What a Circus!

In the center ring, now and forever: JonBenét Ramsey.

The Boulder City Council just banned circuses, five years too late. The circus came to Boulder on December 26, 1996 -- the day that six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey was reported missing -- and it's never left. Although the Ramsey action occasionally moves out of the center ring and into some lunatic-fringe sideshow, the big top has settled permanently over Boulder.

Boulder officials didn't think their July 3 vote would stop the never-ending media circus, the all-Ramsey-all-the-time show, of course. They were simply expanding on last summer's sentiment that turned pet owners into animal "guardians" by banning exotic-animal acts. But in politically correct Boulder, there's no animal more exotic than a tar baby. And JonBenét Ramsey, the little girl who would have turned eleven next month if she'd been guarded more closely, just won't go away. "Once you touch this case, you're stuck," says Dan Caplis, the talk-show attorney who recently acquired his first legal connection to the case.

"It sticks to everyone it touches," says Tom Miller, a former attorney who just got out of his legal connection to the case. "There's, like, this slime."

Last month, Miller became the circus's star attraction -- the only person who ever went to trial on a Ramsey-related charge. It took four years to get him before the jury. It took that jury under an hour to acquit him.

Back in early 1997, when people actually thought that justice would be done for JonBenét Ramsey, Miller was hired by the Globe -- at $150 an hour -- to help out on its investigation. The Globe was throwing a lot of money around Boulder at the time, and even as outraged townspeople threatened to boycott the tabloid, it was scooping the mainstream press. At the request of Craig Lewis, a Globe editor responsible for much of the coverage, Miller set up a meeting with Donald Vacca, a former Denver cop who was also a handwriting expert -- an expert who'd been hired by the Ramseys' attorneys to examine the ransom note found in their home on December 26.

At the April 1, 1997, meeting in Vacca's Evergreen home, Lewis offered $30,000 for a copy of the note. Vacca wasn't buying.

In August 1999, a Jefferson County grand jury indicted both Lewis and Miller, under the state's felony criminal bribery statute, for attempting to bribe an employee into breaking confidentiality with an employer. That employer was the Ramseys, who were still refusing to cooperate with the Boulder Police Department in its investigation of their daughter's death. Unlike Jeffco, Boulder County hadn't issued any indictments connected to the murder -- unless you count the fellows who pleaded guilty to selling autopsy photos to the Globe, or the Globe reporter accused of harassment, or the Ramsey friend charged with brandishing a baseball bat at two hapless engineers who he mistook for journalists.

The Ramseys may not have been cooperating with Boulder authorities, but Jeffco had no problem cooperating with their lawyers. At Miller's trial his attorney, Gary Lozow, introduced correspondence from Haddon, Morgan & Foreman, the politically connected firm then representing the Ramseys, urging the Jeffco DA to prosecute Miller and Lewis.

Lewis's lawyers fought the indictment on First Amendment grounds, arguing that the state statute was unconstitutional when applied to working journalists. If the law could be used against a supermarket tabloid that may or may not have offered $30,000 for a ransom note that law enforcement officials were handing out for free, what was to stop another DA from using the law against a local TV reporter who bought a source a beer? Ultimately, Jeffco offered Lewis a novel way to settle the case: He admitted to "ethical" wrongdoing, and the Globe donated $100,000 to the University of Colorado School of Journalism.

"Chump change," laughs Michael Tracey, a J-school professor now working on a documentary about the Ramseys. "They could have gotten a million." But it doesn't take the Globe's sledgehammer-subtle stories to recognize the Ramsey case's impact on Boulder. "Everyone wants it to go away, or pretends they want it to go away, but it's not going to," Tracey says. "The number of bodies -- some of them still breathing -- that have been affected."

Miller was offered a deal, too, but he refused it -- even though a criminal bribery conviction carries a sentence of up to eighteen months in jail and a fine of $100,000. "They offered me a plea: Give up the law license, cop to a felony, and everything's fine," he remembers. "I couldn't do that."

He wanted his day in court. He wanted to tell the jurors that he didn't know Lewis was going to offer money to Vacca, and he couldn't have done much if he had. But more than that, Miller says, he wanted those jurors to know that the DA "had turned his back on a murder in order to pay a political favor by destroying the credibility of a witness."

Miller, also a handwriting expert, believes that Patsy Ramsey wrote the ransom note and murdered her daughter. He'd gone public with that belief in the summer of 1997, before the ransom note ever appeared in Vanity Fair, and in Newsweek, and on the Internet, and finally in the Globe.

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