PSYCHIC STEALING 

The doors of perception opened to loss and deception when Sister White gave a reading

Most experiences with psychics, whether at a psychic fair or a psychic house party, are fun, droll, hopeful, but likely viewed as a lark -- not something that might worm its way into your head and fester like gangrene. The experience of Tina and her mother was not a lark.

One day in May 1997, 19-year-old Tina found a flier on her windshield. "Sister White," it read. "Psychic Readings. Advice on Business, Marriage and Love Affairs. Bring your problems to me -- I will help solve them." The flier, which featured small pictures of an open red palm and a disembodied hand holding a set of playing cards, gave an address on Butler Hill Road in South County. Tina had never been to a fortune-teller, but the flier intrigued her. It had been just three months since her father, only 43, had died suddenly of a heart attack -- and Tina was still searching for an answer, hoping someone could pull back the curtain and explain. She went to see Sister White. At first, the visit was unremarkable.

"I felt comfortable," she recalls. "The office was neat and carpeted. There was a big-screen TV in the waiting area." Sister White -- a small woman in her early 50s with dark hair and dark eyes -- appeared. There were open sores on her face and neck, about the size of quarters, as if the skin had been chafed with sandpaper. "We went into a backroom, and she took my hands and gave me a reading," Tina says. "It lasted 15-20 minutes. (It was) nothing exciting."

Tina then told Sister White about her father and asked the fateful question: "Is my dad all right?"

At this point, says Tina, Sister White's demeanor took a turn. "She said she got a "bad feeling' about my father. She said he had been cursed by somebody our family knew, someone jealous of him. She kept saying "curse' and that our family had been put under a spell. I was mesmerized and scared by all this. I wondered if this was another side to why my father passed away." The woman told Tina she needed to bring in her mother to "talk about this curse." She was emphatic about that. But Tina's mother, Kathy, 42 years old and newly widowed, was not keen on talking to a psychic about her dead husband.

Tina won out, however, and two days after Tina's initial visit, mother and daughter went back to the neat modern office on Butler Hill Road. Kathy went in by herself while Tina stayed in the waiting area. In the course of her reading, Sister White again gave dire warnings of a curse on the family. But this time, she got specific: The curse was on her husband's lifetime earnings -- once he had reached $500,000, a "deadline" would be met, and he was destined to cash out. Permanently. But the curse was still in effect, explained Sister White, the money still tainted. Unless something was done, Kathy and her daughters would suffer the consequences. It would tear them apart.

Over the next two months, Kathy would become intimately involved with Sister White. She began going on her own, as many as a dozen times, more frequently than even Tina knew. "She would come home very upset, scared to death," recalls Tina. "She cried every night."

One day, Tina says, Sister White told Kathy to come into the bedroom in the rear of the office. She instructed Kathy to remove her clothing and lie on the bed. Kathy did. An egg, a cloth and some other things had been placed on a dresser. Sister White rolled the egg around on Kathy's abdomen. She talked of removing the bad spirits that had collected inside Kathy. Then, says Tina, Sister White took the egg -- which, like a superabsorbent paper towel, had supposedly sopped up all the icky psychic residue -- and "when she cracked it open, there was black stuff inside."

Other exercises that Sister White required of Kathy included stuffing as much as $2,000 cash in her clothing; sleeping with large amounts of cash in her bed; and collecting a picture of her husband, along with his work clothes and shoes, and burying the items in the frontyard with the shoes facing the house. That was two years ago. As far as Tina knows, the mundane talismans are still there.

THE CITY OF ST. LOUIS DOESN'T TOLERATE SISTER WHITE or any of her mystic cohorts. Interestingly, lawmakers validated psychic activity long ago by prohibiting it. The city's "Seer Law," city ordinance 15.86.010 (circa 1912), actually prohibits "foretelling knowledge of future events of another's life or affairs." Violating the ordinance is a misdemeanor offense.

Thanks to the ordinance, all practitioners of the "crafty" arts hang their shingles (neon signs, in some cases) outside the city limits. And although it's likely that many are doing business, by word-of-mouth and personal reference, a check of the Southwestern Bell Yellow Pages under "Psychics & Mediums" shows 33 listings. Most are national hotlines with a get-acquainted 800 number leading to a pay-per-reading 900 number. Among these are celebrity-endorsed psychic readers, including LaToya Jackson's Psychic Network, Connie Francis Love Enhancement Psychic Line and Brigitte Nielsen's Witches of Salem: "Talk live to authentic witches. If you enjoy talking to psychics, you're ready for the next level. You're ready for witches."

Six years ago, then-28th Ward Ald. Dan McGuire tried to repeal the ban on fortune-telling in the city. "Some constituents wanted to operate a pushcart at Union Station," he recalls, "selling horoscopes, and when they went to get a business license, they were told, "Sorry, you can't do that.'" McGuire says he didn't see the harm in such an enterprise, and he attempted to persuade his fellow aldermen to permit a bit of harmless chicanery. It was not to be. Says McGuire, now director of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Forestry, "Some of my Catholic colleagues were quite opposed to lifting the ordinance, (Ald. Michael) Sheehan in particular, and the proposed repeal was voted down."

If you call yourself a parapsychologist, you can get around the ordinance. The Rev. H.B. Woolcock, 88, a "God-Sent Man from Jamaica" who claims to have a Ph.D., has kept offices on North Grand since 1956. Judging by the lingo in his regular ads in the Evening Whirl, he offers the same sorts of services as would a psychic: "Are you becoming uninterested in THIS LIFE? UNHAPPY MOST OF THE TIME? Do you know the CAUSE? Do you feel at times that there are STRANGE forces holding you back? Do you "see things' "hear voices' or feel haunted by the DEAD?" But the Rev. Woolcock's approach seems to be more Norman Vincent Peale -- "Power of Mind, Rightly Directed," his motto -- than the mystical stylings of a Sister White or even a Papa George, the Haitian worker of spells who routinely advertises in this newspaper. The upshot of all this is that the Rev. Woolcock has a St. Louis business license for his Parapsychological Counseling Service.

Of the local practitioners listed in the phone book are several who claim to be "genuine," "92% accurate" and "nationally recognized." Given all of these claims, how does one go about shopping for a psychic? All there is to go on are their business cards, promotional brochures and ads in such New Age fishwraps as Pathfinder. And such variety! To be truly flummoxed, try to taxonomize today's hodgepodge of mystic dilettantes. The veritable Pandora's Box of characters includes intuitive consultants, psychic readers, astrologer/psychics, tarot readers, iridologists, numerologists, stone wrappers, aura readers, psychometrists and medium/ channelers. To further complicate matters, a strand comprising disparate practices and beliefs -- hypnosis, miracles, Sufism, angels, shamanism, UFOs, therapeutic massage, feng shui, Morris dancing -- seems to run through it all like some cosmic twine.

There are the touchy-feely, bathed-in-light, ultrasensitive psychics who work out of New Age salons such as Mystic Valley and Pathways. ("I can't talk to you anymore," one flustered woman uttered during an interview. "My energy doesn't blend with your energy.") And then there are the old-school, evil-eye, fortune-teller psychics, the ones with the sign of the red palm out front who usually employ titles -- often quasi-religious -- such as "Madam," "Sister," "Reverend" or "Mrs." before their surnames. Members of the Adams family -- no, not Gomez and Morticia; that's the Addams Family -- fall in this category, police say. Among these Adamses is Laura Adams, who as Sister White preyed on Kathy and Tina.

This Adams family has been locally active as psychics at least since 1975, when Dorothy Adams was arrested for attempted theft by deception. That case was dropped when the victims declined to pursue prosecution. She was arrested again on the same charges a year later; again, the victim or victims declined to press charges. But in 1985, after a nine-month investigation by undercover officers, four psychics operating out of their St. Louis County homes were rounded up, and this time the charges stuck. The arrested psychics were telling people they had problems or conditions that they really didn't have, from hexes to cancer, then accepting payment for "solving" these problems. According to news accounts at the time, one victimized family had paid one of the fortune-tellers about $1,000 for her services. "One daughter, who had complained of headaches, was told that she had cancer, which would be cured if she paid $150 and bathed in salt water," the St. Louis Post- Dispatch reported.

Three of the women who were arrested were members of the Adams family: Dolly Adams, who did business as the Rev. Mother Taylor on Page Avenue in Pagedale; her daughter, Theresa Adams, who did business as the Rev. Mother Tina on Natural Bridge Road in Bel-Ridge; and the irrepressible Dorothy Adams, operating as the Rev. Hilton in a big white house on Watson Road in unincorporated St. Louis County, just west of the St. Louis city limits. Though boarded up and vacant these last 14 years, the property on Watson -- now a pigeon hotel -- is still registered to Dorothy Adams in High Pointe, N.C.

It's unclear how Laura Adams, who declined numerous invitations to comment on this story, is related to the other Adams women, but police are confident "Sister White" is part of the large group of affiliated, and sometimes nefarious, fortune-tellers. "It's almost like a big network," says St. Louis County Police Detective Kevin Cavanaugh, who was in on the Sister White bunco investigation from start to finish. "They're all intermingled, but it's hard to say who's into who." Paul D'Agrosa, the lawyer who represented Laura Adams, also isn't sure how all the Adamses are related. "I don't even to this day understand the relationship, whether they're related by marriage, by blood or both."

Madam Mae, a longtime palmist in the Wellston Loop, was no fan of the Adamses. "Granny used to call them up and curse them out -- she could curse like a sailor -- for stealing her cut," says Phyllis, Mae's granddaughter, who has taken over the business since the passing of Mae in 1989 at age 92. A "cut" was what Madam Mae called her topographical map of the palm, which she had used in advertising since her traveling-carnival days as Madam Mezola. Never mind that she did not have a copyright on the old symbol -- the Adams had no call to appropriate it for their own ads in the weekly papers.

Elizabeth LeJeunesse, a former parapsychologist and psychic consultant who now runs a center for abused women, has also observed the Adamses over time. "I've watched those women for 20 years," she says. "They've been very much around, working under different names at different times at different locations. They've always skirted the law, and they've always had a lawyer."

Their M.O., says LeJeunesse, is to "take a minimum amount of information -- the rings on the fingers, the kind of car (a client is) driving -- and extrapolate a maximum of data. They'll do a "cold reading' -- that is, they make a general statement, watch for the reaction, and go from there. Some of these readers are so powerful in their convictions, they can make someone believe they really are under a dreadful spell, and the reason he can't get his girlfriend back or can't get an erection or can't hold a job is because of this spell. For a price, they will burn so many candles to lift this spell, and of course their candles are the only ones that work. Once they've got their tentacles in you, it can be addictive, this need for advice, direction. Some people can't even pick a restaurant without consulting their psychics -- just incredible! And these poor, gullible people who come to depend on their psychics are just as addicted as any heroin junkie. I don't know that these Adams people are psychic, but they're very shrewd businesswomen, and they've made a ton of money."

Kathy Worley, a professional psychic located in West County, says she has heard several tales about the Adamses: "You ready for this one? One of my regular clients suddenly stopped coming, and about a year-and-a-half later she called to explain. She said, "Kathy, I feel guilty telling you this, but I went to another psychic out on St. Charles Rock Road, and she told me there'd been a curse put on me and that I could get my boyfriend back if I gave her money.' It turned out she had given this psychic almost $2,000, and this woman makes minimum wage. Then she said, "Kathy, she also told me that you put a curse on me and that I should stay away from you, and that's why I haven't been around.'

"Well, what the reader was afraid of is that I would tell this poor woman the truth, that she was being ripped off," says Worley. "I have heard countless stories -- how they make snakes come out of eggs, turn eggs rotten. What they do is switch the eggs. Oh, they do terrible things to people who are going through vulnerable times. It just makes you sick. What I don't get is how when one human being sees another human being is in a lot of pain, they not only dupe them, give false hope, but they take their money, too. I just tell people that if you see the red palm, or if they have a lot of religious articles around them, or they say there's a curse put on you, run like hell, because basically they'll rob you blind."

SISTER WHITE DIDN'T ASK KATHY FOR money until the seventh visit. At that time, says Tina, "she needed as much money as Mom could bring to her. In cash -- it had to be in cash. She was going to pray over this money, bless it and remove the curse once and for all." Kathy offered the figure of $20,000. Sister White insisted that that sum was not enough. Says Tina, "Mom said she told her that the more cash she brought, the better this thing would work. Sister White said it was a very deep-rooted curse."

The plan devised by Sister White was simple enough: Go to the bank; withdraw cash; first bring it to their home (where Kathy would "meditate on it" for a period), then bring it to Sister White. The psychic, says Tina, had assured Kathy that she was not going to take any of the money -- just perform some incantations on it and give it back.

"She lied," says Tina, ruefully.

Tina and Kathy went to the bank and took out $82,000 in cash, about half of the family's life savings. They went into one of those counting rooms that you see in the movies. "There were stacks of bills lying everywhere," says Tina. "I remember thinking, "This is my college tuition -- what are we doing?'" They boxed the money up and brought it to the car. Kathy's other three daughters, incidentally, were unaware of what was taking place. "What are those boxes?" they asked as Mom and Sis spirited the cash into Kathy's room. Later that day, they went to Sister White's place. Kathy went in with the money; Tina stayed in the car.

"That was the first time in my life I ever fell asleep in a car," says Tina, "and an hour-and-a-half later I was awakened by my mom, who was sobbing and saying, "Let's go, let's go!' I asked her, "Where's our money?' and she said, "Don't worry, just go, everything is fixed.' I don't know what happened in there, but it was devastating to my mom. Sister White had told my mom that she had to take the money to a church, that she could better pray over it there." Kathy was told to come back the next day and get the de-cursed stash.

"Mom went back the next day alone," says Tina. "Sister White told her, sorry, she had to burn the money. There was too much anger surrounding it. If the money wasn't destroyed, the family would never again be prosperous."

In hindsight, Tina believes that after the first visit Sister White had researched the family through the obituaries. She knew there were four daughters; she knew their names. She suspected, correctly, that Kathy's husband, an assembly-line worker at the Chrysler plant, had left the family in a healthy financial state.

Kathy went to the police, but not right away. She had handed half of the family's life savings to a virtual stranger. It took time for the hurt and anger and embarrassment to set in. Meanwhile, Sister White kept calling: The curse wasn't quite removed. She exhorted Kathy to return for more sessions -- and that was her downfall. Detectives tapped Kathy's phone and eventually recorded enough incriminating statements to charge Laura Adams with felony theft. She was arrested on Oct. 9, 1997. Bond was set at $5,000. The warrant reads: One count "stealing $750 or more by deceit." Laura Adams (the name she was charged under) enlisted the legal services of Wolff & D'Agrosa, a well-known Clayton law firm. And during the period between her arrest and her sentencing, the psychic turned to psychiatry.

On May 27, 1998, Adams was voluntarily admitted to St. Mary's Health Center by her psychiatrist, Dr. Raymond Knowles (who, interestingly, specializes in helping victims of psychic addiction) with a diagnosis of "major depression with psychotic features." On July 14, she was readmitted to St. Mary's with the same diagnosis by the same doctor. On July 30, Laura Adams and her attorney filed a motion to stay proceedings until Adams underwent a court-appointed psychiatric examination and the results could be evaluated. Prosecutors objected to any postponement, noting in a court filing that Adams appeared to "become depressed two to three days prior to the dates she is scheduled to appear in court."

Adams eventually pleaded guilty in November 1998, and sentencing was set for February of this year. After months of delaying the inevitable, the fortune-teller finally got her comeuppance. On July 9, Circuit Court Judge Larry Kendrick suspended imposition of a sentence and placed Adams on probation for five years. Adams already had made partial restitution to Kathy to the tune of $40,000, but as a special condition of probation, Kendrick ordered Adams to make the remaining $42,000 restitution payable to Kathy at the rate of $754 per month. That's a lot of palms to read.

To Tina, the slap-on-the-wrist sentence amounted to a slap in the face. "I feel like the judicial system failed," she says. "People get put away two, three years for passing bad checks; she gets off on five years' probation, pays half the money back and is still practicing her spells. The humiliation and embarrassment this lady put us through will never leave me."

Who knows how many other people, trusting and gullible, Sister White has bamboozled? People may be reluctant to come forward out of fear of appearing foolish. One woman, an Indochinese immigrant, alleges that in 1996, one year before Kathy's ordeal, Sister White took her savings of $36,000 in the very same way. The difference is, the woman never filed a criminal complaint but instead sought to reclaim her money by hiring an attorney and filing a civil lawsuit. Her lawyer, Tim Hogan, says she chose this route because she would be mortified by the spotlight of publicity. That lawsuit, at present, is moving along the judicial conveyor belt.

Detective Cavanaugh understands this skittishness and believes it's all the more reason to praise Tina and Kathy for bringing the situation to the attention of police. "You know, a lot of these things don't ever come to court," he says. "It's tough getting the victims to come forward, they're so embarrassed that it happened in the first place."

CHICANERY AMONG PSYCHICS IS HARDLY A new phenomenon. Magician Harry Houdini, in his fervent attempt to communicate with his dead mother, wound up debunking psychics and mediums during the 1920s. It became a public crusade. He was disappointed at the cheap parlor tricks -- hidden microphones, "floating" orbs, stage whispers -- that passed for the actual thing.

Seventy years later, Houdini is likely rolling in his grave, because psychics in America seem to be enjoying a new round of popularity. And although there may be fewer "spirit mediums" in the phone book, fewer Ouija boards in the closet, a new kind of psychic -- the media-savvy "intuitive consultant" -- is insinuating herself in the pop-culture marketplace, she and her sisters popping up like mushrooms after a good downpour. Same old wine in a brand-new bottle? Perhaps, but the demand is intense. Try booking a psychic during the "witching month" of October -- it's like trying to find some red roses on Valentine's Day. Psychic house parties are certainly in vogue. Ditto psychic fairs and a general embrace of things otherworldly, as the summer's offering of clairvoyant-witch movies attests.

At a mini-psychic fair at Mystic Valley, a New Age bookstore, boutique and coffee bar located in the Deer Creek Shopping Plaza in Shrewsbury, sports-radio personality Howard Balzer is in line with all the other believers who were waiting to buy healing crystals, Zen alarm clocks and books on working one's lower chakras. Mystic Valley, with its incense, bells, chimes and other dingle-dangles hanging from the ceiling, is the kind of place where the Age of Aquarius has not only dawned but is peeking over the rooftops and casting shadows in the backyard. Balzer is there on the overcast Saturday afternoon to buy sage after an out-of-state psychic told him burning the herb would create positive energy (and thereby remove negative energy) around the Rams. It's sure as hell working -- at the time, the team is 3-and-0, soon to be 4-and-0.

"This was right after Trent Green (the quarterback whose place was assumed by the heralded Kurt Warner) got hurt and people thought the team was cursed," Balzer explains. "We burned the stuff before the first game, and look what happened. We've burned sage before every game, and now we're on a roll. We talked it up on the show. Now, all sorts of people are burning sage around the Dome before game time, chanting, "You gotta believe.'" At that moment, someone else in line pipes up. "Hey," she calls, holding up what looks like desiccated weeds, "I'm getting this sage for the game tomorrow, too."

"Amazing," says Balzer. "I've started a movement."

The event at Mystic Valley is billed as a mini-psychic fair because only six psychics are present -- among them a couple of tarot readers; a geomancer, who uses "an old form of divination"; and a person who scans auras with her "third eye" and draws them with colored pencils. Like waiters in a Hollywood restaurant, no one here seems to do just one thing -- this one is a tarot reader and medical intuitive, this one a psychic consultant and "rebirther" (for those who didn't get it right the first time). The readings for this particular event are out in the open, with tables situated in corners of the small store and in the aisles, making it easy to eavesdrop: "I only go six months out," cautions one. "I see you having lower-back problems," intones another. "You're going to be famous," prognosticates one in a loose, flowing skirt, "I believe in the next few years, possibly due to an act of heroism on your part."

"Woo-hoo!" whoops the paying client. She thinks for a second and queries, "But I'll be all right, won't I?"

"It tickles your senses; it's just another form of entertainment," says Cate Houlihan, a hairdresser and occasional attendee of psychic fairs. "Basically, you hear what you want to hear. You may think it doesn't pertain to anything in your life right now, and then something happens down the road, and you think, "Oh, she told me that would happen.' They tell you positive things; they make you feel good for your $50. It's like going to a shrink, but it's cheaper. Sometimes I think that's all people need, to be told by a total stranger that everything's going to be OK."

Nancy Miller has come to the event with friends and daughter in tow. Miller, a trim, athletic-looking woman in her 40s, says she has been to many clairvoyants and readers -- "some uncannily accurate" -- and has been "doing tarot" for 25 years and still doesn't quite comprehend it. Does she follow the leads, the advice of the psychics, steering her life in certain directions because of what they have said? "You don't take it to heart," she replies. "It's kind of a hobby. There's not a lot of reasoning to this, but there is a lot of spirituality in this."

In fact, you hear that over and over from psychic-goers: that readings are to be used as a tool, perhaps to be considered a snapshot preview to looming possibilities. But why do people even want to be told what's going to happen in their lives? "Added insight," says Trudy Barr, a hospital technician and self-professed reading junkie. "If someone is at a point where they need to make a choice, this is where psychics and intuition should be added into all the other information they have. It shouldn't be, "My psychic told me to sell everything I own and invest in ABC stock.'"

For instance, a psychic supposedly told actress Linda Evans to postpone marrying Yanni; then one of them lost interest and the wedding never happened. "If one of them lost interest, it wasn't meant to happen," declares Barr. "You have to use your psychic and your own gut feeling. Like if your best friend says, "Watch out for this guy -- he's a weasel,' that can be good advice, too, though no one listens," she chuckles. "I've told people things that were just as good as anything they've ever gotten in a reading, and 90 percent of it is common sense. You cannot factor out common sense."

Though Barr believes that the psychics at Mystic Valley are among the best she's consulted -- "They're intuitive; they've studied their craft and developed their skills" -- she is concerned about the current crop of novitiates. When Barr first began seeing psychics, sometime around 1982, the pickings were slim, she says. "They just were not around. You had to know someone, and I happened to find a woman who introduced me to this remarkable society. Once I got interested, I stayed interested. I would get readings from any reader who would hold still.

"Now, it's quite different. It's like psychics are coming out of the woodwork. And I don't feel that all of them are ready. They may be talented, they may have some ability, but I think they're rushed into being a "reader' too soon. You cannot buy a tarot book, a deck of cards, and call yourself a reader any more than you can read a chapter on appendectomy and go do it on somebody."

A glance around the store indicates that almost all of the patrons are women. "Women are more inclined to intuition," Miller hypothesizes. "They feel more; their emotions are on the surface. Men, it's hard for them to grasp this. Not that they can't be intuitive," she adds hastily, "but they don't have time or inclination to fool with this. In my entire life, I haven't met a man who thought this was interesting. My husband thinks it's hogwash."

Miller's husband is not alone. LeJeu-nesse, who patronizes a dry cleaner in Deer Creek Plaza, casts a critical eye on the burgeoning commercial psychic enterprise next door: "You go to Mystic Valley weekdays after noon and watch the women who go in there with high heels and uniforms of the business world, who are looking for advice on their lunch hour and getting this advice from some common housewife with a deck of cards, telling them what to do with their future. My God, it's frightening and it's sad."

Other observers of the trend see the attraction to psychics as the corollary of a deep-seated need to believe in something. "You can write critically about psychics and mediums all you want," says the Rev. Woolcock in the dim, dusty confines of his office on North Grand. "These things have always happened and always will happen -- oh, you should have seen all the gypsies and fortune-tellers along 42nd Street in New York during the '50s. You cannot discourage the public from seeing them, because people need something to believe in, and if they can't get it in church, they know where to go."

If a fascination with psychic fairs and the paranormal is on the rise -- and judging from the volume of books on subjects ranging from practical witchcraft to locating your spirit guide, it is -- Mary McLeod, a saleswoman at Mystic Valley, can understand why: "People are becoming more aware that it's not just what you see in front of you that makes up life. People come in who have experienced dreams and visions, new sensations, which they're curious about, and they are feeling more free to ask and to understand. Then they see there are so many ways to seek out these answers. Some want to erase old patterns, become better people or get closer to God. But I think ultimately what they all want is a greater perception on life."

Peter R. Phillips, professor emeritus of physics at Washington University and a member of the Society for Scientific Exploration, a professional forum for debate on topics outside mainstream science, believes some people may have psychic ability, though he concedes his is not a widely held view among scientists. "You talk to most scientists and you get the response that there's no good evidence for psychic ability and that sensible people should not believe in these things. On the other hand, there is a minority of scientists, including me, who believe that there is strong evidence for at least some of these phenomena."

"We're trying to establish the truth," says Phillips. "There's no omnipotent figure who is going to hand us the truth, and so we have to work it out between ourselves, and we just disagree on controversial issues like these."

Jerry LeClerc, a licensed professional counselor in Clayton, agrees that leaving open the doors of perception, even a crack, cannot hurt and may even help. "There are many things I can't explain that seem to come from some other form of energy," he says, "and there are some people, who seem to be in all ways reliable, who talk about their dreams' being very meaningful and predictive. I've had clients who meditate to improve their mind. Previous to doing this, they said, "I don't see the value in this exercise,' but after they have meditated for some time, they then say, "I don't see how I could not have done this.' The same observation is there for psychic ability: that if I look at it as a serious thing, a possibility, maybe I would see something. But if I'm looking with skeptical eyes, I might not see it, I might not experience it. I may not click in. Like people who come to a hypnotist and have no belief in hypnosis more often than not will not be hypnotized. Just because you can't prove something doesn't mean it doesn't exist."

AMONG THE SKEPTICS, THE GUYS AT THE Shell station on Butler Hill Road guffaw at the mention of Sister White. Across the street stand her former digs, a modest white frame building, neat as a pin, now serving as a realty office. Ask what became of her, and they'll say, "Why, she moved out after she burned that gal's money, said it was cursed." And they laugh some more, saying they wish they had that kind of dough to be cursed with. They didn't much care for Sister White's husband, Jimmy Adams, either. He supposedly ran a roofing company, but, say the service station guys, they only knew him as a sort of freelance dealer in used cars. "If you see him," says one, nametag of Rich, "would you tell him to bring back the jumper cables he "borrowed'?"

The Adamses vacated the Butler Hill Road address in the spring of 1998 after having been there for two years. A year later, they rented a storefront on Lemay Ferry Road, where Sister White started another palm-reading practice under the new identity of Miss Kennedy. The Adamses wouldn't stay there more than five months. Miss Kennedy's business was located in the middle of a small commercial building. On one side is an appliance store; on the other, an insurance office, run by Robert and Diane Flowers. The parking lot is in the rear of the building. On Aug. 2, Jimmy Adams allegedly smacked into the Flowers' parked car and took off. At first, the Flowerses didn't know how it happened, but later a witness came forward and described Adams' vehicle as the assaulting vehicle. The police were called in; a ticket and a summons were issued to Adams on the basis of the witness' statement and the damning evidence that, according to Diane Flowers, "his car bumper had my paint all over it." The Flowers' car was considered totaled, but the offending vehicle was uninsured. The Flowers' own company, American Family Insurance, has filed a state claim against Jimmy Adams.

Whether that little incident had any connection with the Adamses' sudden and inexplicable disappearance is not certain, but the psychic's office has been unoccupied since late September. The appliance-store man says there was a car out back with out-of-state plates being loaded up one day; the landlady, Mildred Petti, says Miss Kennedy called in October to say that she would be out of town for a spell, that her mother had died.

Just inside the front door, the piled-up mail is visible through the plate-glass window, the same window that until recently framed the neon sign advertising "Palm Reader" with the outline of a palm, all aglow in red. The sign is dark now -- AmerenUE shut off the power in late October. But for a while it lent a sort of festive air to the otherwise bland commercial building, especially at night, when it beckoned to passing motorists: "Come on in; take a chance; have a glimpse at your destiny."

FUTURE SHOP

Psychic fairs, routinely held in New Age shops and in motels near the airport, offer one-stop psychic shopping. For a small admission fee, you can check out an array of psychics and make an informed decision on who will be privileged to peer into your soul. Prices range from $10-$30 per reading, and most include a taped audiocassette of the discourse. Typically the reader initiates some means of tapping into your psychic energy: One may hold the palm of your hand; another will have you pick cards from a tarot deck or ask for a personal effect such as a piece of jewelry. At some point, you will have the opportunity to ask questions. Though psychics will tell you they have been asked every conceivable question, they prefer to stay in the realm of health, love and business matters.

It's best to keep the questions simple: Will I meet my soul mate, get that deserved raise, find inner peace? Often the readers give tantalizingly vague answers: "I see you in a new car, a red Miata, with a swarthy man in a tank top." How do they know this? They just know, that's all. If their mystic receptors are on the fritz, they will be honest about it and tell you to go to another question. Usually they answer three questions -- three is the magic number in the metaphysical world (three coins in the I Ching, three wishes given by the genie) -- and offer some kernels of wisdom.

Here is a synopsis of my own recent experience with three psychics:

PSYCHIC: SUSAN BROCKMEIER, tarot reader, reiki master and psychic consultant.
COST: $30 (tape of reading included).
VENUE: Mystic Valley, Deer Creek Plaza. Dim, uncluttered room; table with candle, two chairs.
SYMBOLS, ICONS, STATUARY: Paintings with mystical scenes; white horses jumping or flying; unidentified female figure, possibly Cleopatra or Nefertiti.
GET-ACQUAINTED RITUAL: Brockmeier had me place my open palms over her open palms for several minutes of meditative silence, then brought out a tarot deck, flipped out several cards and studied the cards at length.
WILL I EVER FIND MY BIOLOGICAL PARENTS? (I WAS ADOPTED AT 3 MONTHS OF AGE.): Brockmeier says I may find my dad. TV will be the method of communication.
SHOULD I BUY A SIDEARM FROM OTTO OR SMITTY (BOTH LICENSED GUN DEALERS)?: The reader tells me to not get a gun at all but that if I must do so, I should deal with Otto.
HOW SHALL I OVERCOME MY ENEMY?: Brockmeier notes that I've had trouble with this same person in one or more past lives. Be tolerant and patient, she says; try to find the good in that person.
WORDS OF WISDOM: Someone is offering unconditional love, Brockmeier tells me, but I¹m not receptive.
LIABILITY: You can't get the stench of incense out of your clothes.

PSYCHIC: MADAM MAE, spiritualist reader (she describes herself as a "personal consultant" on her tax return).
COST: $5 (one question) or $10 (three questions).
VENUE: Small room over a pawnshop in Wellston, just outside the St. Louis city limits. It's a small, cluttered room, well lit, with traffic hubbub from Martin Luther King Drive below.
SYMBOLS, ICONS, STATUARY: "See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil"; monkeys; the Buddha; spiritualist candles.
GET-ACQUAINTED RITUAL: Madam Mae has me place $10 in the palm of my left hand, then touch it with the index finger of my right hand.
WILL I EVER FIND MY BIOLOGICAL PARENTS? (I WAS ADOPTED AT 3 MONTHS OF AGE.): Madam Mae says the answer is indefinite, that she can't see anything -- the screen is blank.
SHOULD I BUY A SIDEARM FROM OTTO OR SMITTY (BOTH LICENSED GUN DEALERS)?: In these troubled times, a handgun is not a bad thing to have. Get the piece from Otto.
HOW SHALL I OVERCOME MY ENEMY?: Keep him (or her) guessing; don't telegraph your moves.
WORDS OF WISDOM: Madam Mae tells me a force is pulling me in some direction.
LIABILITY: Guys in pawnshop may offer you 5 bucks for your hubcaps.

PSYCHIC: MADAM ROSE, palmist.
COST: $3 (tips encouraged).
VENUE: Elvis Channeller Trailer, Museum of Mirth & Mayhem, City Museum.
SYMBOLS, ICONS, STATUARY: Christmas-tree lights, spiritual candles, crystals, juju bags, rosary. Lurid headlines from National Enquirer and other cheesy tabloids are affixed to the walls.
GET-ACQUAINTED RITUAL: Madam Rose has me hold my palms parallel to, a few inches from, her upheld palms for an energy reading, then asks me to give over my dominant hand.
WILL I EVER FIND MY BIOLOGICAL PARENTS? (I WAS ADOPTED AT 3 MONTHS OF AGE.): It's not likely, she says, but tells me I must keep on trying.
SHOULD I BUY A SIDEARM FROM OTTO OR SMITTY (BOTH LICENSED GUN DEALERS)?: In times of real trouble, a cell phone is probably better to have than a gun, Madam Rose says, but if the purchase must be made, she notes, then the "vibes" indicate that I should go with Otto.
HOW SHALL I OVERCOME MY ENEMY?: Step back; transcend. Attempt a resolution unless you feel a need to confront. Be expedient; don't linger; keep interaction short. Madam Rose notes that my fate and life lines join some years hence and purpose will then be more revealed. She says I will become "spiritual" in my early 60s.
LIABILITY: You could wind up on the receiving end of one of the retch-inducing stink bombs sold as "novelties"; elsewhere in the museum.

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