The Mom Squad

For this group of online sleuths, death makes a holiday

With the new fall television season almost here, how does this premise grab you: A group of women, ordinary gals--housewives, soccer moms, office workers--decide to spice up their humdrum lives by entering the glamorous and exciting world of undercover private investigation. Been done before, you say? Wasn't Charlie's Angels about a group of bored, albeit sexy, policewomen recruited to work for a private investigator?

Well, then, here's a Nineties twist: They use the Internet to catch the killers. Still not interested? Okay, get this: They solve real-life crimes, crimes ripped from the front pages of today's newspapers. And there are bad guys, too--other Netheads who cause trouble and work as enemy spies and throw out bitchy one-liners every now and again. Very Heather Locklear.

And here's the kicker: The action centers on Boulder, Colorado. It's The Net meets Golden Girls, with a splash of Murder, She Wrote thrown in.

Nah. Too ridiculous. Not even Aaron Spelling would produce something that far-fetched. It could never happen, not even on TV.

But it could happen online. After all, virtual reality is stranger than fiction.

Meet shorty, tinky, CatNip, mapek and, of course, Mrs. Brady. These gals are plugged in and ready for action. Their tools: the Net. Their destination: Boulder. Their target: JonBenet Ramsey's killer. Look out, sugar, 'cause here they come.

More than twenty months have passed since JonBenet Ramsey, a six-year-old beauty queen, was discovered murdered in the basement of her Boulder home on December 26, 1996. Although the investigation into her death has yet to produce an indictment, it's already given birth to a creature that grows larger every day: the JonBenet virtual community.

The seeds of this online phenomenon were planted just days after the murder in the Boulder News Forum, an online service of Boulder's Daily Camera where people can post messages to one another or respond to other people's posts. They can also chat in real-time with one another in a virtual chat room. While Boulder residents were still suggesting publicly that local grocery stores ban the tabloids that were focusing on JonBenet's murder, this was one of the early places where people went to talk about the case's scintillating details and to go over the list of possible suspects: an unknown local sicko, the big-haired mama, the ice-cold daddy, the big brother, the little brother, Santa. It was an online game of Clue.

At first just a few curiosity seekers came. Some, as they say in Net lingo, were "newbies," wet-behind-the-ears novices who didn't know a TCP/IP from an ISP but simply wanted to find out a little more about the story that had caught the country's attention. Soon thousands were searching the Net for JonBenet information. The Boulder Planet even registered ramseycase.com and ramseymurder.com to keep the nation updated. (Both URLs are long since defunct.) As the case dragged on, though, those who trolled the Net for Ramsey tidbits were looking for more than news updates. Mostly middle-aged white women, these surfers logged on to get their fix. JonBenet was now more than news. The case was their life.

Thousands of chat hours and megabytes of Web pages later, a virtual community of amateur detectives has formed--a community of snoop sisters with friends and enemies, good guys and bad guys, internal gossip and scandal, infighting and name-calling, and, above all, an overriding obsession with all things JonBenet Ramsey.

On September 18, this virtual community will become flesh--like something out of a science fiction movie. After nearly two years of electronic correspondence, thirty or so of these online enthusiasts have decided to step out of the ether and materialize on the streets of Boulder.

"An active contingent wanted to meet in Las Vegas," says Mrs. Brady. (That's an online pseudonym--or "hat"--that the forty-something mom from Pennsylvania uses to keep her true identity secret.) "I held out for Boulder or nothing."

It's hard to blame Mrs. Brady for wanting to get as close to the scene of the crime as possible. After all, her Web page, Mrs. Brady's URLs, is one of the premier JonBenet Web destinations.

When JonBenet was killed, Mrs. Brady didn't have much Internet experience. "Retired" from her job as director of operations for a large franchising company, she was just "floating around," she says, and found herself hooked on JonBenet. By February, she'd "jumped in with both feet."

Today, Mrs. Brady's page is one of the prime jumping-off points for those who want to immerse themselves in the minutiae of the Ramsey investigation. She starts her day scouring the Internet, looking for the latest word on the case. She then posts links to the latest news sources from her Web site. (Her dedication won her a 1998 Westword Best of Denver award, an honor she's posted on her page.)

But while Mrs. Brady is just dying to see for herself the house where JonBenet Ramsey was found dead (she recently took a trip to Atlanta to visit the current Ramsey residence), she says she's really looking forward to finally meeting her cyber buddies. Although she's had a couple of eye-to-eye encounters with a few of the people she's met online over the past months, this is the biggest gathering to date.

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