Selected articles from
VOL. 23  NO. 2  FALL 2010

Bankrupt legal processes poison
Noreen Renier bankruptcy ruling

By Gary P. Posner

A Dickens character once opined, "If the law supposes that, the law is a ass." To which I would add, "If bankruptcy law allows this travesty, bankruptcy law is bankrupt." And, for good measure, "Justice can sometimes be not only blind, but deaf and just plain dumb."

A series of disturbing events has marred what a federal bankruptcy judge in Virginia intended to be the final chapter in the quarter-century-long legal wranglings between "psychic detective" Noreen Renier, a former longtime Florida resident, and skeptic John Merrell, who co-founded the Northwest Skeptics in 1982. Among them: A blind eye was turned to evidence offered by Merrell, a crucial subpoena was refused and returned unread, and the judge's June 21 final order refers repeatedly to an "agreement" that was never reached between the parties.

To hopefully put an end to their litigation once and for all, Judge William E. Anderson ordered that "Renier and Merrell shall make no further public comment about each other [nor so encourage others] from this time forward," the violator having to pay $30,000 to the other party. And in an outrageous overreach, his order further decreed that Merrell will be declared guilty of breaching the "agreement" (though the following was never agreed to), and will have to pay Renier $30,000, if "any mention of Merrell's name" appears in a book that yours truly is in the process of writing -- about the 1984 "missing airplane" case discussed in our Spring 2010 issue's lead article (more on this later)!

As reported in our Summer 2007 and Winter 2007-08 issues, Renier, who had signed a settlement agreement with Merrell in 1992 prohibiting either party from ever again publicly disparaging the other, was found guilty in a U.S. District Court of being in violation by virtue of the two disparaging chapters in her 2005 memoir, A Mind for Murder. Owing Merrell more than $40,000 in attorneys fees and interest as a consequence, Renier filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in August 2007. She claimed an inability to pay the debt, which, per her pleading, almost exactly equaled her entire gross income over the previous three years. But as Merrell informed TBS Report at the time, she failed to list significant income sources such as her book and her association with Court TV's Psychic Detectives series, on which she had appeared numerous times in recent years.

During the nearly three-year course of bankruptcy proceedings, Merrell incurred additional costs (adding to Renier's debt to him) as he endeavored to uncover some of the assets that he believed Renier to be hiding, while the Court's trustees apparently did little detective work of their own. Merrell would periodically inform the Court of his findings, including information obtained via a private investigator about an undeclared bank account, and Renier would periodically amend upward her declarations of income, ultimately by more than $100,000. Merrell's sister, Roxie Cuellar, a former practicing attorney who defended her brother in the original 1986 Renier v. Merrell libel trial (in which Renier prevailed), told TBS Report that the trustees refused to follow up on Merrell's leads despite having encouraged him to issue subpoenas.

But Merrell believes that tens of thousands (or more) of additional dollars -- earned from Renier's "psychic" phone sessions, TV appearances and book royalties -- remain secreted. And despite requesting, through the legal process, the names of her paying "psychic reading" clients and police agencies that she claimed to have worked with during the relevant time period, and the amount of money paid by them, he was denied that information. Nor were her IRS income declarations (W2 and/or 1099 forms) provided despite four formal requests, even though such information is typically made available to creditors, with Merrell being Renier's largest.

Additionally, the refusal of Story House Productions to respond to its subpoena from Merrell, which Renier had tried unsuccessfully to quash, aroused further suspicion. As Roxie Cuellar told TBS Report:

Story House Productions featured Renier in so many episodes of Psychic Detectives (and another of their shows called Psychic Investigators) that she must have received substantial payments from them in the immediate years preceding her bankruptcy. And given how many times those shows were rerun, I suspect she may have continued to receive substantial undeclared royalties from Story House even after she filed for bankruptcy. Both of the trustees knew full well that she had egregiously understated her income in her petition to the court, and they had the power to issue and enforce subpoenas, but they seemed more interested in closing the books on this case than in making sure that the debtor was honest in her representations and that debts owed to her creditors were satisfied to the fullest extent possible.

In the end, Renier's allegedly hidden assets (if any) were never made available for payment of her debts. But the Court did put the rights to A Mind for Murder up for auction, and Renier was the high bidder at $9,000, 61% of which will be paid to Merrell. In all, Merrell is to receive approximately $7,500 from Renier's estate. He estimates that he remains approximately $65,000 in the hole as a result of the Court's refusal, in his opinion, to administer justice in this case.

Further, Merrell was required to take down his extensive anti-Renier website and to arrange for the rights to that domain to be turned over to Renier. He was permitted to retain and make one final post to his site.

Cuellar summarized her reactions to the legal processes this way:

I found the trustees' actions to be very frustrating and openly hostile towards John. They knew Renier had grossly understated her income by failing to declare most of her earnings and royalties, yet they showed no interest in looking for hidden assets, instead leaving all the investigative work to John. If only he were a "psychic detective" like Renier, maybe justice might have been served.

John did what he was told he could do, including issuing his own subpoenas. But if the trustees had no intention of reviewing the material he discovered, they shouldn't have advised him to issue the subpoenas and to review the materials and prepare a formal summary for them. That all cost John a lot of time and money. And it was only because of John's persistence that about $11,000 was eventually recovered for distribution to the creditors.

Having watched in the courtroom how Renier interacted with one of the trustees during the first hearing, there was just such a difference in the overt friendliness he exhibited toward Renier and the blatant rudeness he showed toward John. John, his other sister Sally Penna (who also made the trip with us), and I were all shocked by it, frankly, because we had expected an atmosphere of fairness and courtroom decorum.

Cuellar had accompanied Merrell to the Virginia courtroom for two of the crucial hearings and negotiations. She tells TBS Report that at one point, Renier whispered to her attorney that she would sue if there was even a mention of Merrell's name in the book I am writing. However, Cuellar is adamant that the final verbal agreement was actually to the effect that John would be delisted as the book's author (I was originally to be his co-author) and would not contribute any disparaging comments about Renier. That is also the clear recollection of John and his other sister. As for Judge Anderson's final order sanctifying Renier's threat rather than the negotiated settlement language, Cuellar believes that the kindly southern jurist had been beguiled by Renier's pleadings of poverty and maltreatment (at the hand of Merrell).

TBS chairman Terry Smiljanich, also an attorney, tells me that since I was not a party to the bankruptcy case, I cannot file a protest against the judge's order, even as it pertains to me. Yet, as Merrell was the primary investigator into the missing-plane case and the one who interviewed the quoted principals, there can be no book without mention of his name throughout.

So, I am placed in the following quandary: Should I abandon the book? Or should I proceed, and thus subject Merrell to being liable for paying Renier $30,000 for his having breached (even though he has no control over my actions) his "agreement" with Renier (even though there was no such agreement)?

I have decided upon a third alternative. Assuming the book ultimately proceeds to publication, I will use a pseudonym for Merrell, perhaps "Jack Monroe." While making sure that there is not "any mention of Merrell's name" in the book itself, the pseudonym will be accompanied each time by an asterisk, and there will be notations throughout referring the reader to a page on my website that will explain the situation in full detail.

In my own imagination, which by law is permitted to be as vivid as Judge Anderson's, his honor and I mutually came to this pseudonym "agreement." If he professes to have a problem with it, he can stick it where the moon don't shine.

Martin Gardner (1914-2010)

By Terry A. Smiljanich

The skeptical community took another big hit this summer when Martin Gardner died at the age of 95.

For those of us growing up in the 1950s and '60s, Gardner was a constant presence. I'm old enough to recall the folding paper puzzles in the Humpty Dumpty children's magazine in the early '50s, little knowing that the creator was a man whose works would continue to educate me for another 60 years. In fact, when I used to read each and every "Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American from high school on, I had no idea it was by the same man who used to create those folding paper puzzles.

Years before James Randi wrote his influential work Flim Flam!, Gardner had written about skeptical matters and science in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1957), followed later by Science: Good, Bad and Bogus (1981), taking on issues such as ESP, UFOs, Scientology, and creationism.

In 1976, Gardner was a founding member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) -- since renamed Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) -- along with such other influential proponents of scientific skepticism as Randi, Phillip Klass, Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov. Gardner continued to stay active with CSI, writing his regular “Notes of a Fringe-Watcher” column for Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

Gardner’s love of mathematical puzzles led him to write his most commercially successful book, The Annotated Alice, in which he reproduces Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, with the addition of voluminous margin notes containing myriad fascinating details about the many logical and mathematical themes and Victorian in-jokes with which the author played around in these fairy tales.

Interestingly, and to the discomfort of many of his admirers, Gardner also wrote extensively about his philosophical and religious views. He was no fan of Christianity or any other organized religion, but he was not an atheist. He was a "fideist," believing in God but admitting that this was not based on any evidence for the existence of a god.

He wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, The Flight of Peter Fromm, about a young man like himself who attended the University of Chicago intending to become a preacher, but instead becoming doubtful about all organized religion, while retaining his own faith in a numinous god. Like his philosophical hero, Miguel de Unamuno, Gardner believed in God because his belief satisfied a deep-seated urge within him.

Carl Sagan once asked him, "Essentially, you're saying you believe in God because it makes you feel good?" When Gardner agreed this was so, Sagan just shook his head in disbelief. Reading his philosophical essays, however, and visiting the works of Unamuno, one cannot readily dismiss such fideism as illogical, since it seemingly lies outside the realm of reason.

Gardner was fun to read, especially when he was poking gentle fun at the non-scientific absurdities of certain popular beliefs. Whether you find his philosophical musings persuasive or not, there can be no doubt that he was a giant among skeptics. Randi and others have written moving tributes to him in the latest (Sept./Oct.) issue of Skeptical Inquirer.

Among the cream of the current hearty crop of intelligent and entertaining skeptics are Michael Shermer (the "Skeptic"), Phil Plait (the "Bad Astronomer"), Rebecca Watson (the "Skepchick"), and Adam Savage (the "Myth-buster"). With the likes of Gardner, Klass, Sagan and Asimov now gone, it's up to the "new" faces to carry on the tradition, and do justice to the legacy, of those iconic thinkers and writers.



Per this newspaper article, "The psychic octopus [named Paul] has not made a mistake when predicting the outcome of a [soccer] match for two years." For this year's World Cup finals, would Paul prefer the mussel in the box marked "Spain" over the one in the "Holland" box? You betcha! And for good measure, he found the Germany mussel more appealing than the one representing Uruguay, thus also successfully selecting the 3rd- and 4th-place finishers. But before he chose Germany over Uruguay, he had picked Spain to whip Germany in an earlier match-up. He was right (as always), but that still did not sit well with the Germans, who have been known to carry a grudge a tad too far. Thus, Spanish environment and fisheries minister Elena Espinosa announced, "On Monday, I shall be at the European Council of Ministers and I shall be asking for a [fishing] ban on Paul the octopus so the Germans do not eat him."

(London Daily Telegraph, July 9)

Doesn't it just drive you nuts when you think you're about to talk to your dead father, and the late Farrah Fawcett picks up instead and says hello? Well, not if you're actress Tori Spelling -- and hawking a new book. As she is reported to have told Out magazine: "If it had been some psychic that I'd walked in off the street for five bucks, it would have been different. But it came through [John Edward]. . . . He offered to do a reading with me and I was hoping I would talk to my dad. . . . And then, all of a sudden, [he said] Farrah Fawcett's coming through. And we were neighbors for years. She basically wanted me to give a message to [her family]. . . . I've actually written a letter to Ryan O'Neal and explained to him . . . everything that happened."

(Huffington Post, June 24)

As we reported in a Summer 2008 Snippet, Radivoje Lajic's house in northern Bosnia had been struck five separate times by meteorites since November 2007. "I am obviously being targeted by extraterrestrials," Lajic naturally concluded. Well, he says it's happened again, and experts at Belgrade University confirm that all six rocks that he has shown them have indeed been genuine meteorites. Lajic says that he has sold one of them to a Dutch university to finance his home's new steel-girder-reinforced roof. "I have no doubt I am being targeted by aliens," he reaffirmed. "[I don’t know why] they are playing games with me."

(London Daily Mail, July 19)

Letter to the Editor

Editor: I am emailing you guys for some help. I live with my wife and five kids, and we've been experiencing some very strange things in our home. My seven-year-old stepdaughter "sees things," if you will, starting back when she was three. Since moving into our apartment (which is the size of a small home) about eight months ago, she has often awakened to see "someone" moving the curtains attached to the top of her bed. The house had been quiet for months until three weeks ago, when my wife and I were home alone watching a movie, went into the kitchen, and upon leaving the kitchen found a full water bottle just standing straight up in the middle of the walkway. Five days ago, my daughter came into our room crying, saying she saw a black shadow with long black hair and no face, so we let her sleep in our room. Yesterday when my wife and I were alone with my two young boys, we were watching a movie when suddenly there were two very loud knocks on the wall in my boys' room, but no one was there. A few hours later, my brother-in-law came over and we watched another movie, my two boys now asleep in my room. During the movie we all clearly heard my stepsons' room door open and close twice, followed by sounds of things in the room being moved. My wife then saw a shadow figure (in the reflection of our sliding glass door) leave the boys' room and walk down the hallway to my room. Later, my three-year-old son woke up screaming "daddy" and looking scared to death, pointing into the dark hallway trying to tell me what he saw and said that all the stuff on his bed had flown off.

Angry, I told this "entity" to leave my home. We all then ended up leaving and staying at my in-laws' house. I cannot deal with this kind of craziness in my home and we don't know what to do. Any help or advice would be greatly appreciated.

--Rob Colletti

Editor's reply: We informed Mr. Colletti that after doing some Internet searching of his address, one TBS Executive Council member found that ten years ago a family of five moved out after a milk bottle mysteriously appeared in the bathtub. Another commented that conducting a thorough investigation would probably require us to set up audio and video recorders and live in the home for a week or so. We ultimately explained that "poltergeist" cases like this one are almost invariably found to be caused by someone living in the home, usually an adolescent, and usually female. Readers are invited to offer their own comments/suggestions.

Return to TBS Report Online

© 2010 by Tampa Bay Skeptics and Center For Inquiry Tampa Bay