A psychic claims his paranormal abilities enable him to contact the spirits of the dead.

Smiling James Van Praagh in a blue shirt with a mustache

James Van Praagh

James, sitting on a couch with his head facing down and his eyes closed

Can James communicate with the dead?


On April 24, 1994, in Burbank, California, a collage of photographs celebrated the brief life of a young man named Don Raskin. One week earlier, the 32-year-old brilliant attorney and accomplished outdoorsman had fallen to his death while climbing Mount Fuji in Japan. Doug’s parents, Sue and Don Raskin, were shattered by his untimely death. Sue searched for answers:

“It just seemed like nobody could comfort us, and one of my relatives had mentioned James Van Praagh, who was a medium, and I kind of picked up on it real fast because I was looking for anything or anybody who could help Don and I at this time.”

But Don wasn’t so sure:

“I couldn’t imagine anybody having the ability to be able to see somebody in another place, and I was very, very skeptical.”

Before their meeting with James Van Praagh, the Raskins gave the psychic no details whatsoever about themselves or their son. Throughout the reading, the Raskins were impressed with Van Praagh’s knowledge of their son’s death, but that wasn’t all that amazed Don:

“When he told us about these events and named all the people that had been gone for many, many years, he was able to get their personalities so right-on. There’s just no possible way.”

James Van Praagh says he’s a clairsentient and clairvoyant:

“I’m an individual who senses feelings and emotions with spirit people, people that pass to the other side. I’m a sensitive. I’m able to pick up their thoughts, and I feel their emotions when they come through. And that’s what I relate to people.”

For the Raskins, any residual doubts that they may have had were erased when Van Praagh spoke of another family tragedy that had occurred 33 years earlier: Sue’s miscarriage:

“I had completely forgot about that, because I was there only for Doug, and I said, ‘What?’ I made him repeat it. He said, ‘Your daughter’s all grown up today.’ I said, ‘Oh, my god, he knows about our daughter.’ Then I became a believer.”

The session brought enormous comfort to Sue and Don, even though Van Praagh was not 100% correct. In fact, Sue felt that he had completely missed the mark when James told them that Doug liked the picture of himself taken at the base of Mt. Fuji. According to Sue, they knew of no such picture:

“Two months after we had been to James, I went to the mailbox and saw an envelope from Japan. I came running into the house…”

As it turned out, Doug’s climbing team had gone back to the spot where their friend perished and found his camera. Inside the package was the exact photograph James Van Praagh had talked about.

Does James Van Praagh have genuine psychic abilities that allowed him to communicate with the dead? Unsolved Mysteries invited 10 people to a session with Van Praagh. None had ever seen or talked with him before. They all hoped, however, to make contact with specific loved ones who had passed away. The session lasted several hours.

Van Praagh was unaware that a skeptic had been planted in the group. The man, Professor Michael Shermer, investigated claims about psychic phenomena:

“Van Praagh is a mentalist. A mentalist is a magician doing an act. He’s doing what we call “cold reading.” You meet somebody you’ve never seen before and you tell them things about them. You start general, you throw things out rapid-fire, you watch their facial expressions to see if you’re getting hits or misses. When you get a miss, you go right on to the next thing. When you get a hit, you follow that ‘til the end, until they start saying no again. And then you go to the next thing. And you keep doing that.”

Van Praagh explained how his abilities worked:

“The reason I ask yes-or-no questions is, number one, I am also very human. I have to validate that what I’m getting from the spirit is indeed on the right level with this individual I’m speaking with. I want to make sure the spirit person is coming through right. The information is correct.”

Stan Wheel attended the séance with his wife, Theresa. They intentionally sat on opposite sides of the room. The Wheels came to the session hoping to find out about their 19-year-old son Kevin, who had been innocently gunned down by gang members in a drive-by shooting in 1991. Though Stan was skeptical, Theresa was amazed by the reading:

“He said, ‘I see a big K.’ And the first name he said was Kevin. You can’t get that off of just being in a room. It was just amazing. I think he’s wonderful, absolutely wonderful.”

Skeptic Michael Shermer explained how Van Praagh knew about the Wheel’s son:

“First of all, she had her son’s ring on. Big black ring with a K in diamonds on this ring, on the necklace around her neck. Now, maybe he saw that, maybe he didn’t. I don’t know. I was watching her eyes. She starts crying. Her eyes are like saucers. And he already knows it’s her son that died. The two most common names for boys starting with a K are Ken and Kevin. He says, ‘Ken or Kevin?’ she says, ‘Kevin.’ Bingo, Kevin. Now she’ll run home and tell everybody, ‘He got my son’s name right just like that, and I didn’t tell him.’ No, he didn’t get it.”

However, Theresa claimed Van Praagh could not have seen the ring because she kept it hidden in her dress. But perhaps disagreements about details are beside the point. Six of the ten participants felt Van Praagh correctly identified the people that they had hoped to contact, and most felt a sense of comfort and healing. For Van Praagh, that’s enough:

“When one realizes there is a life after death, it indeed will change their life and how they live on the earth and how they treat each other. And that is really my most important belief, my mission.”

Watch this case now on Amazon Prime in season seven with Robert Stack and in season eight with Dennis Farina. Also available on YouTube with Dennis Farina. Various seasons available now on Hulu.



  1. Debra

    Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Although this is so obviously true, and although I don’t doubt the possibilities of paranormal experiences, I do have reservations about James Van Praagh. The other stories of such abilities on this episode of Unsolved Mysteries (SO7:E13) had a strong sincerity about them. To me, his readings did not. If he were having a conversation with me about something that was not part of a psychic reading, and he related something hard to believe, I probably would question the validity of it. Normally, I am prone to believe even things that others would likely find incredible and probably a lie. This is partly because my own life experiences are so varied compared to the average person, that I realize that others may also have such experiences. To me, Van Praagh just lacked credibility. It wasn’t so much what he said, as how he said it, and his overall manner. I just didn’t feel right about him.

    About paranormal abilities: Of course, I should mention that some conservative Christians do not accept this because they feel it is not of God. I believe there are references in the in the Bible for that belief, references regarding soothsaying. I will have to examine them more closely since I am a Christian. I know that trying to speak to the dead is spoken of negatively, although I am not presently sure of the circumstances. For instance, many Christians go to a loved one’s grave and talk to that person, as do people of other religions. I have never heard of that practice being criticized as not acceptable to God. What I wonder is why paranormal abilities and experiences cannot also be of God. After all, almost anything, maybe even everything, can be used for evil or good.

    I don’t want to put a damper on someone feeling better about their loved ones passing or about being reassured of an afterlife. That is important. Still, they do not need to seek that assurance from a psychic or someone claiming to be one. The theologies of probably most religions address that. In fact, it is generally a major teaching of theses religions. If those seeking to know this are also unsure of the existence of miracles, well…it doesn’t take much to recognize miracles. They are everywhere!! Miracles come in all shapes and sizes. Some seem incredible, some are relatively small, and some we take for granted because we are so accustomed to them, or we just don’t recognize them for what they are. If you don’t believe that, just think about the beating of your heart. Some scientists may think they can explain that away. Regardless, there will still be something missing in that explanation. How happy are the people you know that don’t believe in miracles?


  2. Groovie

    The issue with physicness is that it is never 100% right. The government experiments into remote viewing and physic ability all concluded that psychic ability is REAL but not accurate enough for government uses. That’s what we are seeing with all of these, I think that psychic ability is somehow linked through the lens of how we see dreams, like where it is fuzzy logic and we just know things without knowing why.


  3. Nick

    James van Praagh is a snake oil salesman. Like all alleged “psychics” who claim to talk to the dead, he’s doing a technique called “cold reading”, wherein the “psychic” asks a bunch of vague questions waiting for the clients to feed him information which he then turns around and uses to guess what to say. Often he relies on information fed to him before his reading. It’s all a combination of being able to read people’s body language and blind luck. It’s a magician’s trick.

    The episode of USM that features him was back in the day before his “gift” got him his television show so you can see how often he gets things wrong. On his show, Van Praagh uses pre-gathered information from the audience via application forms, bugged studios (so he can overhear audience members talking about who they hope to reach). Then, through deceptive video editing, he can make himself look like he is getting “hits” more often than not.

    This guy is making money off the grief of others and perverting their memories of their loved ones.

    Anyone who wants to get in touch with this charlatan should really think twice. If there was anyone in this episode of USM that you should have been listening to is Michael Shermer, the skeptic that USM planted during a seance. He’s been exposing these phonies for decades.


  4. Tiffany Horton

    Hello, I wanted to know if there’s anyway I can contact James VanPraagh or if he could contact me to see if he could answer a few questions for me?


  5. Dyann Olson

    I have a close personal interest in this case, as Doug was a friend of mine. I was also his secretary when he was a new associate attorney at Brobeck, Phleger and Harrison in Palo Alto, California. He was the nicest person you could ever meet. The claims that Mr. Van Praagh has made are are believable to anyone who knew him well. The claim that Doug traveled world wide and helped people is true. I have photos that will attest to this. In fact, in the months preceding his death, he sent me photos of his trip to China and Tibet. He was a spiritually sensitive individual and his loss was felt by many. Doug spent many evenings at our home and my husband and I became good friends with him. I believe there is much to this thing we call life that we do not understand and I wouldn’t dream of possessing a certainty of knowledge on the mysteries of life – but I do believe the human spirit does not die when the body stops functioning. Unfortunately, speaking the truth about paranormal experiences often fails to translate well. No matter how articulate our attempt to explain an experience is, we just end up coming off a little fruity to someone who has not had a similar experience. I think Mr. Praagh is a brave man to go public with his gift and I’m glad that Doug followed his parents to their meeting with him. I hope they have found peace; for losing a son is a very heavy matter and Doug was a good son who held his family close to his heart.


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