VOL. 23 NO. 4 SPRING 2011
perhaps scissors and paste
A Noreen Renier court exhibit
With the ink barely dry on Judge William E. Anderson's controversial June 21, 2010, bankruptcy ruling, which allowed "psychic detective" Noreen Renier to escape most of her $40,000-plus obligation to skeptic John Merrell (see our Fall 2010 issue), Renier charged Merrell with violating its terms, an offense that carries a $30,000 penalty to be paid to the aggrieved party.
The Renier/Merrell legal saga, which has spanned more than a quarter century, has been amply covered in these pages through the years. Judge Anderson, like others before him, had hoped that last June's edict would be the final word. But Renier's new charges, and Merrell's counter-charges, necessitated what turned into a two-day hearing, spiced with a piece of evidence alleged by Merrell to be as dubious as "psychic power" itself.
Court convened on December 20 in Charlottesville, Virginia. A full discussion of those proceedings would exceed our allotted space, so this report will concentrate on only the most intriguing tidbits, as recounted to TBS Report by Merrell's sister Roxie Cuellar, a former practicing attorney who attended the sessions (Anderson's last order prohibits Merrell himself from providing such information to us for publication).
In a nutshell, Renier alleged that Merrell had: a) not quickly enough purged from his Websites the material that Anderson's order required be removed, b) left some objectionable material even after the purging, and c) too tardily turned over to her the rights to the amindformurder.com domain as ordered in February 2010, which Merrell had named after her 2005 memoir and which had housed the bulk of his anti-Renier material. Merrell was permitted to continue to post a secondary Website (commentarybysherlock.com) referencing Renier, but its allowable content was restricted to topics that had been covered in the anti-Merrell chapters 17 and 18 of the first edition of A Mind for Murder. Both of those chapters had to be removed from the second edition because they violated a 1992 settlement agreement forbidding Renier and Merrell from further publicly disparaging each other.
Regarding his alleged procrastination in transferring the amindformurder.com domain to Renier, Merrell told the Court that he had done all he could within a few weeks of last year's February hearing, but that Renier had neglected to follow through and make payment to the company until three months later. He further testified that he had taken down the entire site within several days of that hearing, except for a single transitional page (pending Renier's takeover) containing three links in this order and named as follows: 1) "Click here for Noreen Renier, Psychic Detective" (a courtesy link to her noreenrenier.com site), 2) "Click here for G and P Inquiry Group" (his gpinquirygroup.com site, named after Gargantua and Pantagruel [not me], containing information critical of psychic claims but with no mention of Renier), and 3) "Click here for Commentary by Sherlock" (discussed above). Adjacent to each oval/link was supplemental descriptive text.
But Renier claimed to the Court that after several weeks, the link to her site actually began directing viewers to a Website critical of her (though she didn't indicate which). Further, she alleged that the original supplemental text for her link was soon replaced with disparaging language, which would vary somewhat from time to time, and she offered several exhibits as corroborating evidence. The graphic to the right shows a portion of her Exhibit 6 (with an arrow added by us for another reason to be discussed shortly).
In stark contrast to Merrell, who had created high-quality printouts illustrating the various Web and book pages under discussion (including his transitional page), Renier -- whose attorney mockingly referred to Merrell's sharp, full-color exhibits as "cotton candy" -- provided barely legible black-and-white photocopies. In Exhibit 6, the "Sherlock" oval/link appears first, Renier's second (followed by words she found objectionable), and "G and P" third. In Merrell's counter-testimony, he maintained that Renier's oval/link always displayed first, always properly linked to her own home page, and never contained unflattering language. He said that Renier obtained her exhibit's language from his old amindformurder.com site, but that on this new transitional page he had been careful to use Renier's own description of herself, which he had appropriated from her Website's own source code.
Merrell also pointed out several other differences between Exhibit 6 and what he alleged had been the true appearance of that transitional page, including excessive space between the first and second ovals and striking variations in the lightness/darkness of the ovals and the blocks of text. Merrell, whose professional expertise includes digital imagery, told the judge -- and Renier offered no rebuttal -- that this exhibit appears to be the result of a cut-and-paste "scissors" job, followed by several generations of photocopying in a possible attempt to obscure the evidence of such. Each of Renier's exhibits contains a horizontal line about two inches from the top of the page (apparently a photocopier artifact). In Exhibit 6, this line is visible across the upper third of the top oval. However, unnoticed by Merrell or Cuellar (or Merrell's wife and other sister, who had also made the cross-country trip to Virginia), until days after Court adjourned, is another line (see arrow). If everything below the first oval were to be raised on the page such that the top of the second oval touched that line, the spacing between the three ovals would then be precisely equal, as Merrell testified it was on the actual Web page. Also unappreciated until later is the flattening of the bottom of the first oval, which has aroused further suspicion in his and his sister's minds (though not proof) of deliberate doctoring.
Merrell also asserted that it was Renier, not himself, who had continued to post prohibited material on the Web. He provided exhibits showing six pages, containing critical references to him, that were still accessible on her site to anyone who either knew their direct Web address (URL) or did a search-engine query for "John Merrell" (Renier had merely removed the visible links to those pages).
And though in 2009 he had eventually let this slide, Merrell presented a page, which had appeared on Renier's site from 2007 until the summer of 2010, that he now told the judge "clearly shows Ms. Renier lied to this Court." It contained a passage describing Merrell as "a particularly vicious, vindictive, and vexing professional skeptic." In her 2009 response to Merrell's first raising of this matter, Renier had written to the Court, "This is untrue. I have never put anything like that on my website. Although I do agree that most of those words fit John Merrell, I would have probably left out the word 'professional.'"
As for his commentarybysherlock.com site, Renier complained that it remains loaded with material about her FBI-related missing-airplane case (see Spring 2010), which occupies chapter 16 of her book. She testified that because this case was not covered in chapters 17 and 18, Merrell's site was prohibited (as explained above) from discussing it. However, during a hiatus in the proceedings, Merrell and his wife photocopied those two chapters, highlighted their several references to the missing-plane case, and later presented those pages to the Court.
At press time, the judge, after nearly three months, has yet to render a decision. "I would like to think that this long delay means that he is reevaluating his previous bankruptcy ruling, which was so unjust," Roxie Cuellar tells TBS Report. "But it is so hard to know what may be going on." What we do know is that Noreen Renier has a way of prevailing in court, though, this time, that would seem to require paranormal intervention. Stay tuned here for the climactic outcome.
"Our own backyard cult"
One issue not previously tackled in this column is the presence right here in the Tampa Bay area of a major and controversial cult, the Church of Scientology.
The Church of Scientology was created in 1954 by the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, who had previously written the best-selling book Dianetics. He claimed to have found the secret to a fulfilling life through elimination of "engrams," traumatic memories that are the source of insecurities, fears, and many psychiatric illnesses. By using an "E-meter," a sort of lie detector, a person could "go clear" and become spiritually aware and complete.
Scientology attempts to discredit many tenets of modern psychiatry and medicine, claiming that its own teachings are better suited to cure people of anxieties and mental illnesses.
The Church has since grown (according to its own figures, which cannot be verified) to over 8-million adherents, thanks in large part to the involvement of such famous celebrities as Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Clearwater houses its "spiritual headquarters."
Hubbard claimed that through using his techniques, he had healed himself of blindness and serious physical injuries received during service in World War II. Despite his seemingly incredible self-healing abilities, he died of a stroke in 1986. His successor, a charismatic young man named David Miscavige, carries on as leader to this day.
The Church has been the subject of many controversies and lawsuits over the years -- claims by former adherents of physical and mental abuse, investigations by newspapers (primarily the St. Petersburg Times) and the F.B.I., and international restrictions in some foreign countries.
TBS does not take a stand on religious claims. Whether Scientology as a church can bring spiritual salvation or peace is neither here nor there as far as we are concerned. What we can, however, criticize are some of its more extravagant claims about the physical world.
According to secret internal Scientology documents previously revealed, adherents are taught that the Earth, then called Teegeeack, was inhabited 75-million years ago by an advanced civilization and part of a confederation of planets under the leadership of a despotic ruler named Xenu. To reduce overpopulation, people were sent into volcanoes, where huge H-bombs were dropped on them. Although they were killed, their spirits, called thetans, survived and currently implant themselves inside humans as seeds of aberrant behavior.
Based on evolutionary science and the fossil evidence, such claims are laughable. H-bomb civilizations on Earth during the Cretaceous, where presumably humans coexisted with dinosaurs? Even the Flintstones didn't have nuclear weapons! And curing blindness and serious injuries almost overnight, using the release of "engrams"? Hubbard seemed to believe he had the miracle curing power of a preacher at a tent-show revival.
Interestingly, it is this last claim that may be the most easily discredited. A recent lengthy article by Lawrence Wright in the New Yorker shows that Hubbard's official government medical records do not support his claims of such serious wartime injuries. The Church responds that Hubbard was secretly working for Naval Intelligence and that his records have been altered. When one engages in "special pleading" such as this, nothing can be disproved: No dinosaur bones with humans? That's easy! God destroyed the evidence to fool us!
Scientologists are free to believe whatever they want. Christians believe that a human walked on water and changed the physical chemistry of water into wine for the benefit of a bridegroom. Mormons believe Joseph Smith discovered golden tablets setting forth a heretofore unknown history of Jesus in America. What happened to the tablets? Oops, I seem to have misplaced them. Muslims, Hindus and Jews also believe in some aspect of the paranormal based on faith alone. But when Scientology makes specific assertions about the physical world, they demand the same degree of scrutiny as do any other religion's claims.
Beginning this year, the witches in Romania have to pay income tax, prompting a dozen of them to congregate at the Danube River to cast spells on government officials so that, in the words of one, "evil will befall them." Queen witch Bratara Buzea, once imprisoned during Nicolae Ceausescu's repressive reign, said she planned to cast a spell using what this article describes as "a particularly effective concoction of cat excrement and a dead dog." Buzea confidently cackled, "My curses always work!"
Skeptics have long pointed out that the astrological calendar is now way out of whack due to the earth's wobbly axis of rotation (precession). But per this article, the Internet was recently set "aflame" by comments to this effect from Parke Kunkle, an astronomy instructor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. In creating his new calendar, "I defined the zodiac by the constellations that are [now] in the background when you look at where the sun, moon and stars are." And he even needed to create a new zodiac sign. So someone who thinks he or she was born under one sign, and is therefore "compassionate and imaginative," may -- horror of horrors -- actually instead be "witty and clever"!
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