Response to an issue raised in a
James Randi Educational Foundation forum discussion
about the Noreen Renier / Williston Police case

by Gary P. Posner

4/18/11:  This is a response to an issue that has been raised in this James Randi Educational Foundation forum, which quickly and unexpectedly evolved into discussion about the Noreen Renier / Williston Police case. The issue being: whether the existence of railroad tracks and a "bridge" near the Whitehurst pit were known by the police before, or only after, they called the Navy divers to come in and search that pit. These comments will be finalized over time, but I wanted to at least post the following today after receiving an e-mail query about this matter from a participant in that forum.

In my article on this case, I state, "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 the buried track until a portion of it was unearthed after the divers had already been called in." And as for the bridge, I quote a news report to the effect that it also had gone unnoticed until after the fact. But according to this August 2008 article cited in the forum:

"One day, [Detective Brian Hewitt is] roaming around up there in the woods," said [Police Chief] Slaughter, "and he finds a pile of red bricks [another of Renier's clues]. He went back to the rail he discovered earlier, started digging and found an old railroad bed underneath it. I called Levy County Sheriff's Department divers to come over and work the pit. But they came up empty. The pit had water in it 30 to 40 feet deep and was covered in vegetation.

"So I'm up there at the pit with Brian after this, wondering where we go next, and I happen to look just right through the woods and see an old Fairbanks Morris Scale. It was a wooden truck scale that could be confused for a bridge."

Slaughter's confidence grew, and he got some Navy demolition divers to dive the pit on their off time. On their second day, they got a hit while using a magnetometer.

When I wrote my article in 1997, I was unaware that Chief Slaughter had, or would a decade in the future, describe the timeline that way. I used the best information that I had at my disposal at the time. It will take me a while to to go through the entirety of my files on this case, but I presently recall two sources regarding the police being unaware of the railroad tracks at Whitehurst: one who insisted upon anonymity (quoted in my article), and an April 19, 1996, news report about the case on WTVT-TV 13 in Tampa. My anonymous source didn't specify whether or not the police ultimately did discover tracks at that location before calling in the divers, just that the initial quarry of interest was the one to the east of Mr. Lewis' home because it seemed to best fit Renier's clues. But I inferred from the Ch. 13 news report that the tracks were not discovered until after the fact.

I have just uploaded that five-minute Ch. 13 news report in its entirety to YouTube (see it here). Note that it is an uncritical extolment of Noreen Renier's "psychic" gifts and her indispensability in solving the Williston case. Yet, beginning at 2:32, the reporter strives to add a touch of balance and notes that "one of the problems the skeptics had was that not all of the visions the psychic had could be immediately verified." I inferred him to be making the point that, as some skeptics had complained (though I had not yet done so), some of Renier's clues were not found to have been "hits" until after the fact, and thus could not have been instrumental in locating the body. The first one he mentions in this part of his report is the "railroad tracks," which he says "no one could find . . . until they had to start widening [the] access road." Since skeptics are nowhere to be seen in this report, I inferred that Slaughter must have told him this during their interview. The other is the "bridge," about which the reporter says (as quoted in my article), "Another clue that amazed 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." The logical inference is that Slaughter had told the reporter that he had traversed that area endlessly leading up to the discovery of the body (which was eight months after the initial call for the Navy divers to search the Whitehurst pit), but had never seen the bridge/scale until after they had been called.

I was not involved in the police investigation, and my two visits to Williston were long after the body had been found. All I can do is faithfully report the facts at my disposal. And, as I said earlier, as I find the time to exhaustively review my materials on this case, I may have more to add about the question at hand.

But even if the railroad tracks and "bridge" had become known to the police before they called for the Navy divers, that does not constitute proof that Noreen Renier possesses "psychic" abilities. A body of water, a wooded area, a bridge and railroad tracks are among the most common clues that psychics offer in attempting to locate missing persons presumed to be dead. And the real issue at hand is whether or not Noreen Renier, or indeed anyone, truly possesses "psychic" abilities.

4/19/11 Update:  From "Psychic leads police to body," Gainesville Sun, 4/4/96, Page 1B:  ". . . Slaughter made an unusual request -- would the Navy send some of its equipment and divers to help in the search? While waiting for the divers, workers near the pit uncovered something they didn't know was there -- abandoned railroad tracks, completing the image Renier had of the location." This supports the timeline that the tracks were discovered during the eight-month period between calling in the Navy divers and their availability to perform the search.

If/when I find any additional items in my files that speak to the timeline re: the railroad tracks or "bridge," the information will be posted here.

4/20/11 Update:  MEA CULPA: Detective Brian Hewitt's handwritten report dated 8/17/95 includes the following: "Today located a set of railroad tracks in woods and followed along to shoulder of access road at Whitehurst pits. Tracks are partially buried in some places and completely buried in others." And his letter to the Department of the Navy requesting their assistance in the search was dated 9/27/95, so he did indeed discover the tracks before calling for the Navy divers. I have just added a corrective note about this in my original article.

4/21/11 Update:  As I mentioned earlier, visions of water, woods, bridges and railroad tracks are commonly offered by psychics attempting to locate missing bodies. Whether such clues are obtained by paranormal or entirely normal means is the prime issue of interest to open-minded believers and skeptics alike. In the Williston case, are there any clues to help us decide whether or not Renier's "railroad tracks" vision was the product of genuine "psychic" ability?

I submit that one such clue resides in the episode of Psychic Detectives titled "End of the Road," which involves this case. This show was not created as fiction for the Syfy Channel, but as a documentary for Court TV (now truTV). Following Sherlock's link to the show's script (in post #146), I draw your attention to Scenes 101 to 103, in which Renier places herself into Mr. Lewis' mind and relives the sequence of events as they allegedly transpired: "I could feel myself going over -- over the tracks. Then all of a sudden Iím going over a cliff and Iím going down, Iím going down. . . . I went very, very deep into the water."

But did Mr. Lewis really drive over those tracks beside the Whitehurst pit and suddenly plunge into the water? What if the answer is demonstrably "No"? Would that suffice as a clue that Renier's vision was imaginary rather than "psychic" (even assuming, for the sake of argument, that there is such a thing as a "psychic" vision)?

The Williston Police file contains a hand-drawn map illustrating the death scene in meticulous detail. Its lettering is somewhat characteristic (to my eye) of Detective Hewitt's own hand, and it is signed in what resembles (to my eye) a more stylized version of his signature "H," so I suspect it was drawn by Hewitt. Note that the railroad tracks are to the north of the road, whereas the "Recovery Site" is to the road's south. Had Mr. Lewis actually crossed the tracks (which seems an impossibility since they were buried in the woods per Hewitt's report), he would have wound up heading in the opposite direction of his watery grave and into the woods. If this does not constitute a persuasive clue that Renier's "psychic" vision was imaginary, what would?

4/23/11 Update:  The James Randi Educational Foundation forum participants seem to be beating a dead horse. Even granting, for the sake of argument, that several of the many clues offered by Renier in the Williston case caused the police to zero-in on one particular pit, which turned out to be the correct one, does that constitute compelling evidence that "psychic" power must have been in play? Considering the number of psychics, the number of cases they participate in, and the number of clues they offer per case, what would be truly unexpected would be for none of their efforts to ever be credited as having been useful! Renier has had a standing offer from my group (Tampa Bay Skeptics) for more than 20 years to be tested in a manner so simple, and so perfectly tailored to her alleged abilities, that, were she to accept, her success would be virtually guaranteed (see here). Such a success would come with a $1,000 prize, and an invitation to repeat the same test for the James Randi Educational Foundation's $1,000,000 prize. But despite having had to declare bankruptcy several years ago, she is not interested in this simple challenge. It shouldn't take a "psychic" to figure out why.

Return to my Williston article