Suspected counterfeiter is missing and presumed dead. Secret Service agents are fresh out of leads. Psychic Sonia Benser thinks the answer can be found in ratlesnake Swamp.

MURDER, SHE SAW A

May 29, 1994|By Patrick A. McGuire | Patrick A. McGuire,Sun Staff Writer

Isle of Wight Courthouse, Va. -- Some 25 miles west of Norfolk, in the center of what Virginians know as Isle of Wight County, and the rest of us would quickly recognize as the middle of nowhere, a rugged 4 x 4 bounces down sandy, barely discernible trails leading toward Rattlesnake Swamp.

Inside, four improbable companions peek through the dust at the forsaken, broken scape of woodland, choked by layers of sweet honeysuckle and shrouded in bleak stillness.

Three are armed, sober-minded men who look every bit like agents of the United States Secret Service. The fourth is a bleached-blond, matronly woman, heavily made-up and perfumed, and wearing a black evening dress.

Her name is Sonia Benser, and this seems as good a time as any to note that when she was 16 she was struck by lightning near her Baltimore home. It is said that those who are psychic, as Sonia believes herself to be, become even more empowered when struck by a bolt from the blue -- assuming, of course, they survive.

Suddenly, Sonia turns to Lawrence V. Kumjian, a steady, cautious veteran of 19 years spent hunting down counterfeiters and scanning crowds for potential threats to a president. "Here's where it gets hard to believe," he will admit later. For Sonia tells him that a fifth person has entered the truck.

"Dennis is with us," she says.

Dennis would be Dennis Ray Curry, a long-missing fugitive who represents the final loose end in one of the largest counterfeiting cases in Virginia history. Since late 1990, more than $4 million in fake 20s and 50s have been dug up from the swampy areas in this countryside; three counterfeiters have already been sentenced to prison terms.

The fourth suspected conspirator, Curry, is believed by agents of the Norfolk regional office of the Secret Service to have been murdered and buried, like a needle in an impossible haystack, somewhere out there in the swamp. Uncovering his body, they believe, may not only put to rest the counterfeiting case, but also help close an unsolved 1988 murder, to which Mr. Curry is also connected, of a drug dealer in rural North Carolina.

So they've tried just about everything to find his grave. They've brought in specially trained, cadaver-sniffing dogs; they've gotten the Navy to fly a jet over the vast swamp and take high resolution photographs; they've recruited a firm called Necro-Search -- highly sophisticated scientists trained in the detection of buried human remains.

And yes, as long as they were covering all the bases, they said "Why not?" and brought in Sonia Benser with her black dress and her perfume.

Actually, there was a little more to it than "Why not?"

An off-duty agent visiting Baltimore at Christmas heard about Sonia Benser and her willingness to use her psychic powers to help police. In February, Mr. Kumjian, Norfolk's resident agent in charge, decided to follow up, phoning her at her Glen Burnie apartment. Without identifying his agency or any particulars of the Curry case, he told her he was looking for somebody.

"And she said to me, 'He's dead, isn't he?' " he recalls. "I said, 'Yeah, we think so.' Her next remark was, 'He's in the water.' When I heard that, I thought, incredible. Then she said, 'You work for the government. Something to do with the president, and you can't tell me much about it.' "

For the next two months the skeptical Mr. Kumjian, who doesn't even read his horoscope in the paper, kept a careful log of his telephone calls to Sonia. During that time, she named the first and last initials of the victim's name, and correctly described him. She also gave the initials, correct first name and description of a person agents suspect in both the Curry killing and the 1988 homicide in North Carolina. She described a knife used in the murder, which fit with information agents had gleaned from sources -- as did her belief the victim had been killed "to keep him quiet."

And she repeatedly described a rocky, stump-filled area with murky water, barking dogs and a strong connection to the letter P.

Not long after, Mr. Kumjian did what 10 to 30 percent of the nation's police agencies do each year, according to various studies: He officially enlisted the help of a psychic.

"I'm very skeptical," he said at the time. "But she told us things she couldn't have known. The Secret Service doesn't normally look for bodies, and Sonia is just one of several unusual resources we're using. If, in fact, this man was murdered, we owe it to him and his family to do the right thing."

And so there they were in that 4 x 4, the three agents, the psychic and the spirit of a murdered man, creeping along through the swamp. At the close of the day, at the dead end of a long, winding trail that Sonia had directed them to, the vehicle pulled to a stop.

Spread before them, in the middle of the woods, was a large, open, swampy area cluttered with rocks and lots of tree stumps.

And a dog kennel filled with perhaps dozens of barking dogs.

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