NEWS- Strange feud: Victorious Renier foe offers to team up

It's probably safe to say that Albemarle's nationally renowned psychic, Noreen Renier, didn't foresee this one. The lawsuit filed against the Free Union woman by Seattle-area skeptic John Merrell has resulted in a five-figure monetary award against her.

The pair's spirited squabblery has boiled over many times since the 1982 libel lawsuit in which Renier nailed Merrell for some letters he wrote to an Oregon newspaper. She eventually turned that into a $25,000 settlement– the only known case of a psychic successfully suing a skeptic. A court-ordered verbal cease-fire also ensued.

But then their horns locked again over the 2005 publication of Renier's memoir, A Mind For Murder. At various points in the chapters detailing the 1982 lawsuit, Renier's language becomes accusatory, and she calls Merrell a liar. Merrell took her to court, claiming her language violated the settlement agreement which required both parties to cease disparaging each other in the media. (He also responded in kind by registering a web domain closely tied to the title of Renier's book and using it to run an extensive debunking campaign – albeit one that backed its claims by providing the text of relevant court documents.)

The months leading up to the current lawsuit saw a November 2006 Hook cover story, the introduction and subsequent dismissal of Renier's assorted counterclaims, and the court's description of some of Merrell's legal moves as a "comedy of errors." Finally, in an April 5 ruling, Judge James Robart of the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington awarded Merrell $39,558.12 for his legal fees.

"After I win, I'll be happy to talk to you, but at this point I have no comment," Renier said in the November story. It's understandable, then, that neither she nor her attorney Shelley Hall returned the Hook's repeated calls for comment on the recent turn of events.

Merrell's reaction to the ruling, however, would have rattled even the venerable Nostradamus. In a plot twist resembling an episode of Law and Order written by M. Night Shyamalan, Merrell immediately offered to forgive the debt– with a few strings attached.

"Should Renier be willing to rapidly reach an agreement to prove under a qualified and sanctioned test something as simple as her claims... I would be willing to erase her $39,558 debt," he says in a statement. He also proposes a scheme reminiscent of Fox's 1997 Masked Magician television exposé in which Renier would flip her allegiance and team up with a skeptic writer to uncover fraudulent psychics.

"It's an awful poor choice for her," Merrell laughs. "She's in deep, deep tapioca!"

Even renowned psychic investigator James Randi, occasionally called "the Great Debunker," and best known for his $1 million reward for a scientifically valid demonstration of psychic phenomena, was caught off guard.

"I don't know quite what his strategy is," Randi sighs. "I don't think she knows she's a fraud herself."

One has to wonder, though, whether Merrell can justifiably count this as a win in a conflict where his own fees top $48,000 for just the current suit– not including the $25,000 he lost the first time around. His website proudly trumpets the amount of financial damage he estimates he has caused Renier, but adjusting for inflation since 1982, his losses and winnings would probably barely balance out– and the lawyers still have to be paid fees that he estimates at $200,000. What's the point?

Well, for one, the memoir he found so offensive has been withdrawn from publication by publisher Berkley Books in the wake of the lawsuit. But Merrell also reveals a personal stake in the matter, tied to some last-ditch healing efforts of his father, who was fighting a losing battle with cancer in the late 1970s.  

"In the process of dying, he was taken for a ride by some psychics," says Merrell. "One of the promises I made to him was that I would attempt to better inform the public about psychic fraud."

It would probably behoove Merrell to parse his language a little more carefully, though– loaded words like "fraud" are what landed him in deep tapioca himself back in 1982. And after all, Renier does have the support and acclaim of law enforcement agencies across the country, as well as some high-ranking FBI officials. Last week's ruling deals only with the appropriateness of Renier's conduct regarding the settlement agreement, and is in no way a judgment of her abilities.

The jury's still out on that one.

Noreen Renier