Ten Years After

A decade of blunders, spin and hype hasn't solved the JonBenét Ramsey murder case. Is it time for the truth?

By most accounts, the relationship between the police and Hunter's office had been miserable before the Ramsey case came along. The murder and attendant bad press sent it spiraling downward amid sniping, finger-pointing and scheming. Some of Hunter's people thought the cops were too fixated on the parents as suspects and failed to adequately explore alternate leads. Thomas and other cops accused the DA of being too chummy with (or too intimidated by) the Ramseys' high-powered attorneys, too quick to make deals and share evidence and lab results, robbing the police of any tactical advantage they might have had.

At times the feud between the two agencies seemed to bring the entire investigation to a standstill. Search warrants were delayed, incredible deference shown the Ramseys' demands that certain conditions be met before they could be officially interviewed. Patsy provided a handwriting sample at a kitchen table in a prosecutor's house, an accommodation that left seasoned FBI agents shaking their heads. A detective's questions were faxed to the Ramseys, who responded in writing, with a lawyerly vagueness.

Hunter presided over this bizarre dance with the deftness of a true politico, pledging his fierce commitment to justice but in no particular hurry to get there. He invited reporters from tabloids and magazines into his office, ostensibly to pump them for information. But he also managed to convey more than a few hints about possible suspects, from members of the Ramsey inner circle to hapless Bill McReynolds, a college professor who liked to play Santa Claus. Leaks proliferated. Far from narrowing, the "umbrella of suspicion" became large enough to cover a three-ring circus. At one point, in his eagerness to demonstrate that he would leave no stone unturned, Hunter even gave serious consideration (and media cred) to one woman's outrageous account of a multi-generational child sex ring involving former associates of the Ramseys -- until the story became too absurd for even him to swallow.

Patrick Davison/afp/getty images
Fred Harper

When he quit the force in 1998, Thomas publicly blasted Hunter, calling him "a spinning compass for the media." The detective's resignation letter cited numerous ways "the district attorney's office has effectively crippled this case."

A few weeks later, a grand jury was finally convened to investigate JonBenét's murder, under the supervision of special prosecutor Michael Kane. Hunter hung around another two years -- long enough to see himself portrayed in a wave of books and articles about the case as a preening milquetoast. "I would say to my critics," he told a reporter shortly before ending his seventh and final term as DA, "that if it's all that bad [here], then head on down the road somewhere."

Our killer in this case left a lot of evidence behind.... I think JonBenét got a piece of her killer.

-- Lou Smit, investigator

My office has been investigating new and other unpursued leads, most of which involve the possibility that an intruder committed this crime.

-- Boulder District Attorney Mary Lacy

Steve Thomas's departure was a public-relations nightmare for Hunter's people. But the equally public exit of Lou Smit a few weeks later had an even deeper impact on the case.

Hunter had brought in Smit, a veteran Colorado Springs homicide detective, to consult on the Ramsey investigation. Smit soon alienated many of the cops actively working the case by maintaining that the Ramseys were innocent, that unexplained traces of evidence at the scene pointed to an intruder. He resigned just as the grand jury was getting under way, complaining to Hunter that the police "are just going in the wrong direction, and have been since day one."

Smit fought for the right to present his intruder theory to the grand jury, and his testimony poked holes in whatever porous case had been built at that point against the Ramseys. He vowed to continue the investigation on his own and took case materials with him when he departed, including a PowerPoint presentation he'd developed using crime-scene photos, lab tests and other documents. Hunter's office sued for the return of the materials -- then abruptly capitulated. In a secret agreement hammered out between Hunter, Smit and special prosecutor Kane, Smit was allowed to keep his PowerPoint package and share information about the case with anyone, provided no charges were filed by October 1, 1999.

The grand jury charged no one, of course, and Smit went on a media rampage. He started showing up on cable shows, morning talk-fests and prime-time "mystery" hours, peddling his intruder scenario and offering peeks at the crime-scene photos.

Many of Smit's conjectures -- about the use of a stun gun, the significance of the badly degraded DNA found under JonBenét's fingernails and so on -- were sharply disputed by other investigators. Hunter called his PowerPoint "old stuff," and police officials insisted that many of the leads he claimed to be pursuing had already been thoroughly investigated and discounted. But the national media, hungry for access and fresh angles on the case, ate it up anyway.

Overnight, it seemed, the whole story line of the case changed. The leaks that tended to put the Ramseys in an unflattering light had dried up after the investigation was shoveled into the hush-hush pit of the grand jury. Meanwhile, the Ramseys had launched a fierce counteroffensive against their tabloid accusers, filing lawsuits against them and the mainstream outlets that repeated their canards. So the time was ripe for the rise of the mysterious intruder.

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