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A Death Threat PDF Print E-mail
Written by Dr. Karen Stollznow, JREF Research Fellow   

A colleague in California recently contacted me about a card she had received. It was addressed to me, care of her home address. We assumed it was a congratulations card, as I had just been married a week before. I forgot about the card until it arrived in the mail a few weeks later. I opened the pink envelope and slid out the card, expecting to see a typical image of a bride and groom kissing, or clinking champagne glasses. Instead, I was stunned to see the words “With Sympathy” printed across an inspirational landscape. Upon reading the disturbing message in a handwriting style that looked affected, I realized that I had received a death threat, in an ominous sympathy card.

The card contained an anonymous threat in response to an article I had written about Theresa Caputo for Swift. Caputo is the boisterous “psychic medium” on TLC’s the Long Island Medium. In this article I discuss the show, her cold reading methods, and the possibility that she also uses hot reading techniques. The article isn’t the most inflammatory one I’ve ever written. However, it somehow prompted the author of the card to threaten my life in protection of Caputo’s purported psychic abilities.

For several months, the JREF has been raising awareness of Caputo. In an article for the Huffington Post, D.J. Grothe issued an invitation to Caputo to accept the Million Dollar Challenge. So far, there has been no reply.

Unfortunately, this is not the first threat I’ve received. My first occurred fifteen years ago, following an interview about alternative medicine on Australia’s A Current Affair. A viewer tracked down my home phone number and called. He argued with me that his aura-reading therapy was legitimate, and that he’d silence me if I continued to speak out against alternative practitioners.

Over the years I’ve received dozens of threats via phone calls, letters, and emails. In discussions with other skeptics, I am concerned to learn that receiving serious threats is a common problem in our community. We’re not just talking threats of legal action for exposing psychics, or curses of “Go to hell!” Skeptics have been victims of a wide range of threats, intimidation, bullying, stalking and harassment by members of the paranormal and pseudoscientific communities.

Some bloggers and writers report receiving so many threats online that they have become numb to them. Several skeptics have accumulated entire collections of hate mail, like Peter Bowditch of Rather than shy away from the bullies, they post the threats online to shame them. Most threats are made behind the safety of a keyboard, but many occur face-to-face. A few skeptics have reported receiving physical threats at metaphysical fairs and lectures, simply because they had asked questions. Often there is no confrontation or direct antagonism. One woman was run off the road by a carload of men because her car featured an atheist bumper sticker.

Friend of the JREF Kitty Mervine told me that she has been the victim of occasional threats. Two alien abductee “therapists” spat on her, while alleged abductees have passed on death threats to her “from the aliens.” A crazed fan of a well-known “psychic” tracked down her home address, and followed her as she was driving her car. The harassment ended after the stalker received a visit from the police.

The most aggressive threats appear to come from anti-vaccination proponents, UFO fanatics and conspiracy theorists. A UFO believer warned one skeptic that he’d better watch his back and “start wearing a flak jacket." These people are willing to protect their theories with our lives.

I have reported the threat to the police, and the matter is currently under investigation. I urge other skeptics to be careful about posting personal information online, to retain any threats received, and to report these to the authorities.


Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist, author, skeptical paranormal investigator and a research fellow for the James Randi Foundation. You can follow Karen on Twitter here.

Comments (5)Add Comment
written by daveg703, November 16, 2012
Like all bullies, the people behind the harassment and the threats are cowards. They are scared - how shall I put it- witless? I guess that covers it quite well. smilies/wink.gif To them, nothing is scarier than the truth, nothing more comforting than their ignorance.
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written by ianmacm, November 16, 2012
On the plus side, most online threats are the work of losers and can be disregarded. The police are increasingly unable to deal with all of the complaints made in this area, but a thorough log should be kept in case the matter escalates.
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written by Clairvoyant_Kyle, November 17, 2012
Does anyone remember years ago when Randi shared a paper someone one had written and sent him called something like “The Bubble People Theory?” The first rule of the theory seems to apply to this article, “No sharp objects!” To sum up the article, as soon as someone’s belief (their logic bubble they float around in) is challenged by any kind of opposition (sharp objects) they feel the threat of being wrong and potently falling a great distance based on the degree of their belief. So what we consider an unnecessary action from a violent wacko (in many cases may be true), to them is a justifiable reaction in defense to being threat by sharp objects near their bubble. Now I am not defending these people’s actions, but I think it helps to put some light on the root cause to their behavior. I still receive threats and hateful messages years after I released my “Anonymous Message to Sylvia Browne” video on YouTube. Some people can’t stand the fact other’s believe something different then they do. When they even see a difference of opinion they can’t help but feel it is a personal attack on them. So what drives these people to say/do violent things? Maybe mental illness, no perceivable accountability for their actions, or as I laid out the overwhelming desire to eliminate all threats they are feeling are just a few I can think of. Even though 99.999% of these people words will lead to no action, there is there is still 0.001% that still will act on their emotion (stat provided by my backside), so the treats should be taken seriously. I don’t want to read on here someday that one of you front line fighters was shot at a gathering or something. Be safe everyone.
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written by Shawmutt, November 17, 2012
As a liberal atheist in a rural conservative area, I've had my share of interesting conversations. I do put myself out there as a skeptic and atheist, and attend monthly dinners with fellow Freethinkers.

I've gotten threats against me and my family online. Me--a nobody, for leaving a comment in a blog or video. I take these threats seriously. Most are probably idle anonymous threats, but it only takes one nut to ruin my day. There are many people in this world who will kill for an ideology and not have a bit of remorse about it.

For this reason, among others, I chose to exercise my second amendment rights, obtain my concealed carry permit, and carry a firearm. Now, this is a contentious issue for sure among some in the US, and probably most in the rich countries outside the US. However, I have seen enough tragedy in my lifetime to warrant the protection.
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written by FledgelingSkeptic, November 19, 2012
I'm right there with you Shawmutt. I've had my CCP for years and though I don't always carry, I do carry when I feel it might be warranted. Goodness knows the cops probably aren't going to do anything serious about internet (or in Karen's case, mailed) death threats so it's up to us to insure our own safety. And when this topic has come up before here and on other forums, I am very vocal about letting people know that I have a pistol and I know how to use it. One of the first things we learned in our gun safety class is that announcing you are armed is, in itself, a deterrent and can diffuse a possible situation. So while I hope I never have to shoot another living being, I'm prepared to do so if I have to.
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