VOL. 17 NO. 1 SUMMER 2004
Court TV documentary series
The March 24 and 31 installments of Court TV's criminally credulous documentary series Psychic Detectives profiled two crimes for which Noreen Renier has been credited with providing police with invaluable "psychic" assistance. The second program dealt with a case that was not entirely convincing to the detective. But the first (discussed below) was quite another matter.
Renier, who lived in Florida for many years before moving back to the rural Charlottesville, Virginia, area in January,
was described as having "cracked cases for law enforcement agencies around the country, including the FBI." I have had
occasion to investigate one such claim -- her Williston police case, and reached contrary conclusions (see TBS Report,
Fall 1996, Winter '96-'97, and
Summer '97). During a 1986 libel trial involving a skeptic who had accused Renier of
"fraudulent activity," now-retired supervisory special agent
Robert Ressler testified that Renier's FBI-related claims
are "not true from the standpoint of being a paid employee [or] being on a retainer or being used in any regular
capacity. She does not work on FBI cases.
But the specific case profiled by Court TV on March 24 involved an elderly couple in Colonie, N.Y., near Albany, who had
been murdered in their home in 1986. According to the narrator, as the detectives begin to formulate a list of suspects,
"One family member grabs investigators' attention, the
With no arrests after two years, at the urging of the son and daughter Krolak consulted Renier by phone. At her request, he then sent her some objects belonging to the victims. In their follow-up conversation, "Krolak is stunned, as Noreen describes the crime scene to a 'T' even though he has given her no background on the case." No background? Krolak: "I didn't give her much information. I just told her it was a homicide, a double-homicide, and Jake and Dora's names." Oops! Renier (or an associate) could have researched the newspaper coverage of the case, had she so desired. Krolak says he obtained Renier's telephone records to see if she had made calls to the Albany area but found none, convincing him (if not me) that she had done no such research.
According to Krolak, during Renier's reading "she felt the killer
Frustrated, Krolak decided to fly to Renier's home (in Orlando at that time), taking with him photographs of his top 10
suspects. As reenacted on the Court TV program, he laid out the 10 photos (upside down at Renier's request) on a
tabletop. Narrator: "Noreen immediately eliminates seven photos.
But now we get to this case's signature claim. Noreen turns over her third card, revealing the face of the grandson. Yes, Renier fingers the grandson, saying, "This man planned it." And at Renier's urging, Krolak checked the trio's alibis more carefully, found holes, and all three suspects have now been convicted.
I suspect that most viewers came away with the strong impression that Noreen Renier must be the real deal. I doubt that more than a fingerful of viewers had benefit of tapes of the following two television programs: Geraldo (syndicated, May 30, 1991) and 48 Hours (CBS, May 13, 1992).
In the latter, CBS News correspondent Doug Tunnell says, "One of the people Noreen led police to was a new suspect,
a member of the victims' family
Now for the smoking gun (if there is one) on Geraldo. With Renier on the stage and both Krolak and the grandson's mother -- who had encouraged that Renier be brought in on the case -- in the studio audience, Geraldo asks the mother, "Marge, are you confronted now with the incredible dilemma that the psychic has apparently fingered, or helped to accuse, your own flesh and blood of killing your parents, his grandparents?" Marge's reply: "She did not do that. She did not finger my son. She did finger the other two."
The camera cuts to Renier, who merely smiles. She had earlier told Geraldo that she retains little memory of her
"psychic" readings once they are over. Nor did Krolak contest Marge's statement, although he did say immediately
thereafter, "During the session
So, is Noreen for real? We now know that the CBS News claim of Renier fingering the grandson as a new suspect was false. Contained within Geraldo's question to Marge was that, new suspect or not, Noreen had nonetheless fingered the grandson. But Marge stated unequivocally, and uncontradicted, that even that was false. And the sensational small-town double homicide must have received considerable press coverage over the two intervening years. Given all this, it would seem a leap of faith to conclude, as Detective Krolak has done, that genuine "psychic" power was required to obtain the sort of information that Renier provided. Krolak had even acknowledged on Geraldo that "she more or less reaffirmed what we knew previously."
Upon his discovery (several years after its 1994 publication) of my chapter about Renier in Psychic Sleuths, in which I discussed the Geraldo and 48 Hours programs, Krolak sent me an e-mail in November 1999:
My reply of the same date, which went unanswered:
Thank you for your note.
One would think that Court TV's Psychic Detectives staff has watched at least a few hours of the station's daytime programming. If so, they must have encountered a cross-examination or two. How could they be unaware that the best way to get to the truth of a controversial claim -- especially if it involves supernatural powers -- is to present both sides of the issue and subject the claim to intense critical scrutiny?
One would also think that the staff would be aware of this "Psychic Detectives" section of Court TV's website, in which James Randi and I are quoted and my chapter about Renier in Psychic Sleuths is mentioned -- there are even photos of Randi, me, and the book cover (see chapters 7 and 11 of the site's section). To turn the tables on Detective Krolak, why did he not have the staff interview me -- or, better yet, the daughter -- for the March 24 program?
I won't even charge Court TV for my idea for a new series, Under Oath, loosely patterned after F. Lee Bailey's 1983 show Lie Detector but kicked up a notch: a judge would preside over a mock mini-trial with the witnesses strapped to a polygraph, and would have discretion to dispense community service sentences to anyone he concludes is deceptive. I'd even pay to have Renier, Krolak and the daughter flown to Hollywood.
Epilogue: I have managed to revive my dialogue with Det. Krolak (see here).
Just days after the opening of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, depicting the crucifixion of Jesus in excruciatingly gruesome detail, the major local news story was the destruction of three window panes (upper right photo) containing the image of Mary on a building in Clearwater.
By that March 1 afternoon, virtually every local media website was erroneously reporting that the image had first appeared in December 1996, shortly before Christmas.
The St. Petersburg Times, in its March 2 front-page headline story "For Mary's faithful, a shattering loss," ignored its own previous reporting about when the image was first known to exist. The article included a chronology sidebar titled "History of Mary Image," which began with the December 17, 1996, sighting. However, as the Times had reported on December 20, 1996, a 1994 Florida Department of Transportation photograph showed that the stain had been present even then, though at the time it was largely obscured by the palm trees that helped create it -- and which had been removed shortly before the 1996 sighting.
In light of the ubiquitously erroneous reporting, by the evening of March 1 I had sent the following information to numerous local media outlets including Channels 8, 10, 13, 28, and Bay News 9, plus the Times and the Tampa Tribune:
Please be reminded (or made aware) that the "Virgin Mary" stains were present in the windows for years before they were first noticed in December 1996 shortly after the palm trees that helped form them were removed. For details, see here and be sure to follow the story's link to the 1994 Florida Department of Transportation photograph of the building, which can also be seen [in color] at www.takingvalue.com/VirginMary.html.
The Clearwater office building was later obtained by the Shepherds of Christ Ministries in 1998 and converted into a
shrine that they call Our Lady of Clearwater. And while hundreds of
thousands of people (including myself) have made the pilgrimage to witness the once-resplendent windows, some have become
obsessed. The March 2 Times article begins: "Nearly every day for the last eight years, Sam and Jean Meo have
sat beneath the image of the Virgin Mary that adorned the glass windows
From later in the article: "Ministry leaders said they planned to board up the broken windows
The ministry leaders exhibited admirable insight. If their eyesight is comparably acute, they should realize that all their problems might be solved simply by removing a few trees from the building's west wall, to reveal a similar palm-related stain. Because the foliage is so much denser there today than in 1996 when TBS member Guss Wilder took this photo, it is difficult to say whether this image is still more reminiscent of the Buddha than of Mary -- as it seemed in 1996 -- or if it has become taller and more elegant in the interim.
Of the individual or individuals responsible for the vandalism (he would later be identified as a troubled youth with no intent to commit a "hate crime"), the March 2 Times article quotes one devout visitor as saying, "I hope God forgives them." I am not a Catholic, but I couldn't help but wonder at the time if the shattering event was not a loving act of God. After all, what better way of conveying the heavenly message, to people like the Meos, that there may be more productive pursuits in this wondrous world than to obsess on mineral-and-tree-sap-stained window panes?
Las Vegas is where the hot action is in terms of debunking the paranormal in all its forms -- in the work of the bad boys of magic, Penn & Teller. So hot, in fact, that the newspaper was too timid to print the entire name of their TV series: Penn & Teller: Bullshit! Because of Penn Jillette's liberal use of profanity when describing the [maternal fornicationists] who are deceiving and sometimes harming the public, the show, currently in its second year, is confined to the Showtime channel. But Penn reports that a school district has asked for a version of the show with the obscenities bleeped out, for use in classrooms. And TBS Report has heard elsewhere that, some day, a redubbed, profanity-free version of the entire series will be available for more widespread TV airing.
Fortunately, for practitioners such as Largo's Deborah Dienstbier, most people don't get enough Bullshit! So they seek it out in other forms, such as, in this case, Shusta card readings. A self-described "spiritual counselor," Dienstbier uses Shusta, apparently a hybrid of astrology and Tarot, to contact literal "spirits" who then impart their wisdom through the cards. Her more fortunate clients have been able to take advantage of her special rates at the Largo Spiritual Center Church's monthly "ESP Festival," the profits from which are in turn donated to the church.
(Tampa Tribune [Pasco edition], April 4)
And "pet psychics," beware. It seems to me that it is only a matter of time before multi-species versions of the following
item become available. Clearwater mom Cara Thornton has invented a baby pacifier that, when sucked, turns a particular
color depending upon whether the child is happy, anxious, or otherwise stressed. "Green is good. Royal blue may mean
(St. Pete Times, April 8)
Gary Posner was quoted in The Record (northern New Jersey) in Bob Ivrey's article about prayer and healing, as well as in Reed Williams' article in the Charlottesville Daily Progress about Noreen Renier and her move back to Virginia from Florida (also see Posner's unpublished letter to the Daily Progress).
On May 4, Posner was one of Kathy Fountain's guests on Your Turn, along with Donna Jean Guerra of Tampa's Harmony Metaphysical Church, and "Quantum Touch" promoter Richard Gordon.
Editor: After reading the Daily Progress article about Noreen Renier in which you were quoted [see above], I reread your chapter on Renier in Psychic Sleuths and, for the first time, your follow-up articles on the web. I am very impressed, indeed overwhelmed, by the time and effort you have put into investigating Renier's claims. Your analyses are very effective and compelling. We all owe you many, many thanks for so arduously pursuing these investigations.
--Bruce Martin, Ph.D.
I am still a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic, but on May 20 I got a taste of the kind of coincidence that is so rare it fuels non-skeptical beliefs. Two days earlier, I had dreamed about an old high school friend of mine, someone I hadn't thought about in years and years. I even went to our yearbook the next day to look up his picture. Just one day after that, I received an e-mail from another classmate, telling me that our old friend, who lived in Austin, Texas, had died a few days earlier. (Cue the Twilight Zone theme, but then read John Allen Paulos' writings about coincidences.)
--Terry A. Smiljanich
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