James Renner's True Crime Addict is the story of his spellbinding investigation of the missing person's case of Maura Murray (availableMay 24, 2015).
When an eleven year old James Renner fell in love with Amy Mihaljevic, the missing girl seen on posters all over his neighborhood, it was the beginning of a lifelong obsession with true crime. That obsession leads James to a successful career as an investigative journalist. It also gave him PTSD. In 2011, James began researching the strange disappearance of Maura Murray, a UMass student who went missing after wrecking her car in rural New Hampshire in 2004. Over the course of his investigation, he uncovers numerous important and shocking new clues about what may have happened to Maura, but also finds himself in increasingly dangerous situations with little regard for his own well-being. As his quest to find Maura deepens, the case starts taking a toll on his personal life, which begins to spiral out of control. The result is an absorbing dual investigation of the complicated story of the All-American girl who went missing and James's own equally complicated true crime addiction.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The day my lawsuit against my former newspaper was settled, I drove out to the Lodge, the nudie bar on State Route 14. This was in 2009. For the last six years I had worked as a reporter. Not the sort of reporter you see in movies. I wasn’t a beat reporter for some important daily paper. I wrote for the alt-weeklies, those free papers you find in bars and record stores and comic shops. There were two in Northeast Ohio, The Free Times and Cleveland Scene, before they merged in 2008. When I started out, a feature story paid $2,500. When I was fired six years later, the same story paid $300. Desperate times for a gonzo journalist.
The Lodge is tucked into the woods off SR 14, in Edinburg, a sleepy little hamlet south of Kent. Edinburg is 24.5 square miles of farmland, slanted fields of corn and soy, hog wallows, and mink farms. There’s one traffic light in the school district. I fell in love with my wife out there when we played suspects in a high school production of Rehearsal for Murder. If you wanted to go on a date, there was the Dairy Queen. Otherwise, you had to drive twenty minutes into Ravenna. The Lodge didn’t open until I was in college, and when it did it divided the town into sinners and saviors, and there was a public vote. In the end, the owner got the zoning variance he needed and the girls set up shop in the old honky-tonk across from the trailer yard. My best friend got drunk there one night and drove himself into the side of a house on his way home. I hadn’t been there in a while.
For a tittie bar, the Lodge was kind of a nice place: a big cabin with soft leather couches, the head of a ten-point buck mounted over the fireplace. Against the back wall was a single pole in front of a black velvet curtain. I walked to the bar and ordered a Miller Lite in a bottle.
It’s not like I go to strip clubs often. Maybe ten times in my life, mostly for bachelor parties. I’d paid three women to spank my buddy onstage the day he turned twenty-one. I wasn’t ashamed to be there. I like how strip clubs smell. Like jolly ranchers and scotch.
“Want a dance?”
I turned to find a young blonde standing beside me. She was dressed in red, lacy lingerie. Her taut skin, covered in glitter, shimmered in the sparse light.
“No thank you,” I said.
I have a thing for brunettes. And I don’t like skinny. Not even athletic, really. I don’t usually even buy a lap dance.
This happened a couple more times, that casual proposition. They all had silly names like Desiree, Sammi-with-an-I, or Eden. Really I thought I’d just sit at the bar for a couple drinks and watch the stage.
“I’m Gracie.” This woman wore a thin black dress that stretched past her knees. Dark hair. Her body was soft and it curved in a nice way. Not busty, but healthy. I noticed right away that her eyes were different. She wasn’t hustling, not like the other women. Or, if she was, she was better at it.
I bought her a drink. Vodka and grapefruit, if I remember right. And we talked for a bit. She was from West Virginia, liked to read. At the time, I was working my way through Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This was before Larsson’s thriller became a publishing phenomenon. Nobody I knew had read it yet. The only reason I even had a copy was my wife bought it for my birthday. Of course, when I browsed the jacket, I was immediately drawn to the similarities between my current predicament and the story—it begins, after all, with a journalist losing his job over a political exposé.
Gracie walked me to the “Champagne Room” and sat me down on a leather couch. It was a private nook with a door that she could close. A bouncer brought me another beer and left us alone. When the next song started, she danced for me. The dress came off. She wore a pair of black panties underneath. She climbed onto my lap and pressed her breasts against my face.
“Do you want to see my tattoo?”
“Sure,” I said.
She stood and, gyrating to the music, turned around. The bottom half of her back was covered by a beautiful, inky-black dragon.
“Do you like it?”
I am no longer surprised by the weird coincidences that occur in my life. After writing about crime for some years, I came to believe that there was a kind of blueprint to the universe, a certain order to the shape of things. “Fearful symmetry,” I’ve called it. Not necessarily intelligent design; more like a natural framework or something. I knew a cop once who’d investigated the case of a murdered girl. Found her body on County Road 1181, in Ashland County. At the time, his cruiser number was 1181. Stuff like that. Stuff like this girl with the dragon tattoo.
Gracie took off her panties, turned around, and straddled my leg. She leaned her head back against my shoulder. We were waiting for another song to start.
“What do you do?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I used to be a reporter. I wrote about crime. Unsolved murders, mostly. I got fired. I’m trying to figure out what to do next.”
Something inside her changed. I got the feeling then that the woman sitting on my lap was no longer Gracie. I got the feeling she had somehow become more genuine.
When the music started again, she didn’t move.
“You okay?” I asked.
She nodded against my neck. “My name’s Jennifer,” she said. “I’m not supposed to tell you my real name. But my real name is Jennifer.
“I can dance for you. Or we could talk. Do you want to talk?”
“Do you want to talk?”
“Okay. What do you want to talk about?”
She didn’t say anything for a beat. She slipped off my lap and dressed. Then she sat beside me, her legs kicked up over my lap, as if we were in a living room and she was waiting for a foot rub. “My sister was murdered,” she said.
How do you respond to that? “Did they catch … him?” I asked, finally. “Her murderer?”
“Yes. Not for a while. But they just did. I spoke to the police down home. I’ll have to go back to testify.”
For the next half hour we sat in the Champagne Room and talked about the particulars of her sister’s case. I gave her some advice on how to speak to the prosecutor and how to testify at trial. Then she hugged me and we just listened to the music.
This was a sign. Had to be, right? I was a journalist. Still. A crime writer. The universe wanted me to be. That’s what Jennifer was about, I thought. Just because I didn’t work for a newspaper, that didn’t mean I had to stop.
Copyright © 2016 James Renner.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
JAMES RENNER is the author of The Serial Killer's Apprentice and several other works of nonfiction. His true crime stories have appeared in The Best American Crime Writing anthology, as well the Cleveland Scene and Cracked.com. His method of using social media to solve cold cases was the subject of a CNN profile, in 2015. He has also written two novels, The Man from Primrose Lane and The Great Forgetting. He lives in Akron with his wife and children.