In January 2020, my friend and colleague Ben Radford asked if I would be interested in an investigation project for his podcast Squaring the Strange, which he cohosts with Celestia Ward and Pascual Romero. The podcast tackles various myths and mysteries from a skeptical and scientific point of view, and I’ve been a guest several times.
The project he proposed involved a real-time investigation into psychic claims about a missing person case. We would each choose a “real-life case, with an actual unsolved missing person currently not found, and gather information on what online psychics are saying about where the person is” (Radford 2020). The goal was to compare the psychic claims to verified information to see if the information provided by the psychic was useful to the police investigation or a needless drain on resources.
Although I have investigated psychic claims in the past, I’ve usually focused on exposing the hot and cold reading techniques often employed by them. Tracking the predictions of alleged psychics in real time alongside an ongoing missing person case was not something I had done before, but I have read about such investigations many times from writers such as Joe Nickell. I accepted the assignment enthusiastically and got to work. The resulting shows aired in late March 2020.
According to the Statista Research Department, there were 609,198 missing persons files opened in 2019. Many of these cases were resolved either by locating the person alive or finding their remains. However, many cases remain open for years or decades—or are never solved at all. There are several reasons a person goes missing. They could be a runaway, have mental health issues, be fleeing domestic abuse or escaping law enforcement, have become abducted, fallen victim to foul play, and more.
As I read through case after case, I entered the missing persons’ names into a Google search along with the keyword “psychic.” Many cases popped up in the search results, so I narrowed my search to the areas of eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. This is my local area, and I figured that if the associated psychic predictions didn’t help, perhaps I could at least volunteer to help in the search. I soon became aware of a recently missing young woman, Stephanie Parze.
Stephanie was a beautiful twenty-five-year old living in Freehold, New Jersey. She was a professional makeup artist and wax specialist. Judging from photographs on her social media page, she loved her family and friends, loved life, and always had a smile on her face.
On October 30, 2019, Stephanie went out for a “girls’ night” with her mother, three sisters, and several family members. They went to the Stress Factory Comedy Club to see psychic medium Cindy Kaza, a self-proclaimed “evidential medium.” In an interview, Kaza explains that as a medium, she can talk to people who have died, and as a psychic she can pick up on past, present, and future. Kaza’s description of her alleged abilities will be discussed later.
After the show, Stephanie and her family went back to her parents’ house to hang out for a while. Sometime between 10 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., she kissed her mother, Sharlene Parze, and said goodbye. Sharlene asked Stephanie to call or text when she got home. During her drive, Stephanie sent her mother a photo through Snapchat. Sadly, this would be the last anyone heard from her.
The next morning, which was Halloween, Sharlene Parze tried to contact Stephanie because she had not called or texted when she got home the previous night. Getting no answer, Sharlene was concerned and drove to Stephanie’s house, where she found her daughter’s car still in the driveway. Entering the house, nothing appeared disturbed or out of place. Stephanie’s phone was found on the side of the couch, but the purse she was last seen with was missing. Her phone had texts from her employer asking about her whereabouts (she had not shown up to work). Stephanie was nowhere to be found.
Sharlene then called 911 to report her daughter missing. It came to light that an ex-boyfriend had slept over at Stephanie’s house the night before but had left in the morning while Stephanie was getting ready for work. A missing person investigation began, and the ex-boyfriend, John Ozbilgen, was identified as a person of interest both because of his relationship with Stephanie and because she had previously filed two complaints with police concerning abuse from him.
During the investigation, Ozbilgen’s phone was searched by police, who found evidence of child pornography. Ozbilgen was arrested, and police “charged him with third degree endangering the welfare of a child—possession of child pornography,” which were unrelated to the Stephanie’s disappearance. During his court appearance, prosecutors revealed that Ozbilgen had “sent her [Stephanie] 10 unanswered angry texts the night before she went missing” and that he was still a suspect. Ozbilgen was held by police but was released on November 18. Four days later, he took his own life by hanging at his parents’ house. There was little additional information released at the time, but early reports stated there was no suicide note left behind.
The Parze family appeared on multiple news outlets, including CNN, Inside Edition, True Crime Daily, Good Morning America, and others. Family and friends posted flyers throughout the surrounding area and organized search parties every weekend, combing the wooded areas surrounding Freehold. Details of the search parties were posted on social media, which is how I became aware of the case.
On January 26, 2020, I drove up to the Freehold area to help with one of the search parties. I joined about fifty other volunteers searching several wooded areas. I had never done this before and was admittedly apprehensive about what might be discovered. I had the opportunity to meet Edward and Sharlene Parze and found them to be sweet, loving people who carried on with a positive attitude despite the circumstances. They were determined to bring Stephanie home, and we were all there to help make that happen.
Later that same afternoon, two teenagers were walking along Route 9 in Old Bridge, New Jersey, on their way to work. One of the boys noticed something off to the side of the road. Believing they had found a discarded mannequin, the boys stepped over the guardrail to take a closer look. They quickly realized they had discovered a person’s body. The police were called and arrived within minutes. The next day, the coroner confirmed it was Stephanie Parze.
During a press conference, additional information was released to the public, including that there were two suicide notes left by Ozbilgen. In one of the notes, he stated he had dug himself a “deep hole” and that everything his parents would hear in the news about his role in the case was true. Although Ozbilgen was never formally charged in Stephanie’s death, Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni told reporters that “Parze’s ex-boyfriend, 29-year-old John Ozbilgen, was solely responsible for Parze’s death.”
As I investigated the case, I came upon a YouTube video by “Psychic Sleuth Rachelle.” Her real name is Rachelle Lapham, and she claims on her website to be a “qualified psychic/spiritual medium/Clairvoyant & Ordained Minister who provides accurate heart to heart connections that begin healing and growth.” She goes on to claim that “She also works on missing persons in order to help steer the case in a new direction.” In addition, she states that she “takes a look at Missing persons, New and cold cases as she connects to the otherside to bring new insights and give victims a voice.” We shall see…
The video, titled “THE PSYCHIC SLEUTH (NEW Channel for now) Stephanie Parze 11/20/19,” was uploaded to her YouTube channel on November 23, 2019, three days after the date in the title. Rachelle makes several predictions about the events surrounding Stephanie’s disappearance, including Ozbilgen’s suicide. It is important to note that the “psychic sleuth” claims she knew nothing of the details of this case before posting the video, which was uploaded the day after Ozbilgen took his own life (November 22).
Here I list several of Rachelle Lapham’s predictions concerning Stephanie’s disappearance followed by the details reported by local news, police, and/or the Parze family.
1) “I got burgundy. She was wearing burgundy, I guess.” This was reported on by several news agencies, including the New York Post on November 4, which included the following description: “last seen in blue jeans, a burgundy V-neck shirt and sweater.” Furthermore, the flyers widely posted in the Freehold area and shared across social media included the description “Last seen wearing: Blue jeans, burgundy v-neck shirt, burgundy sweater.” This (accurate) information was already well known by the time our psychic made her prediction.
2) “I got Halloween stuff. I believe the month of October came in. I got 30/31.” Stephanie’s disappearance, on the night of October 30, was widely reported in local news and online within days. In fact, this is the first detail mentioned in just about every article about this case. This prediction was already well established on news and social media.
3) “Psychic waving her hands over a crystal ball.” It was widely reported that Stephanie went out with her girlfriends and mom to see a psychic show. The New York Post reported on November 4, “Stephanie Parze went to see medium Cindy Kaza’s show at the Stress Factory Comedy Club in New Brunswick with her mom, three sisters and other female relatives Wednesday evening.” This “prediction” was also widely reported and common knowledge.
4) “I get a reference to things being knocked over.” As reported in a few accounts, nothing was out of place, and there were no signs of a struggle inside or outside of Stephanie’s house. This prediction was incorrect.
5) “She takes me along Highway 9, or it’s mentioned. ’Cause I see passing a green sign that says ‘Highway 9.’” Stephanie was found along Route 9, which is the main north/south route through Freehold, New Jersey. This route is also the main route ex-boyfriend Ozbilgen would take to work. Looking at a map, there are a lot of wooded areas along the road, both north and south of the township. Although believers in psychic powers would consider this a “hit,” it falls into the same category of very general statements such as “I see the person near a body of water.” At almost 523 miles long, with about 169 miles of it within the state of New Jersey, “Highway 9” describes a large area. It’s an obvious choice, based on its proximity to Stephanie’s house, the amount of wooded area nearby, and the fact that police were already searching the area.
6) “I also get a reference to a hospital.” This took a little bit of digging, specifically through Stephanie’s Facebook page. From August 8 to 14, 2019, Stephanie was in the hospital. She wrote that was admitted for severe pneumonia in both lungs due to complications from vaping. She spent seven days in the hospital and posted pictures and a video while she was still hooked up to IVs and other monitoring leads. This “prediction” reminded me of Susan Gerbic’s Operation Pizza Roll, in which self-proclaimed psychic Thomas John was caught hot reading—looking up attendees’ Facebook pages and using the information so as to appear as if he’d gotten it from spirits.
9) “There’s a pull-off kinda, where he can hide the car.” On Highway 9 there is only an emergency lane on the side of the road, which is in full view of the entire highway. There is no “pull off” spot anywhere along that stretch of road to hide a vehicle. This information is false.
10) “I keep hearing New Brunswick.” This area is approximately thirteen miles from where Stephanie was found in Old Bridge, New Jersey. It’s neither right nor wrong; it seems irrelevant.
11) “You cannot see her from the road, though. She’s in some dense trees off the road.” Although this is partially true for people in vehicles traveling along the highway, the two young men who found Stephanie were walking along the side of the road when they noticed her body about six feet from the guardrail. She was not in an area of “dense trees,” though that might be a reasonable guess and partial explanation for why she hadn’t been recovered sooner—instead of, for example, “in plain view.”
12) “She’s wrapped in a sheet/buried her/shallow grave.” According to App.com, “Perez said the body, which was clothed and face down, was ‘really close’ to the edge of the road.” There has been no mention of a sheet or a shallow grave in police or news reports.
13) “I see a lake or water in the distance.” Water has long been a staple of psychic predictions, because one can always locate some type of body of water somewhere nearby—a water tower, pond, lake, creek, swimming pool, swamp, etc. This is one of the most common and most useless predictions that psychics make.
14) “I got NJ Turnpike… She said it to me. I got Bob and Soccer… There’s a Bob Smith’s Soccer Park [Academy]. I think she’s [Stephanie] around that area.” The psychic sleuth’s predicted area is about thirty miles away from where Stephanie was found.
What Could Have Been Prevented?
Rachelle Lapham, the “psychic sleuth,” claims to be an accurate clairvoyant, someone who can see objects or actions beyond the range of natural vision and who works on missing person cases. She also claims she “connects to the other side to bring new insights and give victims a voice.” However, based on the missed predictions mentioned above (and many others I did not include), the psychic sleuth is not accurate at all. Neither is she in communication with those on “the other side.” The only accurate predictions she made involved either information that had been released to the public previously or general, wide-ranging guesses.
However, if Rachelle really could see things “beyond normal vision” or talk to spirits, then she could have made a difference in this case. For starters, Rachelle could have communicated with Stephanie directly and saved the family two months of painful uncertainty. The predictions addressed above were posted November 23, but Stephanie was not found until January 26. That’s two full months of the family searching and not finding their loved one.
Rachelle, if she genuinely possessed the ability to talk to spirits, could have also contacted the ex-boyfriend, John Ozbilgen, who had committed suicide on November 22 (the day before the psychic sleuth posted her video). Rachelle would have known about both suicide notes left behind and that he had taken Stephanie’s life. She could have asked the deceased man’s spirit where her body was. Again, this would have saved the family two months of anguish and searching.
If truly psychic, Rachelle Lapham could have provided police with detailed information that would have solved the case two months sooner. If she was accurate and if she had acted when she claimed to have received this information (November 20)—two days before Ozbilgen committed suicide—then Rachelle could have prevented the suicide, and Ozbilgen would have eventually been charged with murder and brought to justice.
Rachelle’s website clearly states that “She also works on missing persons in order to help steer the case in a new direction.” The predictions and information she provided would have steered the case about thirty miles in the wrong direction, wasting time and resources better spent on genuine detective work.
I want to end by returning to the night Stephanie disappeared and the show she and her family attended starring psychic medium Cindy Kaza. As mentioned earlier, Kaza is a self-proclaimed “Evidential Medium” who states she can pick up on past, present, and future. One must wonder why Kaza—who can allegedly pick up on the future—didn’t pick up that Stephanie, who was in the same room as the psychic, was in imminent danger. If something as literally life changing as a violent murder was going to happen mere hours in the future, one would think a real psychic could pick up on it. Why didn’t Kaza pick up on the grief that was about to descend on Stephanie’s mother and sisters, who were also in the audience? If Kaza really has these abilities she claims, then she presumably could have prevented Stephanie Parze’s murder.
I reached out to Kaza via her Facebook page on January 24, asking if she had reached out to the family with any information that could help. Kaza replied “I did reach out to the family…” but offered no more information when I again asked if she provided any information to help the case. Honestly, I am not surprised, considering that two young men discovered Stephanie by happenstance rather than psychic powers.
I began this investigation to find out whether the information provided by a psychic was useful to the official investigation or would have been a waste of time had officials tried to follow up on the leads. In this case, both psychics involved proved to be useless. Time and again, psychic “impressions” or “predictions” associated with missing person cases are uselessly general. When they are more detailed, it’s because the information was already public knowledge. When missing persons are found, it is not through nonexistent magical powers but instead through good detective work and/or by accidental circumstances such as hikers, joggers, and curious neighbors. When given the chance to save lives (and conclusively demonstrate their powers in the process), psychics Rachelle Lapham and Cindy Kaza utterly failed. They either could not—or chose not to—help Stephanie and the Parze family.