From Psychic Sleuths: ESP and Sensational Cases (edited by Joe Nickell, Prometheus Books, 1994, pp. 60-85)


The Media's Rising Star Psychic Sleuth:
Noreen Renier

Part 4

By Gary P. Posner

Return to Part 3

 
During the original Oregon libel trial, Merrell had disputed the accuracy of many of Renier's claimed psychic successes. The case I find the most fascinating, and for which the most documentary evidence is available, deals with her role in locating an airplane that had crashed in Massachusetts. To this day, Merrell remains convinced that the verdict in Renier's favor resulted, in large part, from her having moved several female jurors to tears with her "psychic" rendition of the tragic death scene of a young man and his female companion. For these reasons I have selected this case to present in detail, to illustrate the importance of employing intensely critical scrutiny when evaluating even the most impressively corroborated paranormal claims.

The Blue Sense  correctly states, in its single-sentence reference to this remarkable case, that "special agent Mark Babyak [of the FBI] testified that Ms. Renier had successfully helped him locate a crashed plane." (41) And Renier continues to promote this case as one of her most amazing success stories, as she did in the April 1, 1992, Woman's Day  article, "Can psychics solve crimes?" The following is her dramatic and emotional description of events as recounted on the May 22, 1990 "Joan Rivers Show":

A lady [Jessica Herbert] called me on the phone and told me she was an FBI agent's wife [Note: actually Babyak's ex-wife], and her brother was missing up north in the Massachusetts area . . . I was in Virginia and she was from Washington [D.C.] . . . and would I help find a plane. . .. I'm a homicide detective and I usually just work with the police, but for some reason I decided to take the case....She brought me a metal cup...and a wallet [both belonging to her brother] . . . and she came to my house....And I prove -- I always prove -- I described what her brother looked like. . . . And then I could see the plane. It was right in the middle of these trees. . . . So I went up high [like an airplane or a bird], and I could see this little gas station down below . . . and I could see a woman with no teeth, I could hear dogs barking, I could see a dirt road. And about half way up the mountain -- that's where the plane was - numbers started coming into my head -- they turned out to be longitude and latitude. . . . Then she said "Tell me, is my brother alive? What do you see?" And I saw the two people up front [in the plane], their necks were broken. And then he placed it under a tree, and he started walking away. . . . When they found the plane, the two people in the front, their necks were broken. Her brother had carried a headless woman, and sat this headless woman against a tree, and had walked several yards away.  And the longitude and latitude were right, [and] the gas station with the barking dogs. The woman with no teeth had owned that gas station for years and had died the year before.

Jessica Herbert had testified that within days of her visit to Renier, the plane was found in "an area exactly the way [Renier] had described it . . . very thickly forested, very primitive . . . very rocky. . .. [S]he mentioned also that there was a down draft that had sucked the plane down, she could feel the -- well, in fact, this down draft caused by that hill being there, the way the air current flowed off the runway and...they were flying too low . . . and it had caught in a down draft. That's exactly what happened. And she also described the injuries. . . . [My brother] had survived the crash and he'd tried to help the girl . . ."  [Emphasis added.] (42)

The following is from the testimony of FBI Special Agent Babyak:

[T]hey had been unable to find any evidence of a plane and were going to call off the search, so Jessica was quite frantic. . . . I had heard from a friend of mine at work here of someone that I could contact . . . Noreen Renier. . . . Jessica went to see her. . . . [S]he did come away with a description of an area and events that transpired leading up to the crash which was substantial enough that I obtained the assistance of a friend of mine who is a pilot with the Bureau, and we rented a small plane and flew up to the area. . . . [T]his was off-duty, totally unrelated to Bureau activities. . . . [F]ollowing the directions that Noreen had provided us from the standpoint of landmarks, speed, turns, things of this nature . . . [we began circling an area]. . . . [It had become late and was getting dark]. . . . [W]e got a firm conviction from the man who was running the search that they would put a foot party in [the area we were circling] . . . [and] then our presence basically became unnecessary and both Mr. Crause [the pilot] and myself did have to be back [home] the next day. . . . [T]he following day a resident of that area and his daughter, due to our circling over that area constantly [the day before] went out in that area themselves and they found it prior to a search party finding it. . . . But it was in basically the area that we had been circling over and that's what, again, drew them to look in that area. (43)

According to newspaper accounts, the January 28, 1984 crash and explosion were heard by local pilot Ronald Richards and a companion, moments after they noted a low-flying plane pass over the Gardner, Mass. airport. (44) An exhaustive but fruitless ground and air search was commenced on Jan. 31, and called off on Feb. 7. (45) But efforts were resumed on Feb. 9 at the request of Jessica Herbert, who arrived on scene that day in a chartered plane from Washington. (46)

Finally, on Feb. 10, the wreckage of the plane was located. The following is from John Monahan's front-page story in the Worcester, Massachusetts Telegram:

Four bodies were recovered from the twisted wreck. . . . The bodies of two of the victims were found dismembered amid snow-covered debris strewn in a wide area. Two others were found inside the crumpled body of the craft. . . . Inspector Murphy said last night from the appearance of the wreckage all four probably died on impact.  The search . . . ended when a Templeton man, Carl F. Wilber, 40, and his 18-year-old daughter, Cheryl L. Wilber, found the wreckage shortly before noon in woods about a mile from their South Main Street home. They were among a number of area residents who continued searching on their own in the hilly and swampy woods southwest of the [Gardner] airport. They continued the search, they said, based on reports from two area pilots who insisted they witnessed a plane crash while at the airport the night of Jan. 28.  The Wilbers set out on foot and, using a compass, followed the last known direction of the aircraft as reported by the two witnesses.  Once in the area yesterday, the Wilbers said, Cheryl suggested they follow a set of deer tracks, thinking the curious animals may have already gone to the crash site. The deer tracks, they said, led them to the wreckage  one hour into their search. [All emphasis added.] (47)

Newspaper accounts on Feb. 13 and 14 reported upon the results of the post-mortem examinations performed by the medical examiner. Arthur Herbert, 28, brother of Jessica Herbert, was positively identified as one of the four victims, all of whom, according to Dr. Paul Hart's findings, "died immediately" upon impact  [Emphasis added.] (48, 49)

Two years later, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued its official determination of the causes of the crash. Inadequate preflight preparations, including lack of adequate winterization of the engine, had created unsafe conditions aboard the craft. The NTSB report said the crash occurred "during a forced landing after a fire ignited in the aircraft" [Emphasis added.] (50)

July 30, 2006, Correction:  I discovered only today that the preceding paragraph and its newspaper citation refer to an entirely different crash -- another one near the same tiny airport six days earlier -- and which much more closely matches Renier's clues.   I regret the error.

However, the actual circumstances immediately preceding the crash involving Arthur Herbert are even more intriguing than my erroneous account.   As Merrell reports on his website, the pilot had not filed a flight plan, had turned off all his plane's lights upon approach, and (via his radio transmitter) had turned off the runway lights as well! [Note: Merrell's website was revamped in early 2010, and much material removed, in conjunction with an apparent cease-fire with Noreen Renier.]

Special Agent Babyak had more than just Renier's "psychic" impressions to guide him in his search for the missing plane. The following exchange had occurred during the deposing of Babyak by Merrell's attorney: "Q: Your ex-wife indicated in her deposition that there had been a report of a crash right off that airport, and that crash was supposed to have happened on the night that her brother's plane was missing. Were you aware of that report? A: I was aware of that through her, yes." (51)

Jessica Herbert had further testified during her deposition that her visit to Renier had taken place one day after their initial telephone conversation about the case. (52) At the time, Herbert had obviously been keeping herself well-informed as to the progress of the investigation into the plane's disappearance, though she, like everyone else, was unaware of two facts that would only later be discovered: the condition of her brother (dead on impact), and the cause of the crash (fire). [See "Correction" notice above]   Even if Renier had used the one day available to her to research the published accounts of the then-week-long search for the missing plane, witnessed to have crashed in a hilly, wooded region near the Gardner, Mass. airport, those two facts would have remained unknown to her -- unless, of course, she was "psychic."

In her Practical Homicide Investigation  commentary, Renier emphasizes that, "As I describe the victim and the scene...I insist on feedback. A simple 'Yes' or 'I understand' is sufficient." (53) Coincidentally, this is precisely the sort of feedback that magicians and psychologists rely upon in their very convincing "cold reading" demonstrations in which, pretending to have "psychic" power, they are able to convince strangers that they know all about them. On the following page, the textbook's author cautions that, although Renier is presumably beyond reproach in this regard, "It is important to note that charlatans and frauds exist in all professions . . . [and] flourish in the area of extrasensory perception....[M]any frauds merely 'feed back' information . . . which is already a matter of public record, having read a newspaper account....Or a fraud may have access to information on the case through family members...which give[s] the impression that he or she has some psychic knowledge of events." (54)

If Renier really does possess "psychic" abilities, such should be a simple enough matter to confirm unambiguously, by means of a carefully controlled test, under conditions which eliminate the possiblility of cheating or self-delusion. During my 1986 radio appearance with her, Renier initially expressed resistance to being tested by a group of skeptics. But under pressure from Mark Plummer, then Executive Director of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (who participated by phone from CSICOP's Buffalo headquarters), Renier commented to the effect that, "You know where I am if you want to test me." Immediately after the show, both Bev Smith and her producer expressed to me their interest in doing a follow-up program, and in possibly assisting in the arrangements for a controlled test of Renier, who was billed as the Bev Smith Show's "resident psychic." I attempted to pursue this matter in two subsequent letters to Smith's producer, but never received a reply.

During a February 1990 telephone conversation with Terry Smiljanich, Chairman of the Tampa Bay Skeptics (TBS), Renier agreed to receive from TBS a proposal for just such a test, though she did remain non-committal. (55) (I founded TBS in 1988, and since 1989 we have been offering $1,000 for any  successful demonstration of any  paranormal phenomenon.) In Smiljanich's follow-up letter to Renier, he referred to her 1989 appearance on ABC-TV's Incredible Sunday, "in which you performed 'psychometry' on police officers' keys and rings, which were sealed in envelopes. . . . If you are indeed able to read the vibrations from such objects [and then to give a "cold reading" of the person's life], you ought to be able to determine if a hidden ring or key is one of your own,  or that of a stranger. I propose that we employ keys and/or rings....After touching or holding the [envelopes or] boxes, you would choose which contained your own object..." (56) A test of this nature, in contrast to her typical "cold reading," allows the odds of "success" and "failure" to be mathematically predetermined, and the results to be immediately and objectively self-evident.

Renier never replied directly to Smiljanich, but in a later telephone call to me she expressed her disinterest in being tested "by a doctor and an attorney" (referring to myself and Smiljanich), since she was "working on too many police cases and with too many scientists to have the time....I'll let the scientists do it." (57) The names of these scientists and the dates and results of any such tests were among the information that Merrell had hoped to compel of Renier during the course of his now-settled lawsuit against her. (58) Renier's attorney has since informed Smiljanich that he has advised his client not to speak with us further, citing TBS's "predisposition" in our newsletter's coverage of Renier's activities. (59)

But the Tampa Bay Skeptics remains willing and able to carry out a test -- perhaps the one suggested by Smiljanich, or even an appropriate one designed by Renier herself -- should she ever reconsider. A prior version of Renier's promotional packet contained a newspaper article alleging another easily testable ability: "She intimidates some people, such as opponents in billiards, where she uses her powers to block shots." (60) And given Renier's claim on the May 22, 1990 "Joan Rivers Show" that she has the ability to see right through one's clothing, any number of far more entertaining test possibilities come to mind.

Footnotes


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