Downtime

Justice Rising

Meet the astrologers who search the skies for clues to earthly crimes.

As astrological chart against a night sky with a hand holding a magnifying glass over it
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Matteo Viviani/iStock/Getty Images Plus, juliawhite/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and ByoungJoo/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

In September 2016, a 21-year-old woman named Jessica disappeared. She had been at a party in Kansas City, Missouri, and was last seen leaving with a man who, it was later revealed, had been linked to the disappearance of another woman nearly 10 years earlier. A few days later, Jessica’s car was found burned and abandoned near an underpass. The police began investigating. Nearly 2,000 miles away, in Washington state, a woman named Pythia Serpentis investigated, too.

Serpentis is not a professional investigator. She asked to use her pen name to protect herself; a suspect in a cold case she worked on had once harassed her over email, she said. By day, she works at a local cannabis shop, stripping marijuana plants of excess leaves. But on the weekends, she hones her craft as a forensic astrologer—someone who tries to solve crimes or gain insight into criminal behavior using astrology.

When she read about Jessica’s case in the news, Serpentis, who has studied forensic astrology for a decade, knew what to do. First, she asked a question of the universe: “Where is Jessica?” Then, she pulled up Astro.com on her computer and entered the time, date, and location of that ask. The website produced a wheellike “horary chart.” Encircled by a band of the 12 signs of the zodiac (Virgo, Leo, Cancer, etc.), the chart is sliced into 12 sections. Each slice, called a “house,” contains symbols that represent the planets’ positions in the sky at that moment. Using astrological associations, Serpentis interpreted the planets’ and houses’ arrangements at the moment of her question to mean “hot and fiery.”

Serpentis took her analysis one step further, detailing her work step by step on her blog so others could follow along. First, she identified Jessica as Venus, which symbolizes young women and lost items. Then Serpentis decided that to find Jessica, she would use an astrological formula called the “Part of Fortune,” which she believed to rule (meaning to influence) valuable objects like cars. In the end, Serpentis calculated that Jessica was 110 miles southeast of her car.

She was careful to couch her conclusion in a warning. “This is a chart on a piece of paper,” Serpentis wrote. “I don’t put my own gut feelings, dreams or other, ‘psychic indicators,’ in the reading.” Her disclaimer continued, “Astrology is not a scientific explanation of someone being dead or alive so I encourage friends and family with missing loved ones to hold out hope.”

The truth of Jessica’s disappearance that investigators unraveled over the following years was a story fit for true crime lovers, complete with an ex-boyfriend, a half-brother, and a mushroom hunter who found Jessica’s remains. (The top true crime podcast Crime Junkie would eventually air an episode about it.) It was also a story fit for the forensic astrology community, a group that has ballooned in recent years thanks to the boom in astrology and true crime. Through Facebook groups, YouTube channels, and blogs around the world, more disciples of this practice are investigating crimes than ever before—even if their work yields inexact results.

Jessica’s body was ultimately found nowhere near Serpentis’ prediction. But Serpentis wasn’t too surprised—after all, she said, distance methods are known to be unreliable. Moreover, forensic astrology has yet to solve a case. And even if the stars did align, the likelihood people would believe it is low. “Look, this is just astrology. It doesn’t mean that it’s fact,” Serpentis said. But if even adepts feel that way, why do these true crime mavens continue to dedicate hours dutifully trying to crack mysteries with methods they know are imperfect?

For centuries, people have used astrology to solve mysteries. Medieval medical practitioners thought the planets ruled different parts of the body; today, many believe the stars reflect our souls. Some astrologers consider crime-solving an extension of that self-discovery. As Cate Callaghan, an Australian forensic astrologer with one of the largest Facebook followings, wrote to me, “My intention … [is] to recognise the use of a particular incident related to a criminal act, as a metaphor for the potential of human behaviour.” You don’t have to take astrology literally to find it useful. For Callaghan, an academic by trade, astrology is like mythology—a story that prompts us to analyze the past as a way of better understanding the future.

While professional astrologers now make a living advising our daily lives, forensic astrology remains a hobby. Covering of a wide range of methods (and differing results), the practice can range from analyzing famous serial killers’ birth charts to creating event charts to understand the motives of terrorist attacks to using various formulas to map out where a missing person may be, as with Serpentis’ methods. Most forensic astrologers’ work rarely leaves their websites, serving as case studies for themselves and their followers, who approach astrology with varying degrees of belief. Some work with psychics, while others distinguish themselves from the paranormal, noting that astrology is rooted in the position of the planets—if the astrologer’s calculations and interpretations can become standardized, they argue, perhaps forensic astrology could serve a greater good.

Some forensic astrologers already orient themselves toward service, particularly those focused on active missing persons’ cases. Serpentis, for example, hopes her posts raise awareness about cases like Jessica’s. “Whether you’re right or wrong, you’re getting their story and their picture out there,” she said. Valerie Evans feels a similar responsibility to advocate for missing persons and their families. “It would be unfair for me to say I was instrumental in solving a crime,” said Evans. She never reaches out to law enforcement or the victim’s family; the majority of people who contact her through her website are family members of missing persons. And Evans, who works as a career coach, is happy to give answers and comfort for free—she said she usually ends up confirming what the family already suspects about a motive or perpetrator.

Police aren’t as keen on these placebolike answers. Though Serpentis and Evans said they have worked with law enforcement in the past—usually by way of a private investigator—their contacts declined to speak with me. Most police departments did not return my queries about astrology; the Federal Bureau of Investigation shared that it “does not use astrology in solving crime.” And as one former Los Angeles Police Department lieutenant wrote to me, it is not “in the stars for judges to allow astrologers into court.”

Sensationalized news stories of psychics solving cases aside, law enforcement’s silence is unsurprising. As well intentioned as providing support may be, forensic astrology has run into trouble. Many use pseudonyms to protect themselves; Serpentis even stopped practicing forensic astrology for a while after the cold case suspect contacted her, upset about a reading she posted. Evans said she once estimated a murder victim’s location in response to a family member’s request using a technique similar to Serpentis’ and posted it in a forensic astrology Facebook group. She later learned that, according to the family member, the police had found that the body was moved—from the location Evans suggested. Though the police didn’t approach her about it, Evans believed one of the murderer’s accomplices may have seen her post in the Facebook group and reburied the body. “After that, we decided to take a few steps back,” Evans said.

Sam Reynolds, an astrologer who does not practice forensic astrology, believes forensic astrologers should perhaps take a few more steps back, especially when it comes to celebrated cold cases like JonBenét Ramsey’s or accidental deaths like Kobe Bryant’s. As personally risky as it may be, sharing information with law enforcement about a current case at least is an active step toward helping, Reynolds said, whereas posting astrological interpretations about a famous tragedy online becomes more about the astrologer than the victim in question. “Some astrologers tell you it’s a great way to learn, but really to learn what?” Reynolds said. “If you didn’t predict it in advance, why does it matter?”

For Britanie Leclair, forensic astrology matters because it allows her access to a world she thought she’d have to give up. Leclair had dreamed of being a forensic psychologist, but her son’s birth two weeks after her college graduation made moving away to graduate school out of reach. But then, while caring for her son at her home and working as a freelance writer, Leclair discovered that astrology’s DIY nature allowed her to investigate people’s behavior from her home in Ontario, Canada. She analyzed her own astrological chart, then celebrities’, and then serial killers’, using forensic astrology websites to teach herself. Today, she is taking online classes at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David to receive its one-of-a-kind master’s in cultural astrology and astronomy.

Leclair concedes that her motivations are not purely educational. “We’re all a bit voyeuristic … or we wouldn’t be trying to do this,” Leclair said. “Everyone wants to know about themselves and wants to know about others,” said astrologer Sara Hawthorne. “The psychological crime junkies and podcasts, TV shows—people are obsessed with this because I think on some level, we don’t understand how someone could do such awful things. We’re all just looking for something that gives answers.”

The coronavirus pandemic has wrought a global catastrophe, but instead of faulting astrology for failing to predict it, many people have leaned on the practice even more. The New York Times reported in May that many astrology- and horoscope-related stories had seen a bump in traffic. Evans noticed a similar increased interest in forensic astrology, noting in an email that people may find crime-solving not only “a welcome distraction” but also a way to feel active “when traditional law enforcement channels fall short.” B.D. Salerno, author of Forensics by the Stars, offered a more worrisome explanation: “People are beginning to turn more and more to alternative ways of seeing and understanding things, given that so many are disillusioned and suspicious of the pandemic news coverage.”

In a moment where so much feels uncertain and mystery (or at least conspiracy) abounds, the turn toward forensic astrology makes a kind of sense. Life on Earth may be in flux, but up there, the planets continue on in their courses, same as ever, offering answers—and comfort—to anyone with the eyes to see.

This article uses pseudonyms for several subjects.