Q & A with Author James Renner
Recently, I had the distinct honor of talking with American author, investigative journalist, producer, and director, James Renner.
Renner worked as a reporter for Cleveland Scene and was editor of the alternative newspaper The Cleveland Independent. He is known for his work in the thriller, science fiction, and true crime genres. In 2019, Renner founded The Porchlight Project, a nonprofit dedicated to offering support for the families of the missing and murdered.
(LaDonna) Q: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? I am really interested to learn more about how you initially got involved in true crime - specifically with the cases of Tina Harmon, Amy Mihaljevic and Maura Murray.
(James) A: I got pulled into the world of true crime when I was eleven years old. This was 1989 and a young girl had been abducted from the town next door. Her name was Amy Mihaljevic and her posters - the one with the side ponytail - were on every telephone pole. I decided I would try to find her killer so what I did was I would get on my two-speed Huffy bike and pedal over to Westgate Mall. I'd hide out by Waldenbooks and look for the face of Amy's abductor in the crowds. If I saw someone who looked similar I'd follow him out to his car and jot down his license plate, then call in the tip. But I was calling the tips into the Unsolved Mysteries tip line so I'm sure they went nowhere. I mean they never covered the case.
Years later, when I became a reporter, Amy's story was the first thing I pitched. I did so much research I turned it into my first book and then everything comes from there. I've been writing books ever since.
Later, I worked as a victims advocate for the family of Tina Harmon, who was murdered in 1981. Her case had never been solved and the police weren't really doing anything with it. We pushed them to retest the evidence in the case and were able to determine that Bob Buell was involved in Harmon's murder. It was the first case I helped to close.
In 2011, I began researching the unsolved disappearance of Maura Murray. It's a tragic case with lots of twists and turns and we're not even sure it's a crime. But it is likely an unsolved murder. My book on that case, True Crime Addict, was published in 2016. I still maintain blogs on Amy and Maura's cases.
(LaDonna) Q: I really respect how much passion you pour into the cases you investigate and write about. How has that work (and the horror of these cases) impacted you personally?
(James) A: Digging into these cold cases has affected my life in countless ways. As a journalist you really should be careful not to get too invested. There have been studies of journalists who write about trauma, where they've found that journalists take in that trauma like second-hand smoke, leading too all kinds of things like PTSD and depression. All the investigative journalists I know personally are or have been on anti-anxiety meds. It's important to have other hobbies or writing assignments to fall back on when things get too sad. I find meditation and mindfulness training to be very effective.
(LaDonna) Q: You and I have talked before about the Maura Murray case. (True Crime Addict was an amazing book, by the way! I couldn't put it down!) Is there anything new happening in Maura's case? Have your thoughts about what happened to Maura Murray changed any since the book was published?
(James) A: Thank you! There's always something happening with Maura's case. We just recently learned that Maura disappeared with an unidentified man after a party on the campus of UMass just a couple days before she drove to the White Mountains. When I wrote the book I felt the most likely explanation was that she had run away from the men in her life. Now, I think it's more likely she was killed by someone she trusted in the days after her disappearance. But I hope she's alive and well.
(LaDonna) Q: Can you tell me more about the Porchlight Project and discuss one or two of the cases you are involved with through Porchlight?
(James) A: The Porchlight Project is a nonprofit I set up last year that raises money for new DNA tests and genetic genealogy for cold cases in Ohio. We're off to a really good start. Our first case was the unsolved murder of Barbara Blatnik, who was killed in 1987, in Cuyahoga Falls. We worked with the police department to retest evidence and the genetic genealogists at Identifinders International were able to track the DNA profile to a man named James Zastawnik who was arrested for that murder in May. We're currently searching for new cases and hope to take on two more this year.
(LaDonna) Q: I've been working on the Melissa Witt murder case for about 5 years now. The documentary I have been working on will be released in January of 2021. As our efforts wind down, my team has expressed some discouragement and concern that maybe we have exhausted all avenues in Melissa's case. How did you combat those feelings of discouragement (and exhaustion) in the cases that you have worked so closely? Did you find it difficult to put the research/investigation/writing down and take a break?
(James) A: I approach my investigations the same way I approach writing - don't set your goal to high and don't beat yourself up if you don't complete it in a day. You have to be patient. Just chip away, one clue, one page a day, if you have to. Eventually it adds up and takes you somewhere.
James, that is fantastic advice - and I truly appreciate your time! I admire and respect the work you have done and I look forward to finding some ways to work together in the future!