his outrageous and entirely insupportable statements about Satanic crime) is one of the only former law enforcement agents to provide a testimonial for Browne, calling her "probably one of the most accurate psychics in the country."
Sadly, he could be right.