Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Psychic Detectives Part II: Dorothy Allison and Noreen Renier
Until her death in 1999, Allison enjoyed a fairly solid reputation as a psychic detective, despite her many exaggerated claims. This diminutive woman from New Jersey employed astrological charts and psychometry in her attempts to locate missing people, often over the phone, beginning in the late '60s. She claimed she assisted law enforcement in thousands of cases nationwide, that she led police to the place where Patty Hearst was held captive, that she predicted Son of Sam would be caught by a parking ticket, that she named the Atlanta child killer as Williams, and that she cracked the John Wayne Gacey case.
Allison's first case involved the 1967 of a teenaged boy in her hometown of Nutley, New Jersey. She approached police early the following year to report her psychic vision of the boy lying dead in a drainage ditch in a local park. Desperate for any clue, the police obligingly dug up a culvert in the park in search of a body. They didn't find one; the boy's body was later discovered in a pond. Even though this was a clear miss, word spread that Dorothy Allison had "found" a missing child.
In 1980, police in Paterson, New Jersey, consulted Allison on the whereabouts of another missing teenaged boy. She gave the exact location of an abandoned building, and said the boy's body would be found in the flooded basement. Police painstakingly drained the entire basement in search of remains, only to come up empty-handed. The boy's body was later found on the other side of the city, outdoors.
The Gacey murders were actually solved by police using ordinary methods; 15-year-old Robert Piest had disappeared right after Gacey offered him a job, and police found very incriminating evidence in his house, linking him to other missing boys. Confronted, Gacey confessed to killing one young man in self-defense and burying him in the crawlspace beneath his house, where investigators unearthed the remains of 28 other boys.
Allison had merely led police on numerous lengthy, costly wild goose chases in search of bodies.
In the case of the Atlanta child murders, "Williams" was just one of over 40 names provided by Allison.
Allison also claimed she saw the deaths of Paul and Karla Bernardo's victims before they occurred. What really happened: Police in Niagara Falls, Ontario supposedly consulted her concerning the March, 1991 disappearance of a teenage girl named Melanie Hall. I have been unable to locate any information about this disappearance. If it occurred in March, this was before Leslie Mahaffey (the Bernardos' first murder victim) was abducted. Allison described Melanie's body as being encased in cement.
Melanie Hall's body was not found, but in June Leslie's body was discovered (encased in cement) in Lake Gibson. Allison predicted that a second girl's body would be found soon (a very safe guess, as Melanie was still missing). The girl would be strangled and left in some bushes.
In April 1992, the body of Kristen French (the Bernardos' second victim) was found in a culvert. She had been strangled.
Allison did not predict the death of either girl, did not identify the body of Leslie Mahaffey, and gave only partially correct details about the second body. She also didn't locate the girl she was originally enlisted to find. Nonetheless, Leslie Mahaffey's mother was impressed enough to recommend Allison to another Ontario woman one year later. Rose Lax wanted to know who killed her father, a Holocaust survivor and scrap-metal dealer named Morris Lax. Allison said his death was a revenge killing staged as a robbery, but her description of the killer was too vague to be of any use. His murder has never been solved.
Since the '80s, Noreen Renier has been the best-known and most highly regarded "psychic detective" in the business, second only to Dorothy Allison. Former FBI agent and pioneering criminal profiler Robert K. Ressler has praised her accuracy, and pointed to her work as a showcase example of why law enforcement agencies shouldn't shy away from bringing psychics into criminal investigations. In 1981, Renier predicted the shooting of Ronald Reagan while delivering a talk to agents at the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia. She claims to have solved hundreds of cases.
In short, Renier has a lot of street cred. But do her psychic gifts actually solve cases, and is her accuracy as remarkable as it seems?
To answer that question, I'm going to turn first to the woman's own words: The second (2008) edition of her autobiography, A Mind for Murder. The book is written in a low-key style, giving the impression that Noreen was swept along her current path by forces far beyond her understanding. Smoking and gulping wine to steady her nerves, she simply goes wherever the spirit takes her. "Sure, why not? I'll try anything," is her mantra.
Noreen didn't know she was psychic until she was nearing middle age. In 1976 she was a divorced mom with two college-age daughters, working in PR at the Hyatt in Orlando, Florida. Then she and two friends decided to try group meditation, and on several occasions sat around a kitchen table to chant mantras. During one of these sessions, Noreen felt a sharp pain and spontaneously went into a trance. When she emerged from it, her friend tearfully informed her that she had been channeling the spirit of the woman's dead grandmother, talking of things only the two of them would know.
For the next several months, Noreen honed her powers by studying psychic phenomena, reading books on Edgar Cayce and the paranormal researcher J.B. Rhine, conducting more kitchen-table seances, and giving readings to hotel co-workers (this took up so much of her time that she was fired).
Noreen found she a particular knack for psychometry. She set up a booth in a hotel, then a nightclub, then a home office, where she gave private readings. Through contacts in the paranormal research community, she gradually began working with police who were desperate for leads. She discovered she possesses the ability to see violent crimes through the eyes of both perpetrator and victim, enabling her to give detailed physical descriptions of the perpetrators. She also experiences a great deal of the fear and pain felt by the victims. After some time, Noreen found she no longer had to visit crime scenes to gain such impressions; she could give accurate readings over the phone, while holding a personal possession of the victim.
According to Noreen, though her information rarely contributed directly to the apprehension of the criminal, it always proved to be remarkably accurate. She was soon invited to speak at the FBI Academy. She also gave college and university courses in ESP, hosted a weekly call-in radio show (1980-85), and gave demonstrations in prisons.
In each chapter, Noreen recounts one of her notable cases:
Noreen's first murder case: In 1980, Noreen received a call from Chief Pat Minetti of Hampton County, Virginia (Noreen's home state, to which she returned in '79). He needed help solving the murder of "Sally". At the station, Noreen was given Sally's bloody dress, which so distressed her she asked for a glass of wine to calm her nerves (she smokes and drinks throughout most readings). The detectives gave her Scotch instead.
Noreen asked to be taken to the crime scene, a trailer. Seated on a blood-splattered sofa, she described the killer to a sketch artist and detailed how he stabbed Sally repeatedly before slashing her throat, then raping her post-mortem. The sketch revealed a boyish, browned-haired man in his early thirties. The detectives instantly recognized him as one of Sally's neighbors. He and a female neighbor had found the body two days earlier.
Later, Noreen was handed the wires that had been attached to this man when he took (and failed) a lie detector test. She had a clear vision of the curved hunting knife with an ornately carved handle that he had used to kill Sally. It was in his trailer, in a drawer-like box beneath his bed.
It was at this point that Noreen learned the suspect was a police officer. The detectives asked her to pose as a secretary so that when he came to the station for another interview, she could speak to him directly and hopefully gain more info. She couldn't.
The box was found beneath the suspect's trailer, empty. But the man handed over a hunting knife that matched Noreen's description. It yielded no evidence. "The police were sure he had killed Sally, but were unable to produce any evidence. He was a professional - he knew that without evidence, there would be no case. Our suspect is a free man today."
Yes, he is. Because the killer of "Sally" (Dorothy White) was caught six years before the original (2005) edition of A Mind for Murder was published. DNA testing of crime scene samples identified a repeat offender named William Wilton Morisette III. Far from being a policeman, he did yardwork for Dorothy, her boyfriend, and others. He is serving a life sentence for the murder.
Why doesn't Noreen Renier know this? She rarely receives updates on her cases, but it wouldn't have been difficult to find out if this one was solved.
Why did she call Dorothy White "Sally"? Is it because she wanted to conceal the identity of the suspect for legal reasons? Or because she didn't want her readers to know the crime was solved nine years earlier, and that her suspect wasn't the killer?
A 1984 plane crash in Massachusetts is Noreen's most controversial case, though I think the murder of Dorothy White is just as damaging to her credibility. It led to a 22-year legal dispute with a Florida skeptic that is still not fully resolved.
In early '84 Noreen was hired by Jessica Herbert to locate the small plane in which her 29-year-old brother, Arthur, and three others crashed somewhere near Gardner, Massachusetts, on the New Hampshire border.
In her vision of the crash, Noreen became the plane. She circled an isolated airstrip when bright lights blinded her, turned sharply to the left, and was sucked down into an area of wooded hills, gorges, and quicksand. Noreen sensed that a large city was a certain number of miles away, that nearby towns began with the letters G, T, and O (though in the 2005 edition of her book, as noted by skeptic Gary L. Posner, she gave the letters as H, D, and N), and that a dirt red led down the mountain to a gas station/store with a rusty Texaco sign, owned by old woman who had several barking dogs and no teeth.
Noreen also saw something truly amazing: Arthur had survived the crash. He had stumbled out of the wreckage with a broken leg, carrying something.
The Civil Air Patrol's lead investigator recognized the gas station. Jessica Herbert, her husband (FBI agent Mark Babyak), and FBI agent Jim Crouse rented a plane to survey the area. Bad weather stymied them, but a local man and his daughter, noticing the search plane, decided to conduct a snowmobile search on their own. They found the plane. Both would later attest that they searched this area not because they saw the search plane, but because it was well-known that the plane had gone down within half an hour's flying time from the Gardner airport.
Authorities found the woman passenger decapitated and seated under a tree "as if someone had placed her there". Arthur's body was found "sitting on the side of a hill, his leg broken...It was clear to everyone that he had been alive when he left the plane."
Skeptic James Merrill pounced on Noreen's claim that she found the plane, when it was searchers who had done the hard work of slogging through woods and hills. Noreen hadn't even left her Virginia home. He accused her of making fraudulent claims.
Noreen went on the defensive, suing Merill for defamation and winning. As part of the judgment, both parties signed an agreement to refrain from disparaging each other. But in 2005, Noreen's autobiography contained passages critical of Merrill. He sued for breach of contract, and won a large settlement. He has continued his criticism of Noreen's claims via a website. I find Merrill's work confusing and rather nitpicky, but he has made many significant points about the Herbert crash, notably this: Arthur Herbert did not survive the crash. All four passengers died on impact. Noreen's notion that Arthur walked away from the plane carrying the headless woman is a fantasy.
The murder of Debi Whitlock: This case contains a glaring inconsistency, even as recounted by Noreen herself. 32-year-old Debi Whitlock was stabbed to death in her Modesto, California home in 1988, while her little daughter slept. Her husband found her body a short time later.
Noreen was hired by Debi's mom, Jacque McDonald, to conduct a phone session with Detective Ray Taylor of the Modesto Police Department. Taylor was "so impressed that he decided to fly all the way across the country to Orlando to pay me a visit in person and continue our conversation." He later told America's Most Wanted that Noreen gave "an eerily precise description of the murder." (Renier, 185)
In the session, filmed by AMW, Noreen described Debi receiving a phone call from her killer. He was stocky but very strong, "handsome and rugged". She spoke as both Debi and this man. As the man: "She's not gonna leave me and get away with it. She stays with me till I say it's over. I know she's in love with someone else." The impression we get is that Debi had a jealous lover - or was perhaps killed by her husband (police did suspect Harold Whitlock, and the public harrassed him until 1999). Noreen even quotes an investigator as saying Debi "might have been falling in love again."
However, in 1999 a former drug dealer named the killer as Scott Avery Frizzell. He was an 18-year-old drifter when he killed Debi in the course of a burglary. It's incredibly unlikely that he was her lover, yet Noreen does nothing to explain the contradiction between what she "experienced" and what really occurred. The worst-case scenario is that Noreen knew Harold Whitlock was the prime suspect when she did her reading, and tailored it to point the finger at him.
Not included in the book is Noreen's encounter with Lois Duncan, an author of young adult suspense and horror novels that I enjoyed as a kid. In 1989 Duncan's daughter, Kaitlyn Arquette, was murdered in what appeared to be a random drive-by shooting in Albuquerque. Noreen was able to "relive" Kaitlyn's last moments, but couldn't describe a perp. So Duncan turned to another psychic, Betty Muench. Muench used automatic writing to discover that Kaitlyn had been the victim of a contract killing because she knew too much about something dangerous. Duncan was deeply impressed by the wealth of detail in the psychic's descriptions, which were later confirmed for her by private investigators who suspected Kaitlyn's Vietnamese boyfriend had her killed to hide an insurance scam he and other Vietnamese men were perpetrating. Unfortunately, her detailed information wasn't any more helpful than Noreen's. The murder of Kaitlyn remains unsolved.
Coming tomorrow, Psychic Detectives Part II: Sylvia Browne
- "All About Psychic Detectives" by Katherine Ramsland, Crime Library at Tru TV.com
- "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." by Rachael Bell and Marilyn Bardsley, Crime Library at Tru TV.com