Superstitious Persuasion

With just forked sticks, bent coat hangers and pendulums, Arizona “dowsers” are discovering water, missing persons and – sometimes – fat fees


Published by: Scottsdale Times, March 2007

With a penchant for peppery dialogue straight out of The Sopranos , a tough round face and Archie Bunker steely blue eyes, retired DEA agent Kelly Snyder is hardly the kind of guy you’d expect to find getting in touch with his aura at a psychic fair, or sitting through a marathon of Medium episodes.

Yet for the past four-and-a-half years, this tough-talking Milwaukee transplant with over 25 years’ experience in law enforcement has functioned as the airy-fairy faction’s best friend, helping those touched by an angel connect with those who slap on the handcuffs.

“Most cops investigating a missing person’s case don’t want to talk to a psychic,” says Snyder, whose brother and son have also worked as cops. “I’ve had hundreds of psychics tell me, ‘Every time I try to call the police, they hang up on me or call me a kook. They think I’m crazy.’”

Snyder was once part of that skeptical camp himself – until he noticed a few of those kooks who called him with hunches in a case, later turned out to be right. He noticed other cops conferring with psychics, too – although usually out of desperation, after conventional methods failed. But they’d never openly acknowledge it, as if hiding an illicit affair with Miss Cleo.

Today, Snyder acts as the police liaison for Find Me, a group of 20 volunteer psychics putting hard-boiled detectives in touch with supersensory seers – and filling out the necessary police reports for which most mystics apparently lack the patience.

It’s a service to which Snyder says many police squads have been surprisingly receptive, no doubt thanks to his no-nonsense way of selling the team to fellow lawmen.

“I tell ’em, ‘Do you want 30 to 40 psychics calling you on this case?’” Snyder says, with a laugh. “I say, ‘Let me deal with them, and I’ll sift out the best information they come up with.’”

Snyder admits he has little patience for many in the psychic field himself. “I hate gypsies,” he says. “They’re all scumbags.” He also despises any so-called spiritualists who charge people money to find a missing loved one – a practice the not-for-profit Find Me strictly prohibits. “They’re the cruelest con artists in the book.”

But Snyder has developed a special respect for a certain strain of psychics known as “dowsers” – people who use the ancient art of water dowsing, sometimes called divining or water witching – to find the location of underground water wells, hidden objects or, in Find Me’s case, missing people.

Although the Find Me team utilizes everyone from a man described on its Web site (findme2.com) as a “gifted dreamer” to a woman who considers herself clairvoyant, clairaudient and clairsentient (meaning she can “see, hear and smell spirit”), it’s the group’s sole dowser, Dan Baldwin, whose hunches have yielded the most concrete results.

Last year, Baldwin successfully divined the location of two separate missing persons, whose dead bodies were unfortunately found too late. “We’d like to get the police to work with us at the beginning of the investigation, instead of the end,” Baldwin says. In February, Baldwin was tapped by an exasperated Gilbert police force to pursue the high-profile case of missing teen Jackie Hartman, found dead northeast of Fountain Hills last month.

Working primarily with a hand-held pendulum, which swings in a different direction depending on the questions posed by an experienced user, Baldwin feels dowsing is the “least ambiguous” of the psychic skills. “You get a definite ‘yes’ or a definite ‘no,’ or a definite location on a map,” Baldwin says. “There’s little left to interpretation.”

Getting a definite answer as to how dowsing works is trickier. Baldwin compares using the pendulum to using a Ouija board, where the subconscious is thought by believers to direct the hands to spell out messages. “It’s not magic, it’s not superstition,” he says. “It’s a tool that allows you to access information otherwise unavailable to your conscious mind.”

Kelly Snyder doesn’t even attempt to understand it. He’d just like to talk more skeptical cops – and citizens frustrated with the police’s sometimes glacial pace on missing persons cases – into giving the practice a try.

“I don’t have a clue about how guys like Dan do their stuff,” he admits. “All I know is the sh-- works. Not all the time, but enough.”

Dowsing Premonitions

For the past 23 years, Ed Stillman has been finding water in the Arizona desert using nothing but his mind and a Y-shaped rod – and he’s been right often enough that some Valley developers now willingly shell out up to $2,000 for his expert consultation before deciding where to drill.

“I don’t even need to advertise in the yellow pages,” says Stillman, a retired Lockheed-Martin engineer now living in Sedona. “I have a batting average of well over 90 percent, and my track record is known throughout northern Arizona. So it’s all word-of-mouth – and I’m loaded with work right now.”

Most recently, Stillman and his associate, Jack Baxter, succeeded in locating 5,450 dwelling units of potable water in the town of Buckeye using dowsing methods, and Stillman has found water buried under as much as 1,900 feet of soil in Flagstaff. Using “map dowsing,” a form of remote divining utilizing only survey maps and a pendulum, Stillman claims he can ballpark the location of a well without even visiting the site. Even more amazing, Stillman says he can project his mind four days into the future to determine if the well he senses below the ground will yield enough water to warrant the drilling.

Given his claims, it’s a little tempting, then, when a couple of dowsers open the door of the conference room following the meeting and discover the parking lot drenched by a sudden rainstorm, to ask Stillman if he felt that downpour coming.

“It doesn’t work that way,” he laughs. “Dowsers operate on a high intuitive level to sense low levels of energy coming from the Earth. But we’re typically talking underground wells.” Water falling from the sky, apparently, needs time to soak into the Earth’s geoterrestrial field before dowsers can detect it.

While dowsers rely on at least one of four tools to do their detective work – the traditional forked stick or Y-rod, a pair of brass rods bent int o an “L” shape (L-rods), a flexible wand with a weighted tip called a bobber, or a pendulum – Stillman says the magic’s not in the hardware but in the brain and muscles causing the devices to move, and that we all have the innate ability to do it.

“The human body has a direction-finding ability built into it,” he says, rattling off the results of a 12-person neuropsychological study on brain waves he headed up for the American Society of Dowsers that suggests he’s clearly done his homework. “You just have to develop it.”

To get into dowsing mode, Stillman says you first have to master the mental gymnastics of tapping into all four levels of consciousness at once: focused attention, relaxation, subconscious (what you experience in the first stages of sleep) and the unconscious (the brain waves that keep your body breathing during deep sleep). Essentially, an effective dowser has to get into a state where he’s simultaneously able to dream, chill, clear his mind and yet somehow still balance his checkbook.

That last level becomes particularly important when, like Stillman, you’re operating a dowsing business. He says his fee is non-refundable, even if a developer pays the two grand for directions to a drilling site that comes up dry.

Even so, Stillman says that out of the over 300 well-spottings for which he’s billed, he’s only been stiffed twice.

“I dowse for that, too,” he says, with a laugh. “I’m sitting there with a pendulum when I’m talking to a brand new client, and I’m not only checking to see may I, should I and can I do this job. I’m also dowsing to see ‘will he pay his bills?’”

Magic Works

Attaining the optimum brain state for dowsing requires more than simple meditation, and apparently it helps to have survived the ‘60s. Most of those active in the dowsing community seem to be in their fifties or above, and talking to a room full of them can feel like taking a trip back to the Summer of Love.

“When you start dowsing, and doing it sincerely,” says MaryMarie Satterlee, the warmhearted treasurer of the ASD’s Phoenix chapter who spends much of her time after the meeting making sure everyone’s had a stab at the potluck dinner, “you’re not tapping in only to your subconscious. You’re also tapping into your superconscious, or the God that’s with you. See, your subconscious only knows what you’ve learned in your lifetime. But to get to those answers that you haven’t experienced, you have to tap into a higher source.”

Dan Baldwin describes the dowser consciousness similarly, at one point lapsing into language that sounds lifted from John Lennon’s lyrics to “All You Need Is Love.”

“What you want to know, is knowable,” he says. “It’s all out there already. Call it God, the universe, whatever. You just need to access it. So you focus your conscious mind on the pendulum, and that allows your subconscious mind to access whatever is accessible.”

Satterlee, who’s taught dowsing since 1982, has become so adept at drawing out her subconscious, she’s even given it a nickname – although she declines to reveal it. She says she was inspired to make friends with her limbic self after reading a 1976 book by astrologist Isobel Hickey.

“She said you could talk to your subconscious, and even give it a name,” Satterlee says. “She just called hers ‘Subby.’”

Satterlee smiles, realizing her rhetoric may sound silly to non-believers. And in fact, most dowsers agree the greatest barriers to getting their divinations to work are the mental oppositions thrown up by the skeptical – or worse, sometimes, the overly hopeful.

“I get a lot of false readings from people wishing there’s water somewhere,” says Ed Stillman. “And developers are full of wishes for their property. So we have to scramble the frequency of the thought forms around us to get a proper reading.”

More often, the dowser is thwarted by the negative energy of those wanting to prove him a fraud.

“That’s why dowsers always do terrible when tested under laboratory conditions,” Stillman says. “The dowser can sense the thoughts of other people who do not want them to find the object.”

That’s also why Dan Baldwin’s Find Me group declines to go after runaways, who usually do not want to be found.

“There has to be a willingness to accept what we do,” Baldwin says, noting that such acceptance seems to be growing. “Oh yeah,” he laughs. “In the old days, I could be burned at the stake!”

Dowsing’s still dissed by much of the scientific community, where the biggest controlled studies – most conducted in Germany, where dowsing is said to be a $50 million-a-year industry – showed the dowser’s success at finding water was only slightly better than what could be found by chance.

Still, whenever a landowner drills deep into Arizona desert soil and finds a well of the state’s most precious resource exactly where a dowser predicted – or a cop finds a body where a pendulum-swinging tipster said it would be – the reaction is always amazement. “Sometimes,” says Baldwin, “the magic works."


Photo by Heather Riley

Dan Baldwin's dowsing techniques successfully divined the location of two separate missing persons last year. Unfortunately, their bodies were found too late.