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.

Wolf's suit was filed a year ago in Atlanta, and the Ramseys' motion for dismissal was rejected in February by Judge Julie Carnes. Experts say that simply expressing a view that a particular person might be a killer would generally be protected as opinion. But Hoffman says he successfully argued in court that John Ramsey had done more than that: He implied his opinion was based on facts that he did not go on to disclose, which made his comment actionable. Hoffman expects to begin deposing witnesses in June.

"It will be the first time the Ramseys will appear for questioning where they don't control the venue and the circumstances, where they can't get up and leave," says Hoffman.

"John Ramsey correctly and accurately stated Chris Wolf was viewed as a suspect," Wood says. "Chris Wolf has never been cleared that I'm aware of."

He adds, "I don't think Darnay Hoffman is going to be around much longer in that case after a period of discovery and a motion for summary judgment is filed. I don't have any professional respect for Darnay Hoffman as a lawyer."

Because Wolf has made public statements about the Ramsey case in the past, he is a limited public figure, says Hoffman. This means he has to "prove malice, that the person knowingly lied about something." Hoffman intends to prove that Patsy Ramsey wrote the ransom note, and he says he has the experts to do it. If he succeeds, then "functionally, we will have proven to a jury that everything out of her mouth when she talked about the case was a lie."

Hoffman is also handling another lawsuit for Linda Hoffmann-Pugh, filed in August 2000, contesting a Colorado law that says witnesses cannot reveal anything they have said in front of a grand jury. According to Hoffman, since the Ramsey grand jury neither returned an indictment nor wrote a report, the lips of dozens of witnesses are effectively sealed -- and he thinks this was the deliberate intention of Alex Hunter; he believes Hunter never wanted to prosecute the Ramseys.

Hoffmann-Pugh wants to write her own book about the case. In addition to freeing her to do this, a victory in court could "open a floodgate of testimony and information from the grand jury witnesses," says Hoffman. "That could have a devastating effect on the fiction that the grand jury did not have enough evidence to bring an indictment."

Another lawsuit being intensely watched is that of Linda Arndt, one of the first Boulder cops at the Ramsey house the morning after the murder. The police have been savagely attacked in the press for their handling of the crime scene. Critics say they allowed visitors to come and go and evidence to be contaminated. Arndt bore much of the criticism. She was also accused of becoming too close to Patsy Ramsey. Arndt was dropped from the case after five months; she resigned from the police department in March 1999. Later that year, she appeared on Good Morning America, stating enigmatically that when John Ramsey discovered JonBenét's body, she'd felt a moment of fear and thought about her gun: "I didn't know if we'd all be alive when people showed up," she said.

Arndt is suing former police chief Tom Koby, current chief Mark Beckner and the Boulder police department. She says that she was not allowed to speak out in her own defense when subjected to the barrage of criticism and that this violated her First Amendment rights. Her case has been scheduled for a seven-day trial beginning May 29 and may cast some illumination on the vexed relationships within the police department and between police and prosecutors. U.S. District Judge William Downes has set May 23 as the deadline for any settlement.

In the first year after the murder, another officer, Larry Mason, threatened to sue the City of Boulder. He was suspected of leaking information to the press and removed from the investigation early on. A police investigation cleared him, and he settled the case for $10,000.

The suit against Steve Thomas is hardly the Ramseys' first. In December 1999, after a grand jury had failed to indict them, the Ramseys filed a $25 million suit against the Star, a tabloid newspaper that reported that JonBenét's brother Burke, age nine at the time of the murder, was a suspect. The Star attorney vowed to cross-examine the Ramseys about the murder. Instead, the case was settled for an undisclosed amount.

"One down and many to go," said Wood, who went on to sue the Globe, the New York Post and Time Warner. The Globe, too, settled. The other two cases are ongoing. In March of this year, the New York Post asked for all of the files on the Ramsey case. Current Boulder District Attorney Mary Keenan resisted; she said providing these files would place an undue burden on her office.

Those hoping for revelations from the ongoing suits should perhaps be reminded of another case, filed in 1998 by photographer Stephen Thomas Miles. Represented by Boulder attorney Lee Hill, Miles sued the National Enquirer and John Ramsey for an article in which he was called a sex offender and a pedophile and in which Ramsey seemed to suggest that he was the murderer. Amid much public speculation and curiosity, Ramsey gave a deposition. It was immediately sealed. Two months later, Miles's case against Ramsey dissolved; a month after that, the rest of the suit -- against the National Enquirer -- was also thrown out. Ramsey's deposition was unsealed in February 2000. It gave away nothing.

However, the unsealed deposition did lead -- indirectly -- to yet another lawsuit, this one for criminal libel. A California therapist, Mary Bienkowski, saw a Lee Hill TV interview about the Miles lawsuit and contacted him on behalf of one of her clients. This client gave a detailed and astonishing story of the violence and sexual abuse she'd suffered at adult parties throughout her childhood -- particularly at Christmastime. The Boulder Daily Camera repeated her story of garottes and blows to the head and provocative party dresses in a breathless front-page article on February 25, 2000, and noted that this woman was acquainted with the Ramseys through her mother's godfather, Fleet White Sr. Fleet White Jr., a onetime friend of John Ramsey's, had long been a thorn in DA Hunter's side, pointing out the weaknesses of his office and calling for a special prosecutor in the Ramsey case. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hunter told the Camera's Barrie Hartman that he found the California woman's claims "overly believable."

A day later, everyone was furiously backpedaling. The woman's story bore no relationship to the facts as police knew them, and her behavior became more and more erratic. Now Hunter said that "opinions about believability [were] premature." Fleet and Priscilla White accused the Camera and other media organizations of criminal libel. Later that year, Chief District Judge Roxanne Bailin terminated the investigation into that case, saying the Whites had asked her to do so -- a fact that they have adamantly denied.

And one more lawsuit, again involving the Camera: the case of Allie Krupski, 23 years old and a year out of journalism school, inexplicably chosen by her editors over several more experienced reporters to cover the Ramsey story. Stressed, overworked and suffering from ill health -- she had been in a car accident earlier in the year -- Krupski took time off in November 1997 and was fired in December. The newspaper then accused her of stealing documents related to her Ramsey reporting; a judge dismissed that accusation. Krupski copied her files for the Camera -- and then sued the paper for defamation. She was ultimately awarded $115,000 by a jury.

Read more Westword coverage of the JonBenet Ramsey case

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