BAY VILLAGE, Ohio – James Renner was 11 years old when Amy Mihaljevic was kidnapped from a shopping plaza in Bay Village, Ohio, in 1989.
As he describes it, he “fell in love” with the 10-year-old girl whose class picture appeared at the top of TV newscasts for weeks after her abduction. He was also terrified of the mystery man who snatched her in broad daylight, right across the street from the Bay Village Police Department.
He vowed to find her killer.
“Everybody has that case, that moment in time when you realize you live in a dangerous world,” said Renner, now a married father of two in the Cleveland area. “I realized if it could happen to her, it could happen to me.”
So it was for many in the metropolitan Cleveland area, where Amy became a household name. Three months later, her body was found in a wheat field in Ashland County, some 50 miles (80 kilometers) away.
Renner’s search for her killer has consumed much of his adult life, beginning with a 2005 cover story for “Cleveland Scene” and followed by his 2006 book, “Amy: My Search for Her Killer.” But the search was far from over. He continued investigating through his blog, “Finding Amy,” and other true-crime forums, sharing information from his own digging in an effort to harvest new leads.
Renner is one of a growing cult of sleuths who see potential in the Internet to solve cold cases. The term “crowdsourced” gets kicked around, but Renner calls it “open-sourcing” because his investigations combine a mix of approaches — shoe-leather journalism, Web searches, long conversation threads — that he puts out for the world to see.
His modus operandi has attracted a fair share of enemies over the years, and not just the people he singles out on his blog. Internet trolls target him, along with his wife and two children, with all manner of threats.
Despite his efforts to demonstrate pure intentions, even those ostensibly on his side can’t help but question his motives. Amy’s father, Mark Mihaljevic, credits Renner with keeping the case alive all these years. But even he wonders why he does it.
“I don’t know what his ambitions are. He wants to solve the case, but I think he wants a piece of the glitz,” Mihaljevic said. “That’s OK with me. All the power to him.”
Bay Village Police Chief Mark Spaetzel has a similar outlook. He knows the case hinges on information from the public, and so as long as Renner is directing leads his way without interfering in the investigation, he’s being helpful.
Renner calls it a “compulsion to find bad guys,” based on time spent as a police reporter and an affinity for Stephen King novels. Since becoming a parent, though, he has come to see it in yet another light.
“If my child were murdered, I think I would move heaven and earth to find the killer.”
After becoming a parent, he also had to consider whether the thrill of knocking on strangers’ doors or time spent fending off death threats was worth it.
The value for law enforcement
Obsessing over unsolved crimes has long been a popular activity on the Internet, though for many years, keyboard detectives labored in obscurity in low-tech forums and chat rooms. Broader public interest in cyber sleuthing has grown in recent years, fueled in part by the popularity of the whodunit podcast “Serial” and our endless fascination with humanity’s darker aspects.
It’s no secret that law enforcement uses the Internet to track down suspects in all kinds of cases: cyber-terrorism, murders, robberies, bullying and so on. Now, they’re taking greater interest in leads surfacing through crowdsourced forums, such as Websleuths and Reddit, especially in cold cases.
“Let’s face it: There’s some wacky stuff out there,” said Peter Elliott, U.S. district marshal for the Northern District of Ohio. “But we need the community’s help all the time to catch wanted people … and it all helps us in the big picture.”
Elliott said his office regularly trawls the Internet and true-crime forums for leads. Even if they don’t lead to an arrest, they eliminate possibilities, a key part of investigating, he said.
Otherwise, Internet detectives so far have a spotty track record solving cases on their own. In a Washington Post story about crowdsourcing cold cases, the owner of Websleuths was unable to come up with a solid example of a post that led to an arrest.
It starts to get uncomfortable when those murmurs lead to wrongful public accusations. The most recent case came from the 2013 search for the Boston Marathon bombers. At one point, nearly 8,000 people subscribed to Reddit subgroup “find Boston bombers,” which wrongly singled out three people: a college student who turned out to have committed suicide and two men who were branded as suspects on the cover of the New York Post.
Renner says such collateral damage can be the cost of justice for crime victims and their loved ones.
“You can criticize what I’m doing, but weigh this against solving the case of a murdered girl and there’s no debate,” he said. “The ends justify the means.”
Making connections through life experiences
Renner launched “Finding Amy” in 2006 to share possible leads — no matter how tenuous — in his search for her killer. In one of his earliest posts in 2006, he posted information from a phone tip about a man who resembled the composite sketch of Amy’s abductor.
The post includes the man’s first name, the street on which he lived with his parents in 1989, the car he drove, a tipster’s claim that the man was “unsupervised” the day of Amy’s abduction and an update that the man had entered rehab.
Subsequent posts detailed long road trips to find people for face-to-face encounters; painstaking efforts to procure logbooks and investigative notes; and conversations with people who might have received a phone call from the same person who called Amy and lured her to the shopping plaza under the premise of buying a gift for her mother.
Readers of the blog sent in more leads, which Renner posted on Reddit’s Unresolved Mysteries subgroup for help kicking up more clues. After passing on the viable leads to law enforcement, Renner’s part was done.
But Renner thinks that it should be a two-way street: that police and the FBI should share more information with the public.
“I believe the more info you get out there, the more cases will be solved,” he said. “People make connections through life experiences.”
‘It’s time to come in’
Over the years, leads and persons of interests have come and gone, and perhaps no one other than Amy’s father and law enforcement are more familiar with them than Renner.
He readily recalls even the smallest details of the case: the turquoise horse head earrings and riding boots Amy was wearing when she went missing; the “Best in class” Buick-branded backpack that was never found; the wisp of wheat crawling up her pant leg, suggesting she had been placed there in the fall, not long after she was abducted.
Over time, Renner began to see his quest for what it was: an unhealthy compulsion, especially now that he has a family. Besides, for all the sleepless nights and close calls the case brought him, it remains unsolved.
He boxed up his notes and donated them to his alma mater, Kent State University, where they are housed in the Special Collections and Archives.
The 26th anniversary of Amy’s death in 2015 was the first time in 10 years that Renner did not spend October 27 in Bay Village staking out the site of Amy’s memorial, across the street from the shopping plaza from which she was abducted, looking for her killer.
But true crime pays the bills more than his passion for writing fiction and screenplays (though he has a book coming out in November). He has written a few true-crime novels and moved on to a new case: the 2004 disappearance of University of Massachusetts student Maura Murray, employing the same techniques on a new blog.
Old habits die hard. In Amy’s honor, he posted a plea Monday urging her killer him to turn himself in. Do it for Amy’s family, Renner wrote. Do it before police catch you and spare you no mercy. He even offered to find him a lawyer.
“It’s time to come in,” he wrote. “Give yourself up while you can still negotiate your terms. Do it, today.”
Do you have information about the disappearance of Amy Mihaljevic? Call the Cleveland FBI at 216-522-1400 or contact your local FBI field office.