COVER- Seeing trouble: Renier's 'mind for murder'

Norman Lewis disappeared from Williston, Florida in April 1994, leaving no trace for worried family and friends, who contacted the authorities the moment they realized that his medication had been left at home.

"It's like he fell off the edge of the earth," said the local police chief.

Two years into the investigation, every rational lead the Williston police had in hand had been exhausted. In a frantic last-ditch effort, lead detective Brian Hewitt called in a team of Navy Seals to help search an abandoned rock quarry. After two days of searching and coming up empty-handed, the divers were ready to call it quits, but Hewitt begged for one more day, determined to pursue his last lead to completion. The next day, they found Lewis 20 feet underwater, still behind the wheel in the cab of his red pickup truck.

Hewitt would probably credit the score to Free Union resident Noreen Renier, though the Seals have since said that they'd have quit if they'd known they were investigating the clues she provided. Her answering machine helps explain their hesitation: "I knew you'd call," says Renier on the recording.

Renier can lay claim to the most interesting career in Free Union: she's a psychic detective, an investigative aide to police who makes available the full resources of the mystic, inexplicable side of the cosmos by finding clues and evidence with her mind. By handling an object the victim touched during the crime– such as a piece of clothing or jewelry– Renier claims she can mentally recreate the events in enough detail to describe the perpetrator or locate the victim.

In recent years, Renier has become a favorite in her admittedly oddball field, and she estimates that she has worked on over 600 cases in the last 35 years. CourtTV came knocking several years ago, and Renier has since figured prominently in their programming, particularly on the series Psychic Detectives. She has also appeared on the Joan Rivers Show, Unsolved Mysteries, 48 Hours, and Geraldo.

As the Hook reported in early 2005, Renier's notoriety brought her to the attention of the parents of now-convicted San Francisco-area murderer Scott Peterson, who at the time was still deflecting accusations in the disappearance of his pregnant wife, Laci.

"I think the Laci Peterson case was a very unusual case for me because I was called in right away," says Renier. "Usually when I'm called into a case, it's two, five, or even ten years old. I have a case that was a homicide in 1948. I'm the last resort."

It will probably be even longer before Peterson's parents call her again– she fingered him in the grisly crime which put mother and unborn child into the San Francisco Bay.

Her recent book details her gradual conversion from a white-collar Florida office worker to the Law and Order version of Nostradamus, describing the change one gruesome case at a time. There was the Staunton rapist of 1979, a necropheliac murderer in a town she won't name (to protect identities), and even New York's famed Zodiac Killer.

Renier summoned them all into her mind.

"Most of my cases you'll never hear about," she says. The majority are fairly standard homicide and missing person investigations without nearly as much hype as the Laci Peterson imbroglio, but Renier says her input is just as intense. She says she can view the re-enacted crime from the perspective of the victim or the perpetrator, switching at will on direction from the police. "They're all so different," she says.

She's so impassioned in her account because of the effect the crimes have on her. "There are so many ways for people to get killed, it's amazing," says Renier. "You'd think shooting and stabbing would be enough, but we do so many horrible things to people."

Renier has made a full-time career of reliving horrific crimes for decades. "It's probably been 30-plus years now," she says. "I was just a sweet young thing. I'm not young or sweet anymore. So many horrific crimes... that's why so many psychics are so emotional."

That's also why she titled her memoir, published in late 2005, A Mind For Murder.

Skepticism abounds

The answering machine of Maryland-based Chip Denman reveals quite another view of paranormal activity.  "At the moment we're having an out-of-office experience," deadpans Denman. As the founder of the National Capitol Area Skeptics, Denman thinks Renier has a mind for... well, something other than murder.

"As a scientist, I have an appreciation for the need for rigorous scientific method," he says. "As an amateur magician, I have an appreciation for how easy it is to be fooled.

"Just as a palm reader or a Tarot reader will use a combination of general statements and fishing-type questions, you can spin a story that listeners can interpret for themselves to be very meaningful and very personal," he explains. "The real secret of a psychic reading is to let the individuals find the hits for themselves."

Denman doesn't think Renier could further an investigation any more than, say, the guy doing Tarot readings on the Downtown Mall.

"There's no difference," says Denman. "It's just the trappings that they sell it with. Whether it's a crystal ball or a piece of jewelry or the lines on a hand, it's all the same."

Robert Ressler doesn't agree. A former FBI agent now living in Fredericksburg, Ressler knows how important it can be to follow instincts and patterns. Widely regarded as one of the most influential criminal profilers of all time, Ressler is credited with coining the term "serial killer." And he has never hesitated to turn to Renier.

"She's helped me on several cases," says Ressler, "and she's always been fairly accurate. You can't really gauge or grade these people, but I would say she was never 100 percent wrong. Psychic phenomenon is not a 100 percent phenomenon."

Private investigator Marlene Rockwell has worked with Renier on only a handful of cases over the last four years, but she says she's seen a compelling track record during that time.

"Her information is incredibly accurate," Rockwell says. "She says she's 80-85 percent, but I found her to be about 95 percent accurate. I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams the information that she could provide. It was just unreal."

Rockwell was so impressed that she has since taken to working with Renier during sessions, acting as an intermediary between Renier's trance-fixated brain and the flustered law enforcement authorities trying to pick it.

"Everyone thinks they're me"

The home office taking up half Renier's one-room log cabin in Free Union is stuffed to the studs with retrospective documentation covering hundreds of her cases– letters, photographs, and, yes, police reports. Renier says she has no problem with well-intentioned skepticism, even the sort she gets from cops.

"I don't mind skepticism," she says. "They should be [skeptical]; there are so many frauds out there."

Her book devotes an entire chapter to complaints about the frauds infecting her profession, and there are precious few contemporaries whom she holds in high esteem.

"Everyone thinks they're me, but they haven't been doing it for 35 years. They come in different sizes and shapes, and with different degrees of talent," she says. "It's like people saying they're artists. Yeah, they paint, but they're certainly not going to be a Picasso. Some of them read the police report, which I think is sort of cheating. If you're really psychic, what do you need to read that for?"

Gary Posner's answering machine is the most aggressive of the players in the psychic-skeptic debate. The device engages the moment his Tampa, Florida, phone rings and asks callers to identify themselves before he will pick up.

Posner founded a group called the Tampa Bay Skeptics, a non-believers' collective whose quarterly newsletter has so far laid out 14 articles critiquing Renier's work.

Once he finally picks up the phone, Posner is careful to limit the scope of his criticism, well aware of the logical principle that precludes the possibility of proving a negative in anything other than mathematics. Before engaging in off-the-record speculation, he switches to speakerphone and records the conversation so he'll have proof in case he's quoted against his wishes.

"I can't point to a case that proves that she doesn't have psychic power," says Posner. "All I can do is dissect the cases she presents as her best cases. Let's see how they stand up to critical scrutiny." 

A presidential prediction?

Of those cases, the most widely known is a prediction offered while Renier was at Marine Corps Base Quantico describing an imminent assassination attempt on then-President Reagan, in which Renier even pinpointed the location of the injuries he'd sustain.

"She pegged it almost to the day," recalls Ressler, the retired G-man. According to her book, Renier had been ruminating on the visions she'd been seeing and announced it on her WXAM radio show on November 5, 1980, the day after Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter.

In December, she reiterated the prediction in print for the National Enquirer and saw it published 13 days before the assassination attempt. The day after Reagan's inauguration in January 1981, she announced her predictions to Ressler's 250-officer criminology class at the FBI academy in Quantico. Reagan, she declared, would be shot on the left side of his chest and later killed by men wearing foreign military uniforms. She now says she just blurted it out without thinking.

On March 30, 1981 at the Hilton Hotel in Washington, a deranged young man named John Hinckley Jr. fired several shots, one of which struck the president on the left side of his chest.

Posner takes issue with all this.

"She had a presidential trifecta disaster," he says on his website. It seems that Renier also predicted that 1) President Carter would be assassinated on the White House lawn– 2) after his reelection. And 3) Posner says Renier also prophesied that Carter's vice president, Walter Mondale, would commit suicide.

To believers, she had a batting average of .333. That's pretty good by baseball standards, but according to the skeptics, she had just struck out. Like the suggestion that Mondale would off himself, Reagan's death at the hands of foreign military operatives did not come to pass.

It wasn't until October 6 of '81 when Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat was assassinated that an explanation became apparent. She had simply named the wrong president!

Dude, where's my plane?

A second contested case involves the 1984 disappearance of a small plane near Gardner, Massachusetts. Renier– with Ressler's blessing– claims to have located the plane through a psychic session commissioned by the ex-wife of one of the lost passengers. She described the crash site in excruciating detail and mentioned numbers that later turned out to be the latitude and longitude of the crash site, Renier claims in her book.

While Renier has given extensive interviews about how she psychicly "hovered" over the scene, two flesh-and-blood Massachusetts residents– a father and daughter who lived about mile from the crash site– were actually the first ones there. They say they found the place on their own and that Renier concocted her whole description.

"I read it, and it's totally wrong," says Cheryl Wilber of Renier's account. "Nothing she said was even correct," says her father, Carl. "I know some psychics are pretty darn good," he adds, "but she's way off."

Washington state resident John Merrell has compiled a litany of alleged errors in Renier's crash-site description: "No toothless woman. No abandoned gas station. No mountain. No hill. No dry-goods store. No hunting dogs. And no people wandering around alive."

But what about the map coordinates Renier supplied? Locating the Statue of Liberty– which is considerably larger than a light aircraft– requires coordinates to be accurate to the ten-thousandths place, and Merrell doubts that Renier had offered numbers with enough specificity. Renier's memoirs don't include the specific numbers she claims to have produced, so the world may never know for sure.

Merrell publishes his skepticism on a website that cops Renier's title for its domain name: If Merrell's campaign seems a little, well, spirited, it's because this time it's personal. In 1982, he wrote a scathing letter to the Ashland Daily Tidings newspaper in Oregon.

"He wasn't careful with his wording, and even though it wasn't published, a copy of that letter was forwarded to Noreen," sighs fellow skeptic Posner. That began a 20-year firestorm that cost Merrell his house and no shortage of gray hairs. Renier sued him for libel– and won.

The 1986 trial became the first– and, to hear Renier tell it, only– instance of a psychic successfully suing a skeptic. The matter was eventually put to rest in 1992 with a settlement of nearly $25,000 and a legally binding agreement in which both parties pledged not to disparage one another.

So when Renier's book was published in late 2005 with several chapters in which she repeatedly called him a liar, the gloves were off. This time, Merrell sued her.

"Research that I have done reveals her claims virtually are always exaggerated, at a minimum," says Merrell, who points out that CourtTV has the habit of leaving skeptics out of its breathless reports on Renier's abilities.

"She's the most brilliant psychic in the United States," says Merrell, "when it comes to securing media attention for her claims."

Publisher scared

Renier's publisher, Penguin Books, was served with a summons naming it as a defendant in Merrell's case, at which point the company halted publication. The publisher has since been dismissed from the case, but has yet to renew publication.

Renier doesn't say much about the lawsuit– just enough to allow her to exhibit the boundless confidence of, well, a psychic. "After I win, I'll be happy to talk to you," she says, "but at this point I have no comment."

But Shelley Hall, Renier's attorney in Merrell's home city of Seattle, has a little more to offer, and even points out an interesting subtlety of the documents Merrell has posted for public review on his website.

"In his lawsuit, he has not accused Ms. Renier of saying anything inaccurate," says Hall. "He simply says that she is not allowed to say bad things about him. Our position is that these statements in her book are well within her First Amendment rights."

Renier also has a few suspicions of her own here– namely, that Posner and Merrell are in cahoots, trying to find a way to discredit her while abiding by the terms of the initial settlement. "I'm sure Merrell was the one who probably drafted most of the stuff, just not under his name," Renier says. "Posner had never written about me until after the lawsuit and after that thing was signed."

Posner offers copies of old newsletters which appear to refute the last part of that statement. But in the end, Renier needn't worry about collapsing her critics into a single vast conspiracy network. For every highly profile skeptic like Posner and Merrell, there are other critically minded non-believers who expect Renier to bear the burden of proof when claiming paranormal superpowers.

Remember the man in the missing truck? Sheriff Olin Slaughter is quoted as saying, "I don't think we ever would have found him without her help."

Posner maintains a webpage ripping into this investigation with allegations hinting at overly favorable editing of Renier's remarks and wishful thinking such as twisting blurted numbers into proof and ignoring statements that don't fit the facts.

While Renier dismisses Posner for allegedly negative motives, his Tampa Bay Skeptics have issued a positive challenge, offering a $1,000 cash prize for a scientifically sound demonstration of her powers and explicitly setting forth the terms of the test. For over a decade, the Fort Lauderdale-based James Randi Educational Foundation has upped the ante by offering a million-dollar bounty to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal powers in a clinical setting. Foundation members even promise to hand off the testing procedures to an impartial third party.

Renier will have none of it, protesting that the debunkers aren't actually interested in the truth and would just sabotage her performance with underhanded trickery. 

"I'm sure it's feasible with the right people," she says, "but I don't know why anybody would like to be tested by skeptics."

[The name of Posner's group was incorrectly given in this, the story's second reference to his group, in the Hook's print edition. The name of the group has been corrected in this online edition–editor.]

It's doubtful that the prize money holds much appeal, because Renier is now in high demand. Two episodes of Psychic Detectives featuring Renier aired on NBC last year, and she's turning clients away despite having almost doubled her fees in order to discourage less serious inquiries. She has an open letter on her website to the hundreds of concerned fans who emailed to urge her to get involved in the disappearance of vacationing teenager Natalee Holloway in Aruba in 2005.

Longo's Heisman

And yet Randi still has his million bucks, and Charlottesville police chief Tim Longo has declined Renier's offer to help him track down the serial rapist whose DNA links him to rapes from 1997 to 2004. 

 Most tellingly, Renier's work is wholly inadmissible in a court of law.

 What will it take for the Reniers of the world to earn mainstream acceptance? Whatever it is, that seems to be the one side of the human psyche that she hasn't yet managed to decipher. She says the answer might be deceptively simple.

"Teach them," she says. "Show them how to do it themselves. That way they can believe in themselves, not someone else. You can't convince someone just by talking about it. My next book is going to be a how-to."

Noreen Renier

Noreen Renier

Renier's 2005 memoir, A Mind for Murder, chronicles her 30-plus years as a psychic investigator. "The are so many ways for people to get killed, it's amazing," says Renier. "...we do so many horrible things to people."

Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo doesn't want Renier's assistance in the serial rapist case

Gary Posner has contested Renier's favorite cases.

John Merrell, a skeptic of Renier's psychic abilities, is suing her for claims and comments she made in her 2005 memoir. "She's the most brilliant psychic in the United States," says Merrell,  "when it comes to securing media attention for her claims."