Why I Can’t Be An Atheist

I wish I had that luxury.

That’s what I tell people now, when they ask me if I’m an atheist. I don’t mean it to sound condescending or flippant. I really do wish I had the luxury of doubt that atheists have. I wish I could forget what I experienced in Key West in 2008.

I’m a journalist. My purview is true crime. I’ve written several articles on unsolved murders, met with Death Row inmates, spoken to families of missing women. The story I’ve spent the most time on is the unsolved abduction and murder of Amy Mihaljevic. She was ten years old, my age, when a well-dressed man took her from the Bay Village shopping plaza on October 27, 1989. Her body was found a couple months later in an old wheat field in Ashland County.

Over the years, the FBI has compiled a “Top 25” list of suspects in the case, many of whom I’ve interviewed by now. In 2008, I learned of a man named Dean Runkle, who was once a teacher in the small Cleveland suburb of Amherst. On that Top 25 list, he would be the man at the top.

Runkle is an interesting suspect for many reasons. At the time of Amy’s abduction, he lived two roads away from where her body was found. He was driving the same make and model of Pontiac sedan that took Amy away. A witness to the abduction picked him out of a lineup of 30 people. We know he had an inappropriate relationship with one of his middle school students. By the time he appeared on my radar, he had quit teaching and had fled to Key West, where he lived in a homeless shelter for a few months before finding a minimum wage job.

Compelled to meet every suspect in the case, I flew to Miami on my own dime. I rented a car and drove down through the Keys. When I got there, late that first night, I stopped at the Wendy’s on the north side of the island. Back in Amherst, Wendy’s was where Runkle liked to take his “special” students after school. I figured it was worth checking out.

That was the first time I heard the voice.

It announced itself like a thought, like the voice of my conscience. What are you doing here? You’re wasting your time. What are you doing in Florida while your little boy is home without a father?

I took it as doubt. My own doubt. A bit of myself questioning whether coming to Florida was a good idea. But we know the sound of our own conscience, don’t we? This sounded different. Angry. Mean.

You think you’ll just walk in and find him at Wendy’s? The first place you stop? You’re pathetic. You’re wasting your time.

Still, full of these doubtful thoughts, I did go in. I looked for him in the crowds, eating dinner, but he wasn’t there. I returned to the car and the voice was gone.

I spent the next day searching for Runkle. I showed his photograph to people along the main road near Hemmingway’s old house. Some people recognized him as the old man who sometimes played ragtime piano at the corner bar. Yes, that’s him. Runkle had a piano at the school in Amherst and sometimes played ragtime for the kids. He kept the piano not too far from the cot he had set up in the closet off his classroom.

I knew I was close. But nobody had seen Runkle lately. And nobody knew where on the island he lived.

Finally, I visited a church on the eastern side of the island. It was dinnertime and the deacon was serving food to a line of about fifty homeless people. I showed Runkle’s picture around. One man suggested I talk to a fellow named Mr. Frisby. “If anyone knows your guy, it’s Mr. Frisby. He’s been here forever.”

They called him Mr. Frisby because he was always on the beach, tossing a Frisby to himself. That’s where I found him. “Do you know this man?” I asked.

“Sure,” said Mr. Frisby. “That’s my buddy Dean. He used to look out for me. Good guy.”

“Do you know where he is?”
“Probably at work.”

“Where’s he work?”


The voice returned as I neared the Wendy’s. Louder this time, almost as if it was an AM radio broadcast and my mind was the tuner and we’d just come through a tunnel.

Leave him alone. Go back to your family. Dean didn’t do it. You’re wasting your time.

This time I went straight to the register. “Is Dean Runkle here?” I asked.

“He should be,” the woman behind the counter said. “He’s the manager. But he called in sick, today. First time in like ever.”

“I’m an old friend from Amherst,” I said. “Can you tell me where he lives?”

She went to check his work documents. No luck. “He never put an address on his paperwork,” she said. “But I think he lives somewhere on the Northeastern corner of the island.”

I drove that way. But time had become an issue and there was just too much island to search. If I didn’t leave for Miami in the next thirty minutes, I would miss my flight home. Despondent, I pulled up to a stop sign and parked the car for a moment.

For the first time in many years, I sent a message out to the universe. Call it a cry for help. Call it a prayer, because that’s what it was. Help me, I asked. If I’m supposed to meet this guy, help me. Amy, if you’re listening…

At that moment, Dean Runkle walked in front of my car.

I pulled through the stop sign and parked on the curb. I jumped out of the car and yelled, “Hey Dean!” He stopped and turned and I jogged over to him. There on the street corner we spoke for several minutes and he told me some things that only implicated himself more in the murder of that little girl. Eventually, he ended the conversation and walked away. But I managed to get a picture of him. I needed that picture. Because… who the hell would ever believe that story when I got home?

I’m a smart guy. I’ve written some books. I believe in evolution. I’ve studied physics. I respect a few great scientists who are vocal atheists. They are the men who say, condescendingly, “What is your proof? Show me some proof that there is a God.”

Be careful what you wish for, is what I think.

I’ve experienced proof of the power of prayer. And that voice that turned on like a radio broadcast at Wendy’s… That teasing, degrading voice. I’d like to doubt that, I really would. I don’t want to believe that demons are real.

This is a story I’ve told a few times over the years but never published. I guess I feared what it would do to my credibility as a journalist. Or what my atheist friends might think of me. I know it sounds crazy.

But it happened. It happened just like that.

As far as a specific religion, I believe there is truth in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. In Buddhism. In just about anything outside Scientology. Probably everybody got a piece of it right. I take my son to Christian Sunday School because I’ve benefitted from enough grace to believe that the young carpenter from Nazareth was a little more than human.

All I know for sure is that there is more going on than science alone can explain. It’s only called Faith when there is no proof so I don’t know what I’d call it. But I do know there is something… more.

12 thoughts on “Why I Can’t Be An Atheist”

  1. I’ve had mixed feelings about you since starting to follow your facebook page, even considered deleting you a couple of times.

    But this post has made me want to stay tuned in for more.


    Ps: I’ve had a somewhat similiar experience, but it hasn’t stopped me from being returning to occasional agnosticisim again, such is my ungrateful makeup I’m afraid, lol.

    I don’t think there is really any of us who doesn’t have doubts from time to time, even the “atheists”.

  2. I’ve had a few similar experiences. I’m “ok” believing that there is so much more going on around us, on so many different levels, than we as mere humans can understand. We’re not meant to “know”. That’s why it’s called a “leap of faith”. Thanks for sharing.

  3. This is encouraging to read. I am a Christian and prior to having my faith I was cynical toward all religions. A similar situation, (calling out to God and asking for help when I felt I needed Him most) changed everything for me. Don’t give up your search He is looking for you too.

  4. hi
    i emailed you after seeing you not sure if you got it,
    i wrote and said that was amy helping you at the stop light that day
    and what a good friend you are to amy and her family.lets hope you get the fingerprints!!!

  5. “He never put an address on his paperwork,” she said.

    Go figure.

    I’ve had two times in my life where I’ve done the same. Put in a 911 call to God. Both were answered.

    The other was at the Wailing Wall in Israel. I didn’t 911 that one though, I just asked that if was His will, please grant my request. He did.

    I’ve had minor requests of Him through my nearly 50 years, but always included the caveat “but above all, may Your will be done” just like the Lord’s Prayer.

    Sometimes, for reasons we are not meant to understand, the answer is ‘no’.

  6. So god allowed Amy to be killed, let her killer escape justice, but led you to Dean Runkle when you were looking for him. Strange. He sure does work in mysterious ways.

    Anyway, I really enjoy your websites and also The Serial Killer’s Apprentice. Keep up the good work.

  7. Hi James,
    Ever since reading your book on Amy, I put her in my prayers. Never give up; Believe. Especially in light of Gina, Amanda and Michelle. Take care.

  8. The moment you opened yourself up and relayed the message that if you were meant to see or hear from this Runkle then you needed help you were on your way to receiving what you needed. Just remember, you are here on earth for a purpose, perhaps many. You will forever be nudged into that purpose. Hopefully you will get some well-deserved breaks too. By the way……I love your writing. I’m sure that you don’t even remember me and that’s ok but the day I met you many years ago at Edinburg Town Hall and watched your movie was the day that I knew we would enjoy your creative work in the years to follow. CONGRATULATIONS!

  9. James, I was just listening to the Amy Podcast and just listened to the part where you described this moment….serious full body chills. I believe in divine intervention, because I have experienced it for myself. I truly believe God hears all of our prayers, and he answers them in His own time….we don’t always get the answer we want, when we want it (NOW!) but I really believe you will eventually get an answer, even if the answer is no. You are amazing, everything you are doing to help this case is truly inspiring. I’m just sitting in my car, waiting for my little girl’s dance class to end, and I just sent up a little prayer for you and Amy, hope it helps. Good luck on this journey.

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