From Psychic Sleuths: ESP and Sensational Cases (edited by Joe Nickell, Prometheus Books, 1994, pp. 60-85)


The Media's Rising Star Psychic Sleuth:
Noreen Renier

Part 3

By Gary P. Posner

Return to Part 2

 
Renier's claims of "psychic" communication extend into the realm of "ghosts" and "poltergeists" as well. For example, she has described assisting a Durham, N.C. group called the Psychical Research Foundation (PRF) in an investigation of "a haunting" at a spa where "every Wednesday at exactly [the] same time the whirlpool would overflow" for no apparent reason (mechanical difficulties were excluded). "Telephones would ring and people would pick it up and there would be no one on the line. There'd be footsteps....Then I came in and I did go into a trance, contacted whatever was there, and I found out it was a woman that had died in the whirlpool on a Wednesday at 10:00. She gave me the name of her husband and...her attorney....[She] was haunting the spa...she said, because her attorney hadn't finished the...lawsuit....Her husband [then] got in touch with the attorney, he fixed everything up, and the haunting stopped. It was all under scientific research. It wasn't foolishness." (21)

Renier also tells of how "A police officer called me one day and he said, 'Noreen, we're having some strange things happening in a house in Leesburg [Florida]....[T]here's phones ringing and when people pick them up there's a voice on the other end that tells them what they have just done, what they're planning to do, what they're wearing.' Every time this one little girl...went into the bathroom, all the water would start overflowing in the toilets. Things would fly around the room. . . . Police people, the press, everyone had seen this....So I called the PRF up and I said, 'Is this a haunting?' They said, 'No, it sounds like a poltergeist' [where usually] a small child is involved...going through a change of life...maybe mentally and emotionally out of kilter, and she wouldn't know it, but her energy, by being out of kilter, is creating all of this. . . . A scientific paper was written on it by the PRF. It's called the Leesburg poltergeist case..." (22)

Renier has also functioned more formally as a "medium." The following appears in a previous version of her promotional packet: "An optional trance is held in the evening with workshop members encouraged to make contact with deceased relatives, friends or famous people, and questions may be posed to 'Sing' and 'Robert,' Noreen's two main spiritual entities, who have something to say about everything!" (23) Renier says that "I have really no conclusions on who Robert and Sing are - if they're my alter-ego or if they're entities coming from without - as long as the information I receive is accurate. . . . My voice changes [when they speak through me]." (24)

My initial contact with Renier occurred on October 28, 1986, when she and I were guests on Bev Smith's former radio program on WKIS in Orlando. Shortly before air time, as we introduced ourselves, Renier informed me of her recent victory in her libel action against John Merrell, a co-founder of the Northwest Skeptics. Renier seemed to believe that her claims of "psychic power" had been vindicated by the jury, and that her legal battle with Merrell was now behind her. Never in her worst nightmares could she have imagined that for the next 5 1/2 years her life would remain largely consumed by their continued litigation. And never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined what fortuitous discovery, yet to come, would help elevate this already notable dispute to a truly bizarre level.

Merrell informs me that he first heard of Noreen Renier in mid-1985, at a time when she was making the rounds in his home state of Oregon. After conducting some research, which included a telephone conversation with Renier, Merrell composed a lengthy "Letter to the Editor" of the Ashland Daily Tidings  alleging "evidence of fraudulent claims [by Renier] involving police agencies, questionable background credentials, and current ongoing investigations by representatives of the National Council Against Health Fraud . . ." (25) Although never published, a copy of Merrell's letter eventually made its way to Renier through an acquaintance at the paper, and ultimately formed the basis of Renier's libel action against him. Following a three-day trial in Oregon, the jury awarded Renier $25,000 in general damages (9% of the $275,000 requested by her). Merrell's subsequent appeal was unsuccessful.

In a further effort to nullify the award to Renier, Merrell, after first guaranteeing payment to all of his other creditors, elected to declare bankruptcy. The law specifies that a debt may not be discharged through bankruptcy if it resulted from an act of "malice," i.e. an injurious charge that not only is false, but is knowingly  (rather than inadvertently) so. Renier contended that ten allegations within Merrell's letter were indeed malicious. Following three days of testimony, the Federal bankruptcy court judge agreed that four of the ten fulfilled the criteria for "malice" (one would have sufficed), and the $25,000 debt was reaffirmed. As one cited example, regarding Merrell's claim of "current ongoing investigations by representatives of the National Council Against Health Fraud," the judge ruled that Merrell, though himself an NCAHF member, "knew there was no such investigation [by NCAHF as an organization] at the time he made this statement." (26)

The seeds of this legal entanglement had been planted in May 1985, when an article favorable to Renier appeared in the Daily Tidings.  (27) Leroy Coppedge, a Northwest Skeptics colleague of Merrell's, responded with a "Letter to the Editor" which stated in part, "Not everyone who claims to have psychic abilities is a fraud or a charlatan; some are sincere lunatics, and some are simply sincerely misguided....I don't know which, if any, of the above people Noreen Renier is. . . . A simple demonstration, under controlled conditions, would prove [her abilities] to James Randi [a noted challenger of psychic claims], and to most rational people." (28) Shortly thereafter, Coppedge received and forwarded to Merrell a handwritten letter from "Nancy Uzdavinis" of Ashland, who was requesting information about Noreen Renier. Within days, Merrell received a similar letter of his own from Uzdavinis which read in part, "...Coppedge...suggested I write to you because you are investigating that psychic Noreen Renier and had lots of information. And hopefully could enlighten me. I'm confused about her abilities and need to know if she's real or not. She's planning a workshop in July and I need to make a decision." (29)

Merrell, who had already conducted a brief inquiry about Renier after receiving the Daily Tidings  article from Coppedge, intensified his investigation as a result of Uzdavinis' request, and claims to have kept Uzdavinis closely informed of his progress. Shortly before writing his letter to the Daily Tidings,  he wrote one to Uzdavinis which began: "Following your phone call Monday I am enclosing some additional information on Noreen Renier which I've gathered while attending a conference with other members of the National Council Against Health Fraud. . . . This conference was timely in that many representatives of the NCAHF were able to examine together the brochures and clippings about Ms. Renier [that] you sent [to me] in August. After reading the material and listening to portions of my taperecorded telephone conversation with Noreen Renier, Dr. Ben Wilson concluded her claimed ability to heal using her 'psychic vibrations' borders on...medical quackery. Dr. William Jarvis, the President of the NCAHF, and NCAHF chapter President James Lowell agreed that the investigation of Ms. Renier should continue since her claims appear to involve quackery and fraud." (30)

Four years later, during a several-week-long hiatus in the Federal bankruptcy proceedings, Coppedge happened to recognize that within the text of the two handwritten "Uzdavinis" letters, Noreen Renier's name appeared in script identical to Renier's actual signature. This led to the suspicion that Merrell had actually been corresponding with Renier herself, rather than with the seemingly skeptical "Uzdavinis," about the concerns of himself and other National Council Against Health Fraud members.

Accordingly, after the trial's resumption, Merrell's attorney asked Renier: "Has anyone identifying themself with that organization [NCAHF] ever contacted you or requested information from you?" "Has anyone identifying themself with that organization ever advised you that they had concerns about . . . medical quackery and fraud in regard to you?" Renier's answers to these questions were "No" and "No, sir." (31) When later asked, "Do you have any knowledge of Mr. Merrell's attempts to investigate your claims?," Renier replied, " . . . I heard what happened in the Court, in the [1986 Oregon] trial, but I don't know anything other than that." When reminded that Merrell had called her on the phone, she added, "We had one conversation, sir." When asked again, "You don't have any other knowledge of any other investigation that he made?," Renier answered "No." (32)

Though he had been unable to do so prior to the judge's verdict, Merrell later obtained the services of a forensic handwriting expert, Dorothy Lehman of Portland. After examining the "Uzdavinis" letters, as well as other relevant documents, Lehman "arrived at a firm conclusion. It is my opinion that the two questioned letters purportedly written by Nancy Uzdavinis . . . were actually executed by Noreen Renier." (33) Merrell had by then also discovered that there really is a "Nancy Uzdavinis" - Renier's sister-in-law, who lives in Ashland.

Armed with these startling new allegations, Merrell's attorney filed another motion for dismissal of the $25,000 debt, arguing that the original Oregon judgement "was based in part on fraud, misrepresentation and other misconduct of Noreen Renier. . . . Renier used a false name and tricked the Defendant into investigating her claims of psychic ability. . . . Assuming that the handwriting expert is correct, Ms. Renier has perjured herself." (34) In response, Renier filed a sworn affidavit with the court attesting that, "Because I had...become aware that...Merrell and certain of his associates were making. . . . inquiries and representations concerning me...to impair and undermine my pursuit of my profession . . . I requested my sister- in-law, Nancy Uzdavinis, to make an inquiry to determine the nature and content of the representations....[She] told me that since I knew precisely what I wished to find out, I could make the inquiry myself in her name. . . . I have never denied or concealed this inquiry. . . . I did not 'trick' or 'entrap' the Defendant . . . " (35)

Regarding Merrell's letter to Uzdavinis, Renier's affidavit states, "I have never seen or received the purported . . . letter. . . . Nor has my sister-in-law ever seen or received the letter. . . . Nor has the purported letter even been produced in the extensive discovery and document production activity engaged in during the course of this litigation . . . " (36) During a later deposition, Renier went further: "John Merrell wrote a bogus letter and backdated it, pretending he was writing to Nancy Uzdavinis. It was filled with fraudulent statements and quotes." (37) The real Uzdavinis also filed an affidavit in which she attests that although Merrell's letter was correctly addressed, "I have never received that letter or any other letter from Mr. Merrell. In the letter I have been shown...I purportedly made a phone call to Mr. Merrell on the Monday preceeding the date of the letter. I never made any such telephone call and have no knowledge whatsoever regarding any such phone call. . . . [M]y sister-in-law, Noreen Renier, at about that time had sent to Mr. Merrell a letter under my name. She did so with my knowledge and consent. . . . I have no knowledge of [her] ever having made any phone calls to Mr. Merrell using my name." (38)

Merrell's motion for dismissal of the $25,000 libel judgement was denied, but in a curiously ambiguous manner. Although the motion had requested relief due to alleged misconduct tainting the original Oregon trial,  the Federal bankruptcy judge's ruling, without elaboration, states that "Upon consideration of the defendant's Motion and accompanying exhibits . . . the court concludes that its Judgement [i.e. the bankruptcy  judgement] was not based in any part on perjury, fraud, misrepresentation or any other misconduct" by Renier (emphasis added). (39) The integrity of the original libel trial  was thus not commented upon.

FATE magazine, in its June 1991 issue, published a comprehensive article about Renier v. Merrell,  which even in nine pages didn't come close to doing the case justice. (40) [For that matter, neither have I, with my emphasis on the NCAHF and Uzdavinis material to the exclusion of the matters of Renier's police associations and credentials, which I do however touch upon elsewhere throughout this chapter]. I highly recommend that the FATE  article be read, to see how the writer (a consulting editor to the pro-paranormal magazine), who even cites my previous writings on the subject, has nevertheless presented an unswervingly pro-Renier, anti-Merrell scenario.

Merrell attempted to turn the tables against Renier by filing suit in Orlando, Florida, in June 1990, alleging malicious misconduct by her. During the pre-trial discovery process, he confronted Renier with what may be the most penetrating questioning that she has ever faced in her professional career. Among much information demanded of her were the names of the police agencies that had provided the various pieces of alleged "evidence" that she had used during her televised "psychometry" performances.

But Renier counter-sued with similar charges of her own. And as the "wheels of justice" ground and creaked, with the judge granting Renier several extensions on her obligation to supply the information demanded by Merrell, her multiple liens on Merrell's home threatened his ability to accept a job promotion and transfer. Under growing financial and professional pressures, Merrell decided to make his legal "peace" with Renier in March 1992, the terms of which are being kept under wraps by both parties as per a stipulation (which Merrell tells me he did not favor) of the final settlement.

Concludes with Part 4

Footnotes


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