In part one of this article, here, I gave an introduction to one-of-a-kind detective Bob Nygaard. I covered his August 11appearance in the CBS series Pink Collar Crimes playing himself in his investigations of psychic fraudster Gina Marie Marks and discussed another high-profile case with Nygaard. He talked about his client’s appearances on Dr. Oz and with Anderson Cooper, described techniques used by “psychics” to gain trust and scam their victims, and discussed the difficulty of getting cases prosecuted.
Here is part 2 of my conversation with Nygaard.
Rob Palmer: Since the TV show aired this past weekend, let me ask you: What has the reception been like?
Bob Nygaard: The reception I have received from people I know and work with has been 100 percent positive. Some of my friends have been kidding me and calling me “Hollywood Bob” and my coworkers have told me that they found the episode to be interesting and entertaining. My friends are telling me that I’m a natural on camera and many viewers have been contacting me and complimenting me for my storytelling ability.
Palmer: How do you feel the show did in telling the story that these “psychics” are dangerous and need to be prosecuted more strenuously?
Nygaard: First, I would like to stress how ruthless these self-proclaimed psychics are. They have absolutely no regard for their fellow human beings. They emotionally abuse and financially decimate their victims. While the crimes they commit are classified as non-violent, victims often call me and tell me that these heartless miscreants often drove them to the brink of suicide.
I think the show was very effective in terms of showing how ruthless these fraudsters are. For example, the show accentuated how ruthless Gina Marie Marks was when she exploited a young mother who was desperately seeking a cure for her young son’s autism. And [the show was effective] in terms of explaining the impediments to prosecution that often exist in regard to psychic fraud cases. It depicted how very often police and prosecutors try to work nefarious restitution deals in lieu of arrests. The show also correctly and importantly emphasized that [these] deals only serve to increase the likelihood that more vulnerable people will be victimized. I was actually amazed at how closely the producers and writers listened to me and nailed the points that I felt were important to emphasize. In short, they did me right and did justice to the story.
Palmer: Do you think anything could have been presented more clearly or in better detail?
Nygaard: The “untold story” so to speak is the enormous degree of difficulty that often exists in order for me to obtain justice for psychic fraud victims. The pushback that I often receive from police and prosecutors is beyond what most people would ever imagine or could possibly endure. The sheer mean-spiritedness and viciousness directed at me by many police and prosecutors, as a result of my simply doing my job, is astounding.
Palmer: Back to specifics about your cases: Have you seen the experience of being scammed change a client’s mind regarding psychic powers, as opposed to believing that just the one individual who ripped them off was a fake?
Nygaard: Sometimes it’s like I’m trying to help them become more skeptical … and then they fall right back into it because they think it’s just that one person. When that happens, it’s disheartening. I’d say it’s like 90 percent of my clients say, “I’m never going to fall for that again.” But then there’s that other 10 percent, or maybe a bit less … It’s disheartening.
Palmer: Let’s talk about “psychic detectives.” The Squaring the Strange podcast recently did an entire episode on Nancy Weber and her supposed amazing insights into the murder of Amie Hoffman in 1982. This case was claimed by Skeptiko podcast host Alex Tsakiris to be the strongest proof available for someone having psychic abilities, and yet investigator Ben Radford easily tore it to pieces. (See the summary here.) Well, I gave the opportunity to my Facebook followers to ask you questions, and my favorite one came from Bruno Multari who coincidentally wanted to ask you about this very topic! Bruno’s question is “While on the police force, did you work with, or know of, any so-called ‘psychic detectives,’ and has that helped form your general opinion of psychic abilities?”
Nygaard: I never worked with one—ever. I never called one in on a case. I never saw someone call one in on a case. I never even saw a family do that. I was a New York transit cop and no one ever did that, and a Nassau County police officer for twenty years and no one ever did that. [Regarding the Hoffman murder case] I don’t see how anyone could even remotely think that could be used as an example of a good case!
Palmer: That’s an indication to me that none are real, because if even one person could do what they claim, then they certainly would be known about in law enforcement and in high demand. So, regarding the high-profile “psychic mediums” such as John Edward, Tyler Henry, Chip Coffey, and the deceased Sylvia Browne: the Guerrilla Skeptics team has helped make it clear on Wikipedia that what these people do is not real. However, these people have millions of devoted followers, in part at least due to credulous fawning by reporters for national media outlets. These famous psychics may not rip off individual clients for huge sums as happens to your clients, but the media spotlight makes these people famous, and lends credibility to the already widespread belief that mediumship is real. I think that perhaps this leads some people to fall victim to street-corner psychics like the ones you have investigated and brought to justice. What do you think about this trickle-down hypothesis?
Nygaard: I despise all of them. And yes, those [famous psychics] are a gateway. They are promoting something that’s harmful to the masses. It’s harmful to a lot of vulnerable people. So, I was actually on Dr. Oz. One of my clients that I helped get money back [Priti Mahalanobis, who was mentioned in part one of this article] was on the show and I was sitting in the front row. First Dr. Oz talks about my cases but then he brings on this woman and she’s one of these Long Island psychics. The “Happy Medium” … her name is Kim Russo. Oz had her go into some psychic shops in New York City and record how they were trying to scam her. So, she was saying that these are phonies, unlike herself. What are you doing Dr. Oz? You got my client on there; you got me on there. You got us talking about how this is all a scam and then you promote this woman. It kind of hurt. This is a perfect example where a show sent out completely mixed signals. Oh … backstage she tried to give me a reading. I was like ma’am what are you doing? … [later] she said, “you’re not ready” and I said, “I’m never going to be ready.” (See a clip from Bob’s appearance on Dr. Ozhere.)
Palmer: Were you previously aware that there was a skeptical movement, with people outside of law enforcement trying to educate the public about psychics and mediums and their ilk?
Nygaard: No. I had no idea. The first one who called me might’ve been Derek [Colanduno from Skepticality podcast]. I didn’t even know that this all existed. I am a young skeptic as far as understanding this whole movement. I believe in God. I was brought up Lutheran. I’m not a regular churchgoer but I do pray, and I believe in God. I’m not an atheist, and I said to Derek when he first called me, “I don’t know if that fits in with what you guys are about.” When I go after these people I go in with an open mind, but I prove the lies. I go in with a skeptical mind, but then I find the provable lies. I don’t ever start a case with the perspective that this is just a bunch of bull.
Palmer: Some of your cases have involved people having their religious beliefs used against them, such as the woman who was told her son’s soul was burning in hell and that she could release him from the torture … for a price. Do you think that religious belief lends itself to making people fall for this sort of stuff?
Nygaard: You know, I’ve never come across a case where an atheist got taken by a psychic. I’ve never had a case like that. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but I haven’t seen it.
Palmer: What are your thoughts on the psychic sting operations sometimes run by skeptics? These don’t lead to prosecutions but aim to expose high profile psychics as a lesson for the public. Is it worthwhile to spend time doing this?
Nygaard: The only one of these I knew about was with James Randi and Peter Popoff. That rubs me wrong when I see that Peter Popoff on TV, I just get mad. I can’t believe the guy is still on today!I know Houdini devoted a lot of his life debunking these people and I think your skeptical community does a great job exposing them and I think that it’s definitely worthwhile to expose these con artists and conduct undercover stings for the purposes of educating the public and trying to get through to people. But I have a whole different angle: when I investigate these con artists, I investigate them to put them in prison.
Palmer: Another member of GSoW, Annika Merkelbach, wanted me to ask you “Have you ever been afraid or threatened as a reaction to your work?”
Nygaard: Nothing in relation to my psychic investigations, but when I was a cop I had to have a [special alarm] put in my house because I was going after drug dealers and they were going to do a hit on me. There was a plot to kill me and my partner … I had something like fifty-one drug arrests in fifty-two days. In regard to the alarm, if I pushed the button it would go directly to the bureau of special operations and they would come immediately.
Palmer: Are there any other people doing the psychic-busting stuff anywhere?
Nygaard: Not that I know of. There are guys in the bunco association that talk about it, but there isn’t any other private investigator in the world, that I am aware of, who is actively doing it.
Palmer: Then when you retire, it’s the end. At some point, would you consider switching to training others to carry on this sort of work?
Nygaard: I have. I thought of writing a book. I’d like to do a movie. I think a book and a movie would help to educate a lot of people. And the bunco association has asked me to give lectures to teach police and prosecutors, but I just haven’t had the time. I just have so many cases right now. But it’s really hard [to teach this]. People don’t see the fight I go through on a daily basis with police and prosecutors from around the country in different jurisdictions … there’s an actual hatred toward me for what I’m doing because I’m forcing them to do something they don’t want to do.
Again, I want to thank Bob Nygaard for the time he spent with me for this interview, and of course for doing this important work. I also have to thank Bruno Multari and Annika Merkelbach for submitting questions for this interview. As a reminder, Bob is scheduled to participate in Dragon Con 2018, as part of the Skeptrack, to discuss his experiences in the world of psychic fraud. Let me close with a post made by Bob on his Facebook page as an unsolicited reaction to the publication of part one of this article on August 15. Bob said:
“I really enjoyed doing this interview with Rob Palmer! Rob and Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia – GSoW – are doing such an amazing job of helping me spread the word about psychic fraud all around the world. Undoubtedly, many vulnerable people will be helped by Rob’s and GSoW’s efforts! I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been as welcomed and embraced by the skeptical community as I have!”