The Truth Hurts

A roundup of the civil cases surrounding the Ramseys.

In 1895, playwright Oscar Wilde took the Marquess of Queensbury to court in London, claiming the marquess had libeled him by calling him a sodomite. A trial was held; the judge decided the marquess had been correct. Since homosexuality was a crime in nineteenth-century England, Wilde himself was soon in prison.

There are those who feel that, in filing an $80 million defamation suit against former detective Steve Thomas -- along with his publisher, his co-author and unnamed Boulder cops -- John and Patsy Ramsey are exposing themselves to a similar danger.

JonBenét Ramsey was found murdered in her parents' home on Christmas night, 1996, and though no one has ever been charged in her death, lawsuits have swirled around the case almost from the beginning -- some arising from the peculiarities of the Boulder justice system and the anomalous ways in which police and prosecutors handled the investigation, some from the litigious proclivities of the Ramseys themselves, some from the sheer eccentricity of various people with ties to the case. A handful of civil suits are currently in progress, and Ramsey watchers are once again filling cyberspace and the airwaves with intense speculation. Will the Ramseys crack and confess? Will a murderous intruder appear? Will some entirely new solution to the case surface unexpectedly in one of these courtrooms?

Steve Thomas, who resigned from the Boulder Police Department in August 1998, wrote a book called JonBenét: Inside the Ramsey Murder Investigation, about the frustrations he faced as lead investigator on the case. The book, published a year ago, describes mistakes made by police officers on the morning after the murder; prosecutors who appeared more interested in protecting the Ramseys than in finding the truth; and obstructive behavior by John and Patsy themselves. From the evidence he examined, Thomas built his own theory of the murder: that Patsy Ramsey killed her daughter in a fit of rage after the child had wet her bed and that John has stayed silent to protect his wife.

The Ramseys' lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, states that the book is defamatory and based on confidential material. Their attorney is L. Lin Wood, the lawyer who represents Richard Jewell, the man falsely accused of planting a bomb at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

"Steve Thomas has accused Patsy Ramsey of the murder of her daughter, and he's accused John Ramsey of criminally covering up that crime," says Wood. "He has to be held accountable for publishing those types of statements for profit."

Thomas, too, is represented by a heavy hitter: Daniel Petrocelli of Los Angeles. Petrocelli won a $33.5 million verdict for the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman after making mincemeat of O.J. Simpson on the witness stand.

To win their lawsuit, the Ramseys have to prove that Thomas's allegations are false. If they are found to be public figures (they contend they are not), they also have to prove that Thomas knew these allegations were false and recklessly chose to promulgate them anyway.

With truth as the core issue of the trial, Thomas, who described in his book his overwhelming sadness and frustration at being prevented from fully pursuing the investigation, can finally do what he has wanted to do from the beginning: pursue all avenues, conduct discovery and get full depositions -- under oath -- from both the Ramseys.

Wood expresses skepticism, however, that the search for truth is Thomas's primary motivation, and he speculates that Thomas and Petrocelli will in fact rely on legalisms and delaying tactics. But truth is the lure for his clients, he says, and they are anxious to make their innocence known.

Chris Wolf is a Boulder journalist who was inadvertently caught up in the Ramsey web. His girlfriend, Jackie Dilson, reported to police and prosecutors that Wolf was not at home on the night of JonBenét's murder and that he had become agitated when he heard about it on TV. Later, stopped by police for a minor traffic offense, Wolf apparently commented that the cops could use their time better in solving the murder. Although the police cleared Wolf, the Ramseys named him as one of several suspects in their own book, Death of Innocence. They also named Linda Hoffmann-Pugh, who once worked for the Ramseys as a housekeeper. Hoffmann-Pugh first learned that Patsy Ramsey considered her a suspect in early 1999, when she read Lawrence Schiller's Perfect Murder, Perfect Town -- yet another book on the case. If Patsy thought that, Hoffmann-Pugh asked in bewilderment, "Why would she hug me at the memorial service?"

Both she and Wolf found their lives turned upside down by the accusations, and both are suing the Ramseys for $50 million. Their attorney is Darnay Hoffman, the man who represented Bernhard H. Goetz when three men Goetz had shot in the New York City subway filed civil suits against him.

Hoffman's involvement in the Ramsey case actually began far earlier. In November 1997, he sued then-Boulder County district attorney Alex Hunter under a little-used Colorado law to try to force the prosecution of Patsy Ramsey. His motion was dismissed. He later filed suit against the Ramseys for impugning his reputation in their book, but he dropped the suit in order to go forward with the suits of Wolf and Hoffmann-Pugh.

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