From Cold Case to Case Closed
Endowment fund leverages charitable dollars to bring closure to unsolved crimes
Hanging at the mall was a typical pastime for kids in the ’80s and ’90s, and while a young James Renner spent many a day at Westgate Center in Rocky River, it’s safe to say his reasoning was anything but typical. He wanted to solve a crime.
"I remember 1989, being 11 years old and seeing Amy Mihaljevic’s missing poster on all the telephone poles," said Renner, who spent weekends with his mother in Rocky River, Ohio, a neighboring town to Bay Village, where Mihaljevic went missing. "So for one reason or another, I thought that I should try to solve that case."
After hopping on his two-speed Huffy bike, Renner, now an Akron resident, would ride to the mall and sit outside Waldenbooks, scanning the crowd for a man who resembled the composite sketch of the person seen with Amy the day she disappeared.
"I would then follow him out to his car, write down his license plate number, and come in and call in the tip at the pay phone outside of Aladdin’s arcade," Renner said. "Of course, the only number I knew by heart back then was 876-5353, so the tips were really going into some answering service with 'Unsolved Mysteries.'"
While the Mihaljevic crime remains unsolved to this day, little did Renner know that he would become instrumental in helping other victims of crime receive justice – and that he would need philanthropy to do so.
True Crime Addict
A decade later, Renner was finishing his English degree at Kent State University and honing those early investigative skills to build a career in journalism. Soon after college, he secured a position as a reporter for the Cleveland Scene, and his first pitch for a story was – likely no surprise – a fresh look at the Mihaljevic case. At that time, her case had been cold for more than a dozen years and hadn’t received much recent media attention.
"I quickly discovered that the reason the Mihaljevic case had never been solved was there were too many men with the means, motive and opportunity to commit the crime," Renner said. "The best the FBI had been able to do was narrow it down to a top 25 list of suspects."
Armed with more information than one article could contain, Renner contacted a local book publisher to produce his first nonfiction book titled "Amy: My Search for Her Killer." From there, Renner’s career in true crime, as the genre is often referred to, took off, leading to other works of fiction and nonfiction, including his most popular book, "True Crime Addict," a nonfiction tale in which he delves into the mysterious case of missing University of Massachusetts student Maura Murray, as well as his own obsession with true crime and the impact it has had on his life.
Renner has become so well known in the world of true crime that he has been invited to appear on numerous documentaries and crime series for the likes of CNN, Oxygen and the Discovery Channel. He also produces his own podcast, "The Philosophy of Crime," which explores the ethics and philosophy of the genre, rather than showcasing the sensational and often exploitative details of true crime stories.
The Big Breakthrough
Around 2016, through his work in the true crime space, Renner began hearing about an exciting new technology that had the potential to solve cold cases: genetic genealogy. Using sites like GEDmatch and 23andMe, genetic genealogists can help narrow down a list of suspects – or even find one – by using DNA from a crime scene to locate relatives of the suspect.
The technology that helps people build their family tree was still in its infancy when it came to crime solving, but one case was about to take it from fringe to front-page news.
"Everybody (in the true crime space) was waiting to see when the world would catch up," said Renner, explaining that genetic genealogy was still a bit of a foreign concept. "What it needed was a big case to happen, and luckily they went after the biggest one of all."
In April 2018, a West Coast genetic genealogist helped law enforcement track down the Golden State Killer.
"Suddenly everyone realized it was a new tool for law enforcement, and there really hasn’t been a new tool since the discovery of DNA in 1987," Renner said.
He realized it was a new tool he could use, too.
"I became frustrated as a journalist, writing about all of these cold cases and not being able to solve them," Renner said. "I’ve probably written about 50 different mysteries, and you’re lucky if you solve one in the batch, but this new tool came along and… as long as there is DNA, the case is now solvable."
The Porchlight Project
With the adoption of genetic genealogy, Renner knew that many cold cases and cases of John and Jane Does in Northeast Ohio now had the potential to be solved. But with that potential also came a price tag of around $6,000 per case. For police departments that are largely under-resourced and have multiple cold cases, it can be extremely cost prohibitive.
Renner started floating an idea for a nonprofit to some of the contacts he’d made during his years as a journalist – people like former Akron Beacon Journal reporter and WKYC producer Phil Trexler; former Garfield Heights Police Chief Robert Sackett; criminal defense and civil rights attorney Terry Gilbert; and one of the most prominent true crime podcasters in the country, Nic Edwards of True Crime Garage.
"I thought I would go to them and it would be a struggle or that they’d politely decline, but everybody I asked said, 'Yes, let’s do this,'" Renner stated.
So, in the spring of 2018, the Porchlight Project, one of Akron Community Foundation’s newest agency endowment fundholders, officially began. The first case the Porchlight Project wanted to take on was that of Barbara Blatnik, a Cleveland-area teenager who was murdered in 1987, so the group met with the Cuyahoga Falls Police Department to pitch their idea.
"I think they were frustrated. They had done everything they could, you know? And they were willing to try anything," Renner said.
The willingness paid off. Within months, the DNA had led them to a suspect. After more than three decades, Barbara’s family finally had the answers they deserved, and the Porchlight Project had a closed case.
Hope For the Future
As the Porchlight Project received media attention following its initial success, it also caught the attention of Ashley Flowers, founder and CEO of audiochuck productions. If Flowers sounds familiar, it’s likely because she is the main voice behind Crime Junkie, one of the top three podcasts in the country. When she heard what Renner and his group were doing, she donated an initial $10,000, unsolicited, which the Porchlight Project is using to fund its next two cases.
"The work we do at audiochuck goes beyond storytelling. Our main focus is to make a substantial impact and actually move the needle in the true crime space we operate in," said Flowers. "When we see someone in this industry dedicated to the same mission and on the same path as ours, we make it a priority to support their shared vision in any way we can, so together we can leverage our platforms and nonprofit organizations for the greater good and bring justice to the victims and families of unsolved crimes."
After seeing the Porchlight Project’s early success, Flowers came through with an even larger gift of $25,000. While the Porchlight Project could have used her donation immediately to solve four or five cases, Renner understood that it also presented an opportunity.
"We wanted to do something smart with it and secure our future so we’re not having to scramble for money for each case," he explained. "So I spoke with my accountant, Lewis Seikel (of Seikel & Company Inc.), and he mentioned Akron Community Foundation and how endowments worked."
The sustainability of an endowment fund was appealing to Renner and his board, so in April 2021, they created the audiochuck Endowment Fund at Akron Community Foundation, named in honor of its establishing donor. Through this agency endowment fund, the Porchlight Project will be able to continue assisting the families of victims now, while knowing the fund is growing for the future, too.
"Families, friends and communities suffer long past the horrific deaths that make headlines, often for a very short moment in time. The Porchlight Project brings a commitment for justice and a renewed faith that no one is forgotten, especially when the victim’s death goes unsolved," said Sylvia Trundle, retired Akron police captain and incoming board chair of Akron Community Foundation. "The audiochuck Endowment Fund at Akron Community Foundation will provide much-needed resources for renewed investigations and help provide healing where the hurt of not knowing impacts so many lives."
The Porchlight Project is already investigating new cases and, thanks to the endowment fund, Renner and his group will be able to help more families close the chapter on these mysteries.