HANDS IN SEARCH OF COSMIC ANSWERS: Using the spirit board they had found in a catalog, Laura and Freddie believed they had established contact with entities from the Cassiopeia constellation.
"All right, everybody. The date is February 3, 1996."
She and Freddie were seated around the spirit board at a table in the living room. Two fingers from Laura's right hand and two from Freddie's were extended to the center of the board and were resting lightly upon the planchette. Extending in a circle around the planchette, printed on the board, were the letters of the alphabet.
"Hello," said Laura, and the planchette began to move, veering from one letter to another. Speaking in a monotone, Laura called out the letters, one at a time, in an unbroken flow.
In the corner, one of Laura's friends -- a woman named Susan Vitale -- sat with a notebook and pen. As Laura announced the letters, Susan wrote them down. When Laura stopped, Susan looked at the page and read aloud what the letters actually said.
"Words mean little."
Other people were seated around the room. Cherie and I were there; so was Lewis this time. We were all there to watch, and listen, and learn whatever the Cassiopaeans -- or whoever else was truly providing the answers -- wanted to share with us.
"Okay," Laura asked them. "We have have several questions tonight. Do you, first of all, have any particular messages for anyone here?"
The planchette moved.
The stream of letters seemed to go on and on. Susan studied what she had written down, pausing for a moment to break the stream into words.
"The need to deliver messages flows naturally. There is no way to choreograph it by requesting a specific time for this procedure."
So they began. Laura and her friends posed their questions. The planchette journeyed across the board. The answers were written down, then recited aloud.
This night, the topics of discussion were varied. Laura and the others wanted to ask about a report they'd heard of some sort of giant spacecraft, a ship allegedly the size of Earth, sighted around the planet Saturn. Complete nonsense, said the Cassiopaeans.
Their exact response, given in another stream of letters: "IT WAS AN ARTIFICIALLY CONSTRUCTED TALE."
Laura asked if a man she knew was controlled by aliens. Sometimes, came the answer. She asked about el chupacabras, a strange creature that had been reported recently in Puerto Rico, slaughtering animals and drinking their blood. Some people wondered if the creature was an alien. Well? said Laura.
The answer: "IT IS WHAT IT IS."
"Is there any possibility that this creature will attack human beings?"
"YOU DO NOT YET COMPLETELY UNDERSTAND THE MECHANICS
OF . . . ''
From my seat nearby, I watched the whole thing carefully, studying Laura's and Freddie's shoulders and arms, looking for signs that they were purposely pushing against the planchette. I saw none, but that proved nothing. I listened to the answers that Laura was calling out, letter by letter. Usually they came quickly, flowing together without interruption, Laura announcing them all in the same monotone.
Laura appeared to be lost in concentration, focused entirely on the board. Yet when someone else in the room spoke, in between the exchanges, she heard them and responded. Freddie appeared to have gone into some kind of trance. His eyes were half-closed; his breathing seemed to have slowed.
This was the fourth or fifth channeling session I had attended, and still I had no idea what was really happening. Were Laura and/or Freddie directing the planchette, either consciously or unconsciously? Or were the answers truly coming from another corner of the Milky Way? Even the question itself seemed ridiculous. All I could do was sit and watch and pay attention.
Laura and Freddie had been conducting these sessions since 1994. After years of experimenting with the spirit board -- Laura had found the board in the paranormal section of a book distributor's catalog -- they said they had finally made a connection to beings from another reality. These were the so-called Cassiopaeans. Or, as Laura usually called them, the Cs. Now, Laura and Freddie held a running conversation with them every Saturday night.
After sitting in on the sessions, I still would have been hard-pressed to describe what these sixth-density entities were supposed to be and why they were so eager to hang out in New Port Richey, chatting away for hours with Laura and Freddie. All I knew was that they were supposed to exist on a higher plane than earthlings -- sadly, we have only achieved third-density status -- which explained why they could just pop into Laura's living room and share secrets from not just the past and present but also the future.
Laura wanted in on some of the secrets. In one session after the other, she asked the Cs about her life, her past, the fate of the Earth, anything that popped into her head. She asked about history, science, religion. She asked about Bigfoot, Hitler, President Kennedy.
For months now, she had been asking the Cs about her son, Jason. Something strange had been happening with him, ever since he was a little boy. From 3 or 4 onward, Laura said, Jason had gone on about another life, separate from the one he was living now. He had details. He talked about a different house, a different family. He talked about a black dog named Samson, brothers and sisters, a special friend of his. Sometimes he would have long conversations with this friend. He would sit in the bathroom and talk on and on with her, as though she were with him. He called her Janie.
There was more. Jason knew how he had died in this other life. Years ago, under hypnosis, he had talked about that, too. He said he remembered being in a plane. He was flying the plane, he said, and a missile was coming at him, and then there was smoke, and then nothing.
Now Laura wanted the Cs to help her understand. Why had Jason carried these memories of another family? Why did he believe he knew how to fly a plane?
The answers startled her. In a former life, the Cs told her, Jason had been an Air Force pilot killed during the Vietnam War when his plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. Now, they said, he was remembering details from the crash and from the life that had preceded it.
Sometimes, as in this case, the responses that came off the board were simple and direct. Many other times, though, they were vague and confusing. There were many topics the Cs simply refused to talk about, saying that to do so would interfere with humanity's free will. The Cs, it turned out, were big on free will.
All of the responses, no matter how confusing, were audiotaped and written down. Eventually the exchanges were typed out into the transcripts. By this point, there were nearly 1,000 pages of transcripts, and Laura pored through them all, looking for clues, connections, suggestions for where to direct her energies next. To listen to her talk about it all, it was obvious that she thought that maybe, just maybe, she had finally found the cosmic blueprints. Now she was trying to learn how to decipher them.
If this sounds endlessly fascinating, think again. Sometimes, yes, the answers coming from the board were interesting, even fun. On a couple of occasions, the Cs addressed themselves to Cherie or me directly. One night, just as I was putting away my notebook and getting ready to make an exit, they told me to sit myself back down. They were polite about it, but firm.
"PLEASE DO NOT LEAVE JUST YET, MR. FRENCH," said the stream of letters coming from the board.
Laura paused. "Why?" she said.
"WE MAY HAVE SOME THINGS TO SAY TO HIM."
I sat back down. When a sixth-density being tells you to do something, you tend to listen. Still, I could not help but laugh.
What followed was encouraging, but not especially dramatic. The Cs told me that I had been through some hard times, but that I had finally opened "a doorway to my subconscious" and learned how to examine "the metamorphosis of my being." Good things, they hinted, were just down the road.
"THERE ARE MANY CHANGES YET TO COME."
This did not seem particularly prescient on the part of the Cs.
Much of the material coming out of the sessions was rather dull. The answers seemed to take forever, what with each word being spelled out one letter at a time, and they almost always seemed to concern chakras and electromagnetic wave bursts and other concepts that only Laura and Freddie appeared to understand. Many times, I sat in Laura's living room, stifling a yawn.
Personally, though, I found the tedium reassuring. To me, it actually gave the channeling sessions a bit of credibility. Why do we expect that aliens are going to be so interesting? Isn't it more likely, if we were forced to actually sit next to them at a party, that some of them might just bore us to tears, going on about the maintenance on their hyper drives and so forth? I'm serious. If the Cs had been showering us with galactic news flashes, claiming to tell us how to cure cancer and live forever and find Jimmy Hoffa's body, it would have made me suspicious. To my mind, it would have increased the likelihood that Laura was orchestrating the whole thing, trying to show off. But week after week, the sessions plodded along, moving down the same impenetrable path.
"TOTAL TRUTH IS ELUSIVE," the Cs announced one night.
"What are we supposed to do?" asked Laura.
"YOU WILL DO WHAT YOU WILL DO."
Typing the transcripts of the sessions was monotonous work, and yet Laura poured herself into it, often staying at her keyboard until well past midnight. Piece by piece, she said, she felt she was moving closer to some answers.
By this time, Laura had abandoned any serious resistance to the notion of alien interference on Earth. She seemed ready to accept that UFOs were real and that many of the abduction reports were true.
After months of studying the Cassiopaeans transcripts, Laura was talking about a battle being waged on this planet and others between forces of good and evil -- a battle similar to the struggle between light and darkness that she had described seeing during the exorcisms. She said there appeared to be many different races of aliens, from different parts of the galaxy. Some of them, like the Cs, were interested only in furthering our understanding of the universe. Others were malevolent. Repeatedly Laura told me that these dark aliens were systematically feeding off the energy and even the flesh of humans.
"We are not at the top of the food chain," she said.
These dark aliens, she asserted, were the same lizard-like creatures who had haunted her childhood. As best I could put it together, her theory was that these aliens -- "the Lizzies," she often called them -- were threatened by her and wished to control or even destroy her.
As she asked the Cs more and more about these subjects, Laura's theories about the Lizzies became more sinister. She said she had met a woman who talked of dreams in which she had been raped by alligator-like creatures; clearly the Lizzies. Laura saw them everywhere. She talked about them implanting devices inside people's bodies to monitor their movements. Other times she went on about zombie-like people whom the Lizzies manipulated; she said they stole or paralyzed these people's personalities, then used the empty shells that remained as spies or soldiers. She even sensed the Lizzies' presence behind violent outbursts occurring around the planet.
One day, that March of 1996, I was interviewing Laura at the house when Lewis walked in, talking about a shooting in Scotland. A gunman had burst into a school and opened fire, killing 16 children and their teacher.
"This is exactly what I'm talking about," Laura said.
Lewis scoffed. Clearly, he did not buy all of his wife's theories.
"I'm usually even-tempered, but I could be implanted," he said, suddenly making his eyes bug out. "You don't know."
Laura ignored him. Lewis walked away.
After hearing all her theories about the Lizzies, I asked Laura if she thought they were also responsible for many of the alleged alien abductions. She said yes; either they carried out the abductions themselves, or directed humanoid aliens to carry them out. These were "the grays," the little gray men with huge black eyes, described in so many people's abduction accounts.
What about Laura? Looking back on all those strange nighttime episodes in her past, did she think that she too had been abducted?
When I first brought this up, Laura would not answer. She had clearly thought about the possibility, but when my questions veered into this territory, she would become visibly uncomfortable. As time went on, she gradually seemed more ready to talk about it. She had worked up the courage to ask the Cs, she said, and they had confirmed that indeed the Lizzies had taken her away repeatedly, from childhood onward. Even so, she was not willing to linger on what precisely had happened.
In all my conversations with Laura, this was the only subject she shied away from. If I pressed her on these issues, she would squirm in her seat, grow pale, look away.
"I don't want to think about it," she would say, fighting back the tears.
As the months went by, it seemed increasingly obvious that this subject was at the core of whatever was going on with Laura.
Cherie and I had still felt that Laura genuinely believed the things she was telling us. Something had happened to her. But what was it?
I was not closed to the notion that in fact Laura and others might have suffered through terrible encounters with extraterrestrials. I have never seen a UFO myself, but I have no trouble accepting the possibility that alien life may exist and that in fact some of these aliens might not be exactly warm and cuddly. Still, it was hard to know what to make of many of the things Laura told me.
As she once wondered about other people who believe they have been abducted, I thought it conceivable that Laura had suffered some sort of traumatic abuse as a girl and was inventing these alien episodes to cover up her memories of the abuse. Some details from her early history might fit with this theory. A succession of men did move through Laura's childhood. After Laura's parents divorced, her mother had remarried four times; once, Laura says, one of her stepfathers kidnapped her for several days.
I asked Laura if she had ever been abused by that stepfather or anyone else. She said no, absolutely not. When I asked for details of the kidnapping, she said she did not know. She had almost no memory of it, she said; it was all a blank.
Other possibilities occurred to me. I wondered if maybe Laura had imagined the face at the window and all the other strange episodes as a way of injecting drama into her life. Was it possible that she was bored, or lonely, or simply so desperate to find something to occupy her mind that she had created this huge fantasy? What if all of it -- the exorcisms, the spirit detachments, the channeling with the Cs -- was just some massive, unruly play that her subconscious was constantly staging to keep things interesting?
NEW YEARS BLAST: Lewis Martin prepares to go outside to fire his shotgun at midnight on New Years Eve 1995. Lauras mother, Alice Knight, is at right. At left is one of Lauras friends, Sandra DePaoli, who died a couple of months later. Laura has since communicated with Sandra through channeling sessions Im better on this side of the board than on that one, Laura says Sandra once told her.
This was a possibility Laura repeatedly raised herself.
"Sometimes I think I'm losing my mind," she said to me. "Is this what being mad is like? Because, you know, some really crazy people can really seem sane."
Every time she brought up this possibility, Laura dismissed it. She said that she had occasionally been to counselors and psychologists, as many of us have. But to her knowledge, she told me, she has never been diagnosed with any mental illness.
Early on, I considered asking Laura to be evaluated by a psychiatrist, at the newspaper's expense. What if a doctor could put a name on whatever was happening with her? What if he or she told us that Laura was manic-depressive, delusional, even schizophrenic?
Ultimately, though, I never asked Laura to put herself under the microscope. It didn't feel right. The more time I spent with her, the less I wanted to try to force her into another box. Whatever was happening with her, there was something remarkable about the way it was playing itself out. She was raising her children, enjoying her friendships with Freddie and others, reading and learning all the time, exploring the reaches of her imagination.
The woman was leading a life. It wasn't a perfect life, not even close. But it was hers, and it was extraordinary, and I was not about to interfere.
* * *
Things were happening in front of me that I could not explain. Laura did things, little things, that I could not figure out. Like the letters that came off the board when she was channeling. Sometimes she recited them so fast, they came out in a single flowing stream. How did she do that? If she was just making up the answers, or her subconscious was making them up, how did she compose them so quickly, without hesitation or interruption?
These were not just "yes" or "no" answers. Sometimes the answers were long and complicated. Some of them sounded like things Laura would say; I could imagine her thinking them up, and then breaking them down and calling them out in the individual letters. But other times, the answers didn't sound like Laura at all. They sounded like they came from someone else, someone who knew things it seemed unlikely Laura would know.
Either way, I could not understand how she sometimes managed to call out the letters so fast. I would listen to the letters pouring out, and I would try to hear the words hidden inside them, and my brain could not keep up. The letters melted together into one long non-stop blur.
Maybe it proved nothing. Maybe all these things showed was that Laura was smarter and quicker than anybody I'd ever come across.
Still, none of that prepared me for the trip to Punta Gorda.
* * *
A CURIOUS DAY IN PUNTA GORDA: Laura and her son, Jason, stand at the grave of an Air Force captain who died in the Vietnam War. Laura thought it was possible that Jason had been the captain in an earlier life; the dead mans family found it all unbelievable.
It was Jason.
Laura was still thinking about her son's recollections of his former life, the brothers he'd never had, the plane he had been on when it was shot down. She was still asking the Cs about it, trying to learn as much as possible. They had supplied her with a name.
Actually, they had supplied her with two names. It could have been a first and last name, or a first and middle name; there was no way to tell. For reasons that I will soon explain, I am not sharing those names here.
Laura and her friends had taken the names and done some research of their own. They had found a record of an Air Force captain whose plane had crashed during the Vietnam War, in April 1969. This captain's first and middle names appeared to match the ones supplied by the Cs.
Through the research, Laura learned that this Air Force captain had grown up in Punta Gorda, only a couple of hours or so south of Pasco County. Laura called the funeral home that had handled the captain's funeral and found a man there who knew the surviving family. He told Laura that two of the captain's sisters still lived in the area. With his help, a meeting was arranged between Laura and Jason and the two sisters.
One bright Saturday morning, Cherie and I followed Laura and Jason down to Punta Gorda. We met with the sisters at one of their homes. One was 59, the other 63. In the most unusual social encounter I've witnessed, the sisters conducted themselves with remarkable warmth and grace. As we all sat in the living room, they shared their family history and allowed us to look through photo albums.
"That's our mother," said one.
"Our mother," said the other.
The sisters told us about their brother and their grief when his plane went down. They took us to the cemetery where their brother was buried. Jason stood and stared at the captain's tombstone. He had hardly said a word all morning. Now he said nothing.
What I remember from that day, even more than the image of Jason standing over that grave, are the details from the captain's life and how some of them meshed with the things that Laura said Jason had talked about as a boy.
Jason, the only boy in his family, had mentioned having brothers. There had been seven children in the captain's family. Four boys, three girls.
Jason had described a black dog he called Samson. The captain's family had owned a dog. A black chow, named Sambo.
And then there was Janie. In the middle of telling the sisters all the things that Jason used to say about this other life, Laura mentioned, almost in passing, the conversations he would have with his special friend Janie.
One of the sisters -- whose given name was not Janie -- grew very still.
That was what her dead brother used to call her, she said. The two of them had only been a couple of years apart, and they had been close. And like the other siblings, she said, he had referred to her as Janie.
"No one outside the family knew I had the nickname," she said.
* * *
Laura wasn't sure what to think.
To her, the meeting with the sisters lent credence to the possibility that Jason had been a pilot in a former life.
After Laura and Jason headed home to Pasco County, the captain's sisters were left to ponder the episode. Later, when I called one of the sisters to ask for their impressions, she dismissed the whole thing.
She and her sister had agreed to meet with Laura and Jason, she said, merely to see if there was any substance to the story. Afterward, she said, they had decided there was not. Yes, Laura and Jason had supplied some details that matched their brother's life. But many other details, she said, were wrong.
For instance, Laura had talked about how the captain had died while returning from a mission. She'd said the Cs had told her that a surface-to-air missile had hit the plane. But after Laura and Jason left, the sister had written the federal government under the Freedom of Information Act and obtained records of her brother's death. Those records, she said, showed that his plane had not been hit by a missile, that it had crashed on takeoff. Furthermore, she had interviewed a man who drove her brother's flight crew out to the plane that day; he confirmed that it had crashed on takeoff.
Something else: Laura said Jason had talked about being a pilot, and the Cs had told her that the captain in question had been flying the plane when he was shot down. But the sister told me that her brother had never been a pilot; he operated reconnaissance equipment on the plane.
Now, she wanted no part of Laura's theories. She felt for Jason and wondered if Laura had planted these suggestions in his mind. As for the facts that did match, she thought they were possibly a coincidence; she also wondered if Laura could have researched the family long-distance, before the meeting. Either way, the sister did not want her brother's name or her family's name connected to the reincarnation story.
"I just don't believe a word of it," she told me.
* * *
I had no idea what to make of it.
Many of the details supplied by Laura did not fit. And yes, she could have engineered the whole thing. Still, I had seen the surprise on the sisters' faces when the nickname of Janie was first mentioned. If Janie was only a family nickname, how much work would it have taken for Laura to come up with it? In a town the size of Punta Gorda, wouldn't the captain's family have heard if someone was checking up on them so extensively?
* * *
I did not see the turn in the road, just ahead.