A Reporter’s Cold Case Obsession

Book review: Amy: My Search for Her Killer, by James Renner (Book Depository)

How long does it take a crime to become legend? Does it vary based on circumstances, on affluence? If the Bay Village police charged someone in Amy’s death after sixteen years, would anyone really believe it? Or has so much time passed that the residents of this quiet suburb will stick to their own conspiracy theories, as they have with Sheppard’s case, no matter what evidence comes to light? Does it really matter anymore, if the man responsible is long dead himself? When Amy and her mother are only ashes under the earth?

I discovered James Renner through his book True Crime Addict (my review) which detailed his obsessive investigation into the bizarre disappearance of Maura Murray (a wormhole of a mystery if ever there was one). I liked that book, if he occasionally rubbed me the wrong way as a journalist, but mostly I found him well-intentioned and a highly engaging writer.

But before his obsessive researching and reporting were focused on Maura’s disappearance, he’d written an earlier book about the first time he found himself borderline unhealthily obsessed with an unsolved case of a girl gone missing and unfortunately in this instance, recovered dead. This was 10-year-old Amy Mihaljevic, abducted from a shopping plaza in Bay Village, Ohio a few days before Halloween in 1989.

She’d been waiting for someone. Her likely kidnapper called her house claiming her mother had gotten promoted at work, saying he’d take her shopping for a gift to surprise her mom. Why Amy didn’t question him more about his identity, how he knew her mom or why he’d want to do this errand with her are questions that have haunted those connected to the case in the intervening years.

This book is reminiscent in format and stylistically of True Crime Addict. But with a more personal twist – Renner felt a connection to Amy’s disappearance because they were close in age and geography, and he developed a childish crush from the photo that circulated while she was missing, appearing here on the cover. As a child, he was emotionally affected by the news coverage of her disappearance and the haunting discovery of her body.

After establishing this background and the intense connection he felt, I think one that can only be characteristic of childhood imagination, it’s flash forward to his late twenties in 2005. Renner was working as a staff reporter for the Cleveland Scene, an alternative weekly paper. He pitched a story about Amy’s then 16-year-old cold case, proposing to track down the known suspects and try to get Amy’s face back in the public’s consciousness in hopes of finally bringing some resolution.

What follows is an account of his spiral into obsession as he tracks down those former suspects and uncovers new ones in the investigation’s course. Like many cases that have been fleshed out in book or documentary form, there’s so much more to the story than what filtered into the news clips. Renner puts in the legwork around the Cleveland suburb of Bay Village where Amy lived, meeting with surviving family members, her now adult friends, and investigators involved when her disappearance and murder were fresh.

Amy’s family, also victims in this story, were handled sensitively and aside from weird observations about his crush on her just based on her photo, Renner pays tribute to who this little girl was, sharing remembrances from those who loved her and bringing her personality to life. He also covers the sad story of Margaret McNulty, Amy’s mom, her life having taken particularly unfortunate turns after Amy’s murder.

He also traces through the old suspects and this is where the book is most intriguing – Renner lets us see his process in a real-time format as he interviews, forms impressions, and discards or hones in further on persons of interest. You can see his opinions changing as the case gets more twisty and complex.

Also fascinating is that this case had a mention in Robert Ressler’s Whoever Fights Monsters (my review). Ressler identifies a suspect who committed suicide as likely being culpable in Amy’s death, case closed. Renner looks into that claim, getting  input from other FBI agents who were involved back then, and it’s not nearly as cut and dry as Ressler indicated. So why his insistence on this culprit? It’s one of many oddities that surround an unfortunately not uncommon story – a kidnapped child turns up murdered, but far from being a tragedy in that alone, there’s more simmering under the surface, now even more obfuscated by the decades that’ve passed.

That includes the question of why the FBI was so heavily involved in Amy’s murder in the first place, adding another mysterious element to the mix, and the feeling that there’s a lot more going on here.

This reads un-putdownable when Renner is detailing his investigation, although I cringed at his methodology sometimes. I think he admitted as much later, that he was young and inexperienced and prone to making some bad decisions here. The personal intensity with which he investigates and gets involved in cases is a strength of his but likewise can be uncomfortable to witness. I still want to read about it, so I’m not sure what that says, and it does underscore his incredibly compelling storytelling abilities and eye for interesting details, but it makes for uneasy reading at times.

His tone sets a vivid, sometimes sinister backdrop for Bay Village, like when describing a painting and plaque in the Huron County courthouse commemorating the surveying of Ruggles township, where Amy’s body was found. A quote on the plaque reads: “Sat a post in Hell. I have traveled the woods for 7 years, but never before saw so hideous a place as this.” There is something undeniably eerie about this small town and a few of its odd inhabitants, not to mention the details of Amy’s death. Weird and unsettling all around.

There are sidebars into Renner’s work, as his newspaper colleagues and bosses became annoyed with the intensity of his obsession with Amy’s story. These read like wannabe noir storylines – a thwarted but intrepid young reporter who knows there’s more to a story than meets the eye, rebelliously defying authority to get to the bottom of it. The narrative could’ve done without that, it feels like filler. Otherwise a compulsively readable look at a strange cold case. 3.5/5

P.S. – There’s a new podcast about the case from another investigative journalist, with episodes currently being released up to the anniversary of Amy’s disappearance on October 27. I’m about to start it as I’d love to hear any updates that might complement this book. Have you listened to it already?

Amy: My Search for Her Killer:
Secrets and Suspects in the Unsolved Murder of Amy Mihaljevic
by James Renner
published October 2006 by Gray and Company
Amazon
Kindle
Book Depository

16 thoughts on “A Reporter’s Cold Case Obsession

  1. I’m beginning to see a pattern with some true crime writers. They seem to eventually become obsessed with the subject of the story and I think it’s the nature of the beast. I know it would haunt me.

    Outstanding review and I’m looking forward to your feedback on the podcast, quite strangely the subject of my post today.

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    1. I think you’re right, it’s the nature of what they’re working on, I’m sure it gets under your skin and is haunting. I think it’s become a sometimes useful, sometimes obnoxious part of true crime writing, especially more so in recent years. In this book the author’s personal involvement worked because of his very hands-on investigation and the way he structured the book as following the course of his investigation. Elsewhere it ruins a book for me, so it really depends!

      I actually listened to the first couple of episodes as soon as I posted this while ironing and making dinner 🙂 I like it a lot, and the author of this book is interviewed for it, he’s very well spoken and reminded me of so many things about the case I hadn’t even mentioned in the review. It’s such a weird story happening at a weird place with all kinds of bizarre details! The one thing that’s bothering me is the host – and this is going to sound pedantic, I know – has misused words twice that I’ve noticed. Once he said children became a bit “wearier” when in the context he had to have meant either “warier” or “leerier”. Then he said news reports became less sporadic over time but was describing them becoming more sporadic. This wasn’t during interview segments, like with the author of this book or detectives when I’d imagine you wouldn’t want to edit your input, but during his own material. It really bugged me, and I know that’s nitpicking, but it did. Otherwise it’s great – lots of interviews and details and timelines. Definitely worth a listen!

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    1. It absolutely was! They were very secure in that stereotypical “nothing bad ever happens here” identity for the community and I think that’s why her abduction and death affected so many people there. The town was described as close-knit so it’s that eerie idea of a murderer among them.

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  2. Another fantastic review! I’m compiling my Nonfiction November TBR, hopefully I’ll get a good amount of books read, so I can treat myself to some new nonfic!

    I love that line – “How long does it take a crime to become legend?” – I often wonder how some cases become “sensational” while others don’t. I immediately think of the Madeline McCann case, the worldwide attention, a book written. I wonder what made her story sensational, compared to the thousands of other kids that go missing? Was it the way she looked, that it happened abroad, etc etc

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    1. Thank you so much! I know that feeling of negotiating with yourself before buying anything new, I hope you get there soon! Nonfiction November will help 🙂

      Such a great line, isn’t it? I’m very curious about the same, and especially after I read the To the Bridge book earlier this year and learned how horrifyingly common it is for parents to kill their children (in this case her parents clearly weren’t involved though). Not that the commonness excuses anything, and I don’t remember the statistics the author shared to quote them, but it was such a surprisingly massive number yet just a few cases get the full media sensation.

      I kept wondering about the Casey Anthony case after reading that book, why on earth did that one whip everyone into a frenzy when it’s far from uncommon? Because the little girl was cute and her mom was pretty? And Madeline McCann is another one, I really don’t get that one – maybe the exotic factor of happening abroad, like you mentioned? And that she was never found so there’s still a mystery? But you’re right, thousands of other kids go missing, so it’s very odd. I think anytime something remains unsolved there’s automatically more intrigue and appeal there, for lack of a better word.

      The Amy Mihaljevic case is interesting because it was explosive in their small town with that stereotypical “it’s so safe, nothing bad ever happens here” label, she was abducted right by a police station, there were weird phone calls to her and other girls, etc. so I can see why there was intrigue around it. BUT I don’t know that it got that much national attention for as shocking as it was to the town/region where they felt very personally shaken by it. And if you look at the missing persons projects, it’s just staggering to consider how not at all uncommon this is!

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      1. I bought To the Bridge, I’ll have to ensure that one is on next month’s tbr!

        Re. McCann, I think it became ‘sensational’ before it was known that she wasn’t going to be found. So I’m inclined to think it was the exotic factor. And the attention that case got is interesting because, if I remember correctly, didn’t the parents leave her in the hotel alone? Yet it still went “viral” when other parents never did any such thing, yet lost their children. Although none of the fault lies with the children, I know in the UK, the media was huge, I think I read that her case was the most widely reported in modern history. It’s sad that we live in a world were the circumstances around a disappearance/murder have to be intriguing for the media to decide to report it. But also, with the high numbers of missing children, how do you prioritise media attention?

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      2. oh my gosh obviously they didn’t know she wasn’t going to be found when it started getting massive attention, what was I thinking!!! I actually don’t know all that much about her case but I thought she was supposed to be sleeping in the hotel with other kids and all the parents were at dinner or the bar or something? Maybe it’s some element of the “locked room” mystery plus the exotic factor, and that people love to pile on judgements of other parents, like for leaving kids unsupervised. The whole thing is just very weird and unfortunately sad, as you say. If that kind of frenzied attention was applied to other missing children maybe there’d be better chances of actually finding them in some cases.

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    1. I never knew!! I was definitely too young at the time it happened but I didn’t even encounter her story until I read another book of the author’s. I wonder if it made national news or was more of a shock for the region?

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