FREE UNION - You’d almost have to be psychic to find where Noreen Renier lives. And she likes it that way.
A barely discernible dirt track snakes back into the piney woods a few miles outside of Charlottesville, with Renier’s tiny rented log cabin at the end of it. Inside, a telephone answering machine breaks the bucolic silence every five minutes or so, and the place is cluttered with boxes and bulging manila envelopes.
“There’s a pair of shoes in this one,” Renier said on a recent morning, rummaging through one box, “and a shirt in this one. I usually ask for something like a shoe or a toothbrush, because only that person will have used it.”
“That person” being a murder victim or a missing person. Like a tracking dog on a scent, Renier uses the shoes, toothbrushes and other personal objects to help form a mental image, a process called “psychometry.”
“The best thing,” she said, “are bloody clothes from the crime, but you work with what you can.”
Needless to say, hers is not a crowded field, and Renier has become one of America’s best-known psychics through a series of highly-publicized successes and a growing resume of TV appearances. She is also the only “medium” ever to lecture at the FBI Academy.
“That’s why so many people call me,” she says. “My phone rings constantly, even late at night.”
In early 2003, for example, Renier received one of those calls from Jackie Peterson of Modesto, Calif.
As just about everyone in America knows by now, Peterson’s daughter-in-law Laci, eight months pregnant, was reported missing on Christmas Eve of 2002. Her body and that of her unborn child washed up on the shore of San Francisco Bay four months later, and her husband Scott was convicted of their murder in a trial that became a national circus.
“I asked her (Jackie Peterson) to send me something that belonged to Laci,” Renier recalled, “and what I received was a sweatshirt that had never been worn. I called Jackie back to tell her that I really needed something with more of an attachment to Laci, and Scott answered the phone.
“I told him the problem, and I could just feel this wall coming down as he talked to me. A little while later, a single shoe arrived in the mail, and it also looked new.”
Renier says she told Jackie Peterson that Laci’s body was in “a place with water, a bridge, and flat rocks.”
“I only worked with them for a little while,” Renier said, “but I later found out that a lot of what I had seen was right.”
A Floridian who lived in Ruckersville for a time during the 1980s, Renier moved back to the Charlottesville area this year to finish her autobiography, “A Mind for Murder.”
“It only took me 20 years to write,” she said with a smile, “but this was a great place to finish it without being disturbed.”
Her interest in the paranormal started in 1976, when she was the public relations director for a Hyatt hotel in Orlando.
“A friend of mine wanted me to book a psychic into our hotel auditorium,” she said, “and I wasn’t crazy about the idea. I thought all psychics dressed like gypsies and had warts on their faces.”
But her friend insisted that she meet Ann Gehman, the psychic, and Gehman not only described Renier’s daughters and a recent surgical scar, but mentioned the new chair in her office.
“How could she have known about my new chair?” Renier wrote in her book. “I had just gotten it, and hadn’t had time to tell anyone about it.”
Impressed, she wound up booking the psychic into the hotel - at a discount - and felt herself compelled to re-connect with an old friend named Joanne who “found spiritual connections in all things, and felt everything had ‘vibrations’ and ‘auras.’” After just one mediation session at Joanne’s house, Renier says, she realized she, too, possessed extra-sensory abilities that had been unknown to her previously.
“Slowly, this ‘psychic stuff’ began to take root in my life,” Renier writes in her book. “I didn’t understand it, but I couldn’t deny it, either. I was completely captivated by the amazing new world that had opened in my mind. I started neglecting my job. All I wanted to do was practice what other people claimed they could do in the books I was reading.”
Before long, she said, she was booking herself into nightclubs on the side. When word of
this reached her employers, she lost her job.
“My daughters weren’t sure how to take this,” Renier said. “One minute, I’m working as a public relations person for a respected hotel chain. Then, suddenly, I’m wearing a gypsy outfit and asking people to give me their rings and watches so I can tell them something about themselves.”
Renier moved to Virginia the first time in 1979 to be closer to her mother and sister. In the interim, she had contacted the Psychic Research Foundation affiliated with Duke University and traveled to Durham regularly to be tested by researchers there.
“Everyone is psychic to some degree,” she said, “just like everyone can sing. Some people just have more of an aptitude for it than others.”
Not long after relocating, Renier became involved in the case of a serial rapist in Staunton. It was her first encounter with the police.
Her entry point into the investigation was the sister of one of the victims. Renier went to the homes of that woman and another victim, touched rings they had worn during the attacks, and received impressions of a man wearing a uniform, with a scar on his leg, driving a truck that “went round and round.” He lived in a brick house, Renier’s intuition told her, and he had been in prison.
“I didn’t know what all that meant,” Renier said. “It’s just what was given to me.”
This information was then passed along to the Staunton police, whom Renier said were polite and receptive, if a bit dubious.
“I didn’t solve that case,” Renier said. “The police did.”
A ex-convict named James Bruce Robinson ultimately confessed to the rapes after he was first arrested as a peeping tom. Investigators then discovered that he did have a scar on his leg, drove a cement-mixing truck for a living and lived in a brick house.
Word got around, and Renier was invited to speak to the Tidewater Academy of Criminal Justice. That led to a later lecture to the FBI Academy in Quantico, and a longtime acquaintance with FBI serial killer expert Robert Ressler.
Since then, Renier has been credited with helping to solve several crimes, locate a wrecked aircraft and find the bodies of a half-dozen missing persons. Last week, she was working on cases as far removed as North Carolina and Nepal (a missing child).
“Missing children cases have the most pressure,” she said, “because there’s the pressure of time.”
Renier said she does all her work by “remote viewing,” using clues that have been mailed to her.
“I don’t go to crime scenes,” she said. “For one thing, there’s too much confusion. I have to have quiet so I can go into a trance.”
As might be expected, not everyone accepts the idea that Renier can enter the mind of a missing person, victim or murderer merely by handling an object hundreds of miles away. Skeptics abound, chief among them Gary Posner of Tampa, Fla., who has repeatedly offered Renier $1,000 if she can prove her psychic ability.
Renier told Reed Williams of the Charlottesville Daily Progress that she has so far refused to take Posner’s test because she was told that trickery would be involved.
Moreover, $1,000 isn’t all that much to Noreen Renier any more - it’s what she charges for her services.
“It used to be $600,” she said. “I actually raised the price to discourage people, because I’ve got more work than I can handle.”
A message currently displayed prominently on her Web site (www.noreenrenier.com) says: “Please read this (the first) page before e-mailing Ms. Renier about the Aruba case.”
That, of course, being the disappearance of Alabama teenager Natalee Holloway, who vanished while on a post-graduation trip to Aruba with friends. But Renier will only enter a case, she said, if she’s invited by a family member or the police.
“It’s very draining, what I do,” said Renier. “It leaves me exhausted.”
For that reason, she said, she only works on police cases in the afternoons.
“I always drink a glass of red wine before I go into a trance,” she said. “It used to be because I was scared, but now it’s just sort of a habit. It relaxes me.”
Does her psychic ability overflow into her day-to-day life? Renier says no.
“I won’t let it,” she said. “It would be too much to be psychic all the time. So I’ve found a wrecked plane a thousand miles away, but sometimes I can’t find my car keys.”