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.

"When you chat and e-mail back and forth," explains Martha Knapp, an active community member (code name: mapek) who is one of the primary organizers of the Boulder gathering, "you talk about your lives." In doing so, she says, people develop real relationships, with interests that go far beyond the JonBenet case.

Originally from Michigan, Knapp, a writer specializing in business communication, moved to Kansas a few years ago to help her aging mother. She found the Internet gave her a social outlet. "We've become such a mobile society," she says. "Most people don't live in the place where they grew up."

Knapp herself contributes to Cybersleuths, a page somewhat like Mrs. Brady's URLs, but with a wider range of information on true-crime stories, including JonBenet's murder.

The JonBenet forums and chats give her the "chance to have those over-the-back-fence chats," Knapp adds, calling the online JonBenet community "almost like a sisterhood."

Experts say it's not surprising that people within this virtual community feel so strongly about each other and about their group. "People are people," says Stacy Horn, author of Cyberville, an examination of the Echo online community she started at New York University. "That doesn't change when they get online." Electronic communities, she adds, are "an exact reflection of what communities are, of what families are."

But where there's family, there's dysfunction. The original posters on the Boulder News Forum left because Internet pranksters ran virtually rampant. According to Teri McCord (code name: tinky), a Kansas City mother of three who's dabbled in writing crime novels and is planning a trip to Boulder this month with her husband and kids in tow (they want to make their way up to Estes Park, a favorite vacation spot), the Boulder News Forum "became so obscene at times I just got out. People would post these vulgar, nasty things and tie it up."

McCord and others migrated to IRC--Internet relay chat, another form of online chatting--but that, too, had problems. "There are all kinds of punk kids who like to trash people. It was a real ordeal," says Knapp. Eventually the group moved to the Forum at a Web page hosted by Joshua-7, which also housed Mrs. Brady's URLs. Earlier this year, Joshua-7 was reborn as JusticeWatch.

Today, there are four primary Web pages for online discussion regarding JonBenet. JusticeWatch, Boulder News Forum (it's cleaned up its act, say McCord and others), peterboyles.com (the home page of the KHOW radio talk-show host) and WebbSleuths (see "Must-See Sites," right).

Within these discussions, however, two distinct factions have sprung up. There are those who think the Ramsey parents murdered their child and those who think the Ramseys are innocent. Or, in forum/chat lingo, it's the Pro-Rams vs. the Anti-Rams. Some claim that there's a third faction, the Fence Sitters, but they're mostly lumped in with the Anti-Rams. And if either side suspects you're loyal to the wrong faction, look out: These ladies' flames are hot enough to singe your eyebrows.

Take, for instance, the most notorious Pro-Ram, Jameson, who for fear of reprisal does not want his/her true identity or even gender disclosed (most posters refer to him as "he"). Communicating only via America Online's Instant Message function, Jameson, who lives in North Carolina, explains: "Since I support the Ramseys I have been targeted by many. They've threatened to burn my house down, to hurt me and my family." Jameson also complains of prank phone calls and other harassment. Though Jameson says he's no agent of the Ramseys, he claims he's been in contact with friends and family of the couple. "Please don't push here," he pleads, when asked for specifics.

In true conspiracy theory fashion, some chatters on peterboyles.com have hypothesized that Jameson and John Ramsey are one and the same. "That's a stupid theory," Jameson responds. "Peter Boyles told me to f*ck myself in his chat area," claims Jameson, who says he believes the Ramseys are fully innocent. "[He] said I had been ragging on him for months."

Boyles admits he made the comment. He says that during one of his weekly online chats, Jameson, whom he calls "this weird stalker person," showed up. By that time, he had heard enough from this particular Rammer, as he likes to call the Pro-Rams, and let Jameson, who he is convinced is a woman, have it. "I would get just unbelievable amounts of e-mail from her."

After being banned from JusticeWatch's forum--"because I have a strong Ramsey voice," Jameson says--he went on to start WebbSleuths, a much more Ramsey-friendly forum. "The JusticeWatch forum is clearly intended to promote the 'lynching' of the Ramseys," Jameson says. These days he spends up to eighteen hours each day working on the Ramsey case and maintaining the WebbSleuths site. "It is truly a volunteer position," Jameson notes.

And Jameson's volunteerism reaches truly creepy proportions. On August 6, JonBenet's birthday, he and another Pro-Ram, Anderson, went to the girl's gravesite in Atlanta and hung angels to commemorate her birth. "It wasn't eerie at all," Jameson says. "The cemetery is very peaceful and nice."

Jameson says he has no interest in attending the Boulder cyber-sleuth meeting this month--not that he's invited. "Many who will attend are 'lynch mob' members in my eyes and I have no interest in meeting with them," he says, then adds, "I think it's a shame it's being promoted as some sort of summit meeting."

But Mrs. Brady and others coming to the Boulder meeting don't consider themselves Anti-Ram. "I was very opinionated early on," Mrs. Brady admits. "As the case went on, I became more of a Fence Sitter." At this point, she says, she "wouldn't be surprised if they pulled a foreign intruder or a foreign faction out of the hat. Or, if Patsy confessed, I wouldn't be surprised."

Knapp, who's careful when choosing her words for fear of angering the Pro-Rams, says that the Ramseys' supporters aren't willing to look at the full case and are blindly loyal to the family. But in fact, Knapp claims, she hopes the Ramseys are innocent.

According to Chris Wheeler (code name: CatNip), a 33-year-old longtime true-crime buff who maintains JusticeWatch, Jameson's pro-Ramsey sentiments aren't what got him--or is it her?--booted from the forum. "I found her tactics to be such that they create animosity and flame wars and greatly increase the amount of time I spend moderating the forum," Wheeler says. Wheeler spends three to four hours each night moderating the JusticeWatch forum; so far, she's invested about $400 in her online obsession. Her trip to Boulder will likely more than double that investment.

Wheeler herself has experienced some verbal abuse online, though not from Jameson specifically. When word got around the online community that she was taking on JusticeWatch, someone tracked down her name and home address. But what really upset her was getting flamed on peterboyles.com; she has trouble even repeating what was written. "On Peter Boyles's forum someone posted," Wheeler pauses for a breath, "'that vile flamer that shines Peter Boyles's shoes with her panties is opening JusticeWatch.'"

Wheeler claims she's never flamed anybody in her life. (Presumably, she's never shined Boyles's shoes with her panties, either.)

Though Jameson won't be in Boulder to meet face-to-face with his online adversaries, he has met with other people from the Internet. Lately, he's cast himself as a clearinghouse for people leaking information to the "authorities." After receiving an e-mail from someone who wanted to get "something" to Boulder, Jameson agreed to meet him for the pickup. Since then, he says, he's often performed such duties for people who want to deliver tips on the case yet remain anonymous. And some of the tips he passes on, he says, are not favorable to the Ramseys. He tries not to judge the information he delivers, Jameson adds.

"To pick up tips, I may meet someone at a restaurant or just pick up an envelope. I have certain pay phones I use," he says. "When I go, my family knows where I am going. I have a cell phone and always arrange a meeting in a public place, usually a Cracker Barrel or Dunkin' Donuts--someplace busy. I tell them what I will be wearing or carrying--truly cloak-and-dagger stuff."

But Wheeler says most of the intrigue connected to the online community has less to do with the actual JonBenet case than it does with the petty controversies created within the groups themselves. "I think that the cloak-and-dagger stuff is sort of a historical result of the online communication of this community," she says. "People take pleasure in finding out personal information on other posters. That's the amateur sleuth part. If they can figure that out, I guess they think they've accomplished something."

Here's a conversation that recently took place in the Boulder News Chat when a lurker--someone who visits a chat without participating, also known in JonBenet online circles as a "potted plant"--entered the room:

CatNip: Who's Xrss?
Patib: A new potted plant.
CatNip: Xrss doesn't talk?
Geno: Nada word
Patib: Nope dead silent
Patib: Maybe it Pammy poo...
Patib: I don't think she's smart enough to use a 'puter LOL

In fact, Xrss was not a Ramsey ally but a Westword reporter working on this story. "Pammy poo" referred to Pam Paugh, Patsy Ramsey's sister, who some Anti-Rams believe trolls the chat rooms, monitoring their conversations and reporting back to her big sis.

Whether the Ramseys read these online discussions is a common topic of talk. Although Jameson says with certainty that they don't, others point to John Ramsey's involvement with high-tech industry to support the theory that he does.

The online sleuths have lots of theories. Lauren Stewart of Michigan (code name: shorty), who plans to make it to Boulder, says there's a feeling of mental superiority among the electronic detectives. According to Stewart, who has two grown children and three adopted school-age kids at home, "Everyone's trying to be the one guy who spots the one thing that everyone's missed." Stewart, for example, noticed that Patsy had said that JonBenet's bedroom door was closed--but how could the murderer have closed the bedroom door behind him, since he would have had to carry an armload of other materials along with the child to the basement? Stewart wasn't sure if this seeming inconsistency meant anything, but just in case, she e-mailed the tip to new Boulder police chief Mark Beckner, who was put in charge of the investigation last fall.

The Anti-Rams and Fence Sitters revel in these little details and complain that the Pro-Rams won't even consider them. Too often, Wheeler says, it seems that the Pro-Rams just try to start conflict without making a well-reasoned point about the case itself.

Although the Pro-Rams won't be attending Boulder's wingding, several key media figures have been invited to a dinner. One prominent figure, former chief deputy Denver district attorney and current Channel 7 legal-expert-for-hire Craig Silverman, decided to invite himself, Knapp says. She's happy to have him. "It was like, 'Wow! He's already on my list.'"

Who's not on her list? University of Colorado professor Michael Tracy, who made a documentary on the Ramseys that Channel 9 aired earlier this summer and that is slated to run on A&E sometime this fall. Originally, Knapp thought it would be a good idea to ask him, just to stir things up a bit. But the idea was roundly rejected by the online pals she surveyed. "Some felt that he would be a spy for the Ramseys," she says, then adds, "Others think he's not very intelligent. He seems to be very ignorant of a lot of things. I don't know if that's by choice."

The dinner, initially planned for Pasta Jay's, was moved to an undisclosed location for two reasons: First, the number of attendees quickly grew larger than expected. And then some cyber-sleuths had second thoughts about holding their gathering at a restaurant owned by rabid Ramsey supporter Jay Elowsky, who once went after two people he thought were members of the media. "Some people are frightened to be too visual," says Stewart. "I mean, that Pasta Jay guy took after somebody with a baseball bat." Now attendees will be issued passwords to gain access to the dinner.

In addition to meeting over dinner, the armchair detectives can take a sight-seeing tour of Boulder, working off a list of suggested sights compiled by Knapp (see page 20). Of course, there's the former Ramsey home, where JonBenet's body was found. (Knapp is quick to point out that this will not be an organized bus tour and says her group will be respectful of neighbors.) They also plan to visit the Boulder County Jail (current home of minor player J.T. Colfax, arrested last year after he stuffed a burning envelope through the mail slot of the Ramsey home; he also lifted the morgue log sheet listing JonBenet's body), McGuckin Hardware (possible source of the rope used in the garrotte), Boulder County Courthouse, the Boulder Police Department, High Plains Elementary and Access Graphics. A trip to Rollinsville, the hometown of Bill "Santa" McReynolds, is also on the itinerary for those interested in attending.

Perhaps the oddest stop on the tour is the Columbia Cemetery gravesite of Tom Horn, executed in Cheyenne in 1903 for murdering a fourteen-year-old boy. This past July, authorities found a note attached to Horn's grave addressed to Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter, threatening to damage the grave if the Ramseys were not arrested. The group also wants to pose at the Web cam in front of University Bikes and wave a hello to all the other online buddies who couldn't make the trip.

The cyber-sleuths are also planning their very own whodunit murder mystery game--but one that doesn't involve the facts of the Ramsey case. That would be too tacky. And as a surprise, Knapp plans to have goodie bags waiting for all the attendees. She doesn't want to reveal too much about their contents, but they are certain to contain FBI pens, funny disguises and other stuff any good detective needs.

Each bag will also hold a T-shirt with a message for JonBenet Ramsey's killer, printed in lettering that mimics the ransom note: "Listen Carefully! The Internet Is Watching!

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