James Renner was eleven years old when Amy Mihaljevic was abducted from a Bay Village, Ohio shopping plaza on October 27, 1989. Following the kidnapping, Renner became immersed in Mihaljevic’s disappearance, determined to bring the girl only nine months younger than himself home. When Mihaljevic’s lifeless body was discovered in a cornfield in Ashland, Ohio on February 8, 1990, it began for Renner an enduring obsession to find her killer.
Today, James Renner is a renowned journalist and author of both fiction and non-fiction novels. Even as an adult, Renner’s fervour for solving the Amy Mihaljevic murder remains a significant part of his life. In 2006, Gray & Company released Amy: My Search for Her Killer, documenting Renner’s near two-year investigation into the case. He also maintains a blog at AmyMihaljevic.Blogspot.ca, where developments in the story are posted. This past October, Renner was featured as part of a CNN piece on social media and true crime for his journalistic involvement in the Mihaljevic killing.
James kindly granted me an interview to discuss his hands-on exploration into the Amy Mihaljevic case, which now spans over a decade. Amy: My Search for Her Killer is available for purchase on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble and via Gray & Company Publishers.
(Special thanks to David Gray and Jane Lassar of Gray & Company Publishers)
Before we discuss the Amy Mihaljevic case, I’d like to give you an opportunity to speak about a couple of books you have upcoming and recently released. First is True Crime Addict, which documents the high-profile New Hampshire missing persons case of Maura Murray and your investigation into the story since 2011. The book is slated for release in May and currently available for pre-order. This will be the definitive account of Maura Murray’s case and I imagine you must be very excited.
I’m counting the days to May 24’s release. This book was a challenge in many ways and there were many who believed it never would be published. Yes, it will stand as the definitive book on the case, but it is also a memoir and I think people will be surprised at how much I reveal about myself and my family as the mystery of what happened to Maura Murray progresses. I think readers will be left with a good sense for what happened and why. This book will change the case and my life in unexpected ways. It already is. It’s going to be a hell of a trip.
You also had a fiction title released this past November called The Great Forgetting. Can you tell us about that book?
The Great Forgetting is like a great big lost episode of The Twilight Zone or the X-Files. It starts small – in a sleepy Ohio town, where a psychiatrist has gone missing – and becomes a race to save the entire world. Every major conspiracy is woven into the fabric of the story: chemtrails, fluoride, HAARP, Nazis, human hybrids. It’s a fun ride. My novels serve as a form of therapy for me, something I can turn to when the real-life investigations get a little too dangerous.
Your captivation with the Amy Mihaljevic murder case began at the age of eleven, immediately following her killing. You vowed then to find her murderer and since October of 1989, that passion has never dissipated. Why do you feel this case has remained so personal to you for all of these years?
Amy’s case has remained personal for me after all these years for a couple reasons. We were the same age and it was that time in my life where I realized for the first time that we live in a dangerous world. And I survived an attempted abduction myself a little bit later (the details of which are revealed in True Crime Addict). She was the first real case I took on and it’s the one I really want to solve before I die.
Amy: My Search for Her Killer – your book documenting the Mihaljevic murder – was released in October 2006. Was writing Amy a therapeutic experience for you, or did becoming even further immersed in the case only fuel your desire for a resolution to the killing?
Amy’s case is an unhealthy obsession. Not just for me, but for several of the FBI agents and detectives who have worked the case. Nothing therapeutic about it. You have to eventually set it aside before it devours you. I came out on the other side with a good dose of PTSD. There are things you learn about humanity while researching this case that you are better off not knowing.
A primary reason I enjoyed the book so much is due to the fact that it is written from an autobiographical perspective detailing your investigation into the Mihaljevic case. Was this a deliberate decision on your part as a way to differentiate Amy from other true crime novels or simply your preferred format for writing the book?
I’m not your typical reporter. In J-school, they teach you to keep a distance from yourself and the subjects of your stories. That’s not possible for me. I like getting my hands dirty. I like banging on the doors of suspects’ homes after dark. I like talking my way into crime scenes. I enjoy finding the skeletons in someone’s closet. But if you go that deep, you become part of the story. That’s happened in Amy’s case and also in Maura Murray’s case. I didn’t just report on the story, I advanced it. Not saying that’s the right way to go, just that it’s the only way I know how to do it.
You were profiled by CNN in the fall for your work and dedication to Amy’s case over the years. Can you tell us about that experience and how it came about?
CNN contacted me last spring about doing a long piece on my work using social media to uncover new clues in cold cases. Two journalists came out to Ohio for a few days in May and I showed them around. They filmed so much footage, but you only get to see about three minutes of it in the end. It was a fun experience overall. And it brought a lot of new attention to Amy’s case.
You are featured in the CNN piece as saying, “Everybody has that local case, it’s that moment in time where you realize that you live in a dangerous world.” I can relate to that statement, as I reside in the Niagara Region of Ontario, where Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka – considered by many to be Canada’s most notorious serial killers – committed a series of horrific murders against young female victims. I recall the media frenzy surrounding the crimes and correlate that to your quote on Amy’s case. Would you say her disappearance was a pivotal moment in your life even before discovering that she had been murdered?
Oh, yeah. For sure. Remember, when I was eleven and Amy was still missing, I’d ride my bike to the mall and look for her. I thought I could find her. I thought I could solve the case, that maybe I was as smart as Encyclopedia Brown or something. So when they announced that they found her body three months later, I was devastated. It never occurred to me that she might not come back alive. That’s not how it happened in movies or books.
You maintain a blog titled “Finding Amy’s Killer” devoted to the case, which can be found at AmyMihaljevic.Blogspot.ca. Since the inception of the page in August 2006, there have been a number of developments in the investigation and you have examined several new potential suspects from the time that the book was released. Do you intend to continue investigating Amy’s murder until the case is solved?
I don’t think I can ever completely walk away from Amy’s case. The blog serves as a lightning rod for information now. So it will remain up, in the hopes that the person who knows what happened will contact me one day.
At the end of the day, have you developed a solitary theory about what happened to Amy Mihaljevic that you favor among all other speculation?
The best I’ve been able to do is narrow it to three suspects (the FBI maintain a “Top 25” list). I am convinced it is one of three men and one man stands above the others. I think he took her without an endgame, without knowing where it would lead. Eventually, Amy realized she was in danger and fought back. He hit her, hard. Then, he knew he was caught. And he panicked. I don’t think her killer ever killed again. Or before. That’s what makes this one so difficult to solve. It was a one-time thing.
You close Amy with the line, “This case is solvable.” A decade later, and with all of the twists, turns and possible suspects in Amy’s murder, do you still feel this way?
Yes. If only because they have the killer’s DNA. Or part of it. Eventually, they’ll match it.
Thank you, James, I appreciate your time. I commend you on your dedication to this case for the past two-and-a-half decades and highly recommend Amy: My Search for Her Killer to anybody who wishes to learn more about Amy’s story.