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