Tarot card's usefulness as a lead is uncertain

Decks widely available

devotees say Death card represents only renewal

October 11, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

In all the death, the wounding and the fear, a tarot card stands as one of the few clues into the mind and motivations of the sniper whose bullets have left seven dead and two severely injured.

Yet who knows what, if any, secrets it will reveal?

Stuart R. Kaplan, chairman and founder of U.S. Games Systems, the world's No. 1 producer of tarot cards, said yesterday that if the card came from one of his company's decks, it would be possible to sift through individual mail-order buyers in Maryland or Virginia, as well as local retail outlets where that deck was sold. Still, there could be dozens of places that sell the cards.

"It's a lot of leg work," said Kaplan, noting that a copyright on the card could be traced. "It's possible. It's like a needle in a haystack."

He said his company has been trying to help police with leads on stores that carry its products. The Stamford, Conn., company makes 150 different types of tarot decks, each with its own Death card.

The card was found Monday outside a school in Bowie where a 13-year-old was critically wounded. It bore the taunting words, "I am God." Police have declined to discuss the card or to describe it in any way.

Kaplan estimated about 1,500 decks have been made since the cards first appeared in 15th-century Italy. More are published every year, some by individuals, others by companies and artists seeking new interpretations of the timeless themes found on the cards. More than 100 new decks have come out of Japan alone in the past few years, said Kaplan, who has written several books on tarot cards.

He estimates 20 million Americans have tarot card sets. Some are collectors, who like them for their artistry. Salvador Dali designed one deck. Another incorporates baseball images while another uses Halloween imagery. There's even a children's deck with characters from fairy tales.

Tarot experts have a few theories about what the card reveals.

"We all knew right away it wasn't a tarot reader who did it. It wasn't anybody who knew about tarot, because a tarot reader wouldn't leave that card," said Sandra A. Thomson, president of the 500-member American Tarot Association. "It would be interesting to me how the message on the back is written because most tarot cards have a design on the back. And, so it would have to be something like a grease pencil or a dark marker that would show through that design."

Devotees of tarot say the cards have nothing to do with the occult or with fortune tellers.

"Most people who are tarot scholars, or readers or enthusiasts understand that the [Death] card stands for renewal," said Mark McElroy, vice president of the association. "A lot of people's education about tarot comes from television, and in the movies it is very dramatic for Madame Zola to turn over the Death card and say, `This is your future.'"

McElroy dates the latest resurgence of interest in tarot to the late 1970s and early 1980s. Devotees of tarot use the cards as a way of investigating their world, the opportunities and challenges they face.

Given the Death card's true meaning, and the one handed down from Hollywood, McElroy is wary of drawing too much from this one clue.

"In times of crisis, people want to latch onto anything that can give them an answer," he said. "In this case a lot of people are latching onto this card and trying to draw a meaning, but who really knows."

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