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Akron true crime author turns sleuth with new nonprofit

AKRON, Ohio (AP) — For more than 15 years, Akron author James Renner has been writing about Northeast Ohio’s most infamous unsolved cases in newspapers and books.

He once tracked a suspect in the murder of 10-year-old Amy Mihalijevic to Key West, Florida, where he interviewed him and returned home still unsure of his guilt.

Renner now wants to try his hand at not just writing about cold cases but trying to solve them.

Renner is heading a new nonprofit called The Porchlight Project that is aimed at boosting awareness of long-unsolved cases and raising money for DNA research to shine light on potential suspects.

“Hopefully, it will help the type of families who do not get as much attention as missing white girls,” Renner said in a recent interview at the Nervous Dog coffee shop in West Akron, his unofficial office.

Porchlight Project, though, recently chose as its first mystery the unsolved murder of Barbara Blatnik, who falls under the category of a missing white girl.

Blatnik, 17, was last seen on Dec. 19, 1987, when a friend dropped her off in Garfield Heights around midnight. The next morning, her nude body was found alongside O’Neil Road, a narrow access road that leads to Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls. She had been strangled and raped.

Renner, 41, hopes more diversity in cases will follow the successful solution of the Blatnik murder. He has his eye on several and has been getting suggestions for others through his group’s website.

Though the effort is new, it’s already garnered much interest and enthusiasm, including from those who have tried not to despair about never knowing who killed Blatnik.

“I’m hopeful again,” said Donna Zanath, Blatnik’s sister. “In a way, it’s scary. Now there might be a face to a monster. Before, it was just somebody out there.”

Zanath hopes Porchlight Project succeeds — not just for her family — but for others who have long lived with unanswered questions.

The team

Renner isn’t riding solo in his crime-solving quest.

He has assembled a board of unpaid but dedicated volunteers who include a print and a broadcast journalist, a true-crime podcaster, a defense attorney, a victim advocate and a private investigator.

Renner says the fledgling effort wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without the help of Alexa Doutt, who does fundraising at Kent State University. Doutt, who has a law degree though she doesn’t currently practice, helped establish Porchlight Project as a 501(c)(3).

“It’s something I feel good about doing,” Doutt said.

Since Project Porchlight announced Blatnik as its first case earlier this month, the agency has garnered donations ranging from $5 to $1,500, with the biggest gift from Blue Line Unlimited, an Ohio nonprofit that assists police officers and their families.

Renner said Porchlight Project has made it more than halfway to its goal of $4,000, the amount needed to pay for the DNA testing in the Blatnik case.

Rounding out the Porchlight team is retired Garfield Heights police Chief Bob Sackett, who serves as a law enforcement liaison.

Sackett served on the Garfield Heights police department for 33 years, retiring in 2016. He’s known Renner since early in Renner’s journalistic career when he wrote an article for Cleveland Scene about the unsolved murder of Beverly Jarosz, a 16-year-old Garfield Heights girl who was stabbed to death in 1964. The case remains unsolved.

Sackett said he supports the idea behind Porchlight Project because the price of DNA testing could be cost-prohibitive for many law enforcement agencies. He said many of these agencies also don’t have the staff to devote to cold cases.

“You’re trying to work on this big crime from the past, but you have equally big and small crimes that have come up,” Sackett said. “There are only so many people to go around, and not too many departments have a cold case squad.”

Sackett’s department didn’t have such a squad and neither does Cuyahoga Falls. Sackett said he’s pleased the Falls police agreed to partner with Porchlight Project, especially because Blatnik was from Garfield Heights and Sackett would love to see her case solved.

So would Falls Chief Jack Davis. Unlike Sackett, he hasn’t had any past dealings with Renner, but, when he heard his offer of help, jumped at the opportunity.

“We’re really kind of thrilled and hopeful,” said Davis, who has been with the department since 1990. “At this point, there’s nothing to lose by bringing a fresh set of eyes and technology to the case.”

The technology

The technology includes a new tool called forensic genealogy.

This involves taking a suspect’s DNA and comparing it to samples in DNA databases to search for matches that could lead to a suspect’s family members and — eventually — to the suspect.

Colleen Fitzpatrick, a forensic genealogist with the California-based Identifinders, has already begun this process with a DNA sample from the Blatnik case. She said how long it takes will depend on what matches are found, how closely these people are related to the suspect, and how difficult it is to narrow down the suspect’s family tree.

Fitzpatrick will share her findings with Falls police, who will then see if it leads to a suspect who can be charged.

“Turning a name over — all the genealogy — is just a lead, like a fingerprint or eyewitness account,” Fitzpatrick said. “Legal steps still have to be taken.”

If the Blatnik case is solved, Renner then hopes to tackle three to four northern Ohio cases each year that date back 10 years or more. Potential candidates include Akron teen sweethearts Ricky Beard and Mary Leonard, who were murdered 40 years ago last Saturday; Sandra “Little Bit” Clark, a prostitute killed in 2007 in East Cleveland; and Renner’s personal favorite — Amy Mihaljevic.

“I would love it if the Bay Village police officers would cooperate,” Renner said, noting that the 30th anniversary of Amy’s disappearance from a shopping center is in October.

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