by Gary P. Posner, Tampa Bay Skeptics
On April 5 the Associated Press reported that, as per the story's headline in the St. Petersburg Times, "Psychic tip leads to missing man's body." The tipster was none other than Orlando "psychic detective" Noreen Reiner, who claims a history of great success in assisting police investigations into unsolved homicides and missing person cases, and whose assistance in this case is being touted by police and Navy personnel.
Seventy-six-year-old Norman Lewis, along with his Chevy S-10 truck, had been missing for two years from the tiny Florida town of Williston, located just southwest of Gainesville. According to contemporaneous newspaper accounts, on March 24, 1994, Lewis had driven off for a brief jaunt, leaving behind his wallet and respiratory inhaler, and was never seen again. In its April 11, 1994, edition, the Ocala Star-Banner quoted Williston Police Chief Olin Slaughter as observing, "It's like he fell off the edge of the earth." [Wink, wink. Hint, hint.]
After more than a year, with the Williston police following-up on "hundreds" of leads and conducting numerous aerial searches, all to no avail, the Lewis family suggested that a "psychic" be called in. Investigator Brian Hewitt, having previously been impressed by a Renier retroactive-crime-solving demonstration, and aware of her other credentials, passed along her name to the Lewis family, which reportedly provided the $650 fee for her services (the police department did not have the funds).
Approximately three weeks after Hewitt called Renier to set up the appointment at her home, Renier performed her "psychic" reading. According to published accounts, it included a number of specific "clues" to help lead the police to Lewis' body (Renier is refusing to allow the public to see the videotape). The Williston Pioneer (on April 4 and June 27, 1996) quotes Chief Slaughter as saying that Renier said Lewis had traveled "east from his home to an area where there is ... water in something like a pit." (Emphasis added.) The Chiefland Citizen (April 11, 1996) quotes Slaughter: "She could see he was surrounded by metal.... She could see a cliff wall, and loose bricks, a railroad track, and a bridge." The numbers "45" and "21" were also offered as helpful clues.
A subsequent look into several bodies of water proved as fruitless as the earlier searches. But because of Renier's reading, the police called in a team of Navy divers from Jacksonville to search one particular limestone quarry. Although about eight months elapsed before the divers could arrive, on this past April 3, with the assistance of a $70,000 detection device, they did indeed locate the missing truck, containing Lewis' skeletal remains, submerged in 20 feet of murky water.
Almost immediately after the Williston police announced that the case had been solved, largely as a result of Renier's "psychic" clues, the story quite naturally captured the attention of the media. In addition to newspapers and local TV, national radio icon Paul Harvey reported upon it, and the TV show Sightings will open its new fall season with this case. It may even have inspired what sounds suspiciously like a copy-cat "psychic" prediction that has persuaded authorities in Graniteville, Missouri, to drain a 3-million-gallon quarry in search of a girl missing from that town for seven years.
My involvement in the case began on May 7, when I received a telephone call from Maria Zone, a researcher for Towers Productions, based in Chicago. Towers is producing a series of one-hour documentaries for the A&E Network, tentatively called Unexplained. I was advised that one of the programs, presently scheduled for airing this January, will be devoted to several "renowned psychic detectives," including Renier, and that this case will be featured. I was then invited to prepare a response for what is promised by John McCarthy, the series' senior producer, to be a balanced, if not downright skeptical, presentation.
On June 27, a Towers producer, Judy Cole, with TV camera crew in tow, arrived in Williston (she would interview Renier in Orlando the following day). After first visiting with the police, she interviewed me (this was my second trip to the area, accompanied both times by TBS member Glenn Thompson, who recorded the action on videotape for TBS's archives). By then, thanks in part to materials provided by Zone and by TBS member and Williston resident Warren Gammel, I had accumulated a number of relevant newspaper articles and maps and, based upon the material available to me, had come to a provocative conclusion: Norman Lewis' remains had been found not because the police had the Navy divers search the body of water best fitting Renier's "psychic" clues, but because they had the Navy search the wrong watery pit!
Staring at the 1994 Bowden Custom Maps roadmap of Williston, the most immediately striking feature is the blue body of water just a few degrees south of due east and less than one mile away from Mr. Lewis' home. This limestone quarry, when approached from the west, is located adjacent to the intersection of U.S. 41 and state route 121. Flipping the map over, one can see that U.S. 41 is also known in Williston as state route 45. In other words, if Mr. Lewis had indeed traveled east from his home to a watery pit, as Chief Slaughter says Renier had seen in her "psychic" vision, he would have encountered such a quarry just east of the junction of state routes 45 and 121. Renier's two numerical clues were reportedly "45" and "21" -- had she offered "45" and "121," someone might have cynically accused her of having used the approximately three weeks available to her to research the case and consult a map!
Perusing the U.S. Geological Survey's "Williston Quadrangle" map, one may observe this clearly marked "Quarry" area in more detail. Of note is the Seaboard Coast Line's north/south railroad track 3/4 of a mile east of the quarry's eastern circumference, with a branch directed westward into the heart of the quarry area. One of Renier's clues was "railroad track."
Neither map reveals a "bridge" in the area, or any other "metal" structure, as Renier predicted. But where there is water, it is logical to assume that a bridge, if only a footbridge, may be nearby. And it had been widely reported (and probably directly told to Renier) that Mr. Lewis had disappeared in his "metal" truck. It is also logical to assume the presence of a "cliff wall" and "bricks" at a quarry, two more of Renier's clues.
As I told Judy Cole on camera, I cannot know if Renier's clues, intended to help locate Mr. Lewis, were the result of "psychic" power, or of some other, more prosaic, process. But, as I said to her, if I were desirous of having others believe, mistakenly, that I possessed psychic power, and if I had been approached by the police to assist in this case, I might have provided them with the very same clues. I added, "They're all right here," pointing to my smattering of newspaper articles and maps.
I elaborated: Forget about "psychic" detectives for a moment. Let's just employ "ordinary" detective-style reasoning and common sense. Considering the fact that the intensive ground and aerial search had turned up nothing, if Mr. Lewis and his truck were somewhere within the potential reach of the Williston authorities, where could they possibly be? In the middle of an extremely densely wooded area? In an abandoned building? (Either, perhaps if only a body was missing. But a truck?) Only one possibility even comes to mind -- submerged under water.
Chief Slaughter, it seems, had had the right idea all along, even if he was not consciously aware of it. It appeared, indeed, "like [Lewis] fell off the edge of the earth" -- and into a bottomless, or at least murky, pit. A quick glance at the Williston roadmap revealed an obvious potential site, and the U.S.G.S. map confirmed that this was just the sort of pit/quarry that fit the bill.
One minor problem. The "logical" site -- the one that Renier's "psychic" clues seemed tailored to -- the limestone quarry less than a mile east of Lewis' home, at the junction of state routes 45 and 121, serviced by a railroad track -- was not where Mr. Lewis' truck and remains were ultimately found! Rather, with the Navy's assistance, the truck containing the remains was located in a different limestone pit, just a few degrees east of due north from Lewis' home, and more than twice us far away! The recovery site, known as the Whitehurst pit, is also located adjacent to state route 45, but not route 121.
Renier's "21" clue, in fact, played no beneficial role whatsoever in assisting in the location of Mr. Lewis' body. Yet, this clue has been hailed by the authorities as perhaps her most eerily precise of all. Why? Because, after Mr. Lewis' body had been recovered, it was realized that he had been found "2.1" miles from his home!
Nor was her "railroad track" clue of any value in deciding which quarry to search. Although the U.S.G.S. map clearly shows an "abandoned" track traversing the Whitehurst quarry east/west, the police did not become aware of its presence until a portion of the buried track was unearthed after the divers had already been called in.
Nor did her "bridge" clue offer any assistance in targeting this particular pit, or in helping narrow down the search area within the 30-acre quarry. But, as reporter Dave Monsees explained on a WTVT-TV 13 (Tampa) newscast of April 19, "Another clue that amazed [Chief] Slaughter was that the psychic saw a bridge nearby. Turned out he'd passed it countless times and never saw it -- on the access road to the quarry, an old, wooden truck scale that smacks for all the world of a bridge, if you take the time to stare at it."
If ever there was a case in which simple common sense and "retrofitting" -- transforming ubiquitous clues into valuable "hits" after the fact -- seemed to account for the miraculous success of a piece of "psychic" detective work, this appears to be one for the books.
Renier had apparently proven herself to the police and family not merely with her clues, but with her knowledge of details about Lewis' life (for instance, that he was retired from the military). But such information appeared in newspaper accounts during the search period, which are available to anyone interested enough to seek them out.
Judy Cole, after interviewing the police, informed me that Renier had sketched several lines for them representing a "quadrant" that appeared to encompass both the northern and eastern quarries. Cole also said that when some bricks were spotted at the northern pit, the police apparently decided to zero in on that one. Perhaps the A&E program will better explain why the divers were asked to search only that one quarry. Had they instead searched the one that seems a better match to Renier's clues, Mr. Lewis would have never been found, and Paul Harvey would have found something else to talk about. But perhaps the Graniteville, Missouri, authorities, and the family of that missing girl, might have been spared a lot of unnecessary hard work and heartache.
Reprinted with permission from the Tampa Bay Skeptics Report, Fall 1996 issue.