June 30, 2016

Partly sunny

Writer discusses going from true crime to fiction

James Renner reads from his first novel, “The Man from Primrose Lane,” for an audience of more than 75 fans Friday at the Medina County District Library in Medina. (NANCY JOHNSON / GAZETTE)

James Renner reads from his first novel, “The Man from Primrose Lane,” for an audience of more than 75 fans Friday at the Medina County District Library in Medina. (NANCY JOHNSON / GAZETTE)

James Renner was just 11 years old when Amy Mihaljevic was abducted from a Bay Village shopping center in October 1989.

Profoundly shaken by the incident, the young boy was determined to find the little girl whose school picture both charmed and haunted him.

Renner, now a 36-year-old author, spoke about the incident before an audience of more than 75 people at an Author’s Live lecture at the Medina Library on Friday, March 7. The lecture was sponsored by the Friends of Medina County District Library.

“When Amy disappeared, I was hoping to find her and lead her home,” he said, “I was sure she was still wandering around the shopping center, lost.”

He was wrong.

The body of the 10-year-old girl was found in an Ashland County field in early February 1990.

Renner, an Akron resident and graduate of Kent State University, told the library audience he has never stopped hunting for Amy’s killer.

He recalled visiting a Medina psychic several years ago in his quest to solve the case.

“The psychic told me Amy wanted to talk to me, and suddenly the wind chimes in the room started making noise.” Renner said the psychic told him he had already met the killer.

Amy’s unsolved murder launched Renner’s career as a journalist and author, and brought to light new information about the cold case.

In 2005, Renner investigated the tragedy for a series of articles he wrote for the weekly newspaper Cleveland Scene.

“I had so much information, I realized it was enough for a book,” he said.

“Amy: My Search for Her Killer” was published by Gray & Co. in October 2006. The book provided information previously unreleased by the police and FBI.

“The FBI narrowed it down to 25 suspects. I think I’ve got it down to three,” he said.

While touring Northeast Ohio to promote his book, Renner learned of more true mysteries. His second non-fiction book, “The Serial Killer’s Apprentice,” published by Gray & Co. in 2008, features a collection of unsolved cases based in the Cleveland area.

In the book’s chapter 11, Renner covered the disappearance of two young west side girls: Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus.

On May 6, 2013, the case made international headlines.

That was the day Berry, DeJesus and Michelle Knight broke free from their kidnapper, the now deceased Ariel Castro. The women had been held captive for more than 10 years in Castro’s home in the Tremont neighborhood.

“I got a text from a source that simply said ‘Amanda and Gina have walked out of a house on the west side.’ I knew exactly what that meant.

Renner headed straight to MetroHealth Medical Center where the women had been taken. There he spoke to Gina’s mother, Nancy Ruiz.

“She was in shock. I gave her an idea of what to expect from the media. I suggested the families work with a crisis manager, which they did.”

Renner also wrote a letter to the media asking them to “slow down; overexposure, fighting for the story, will just hurt the psyche of Northeast Ohio.”

Recently, Renner decided to move away from non-fiction to focus on writing fiction.

“Once you start surrounding yourself with real-life tragedies, it gets to be like second-hand smoke. You have to get away from it. I wanted to write fictional stories of cases that I could solve.”

His first novel, “The Man from Primrose Lane,” was published in February 2012 by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

And although it’s a fictional story, the novel is based on the true-life mystery of an Eastlake man who committed suicide in 2002. The man had assumed the identity of Joseph Newton Chandler III, a 9-year-old Texas boy who had been killed in a car accident in 1945.

Today, the case is still unsolved. No one knows the Eastlake man’s true identity, although theories abound, a few of which are studied in Renner’s novel.

“The novel was recently picked up by Warner Bros. Studios,” Renner said, “I just went out to Los Angeles to meet the screenwriter. Bradley Cooper’s name is attached to it right now.”

Renner, who teaches English Composition and Fiction Appreciation at University of Akron, has written a second novel as part of a two-book deal with his publisher. “The Great Forgetting” is scheduled for a May 2015 release.

“It’s my love letter to conspiracy theories,” Renner said, before reading a passage to the audience from a draft manuscript, which he jokingly pointed out “has several red marks from my editor.

“Writing and publishing a novel are the hardest things I’ve ever done and this one was especially difficult,” Renner admitted, “I had to whittle it down from 950 pages to 426. But it’s taught me how to be a better writer and how to use an economy of words to tell a story.”

Renner is also one of the debut authors associated with a new free mobile app called StoryShift, where he has created a tale called “Expedition Z.” The app allows the reader community to vote for what happens next in each chapter.

Despite his decision to focus on fiction, Renner said he is actively researching the 2004 disappearance of Maura Murray, a nursing student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who was involved in a one-car accident in New Hampshire. “The police arrived seven minutes after a resident called 911. By then, Murray had vanished.

“When you start peeling back the layers of this case, you start finding a lot of odd characters,” Renner said, “and they’re all scary.”

Contact reporter Nancy Johnson at (330) 721-4065 or areanews@medina-gazette.com.