These Files May Be "Real-Life"
But Is She Really "Psychic"?
 

BOOK REVIEW
by Gary P. Posner

A Mind for Murder: The Real-Life Files of a Psychic Investigator.
By Noreen Renier with Naomi Lucks (Berkley Books, New York, 2005.
310 pages. Paperback, $7.99)  (Note: This edition was withdrawn by the publisher
and another version issued by another company in 2008 (see here for details.)

 
The foreword to A Mind for Murder, Noreen Renier's memoir of her career as a "psychic investigator," begins, "I have had my throat slit. I have been shot. . . . I don't like to get killed more than two or three times a week -- it's just too exhausting." I found the entire book an entertaining adventure -- it's a page-turner, and the writing isn't half-bad. But are the author's "psychic" claims even half-true?

Boasting endorsements from retired FBI criminologist/author Robert Ressler (who coined the term "serial killer"), among others in law enforcement and parapsychology research, Renier is the only psychic ever to have lectured at the FBI Academy (at Ressler's invitation). She says she has worked on "more than four hundred unsolved homicides, missing persons, and rape cases." Even if true, does this mean that she must therefore possess genuine "psychic" ability?

Renier, who lived in the Orlando area for nearly two decades before moving back to Virginia early last year, has emerged as a darling of Court TV's disappointingly pro-paranormal primetime Psychic Detectives series, which no doubt has helped cultivate an eager audience for this book (and which now is also airing on NBC). But few readers are likely to have any familiarity with the mound of skeptical material that has been written -- mostly by yours truly -- about some of her most celebrated cases. [Note: Renier returned to Orlando in early 2013.]

The 1986 libel trial against skeptic John Merrell and their ensuing legal battles, thoroughly addressed in my contributed chapter (also posted here) about Renier in Psychic Sleuths: ESP and Sensational Cases (Prometheus Books, 1994), occupy two chapters (17 and 18) of Renier's book. But she leaves out the most delicious tidbit: She enticed (some might say entrapped) Merrell into a comprehensive investigation of herself by writing to him under an assumed name (her sister-in-law's) requesting a candid appraisal: "I'm confused about her abilities and need to know if she's real or not. She's planning a workshop in July and I need to make a decision." Ever since their 1992 out-of-court settlement, the terms of which are sealed, I have been hard-pressed to squeeze anything more about Renier out of John, even though we are good friends. I have inferred that their settlement forbids either from speaking ill of the other again. If so, I sense that someone may have violated those terms -- big-time. [Note: The two anti-Merrell chapters were excised from later editions of the book, as explained here.]

Chapter 1, about how Renier discovered her "psychic" powers (including the power to heal), reads more like fiction than fact to me. But I can no sooner dismiss those stories than I can her versions of many of the book's "real-life files," such as when a detective invited her to help rid a home of a poltergeist (Chap. 5 -- though the names of the detective and the town have been "protected" for privacy reasons), or her first murder case, in which she divined the probable killer -- a policeman -- though, due to lack of tangible evidence, he was never charged (Chap. 7 -- again, the identities are "protected").

Yet I remain highly skeptical as to the factual fastidiousness of this autobiography, and the notion that the author possesses paranormal powers. One reason is my general knowledge that a sure-bet Nobel Prize still awaits the first person able to demonstrate "psi" to skeptical observers under properly controlled conditions. Another is my specific knowledge about a number of the other cases featured in this book.

For starters, the man in Houston (Chap. 9) went missing in 1998, not '96. Renier does accurately quote a reporter's misquotation of me ("The founder of a skeptics chapter in Florida said [this case proves] nothing because no one can prove that psychic power is real"). I was properly quoted later in that same article: "There is no good scientific evidence that psychic power exists."

The New York Zodiac Killer case (Chap. 20), as I pointed out in my Psychic Sleuths chapter, illustrates how when Renier holds an object belonging to a victim, reads the vibrations (through "psychometry"), and "becomes" the killer, she is unable to divine her own identity. In this case, she began speaking in first person as Zodiac, saying such things as, "I have black hair, it's curly . . . I feel I have dark skin. . . . I speak Spanish well." During her July 16, 1990, Joan Rivers Show mind meld with Zodiac, she failed to identify him. But her book claims she later came up with "Eduardo" in a reading for the NYPD, and Zodiac (whose eventual capture was unrelated to Renier's clues) was named Heriberto Seda and nicknamed "Eddie." (As an aside, footnote #45 credits my chapter in Psychic Sleuths for citing an article that I have never even seen.)

Renier is perhaps best known for three predictions relating to the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan. The first was on November 5, 1980, during her radio program on WXAM (Charlottesville, Va.). These were Renier's words (Chap. 11): "I'm feeling problems in [Reagan's] chest. If it's not a natural problem, perhaps it will come from outside." Reagan was the oldest elected President, and lung cancer or a heart attack, to name two, would have also been considered "hits." According to p. 84 of The Blue Sense, singled out by Renier for its "kind words about me," two years earlier she had a presidential trifecta disaster, having predicted that President Carter would be assassinated on the White House lawn (#1) after his reelection (#2), and that Vice President Mondale would commit suicide (#3).

Her second Reagan prediction appeared in the March 10, 1981, National Examiner tabloid (referred to in the book simply as "a Canadian publication"), saying Reagan would be shot in the left upper chest but not killed. This was right-on, but does it prove "psi"? Was it merely as lucky a guess as her Carter/Mondales were unlucky? Was it even accurately presented and attributed? It was accompanied by other predictions that did not come to pass, and which Renier denied authorship of per a transcript from the 1986 libel trial: "The newspaper put in three or four jazzy ones without my -- I didn't do three or four of those predictions."

The third Reagan reading was her crowning achievement. According to Robert Ressler's libel trial deposition, during a January 1981 lecture at the FBI Academy in Quantico, "She said she felt that Reagan was having a heart attack in the future . . . some sort of chest pains . . . and then clarified . . . it is a gunshot . . . she was patting her left side . . . and that he would not die." But Ressler's contemporaneous description to co-worker Richard Ault, another FBI Supervisory Special Agent, left him nonplussed. I quoted Ault in my Psychic Sleuths chapter: "The way [Ressler] described her prediction . . . it didn't really sound uncannily accurate. [It] sounded pretty general." Alt had missed Renier on that occasion, but had been present on at least two others. Though readers of Chap. 11 will be blown away by her descriptions of dazzling readings during her other lectures, Ault had told me, "At no time during any of her lectures . . . was I impressed."

In Ressler's 1992 book, Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI, he adds that Renier also "helped to locate a [downed] plane containing the body of a relative of an FBI agent" (pp. 270-71). The incident, which occupies Chap. 16 of A Mind for Murder, is covered extensively in my Psychic Sleuths chapter. Notwithstanding the kudos from Ressler (and the other FBI agent), the local newspaper reported that a man and daughter had located the small plane's wreckage while searching the dense woods "based on reports from two area pilots who [had] witnessed [the] crash." Renier's version mentions no witnesses and implies that her geographical clues, obtained psychically ("I was the plane"), were instrumental. Even more curious is Renier's contention that the relative had briefly survived the carnage: "Sitting on some flat rocks under a nearby tree, as if someone had placed her there [as Renier had seen in her "psychic" vision prior to the plane being found], they found the headless body of a young woman. They found the body of [the agent's relative] a few yards away, sitting on the side of a hill. . . . It was clear to everyone that he had been alive when he left the plane." Well, not quite everyone. As I revealed in Psychic Sleuths, the NTSB determined that all four occupants had "died immediately" upon impact.

The only Renier-related case I have investigated on site (for an A&E Television show) involved the March 24, 1994 (her book says "in April") disappearance of 67-year-old Norman Lewis and his truck in Williston, Florida (Chap. 21), which I critiqued at length in Skeptic magazine (Vol. 5, No. 4, 1997) and will address only briefly here. The police credit her with having provided valuable clues, but unmentioned in Renier's book is that Det. Hewitt knew that Lewis had been contemplating suicide in one of the area's many quarries. Hewitt ultimately scouted about 30 of them, but were Renier's clues specific to the one in which the man was ultimately found? My findings argue not. As but one example: Lewis' body and truck were found submerged, 2.1 miles from his home, adjacent to State Route 45 -- supposedly "hits" for Renier's "21" and "45" numerical clues. But an audiotape obtained from the police reveals that Renier had actually said, "Maybe 4, maybe 5. If it's 45 miles, if it's 4.5 miles . . . "

At the end of Chap. 18 (click graphic on right to enlarge), Renier says, "I am still -- I guess inevitably -- hounded by skeptics. The most relentless is Gary Posner of the Tampa Bay Skeptics, who seems to be on something of a crusade to discredit me." But Renier does not contest anything I have written about her. All she can add to that is, "Fortunately, he has a number of critics. The very well-respected author and doctor Larry Dossey has criticized him publicly about some of his writings. And among the people coming to my defense is Detective Ray Krolak." [Note: Chapter 18 is one of the two that were excised in later printings.]

Detective Krolak credits Renier with helping him solve a double-homicide case in upstate New York (Chap. 19). Again, I refer the reader to Psychic Sleuths, but I'll recount this one item: Krolak credits Renier with fingering the dead couple's grandson as one of the killers. But on the May 30, 1991, Geraldo show, with Renier on stage and the grandson's mother sitting next to Krolak in the studio audience, the mother responded unequivocally, "She did not do that. She did not finger my son." Neither Renier nor Krolak disputed her. His e-mailed complaint to me was that I had not personally interviewed him before writing about this in my chapter.

And although Dr. Dossey may not have been pleased with my tough Skeptical Inquirer review of his seminal book, Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine, I am unaware that he has alleged any factual errors in my writings. Dossey is prominently featured on my website's "Critics" page (along with Krolak and several others) only because he took umbrage to the manner in which I once dared challenge a proponent of supernatural healing to a test of his claim that anyone can be instantaneously bestowed with the ability to survive -- absolutely unharmed -- a sword passed entirely through the body.

Back in the foreword of A Mind for Murder, Renier says, "But even though there's no way I can prove to you I'm a psychic, I don't mind being challenged." And in Chap. 17 she says, "I have found that there is no way to prove to . . . dedicated skeptics that psychic phenomena exists [sic]." But while she was living near Orlando, Tampa Bay Skeptics (which I founded in 1988) offered her our "$1,000 Challenge" to prove just that. Though we were open to any mutually agreeable protocol, we suggested a "psychometry" demonstration infinitely easier than the one she supposedly nailed in front of a room full of skeptical policemen (Chap. 8). An object belonging to her, such as a ring, would be placed in a sealed envelope. Similar objects from other people would be sealed in similar envelopes. Rather than having to perform convincing readings on all the objects, Renier's task would simply be to determine which of the envelopes was emanating her own vibrations, as opposed to those of a stranger -- and to do so enough times to achieve greater than 1 in 1,000,000 odds of success by pure chance guesswork (actually back then TBS required 1 in 10,000,000 odds, but has since made the requirements 10x easier). Given that her career is rooted in just this sort of readings, identifying her own vibes should be no more difficult than recognizing her own photograph among a selection, if she indeed can do what she makes a living convincing others she can do. Regrettably, Renier declined.

Her book contains many additional beguiling stories, some involving non-"protected" police cases, and as I said earlier, I enjoyed it. But with "more than 400" cases to choose from, might 350+ be clinkers? Even considering the best this book has to offer, is it time to rewrite our science textbooks to include a chapter on the reality of "psi"? And although Renier claims -- repeatedly -- that she requests no background information, so as not to skew her "psychic" impressions, is it possible that she pre-researches the extensive press coverage of these horrific incidents?

Regardless, stories such as the following will hopefully open the minds of at least some close-minded believers to the likelihood that Renier's readings are but flights of fantasy: "I was told by the ancient oak, 'We have one fear and that is of fire. Would you mind not smoking while you're touching me?' Stunned, I quickly pulled my hands and the cigarette away from the tree" (Chap. 12). Another clue in that direction was omitted from the book. Although we learn the names of Renier's mother, daughters, and dog, notably absent are two former(?) friends who were described this way years ago in one of Renier's promotional packets: "An optional trance is held in the evening with workshop members encouraged to make contact with deceased relatives, friends or famous people, and questions may be posed to 'Sing' and 'Robert,' Noreen's two main spiritual entities, who have something to say about everything!"

Noreen Renier's ability to enchant such an array of law-enforcement personnel, some to the point of praising the value of her assistance despite contrary evidence (as in the "missing plane" case), is nothing short of astounding. But as even a tasty meal begs dessert, A Mind for Murder leaves me hungry for a morsel of compelling scientific evidence to substantiate this sort of "psychic" power as fact rather than fiction.


A condensed version of this book review appears in the Sept/Oct 2005 issue of Skeptical Inquirer.

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