James Renner Looks Back on His True Crime Career (and Ahead to Less Morbid Mysteries)
James Renner will eat a hat at CrimeCon.
For both of you who haven’t heard the recent Missing Maura Murray podcast episode optimistically titled “Wrangling Renner,” let me fill you in:
After receiving criticism that MMM showrunners Tim Pilleri and Lance Reenstierna had thrown Renner softballs during his previous appearances and facing Renner’s departure from the genre, they invited him back to answer the tough questions their listeners demanded.
One of those questions involved Renner’s skepticism of Karen McNamara’s (known to some as Witness A) eyewitness account that placed Haverhill PD police SUV 001 nose-to-nose with Maura’s Saturn at the scene of the February 9, 2004 accident from which Maura disappeared. To many, this eyewitness testimony lends credibility to a widespread theory that goes like this: Haverhill police conspired to murder Maura, dispose of her body, and engage in a cover-up that has lasted more than thirteen years. Why? To hide the fact that the driver of 001 -- Haverhill Chief of Police Jeffrey Williams -- was driving the cruiser while intoxicated.
During the episode, Renner asserted that McNamara’s memory had been influenced by former private investigator John Smith during his work on the case. So confident was Renner that he declared he would “eat a hat” if presented with proof that McNamara’s original statement provided the same information as the account she gave after meeting with Smith. Within a week, an April 2005 email surfaced in which McNamara provides an early account to investigating officers.
If you ask me, the details in the email still don't demonstrate a consistent version of events. For his part, Renner still seems unconvinced as well. But he is a man of his word.
“I don’t know how I’m gonna do it, but I will eat a hat,” he says with a determined grin that reads much more ‘amused’ than ‘embarrassed’ as he hints that there may be Fruit Roll-Ups involved. “And I’ll do it at CrimeCon.”
Now that's a session that’ll draw crowds.
Readers, we’ve been getting along swimmingly since I joined CCHQ, so I’ll be honest with you: while James Renner has his detractors, I am not one of them. Still, it would be difficult to write about Renner without acknowledging that his aggressive investigative methods and sometimes sensational interpretation of evidence have made him a polarizing figure in the true crime community.
Renner wasn’t scared to ruffle some feathers during his exhaustive five-year investigation into Maura’s disappearance. As evidence of this, many will point to Renner’s now-archived blog detailing his search for answers in Maura’s case. At one time, the blog contained eyewitness accounts of Maura’s involvement in some decidedly salacious activities on campus and still houses documents related to her 2003 arrest for credit card fraud.
Renner also faced accusations that his book was a tasteless money-grab with intent to profit from Maura’s tragic disappearance, especially in light of Fred Murray’s public opposition to the book (which began before Renner had even written a word). During his investigation, Renner didn’t hesitate to make public any new information he discovered-- even if it cast suspicion on the Murrays themselves.
Taking these things into account, I consider whether there’s a room at the JW Marriott Indianapolis large enough to hold everyone who may show up to see Renner eat his symbolic (if delicious) hat. Perhaps it's a fitting display for what's possibly his final act as a true crime figure.
Following the release of his book True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray in May of 2016, Renner began to cleave himself from the genre that had been his beat since his days at Cleveland Scene. There, he brought new attention to the unsolved 1989 murder of ten-year-old Amy Mihaljevic from Bay Village, Ohio. Thus began a long career in true crime that would eventually take a toll on Renner.
“I first noticed it when I was in the grocery store scrutinizing the cart of the guy next to me,” he explains. “He’s shopping alone, but he has enough food for four or five people. The Ariel Castro story had just broken, so I found myself wondering who he’s feeding with all that food: his family? Or the three people he has trapped in his basement? Of course, it’s likely his family, but that was no longer my default setting. That’s when I realized the job had gotten in my head.”
Further evidence of this appears in his book. True Crime Addict paints an honest and raw portrait of Renner arguably at his worst: driving drunk, flirting with drug use, and landing in jail after angering a judge in a hot-headed display of defiance.
To me, the book felt like an ending, like Renner knew when he punctuated the last sentence that this would be his exit from true crime. While he denies this was the case, he does acknowledge that the events in the book were indicators that it was time for him to step away.
“I think getting arrested for contempt of court is what initially made me realize that I probably shouldn’t be doing this anymore,” he admits with a self-deprecating chuckle. “That event plus things like Alden Olson’s videos (one of which included pictures of Renner’s children) illustrated that it was time to take a break from true crime for a while. Now I’m trying to reprogram my brain not to jump at every sound.”
It seems to be a positive change. I wouldn’t recognize the James Renner from True Crime Addict if he walked in and sat down beside the man in front of me (“I’m getting into Buddhism,” this one says, gesturing vaguely in the direction of a nearby temple). So how did he become so obsessed in the first place? Indeed, how do any of us?
“I think it takes a slight obsessive-compulsive personality,” he theorizes. “Some people pull into the driveway but won’t get out of the car until “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” finishes playing on the radio because if they don’t listen all the way through, it’ll get stuck in their head.”
Oddly enough, I think I know where he’s going with this.
“It’s the same with true crime. You see these cases with their disparate details and loose ends, and it’s discordant. It’s missing something, so it gets stuck in your head and there’s an overwhelming compulsion to find the ends and solve the puzzle.”
Renner seems like a guy who constantly needs to channel that energy toward a particular goal, and I’m interested to see what he’s doing with it in his post-Maura life.
His face brightens as he describes the new mystery he’s setting out to solve-- and there are no unsolved murders or mysterious disappearances in sight.
Instead, he’ll tackle the mystery of Byron Preiss’s 1982 book The Secret: A Treasure Hunt. He explains that the book’s cryptic riddles and mind-bending images hold clues to the locations of twelve keys hidden throughout North America. Upon the book’s release, intrepid readers who solved the clues and discovered a key were invited to turn it into Byron Preiss himself in exchange for a valuable gemstone (possibly worth up to $10,000).
Renner’s fascination with The Secret began when he discovered the book in the Bedford Library at eight years old. Assuming that all twelve keys would surface before he would be old enough to pursue them, he resigned himself to his fate and prepared to watch the keys roll in one by one.
Only they didn’t. Thirty-five years after The Secret hit shelves, only two keys have been recovered. Preiss died suddenly in 2005, and although his wife still honors the commitment her husband made in the book, she’s had no occasion to do so; the last key was discovered in 2004.
“I just want to find one more,” Renner says of his goals for this new venture. “I think I’ve found where the Boston key is, but I haven’t been able to attempt a retrieval yet. I’m pretty sure I know where the New Orleans key should be. . .” he trails off, the silent conclusion to his thought lost somewhere between Boston and the Big Easy.
The search will be the subject of his next book, and a documentary following his efforts will premiere at film festivals later this year. But the adventure doesn’t end there. Renner hopes to resurrect the mystery and capture the same sense of wonder for a new generation. Many key rightsholders are on board.
“I’m putting together a proposal to write an authorized sequel to Byron Preiss’s book,” he says. “Twelve new paintings, twelve new poems, and twelve new keys. The original artist’s son is creating the new paintings. Byron Preiss’s daughters will help write parts of it. So it’s really about the legacy of the book.”
He pauses and then continues with a boyish grin, “But I’m most excited about the journey I’ll get to share with my son.”
In True Crime Addict, Renner gave us a glimpse into the early years of his often-strained relationship with his young son, Casey. It seems that while Renner’s relationship with true crime flickered out, his relationship with Casey began to shine brighter. Now he’s making plans to travel the country with his son at his side to bury twelve new secret keys.
And because he’s not busy enough, Renner is working on a screenplay for a television adaptation of his novel The Man From Primrose Lane, currently in development with Fox. He’s also finishing a sequel to Primrose Lane, which will serve as the basis for season two of the television show.
Renner’s enthusiasm for his new trajectory is evident. But big transitions like this fascinate me, so I’m curious: as he closes the door on true crime, which played quite a large part of his life, what are his thoughts? How close did he come to what he wanted to accomplish?
“When I started, I had this idea that we could create something online where people could go and discuss unsolved cases. That it would become what the writer’s room was in an old newspaper office; somewhere everyone could gather and discuss ideas. I wanted to create a place online where people could see the evidence and have respectful discussions about it. That didn’t happen. I don’t know if we’re there yet. So that part of my vision failed.
“But I’m happy knowing that my work helped close at least one case,” he continues with a comfortable confidence.
He tells the story of a young girl named Tina Harmon, abducted from Preston, Ohio in the early eighties. The two men charged with her disappearance were later exonerated, leaving the case open and frozen solid.
Because he had written about Tina’s case during his time at Cleveland Scene, Tina’s family approached Renner desperately searching for help to find some answers in Tina’s case. Renner began by calling a press conference to get Tina’s case back in the public eye. Then he helped Tina’s family submit a request for the prosecutor to re-test Tina’s clothing for evidence.
When the prosecutor’s office denied the request citing prohibitive expense, Renner offered to raise the required funds ($300) himself.
The slightly-embarrassed prosecutor relented and ordered the tests, which revealed conclusive evidence that Tina’s killer was a death row inmate who had recently been executed for an unrelated murder.
“It would still be an open and unsolved case if not for three hundred dollars,” Renner muses.
So with excitement for his new projects radiating off him in waves and his eagerness to leave behind true crime apparent, what attracted him to CrimeCon? I confess that it reads a bit “last hurrah.”
“I definitely see it as a last hurrah,” he confirms. “I’m also looking forward to meeting some of the people I’ve only known through comments to my blog and online forums. I tend to do much better face-to-face than I do arguing on Reddit. It’s an opportunity to meet new groups of people and share my story and thoughts with them, as well.”
Will he ever return to true crime? He takes his time and considers his response carefully.
“It would be interesting to see what would happen if Maura Murray turned up one day,” he begins with cautious optimism filling the space between each word. “I’d like to hear Maura’s side of the story. Other than that, I’d wait until my kids are grown. So I’m looking at fourteen years from now.”
For someone who has good reasons to put the true crime beat in his rear view, I can still see it tug at him as he twirls his coffee cup between his hands. He’s contemplating.
“I’ll tell you this,” he breaks with a spark (nearly imperceptible, but it's there). “If the Original Night Stalker case is still unsolved in fifteen years, that’s the one I’m going for. It’s the last big unsolved case, and it’s totally solvable.”
I'll take that as a "yes."
Copies of True Crime Addict will be available for purchase at CrimeCon. James Renner, Tim Pilleri, and Lance Reenstierna will also host a discussion panel covering Maura Murray's disappearance. If the "Wrangling Renner" episode is any indication, it will be a lively debate. Register now and bring the popcorn!