Did a psychic solve the Tabitha Horn murder case?

This was an investigation that I did a long time ago, but I never properly wrote up. I was inspired to finally do so by reading Joe Nickell’s similar sleuthing of the Haunting in Connecticut, mystery, and a movie that opens today.

Background

On Monday, 5 July 1993, Kenneth Norton, 34, a resident of Vestaburg, Michigan (his home was about ten miles from Mount Pleasant and Central Michigan University) was driving to Ann Arbor in his station wagon with his live-in girl friend’s daughter, Tabatha Horn, 3.

They were on their way to see Wendy Michelle Gokee, Tabitha’s mother, who who was at a medical facility in Ann Arbor undergoing tests.

Norton, who at the time was a Correctional Officer at the Carson City Correctional Facility, called the police around noon from the Hop In convenience store in Brighton (which is near Ann Arbor) and reported that Tabatha was missing. Norton claimed he could not remember the last time he saw Tabitha, but said she had certainly started the trip with him.

The state police conducted a thorough search of Norton’s vehicle and when that offered no clues, they began to re-trace Norton’s route, hoping to find evidence of Tabitha’s whereabouts along the way. No signs of Tabitha were found. No one at the Hop In convenience store had seen the girl, nor had anyone noticed anything unusual.

Norton said he left his home at about 7:30 am Monday and first stopped for gas in Alma, which is about 15 miles away. It normally takes about 20 minutes to make this trip, but Norton claimed it took over an hour. When questioned about the discrepancy, Norton said he wasn’t good at looking at his watch and estimating times.

After this odd admission, Police also searched around Norton’s Vestaburg residence, which is actually nearer the town of Winn, Michigan. Norton's residence

After three days, police began to openly suspect that Tabitha’s disappearance was not a “wandering incident” but instead that a crime had occurred.

Suspicion naturally fell on Norton and on Tabitha’s mother, Wendy Gokee. Lt. Frank Hughes of the Michigan State Police offered a polygraph examination to both Gokee and Norton. Gokee took the test: according to Hughes, she passed that test.

Norton refused to take the test or even talk to the police. His refusal was the subject of a front page story on 8 July Morning Sun (a Mt. Pleasant paper, which is the primary paper for Vestaburg and surrounding area).

However, Brighton police and the State police were also quoted as saying that “no solid evidence had been uncovered”, so no arrests were made at this point.

The last person to see Tabitha besides Norton was another child who lived with Norton and Gokee. That child reported seeing Tabitha in bed on Sunday night at 10:30 pm.

That child shared the Vestaburg home with another daughter of Gokee’s, three of Norton’s children, and four of Norton’s brother’s children (the brother was in prison at the time).

I talked to Sgt. Barry Trombly of the Michigan State Police in Mt. Pleasant who reported that Norton’s attitude was extremely suspicious. He was seemingly impassive about losing a girl that was “like a daughter to him.” Trombly was concerned that Norton had refused to take the lie detector test.

On Wednesday, 7 July, the police used a helicopter, dogs and members of the Isabella County dive team in conduct a “cursory” sweep of Gokee’s residence, a country-side home situated in farm land, but nothing was turned up.

The Tip

The next day, Thursday, 8 July, Elizabeth Mahan, 43, a resident of Winn (which it near to Norton’s home), called Janet Flowers, who was the cook at the Isabella county jail, and gave her information to relay to the police about the “location of Horn’s body.”

Mahan claimed she received this information while in a “trance.” Flowers said she turned Mahan’s tip over to Deputy Matt Eckerman of the Isabella County Sheriff’s department.

Norton and Tabitha

It was reported (on the 11th) that Mahan said that the body “would be found in or by a green duffel bag near a wishing well.” (emphasis mine)

Acting on the tip, on Friday, 9 July, Deputy Eckerman returned to the Gokee residence and conducted a more thorough search of the surrounding area. A home about a mile from Norton’s residence had a decorative well in the front yard. Further down the road was a two track, which Eckerman explored.

About 150 yards down the two track, Eckerman spotted a green car seat in the woods, and by it was a fresh grave containing 3-year old Tabitha’s body.

The 1 and a half foot grave was hidden beneath an old mattress. Tabitha’s naked body was wrapped in a blue terry cloth towel and a blue baby blanket, all covered in plastic and wrapped with white surgical tape.

An autopsy later revealed that Tabitha died by asphyxiation, possibly as the result of a bag being placed over her head, or a pillow covering her face. There were no wounds on her body and no evidence of sexual assault.

Ken Norton was arrested later that night and charged with murder.

On Sunday, 11 July , the Morning Sun and the combined Detroit News and Free Press (papers with statewide circulation) both contained front page headlines detailing the body’s discovery.

Morning Sun: “Norton arrested in Tabitha’s death: Caller claiming to be psychic leads police to grave site.”

New/Free Press: “Police follow tip from ‘psychic’ to missing girl’s body.”

On Tuesday, 13 July, the Morning Sun contained another front page headline: “‘Psychic’ heard Tabatha call for help.”

On Thursday 22 July, the Detroit Free Press gave over its “Way We Live” section to report Elizabeth Mahan’s, and other psychic detective’s, sleuthing feats.

It thus appeared that Tabitha would not have been found with the help of Mahan’s psychic divinations. The press certainly credited Mahan with playing a substantial role in solving the case.

Mahan’s Changing Vision

Elizabeth Mahan
A press conference was held by the authorities on Saturday, 10 July (and reported in the papers on the 11th). Lt. Hughes, when asked if he thought Mahan used psychic abilities to locate Tabitha, or she had used more normal means, said, “I just thank God she called us. I don’t care if it was Bozo the clown. If there’s a child out there and possibly alive, we will follow up on every tip. ”

On Tuesday, 13 July, the Morning Sun said that Mahan had been reading tarot cards for neighbors for 17 years. When Tabitha went missing, she claimed she began having “terrible headaches.”

Drawing on powers that have allowed her to have “impressions” for the last 2 1/2 years, Mahan said she meditated and asked Tabitha to tell her where she was.

I went inside myself and I just kept saying, ‘OK baby, tell me where you are.’ I said, ‘I can help you’ and I kept hearing ‘Bad man…bad man…,'” she said, adding by Thursday sher had formed an impression of something green, possibly a duffel bag, along with the image of a wishing well. (emphasis mine)

Note carefully that Mahan’s original statement was that the body “would be found in or by a green duffel bag near a wishing well.” This changed to “something green, possibly a duffel bag.”

The Morning Sun (the 13th; front page) said, “Those two elements of the crime scene–the wishing well and the green seat–may make Mahan’s tip seem nearly accurate…” This was the view of the Free Press and Detroit News as well.

The Sun also revealed that Mahan had never had contact with any of the persons connected with Tabitha. Except for Norton.

“‘He used to come into Ric’s Party Store and I used to work there,’ she said. ‘I didn’t even want to wait on him. I’d get feelings—bad vibes—from this guy.'”

Mahan also said, “I really feel that there was an altercation with a female at least two or three days before he committed this. He was very, very angry and unfortunately poor little Tabatha is the one who got it.” This altercation was not known to police at the time I interviewed them on 26 July.

On Wednesday, 21 July, the Morning Sun again quoted Deputy Eckerman (p 16) who now said “We’d received a tip that the baby was buried in a shallow grave, possibly in green bag near a well.” (emphasis mine) There was never any mention of a “shallow grave” in Mahan’s original tip.

On Thursday, 22 July, the Detroit Free Press devoted an exclusive story to Mahan (pp 1C & 4C). The paper said that “everyone in that central Michigan community” was “emotionally consumed with Tabitha’s plight.”

They also reported that Mahan, who lives just nine miles north of Norton’s home, decided to write Norton’s name in her journal with a question mark after it. Later, while meditating, “I got the impression of a wishing well and something green.” The report then noted how accurate Mahan’s vision had been.

Doubts

Winn/Vestaburg is a very small community: each town is nothing more than a cross roads. The kind of place where everybody necessarily knows everybody. For example, Ken Norton was well known to Elizabeth Mahan prior to Tabitha disappearing.

Mahan also knew that Norton was ex-military and that he was currently working as a security guard at a prison. It was well known to neighbors, and to Gokee’s other children, that Norton was very demanding in his disciplining of the kids.

“He may have been a little strict, but he seems good with the kids,” said Dutch Systermann, who owns the Winn Shopping Center (MS 18 July, p 7A).

Norton was always the prime suspect in the case, even before Mahan’s tip. He was, after all, the last person to have seen Tabitha. His inconsistencies about the driving times were reported in the press. As was his refusal to take the polygraph, or to even talk to the police at all.

And the police had already began searching Norton’s residence, an activity impossible to miss in Winn. Psychic powers or not, it was natural to believe Norton knew more than he was telling.

What about Mahan’s vision? I drove by Norton’s residences and saw that he and Gokee had a decorative wishing well on their front lawn, in prominent view from the road (this might have been on the next-door neighbor’s property; it was close to the property line). Mahan certainly would have been able to see this well.

(That well was not uncommon: I saw at least two other such wells on other properties in the area.)

The well that Deputy Eckerman noted was not the same well as that in front of Gokee/Norton’s residence.

We have already seen that the original vision of a “green duffel bag” morphed to “possibly a green bag” to “something green.”

Deputy Eckerman did spot a green car seat off the two track. The car seat had been one of two in Norton’s car. Under the car seat was and old box spring mattress and a newly dug grave. The body was packaged in two garbage bags, blue towels, tape, and and blanket.

None of these details were foretold by Mahan.

The press jumped on the fact that Mahan had “seen” a well which is indeed near Norton’s house—but failed to mention the well in front of Norton’s own house. And Mahan said a green duffel bag, not a car seat.

The body was not found anywhere near a green duffel bag. The body was not found near a wishing well. The body was found in the woods behind Norton’s property, and Norton was always the prime suspect.

Incidentally, the police told me the area where the body was eventually found was going to be a “marshaling site” the very next day, Saturday 10 July. Sgt. Trombly told me there was to be a “massive search”, some 40-50 people would have been involved in the hunt.

The press credited Mahan with a success, even though only one part of her original vision was at best partially correct—but it was also incorrect as it is possible that Mahan meant to cast suspicion on Norton by leading police to his well.

The press was unable to imagine that Mahan, a humble “soft-spoken” psychic, could have pieced together the same suspicions that the police and the press had had before the body was found.

The calls I made to the Sheriff’s office were referred to the State Police, who had jurisdiction in the case. The officer in charge of the case, Detective Clare Fox, was on vacation and was unavailable for comment at the time I interviewed the State Police. I never did hear from Detective Fox, but newspaper reports indicate he was skeptical of Mahan’s claims.

No other details of Mahan’s original vision are available except was reported in the press. Lt. Frank Hughes, commander of the State Police post, told me that the original “tip sheet” Mahan dictated to cook Flowers was “probably thrown away.”

Did Mahan mention a tree in her original vision? An old car? Candy wrappers, Satan’s evil influence? Were the only things she saw the duffel bag and the well? We’ll never know.

It is always easy to search through a list of possible clues and be able to pick and choose—or redefine them—in order to make a good case, but it does not prove psychic powers.

When I pointed these thoughts out to the police, they understandably demurred. “I don’t care if the tip comes in on a flaming arrow, ” said Sgt Trombly, “Investigate the tip first and the arrow second.” Also, he said it is always possible that so-called psychics may be related personally to the case. To discourage any kind of tips would therefore be unwise.

Lt Hughes

The only documentation of Mahan’s involvement was a copy of the tip sheet Det. Fox made while interviewing Mahan, after the body was found, in order to ascertain whether she was involved in the case. The note contained “highlights” from Mahan’s original report plus follow up questions to see if Mahan was personally involved. I never got to see this sheet.

I wrote the Free Press and the writer of the psychic follow up stories a letter detailing my suspicions but I never received a response.

The case attracted great state wide attention, especially in the small community of Winn. That a local resident and “psychic” helped solve the case was a good angle that helped sell papers. But in-depth analysis of the case casts great suspicions on the accuracy of the visions.

It is reasonable to conclude that psychic powers were not involved and that Mahan’s, and the rest of the community’s, wishes for Tabatha’s safety and subsequent horror at the discovery of her death played a very large role in the confirmation of Mahan’s psychic abilities.

12 Comments

  1. Psychic prophetic morphing seems to be the rule, not the exception. Your skepticism was well placed. in my book, except you’re now publicly recognized as being an official spoil sport

  2. Briggs,
    I see dark circles on the man on the front of that book. Maybe he is also a statistician and gets up at three? Ah.
    The TV agents must have your details if they haven’t already.

  3. Sorry, my mistake.
    You, Sir, are a disaffirmer!!!

    Your rebuttal has left me unsure of myself. Thus the reduction to only three exclamation points.

  4. i honestly could care less if psycics are real, but in my belief mahan was honest yeah maybe her story changed a little its happen to be before too! so thats okay. i live in that house now i have since i was born for almost 16 years now and i am glad she found tabitha because i couldnt live there knowing she was never found i would still be searching. so it shouldnt matter if she really has powers you should care that tabitha was found!

  5. recker,

    Amen, brother (sister?). The most important thing was that Tabitha was found and that her killer got what was coming to him. But she was found by regular police work, and perhaps the search would have been easier had not Mahan interfered.

    Glad you have the house. Nice area to live.

  6. Mahan recently came into my restaurant the other day. She knew that my grandmother passed days before she spoke to me as well as my grandfathers passing 6 months previously. She knew that another one of my co workers kicked her daughter out of her house. I dont know I am not exactly a skeptic, but she caught me off guard and was really precise in her knowledge.

  7. RP,

    Of course, I wasn’t there and don’t know the circumstances. But I can say that people’s memories about these kinds of things are worse than terrible. Not that yours is or was, but it is very easy to mistake guessing for genuine psychic phenomena. The best thing you can always do is to go slow, ask a lot of questions, including skeptical ones.

    Thanks.

  8. the police never would have found her if it wasnt for Mahan. the searched high and low for tabitha! in the lake out back, inour back yard, they had no idea where she was. they believed that she ws abducted until a semi driver called it in. they even had search dogs looking for her and had no leads what so ever. what Mahan did was spectacular and i bless her everyday for what she did! she is real wheather you believe it or not…

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