It sounds like an urban legend, like the alligator living in the city sewer. A woman about to go out on a date with a nicely-dressed man suddenly senses something horribly evil about him, cancels the date, and later discovers the man was a homicidal killer.
Could it be more than just a legend? Possibly.
When I was working on my book The Gift: ESP, a friend of mine who owns a technology consulting company in Mystic, Connecticut, emailed me an account of a teenage girl in eastern Connecticut who reported using ESP to avoid a date with notorious serial killer Michael B. Ross.
"A number of years ago when my niece Cynthia was living with her parents as a fifteen year-old teenager, she hitchhiked a car ride home from a young man in his twenties," he wrote. "During the ride, they exchanged pleasantries and the man, named Michael, revealed that he was in the insurance business. Michael asked Cynthia for a dinner date and she accepted.
"When she told her parents an insurance man had asked her for a date, even though they didn't want her to go out with boys until age sixteen, they were delighted. Her mom had been anxious about the caliber of people that Cynthia chose to associate with. It was a typical concern that moms often have for teenage daughters, especially those who are as attractive and well developed as Cynthia was at this age. Her mom had seen Cynthia dropped off before by longhaired, tough guys on motorcycles, known for late nights and drinking. Getting a date with a guy who wore a suit and tie was a very welcome sign.
"When Michael arrived for the date, he was met by Cynthia's mother and father and was escorted into the living room to wait for Cynthia to finish getting ready. The parents were very impressed with Michael and were trying their best to make a good impression on him."When Cynthia finally joined everyone, before she could utter a word, her eye caught Michael's eye. She immediately retreated to her bedroom. Her confused parents tried to smooth over the social infraction, writing it off to the immature behavior of a teenager.
"After an uncomfortable ten minutes, her dad went to find Cynthia in her bedroom and encourage her to speed it up, as it was starting to get embarrassing. Cynthia said she was not going anywhere with Michael. She told her father there was something wrong with Michael, and she would not be with him alone. Her father pleaded with her, pressuring her to fulfill her commitment to the date. He finally demanded that she come out and tell her date directly.
"Cynthia composed herself and approached Michael with extended hand. She told him frankly that, while he was probably a very nice guy, she was sorry but there was something about him that made her very uncomfortable, and she didn't want to go alone with him. Michael left and never returned.
"Cynthia, who never locked or even closed her bedroom door before, locked the door and windows that night. Several years later Michael was on the front page of all the Connecticut papers.
"He was Michael Ross, the serial killer who murdered six young women in eastern Connecticut before he was caught."
It's a dramatic story, but it remains just that.
The Rhine Research Center's collection of over 14,000 spontaneous ESP experiences - the largest database of spontaneous ESP reports in the world - contains a small number of similar reports from women who believe ESP helped them avoid sexual predators intent on inflicting everything from date rape to murder. We featured over 200 stories from this collection in our book The Gift: ESP.
But in the introduction, we remind readers that these stories don’t constitute scientific proof for ESP. Proof can only be established in the laboratory, using repeatable experiments. Stories like Cynthia's simply offer us food for thought – anecdotal evidence typically incomplete and heavily dependent on the honesty and the memory of the experiencer.
In Cynthia's case, however, the experience was dramatic enough to entice me into a little digging. Her story seems consistent with known facts.
Serial killer Michael Ross was born, lived, worked and killed six of his eight victims in a relatively confined area of eastern Connecticut - all within an hour of the town where Cynthia herself lived at the time of her encounter. Some snatchings were uncomfortably close. One 19 year-old girl was killed in the town of Norwich, a five-minute drive from Cynthia's house. Another four victims came from the town of Griswold, just 20 minutes down the road. Ross clearly trawled Cynthia's home turf for victims.
Ross primarily targeted teenage girls. Five of the six Connecticut victims were age 17 or younger (two were 14 years old). The 15 year-old Cynthia fits the profile of his preferred victim.
Ross grabbed all six Connecticut girls while they were hitchhiking or walking along the road, just like Cynthia was doing that day. Victim Robin Williams was last seen thumbing a ride when she disappeared; Deborah Taylor had run out of gas and was backtracking down the road to find a filling station when she was abducted; Wendy Baribeault was walking down State Highway 12 to a convenience store; April Brunais and Leslie Shelley were walking home from the movies together; Robin Stavinsky disappeared while hitchhiking in Norwich. Cynthia had skipped school that day and was hitchhiking to the mall.
Ross wasn't committing murder in the winter of 1979, when Cynthia had her encounter with the "insurance salesman." He killed his first known victim - a co-ed at Cornell - in Spring 1981, over a year later. But court documents do confirm that Ross was already stalking and raping women by 1979.
Still, some parts of her story puzzled me, so I phoned Cynthia.
The story sent to us didn't say anything about her ESP going off when he first picked her up. I found that somewhat odd. Cynthia explained that she had sensed something very wrong with the man that day but didn't know how to extricate herself from the situation. "I didn't want to freak him out by asking him to let me out of the car. I felt very vulnerable." She filled in additional details of that day. The man said he would teach her how to drive a car, and they ended up in nearby, deserted Mohegan State Park - an ideal place for a rape if the stranger had that on his mind. But Cynthia's turn at the wheel was short-lived. The car skidded on the ice and she hit a guardrail. He seemed nervous about the car. She pointed out it was getting late and he said he would drive her home.
Why would she let him take her home? Wasn't she afraid he would find out where she lived? Cynthia had an explanation. "The school books I had on the front seat of the car had my name on them. All he had to do was look up my address in the phone book. So he already knew how to find me. Also, it was late, and I needed to get home quickly. He couldn't return me to school, because I knew the school bus had already left for the afternoon." She had him drop her off across the street from her house, but her brother saw her get out of the car. When her parents asked about her ride, she told them he was a man she had met at their local hospital, where Cynthia sometimes volunteered as a Candy Striper. He was a nice guy, she reassured her parents. An insurance agent.
That turned out to be a mistake, and the reason Cynthia gives for her subsequent, puzzling agreement to go out on a date with him. Her parents were very excited that their rebellious daughter had finally found someone decent to go out with, instead of the bad crowd she hung around with. They pushed her to accept a date. She felt trapped. "I felt a tremendous pressure not to disappoint my parents," she says.
How eager were they to make it work? When her well-dressed date showed up at the house, her parents rolled out the red carpet for him - in this case, a seat of honor on the prize gold sofa in the formal living room the family used only for special occasions. Under this significant pressure, Cynthia was actually resigned to going through with the date until the moment when, "like the snap of a finger," she simply "knew" without the shadow of a doubt, the man she was looking at meant to do her harm. From that moment on, nothing her parents could say, or threaten, or do could make her leave the house with him. The next day, according to Cynthia's uncle Bob, her mom was on the phone to her sister bemoaning the "poor judgment" Cynthia exhibited by turning down such a "nice guy."
Coincidentally, shortly after my interview with Cynthia, I mentioned her experience to a friend of mine in Hawaii. It turned out that his brother, Patrick Clifford, was the Superior Court judge in New London, Connecticut who actually sentenced Michael Ross to death – and Judge Clifford had a strange experience of his own. At 2:01 AM, Friday, the 13th of May, 2005, the judge woke with a start from a deep sleep - at the precise moment they gave Ross the lethal injection at Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers, Connecticut.
Psychic intuitions or impressions like the one Cynthia got are accompanied by a strong feeling of certainty, of conviction that the warning must be immediately acted upon. More intense conviction is associated with these sudden hunches, in fact, than with any other form of ESP.
They're also quite common, making up about a third of the 14,000 reported spontaneous ESP experiences in the Rhine database.
In a neat bit of synchronicity, the day after I and my co-author shared Cynthia's scary story on the Coast to Coast AM radio show, a 58-year old woman who had been listening in Seattle sent us an email. Janet (not her real name) had her own story to share - one she says that has "haunted me for over 30 years."
It turned out to be another woman's possible brush with a serial killer.
"I was twenty four at that time, and living in Seattle, Washington in a suburban house on Sand Point Way, a busy road that leads from the U. of Washington to the north end of Seattle," Janet wrote. "It was Valentine's Day, 1969. I had been turning the soil over in my garden that morning. It began to rain so I went in the house for lunch. My dining table was by the window that looked out at ground level on the front walk I looked up and saw a really good looking, well-barbered, well-dressed young man standing at the window staring at me. I was married to a pretty disreputable hippie then, and the two of us lived a very uninhibited life style. The man staring in my window was a really good looking guy and in those days that was sometimes all the introduction necessary."
In those days my boundary awareness was woefully lacking. I never locked my doors; friends were encouraged to just walk on in. I would open the door to strangers and chat with them. I was not the timid type. I even used to hitchhike down to San Francisco by myself. So nothing should have made me afraid of him. Yet something immediately compelled me to race to that door as fast as I could and put the chain on it. It was completely out of character for me. But I felt absolutely he was a danger to me.
"I opened the door a crack and asked the man what he wanted. He said he knew my husband, and that my husband had told him it would be OK to stop in and use our phone if he was in the area. The man said this in the most polite, sincere and charming way.
"I remember thinking I was being totally irrational, but the feeling of panic was simply overwhelming. I said 'No!' and slammed the door on him and locked it. He stood looking through the window as if he were weighing the situation. I went to the phone and picked it up; he could see me do it. As I began to dial, he ran - he didn't walk, he raced - to the street and I saw him jump into a light colored VW bug and drive off. Later, my husband said he had never met the man I described, let alone say he could use our phone. Shortly after that I left my husband and moved to Bainbridge Island.
"Five years later, when pictures of serial killer Ted Bundy started appearing in the media, I recognized the man who had come to my door.
"I sometimes lie awake at night and wonder why I was warned," she mused in her email. "There have been other instances of ESP in my life, but this one taught me to listen to that voice of warning. I am sure it saved my life." She added a P.S." Thanks for letting me tell you this, I have been carrying it around for years and haven't told it to many people - it almost is too unbelievable."
Fascinated by the similarity of Janet's experience to Cynthia's, I googled serial killer Ted Bundy's life.
Called the "poster boy for serial killers," Bundy admitted to killing 40 women in a dozen states over a period of four years in the 1970s. Matching up Janet's creepy experience with what I learned about Bundy's murderous method of operation, I discovered her description of the man she met and the events she described fit Bundy quite well.
At the time of the encounter, Janet matched Bundy's typical victim profile: young, Caucasian, light brown hair, parted in the middle.
Bundy was a student at the U. of Washington, and Sand Point Way is a major highway leading from the University to North Seattle. So it's likely he passed up and down the street Janet lived on.
Janet described the man at her door as "a really good-looking man" who spoke in a "polite, sincere, charming way." Almost everyone who encountered Bundy described him in the exact, same way. Stephen Michaud, author of The Only Living Witness: The True Story of Serial Sex Killer Ted Bundy, found women who met Bundy routinely described him as "sincere" and "courtly around women....More than one woman used the term ‘beautiful' to describe Ted Bundy." At his trial, groupies swooned and some women even sent him letters asking to marry him.
Janet didn't notice him until she saw him "standing at the window staring at me." Bundy admitted to the police that he often stalked the streets of the Seattle/Tacoma area - where Janet lived - "peeping into women's windows." When he stalked women, Bundy "approached them on a pretext," a method of operation eerily similar to Janet's stranger who tried to gain entry into her house by asking to "use the phone" since he was in the area.
Finally, when the panicked Janet picked up the phone, the stranger "ran to the street, and I saw him jump into a light-colored VW bug and drive off." According to Bundy biographer Michaud, "(Bundy's) happiest moment during his first year of college came when he bought a ‘58 Volkswagen bug for $400. The little car meant freedom to Ted. He could get in it and drive and be alone whenever he wanted, a reprise of his early boyhood when he and his collie, Lassie, would disappear out into the trees for hours. Ted loved VWs. He would own two in his life; the second one, a light brown ‘68, eventually would yield evidence of his secret life." The stranger Janet locked the door on not only drove a VW bug; it was a "light-colored" car. Janet was "90 percent sure it was him." She had been saved from Ted Bundy.
The evidence suggests it might have been him. But Janet is wise to leave a margin for doubt.
At one point, I was convinced it couldn't have been Bundy. According to one biography found on the Web, at the time Janet encountered the stranger knocking on her door, Feb. 14, 1969, serial killer Ted Bundy was supposedly living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, attending Temple University. It's hard to be in two places at once. Case closed?
Ironically, my co-author's good friend is well-known paranormal writer Leslie Rule, author of Coast to Coast Ghosts and Ghosts Among Us: True Stories of Spirit Encounters. Her mother, best-selling crime writer Ann Rule, wrote the definitive biography of Ted Bundy, The Stranger Beside Me. Hoping to confirm Bundy's whereabouts that Spring, I telephoned Leslie and asked if she could check with her mom. It turns out that Bundy did visit Philadelphia during that period, but there's no record of him spending all Spring there. Case re-opened a crack.
But Leslie added a word of caution. "When my mother's book came out, she got hundreds of stories from women who believed they had escaped death at the hands of Ted Bundy." A serial killer on the prowl can appear to be everywhere."
For her part, Janet knows who she saw that day. "The guy left an indelible picture in my memory from the incident." She majored in graphic design in college. "I am a very visual person. I remember people's faces, even when I meet them only once."
If Janet were wrong about the stranger being Bundy, might her intuition have still been right - that the polite, young man at the door, Bundy or not, intended to do her harm? Janet reports a history of puzzling intuitions which have come true. "I have had many instances of 'knowing' - the account of the man at my window was of course the most dramatic," she explained to Dr. Feather in a follow-up email. "One very early instance I remember was as a child. My pet cat didn't come home one evening and my family was worried about her. I got a very clear picture in my mind of the cat lying on the side of the road above our house. I insisted that my dad go look there. He took a flashlight and found her exactly as I had said. Unfortunately she was dead - hit by a car. I had known that too, but I had so hoped it wasn't true.
"A happier incident was in 1990. I saw in one of our local stores a drawing for a trip to France. I have never really felt inclined to enter any contests but I 'knew' I would win this one. I told my husband as I was writing my information on the slip that we would be going to France. He thought I was silly. The day of the drawing came and went; I didn't hear anything and I was really very puzzled because I had seldom 'known' anything so acutely. Two days later the phone rang - it was the store congratulating me for winning the big prize. My husband doesn't doubt my 'knowings' anymore."
So the stranger at her door that Valentine's Day in 1969 could have meant her harm; she's had intuitions come true. But it's also possible that the young man really wanted nothing more than to make a phone call. In the end, we're left hanging. Did Janet and Cynthia save themselves from death at the hands of two of America's most notorious serial killers, or simply chase off two poor souls frightened by false intuitions? Short of an expensive, time-consuming, professional investigation, we'll never know for certain.
One can understand why most parapsychologists, frustrated by such ultimately inconclusive human experiences, have turned for solace to the repeatable lab experiment. But leaving a large portion of reported reality unacknowledged and unexamined is fundamentally dishonest science, not to mention unfair to people like Janet and Cynthia who show the courage to share their experiences. One way or another, we must find a way to deal with these stories.
To paraphrase Fox Muldar, "The experiences are out there," they're in the millions, and they show no signs of going away.