Ten Years After

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

She would have been sixteen now. A boy-crazy cheerleader, maybe, or the dorky president of the debate team. A wobbly-voiced contestant on America's Got Talent. Or just another girl in narrow-legged jeans at the mall -- diamond stud in nostril, cell phone clamped to ear. Who can say?

Instead, she's gone. In place of the teen she might have become is a media obsession with the "pageant princess" she never was. And a pile of well-worn theories, idle conjectures and wild assertions about who killed her.

Next Tuesday, December 26, marks the tenth anniversary of the day the crumpled body of six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey was found in the basement of her Boulder home. She'd been sexually assaulted, strangled and bludgeoned -- although in what order remains a topic of online debate, like just about every other aspect of the crime.

Patrick Davison/afp/getty images
Fred Harper

Her murder was a shocking aberration for Boulder that soon evolved, through the magic of television and the tabloids, into an international wallow in morbidity. There was an abundance of leads and clues: the absurd ransom note, the oversized underwear, the odd attempt at a garrote. The unlocked but spiderwebbed grate over the busted basement window, the partial bootprint, the broken paintbrush. The pineapple in her digestive tract, the foreign DNA in her panties. The tacky pageant videos.

So many clues, but no viable suspects.

The case provided endless fodder for books and docudramas, talk-show Sherlocks and web-chattering Columbos. For the authorities in Boulder, it was a career-busting frustration, to be discussed in terse phrases at hurried press conferences, then in the high secrecy of the grand jury room -- and finally, not at all. The failure to charge a killer put the city's inept criminal-justice system in an embarrassing national spotlight, and rightly so.

Pundits have blamed the cops, the prosecutors, the lawyered-up parents, the rabid media or any combination of the above for this long-running charade of a murder investigation. And why not? The past decade of false hopes and blown opportunities, dead ends and sideshow lawsuits has been a chronicle of catastrophe, with plenty of blame to go around. Yet there are also a few grim lessons to be gathered from revisiting the Ramsey case, in all its lurid folly.

It's probably too late to get justice for JonBenét. Maybe it always was. But knowing where things went wrong is the first step to not going there again.

Our guy won't walk.

-- Boulder Chief of Police Tom Koby

Rice already cooked. Crime scene gone.

-- Dr. Henry Lee, forensic scientist

Some say the case was lost in the first few hours after Patsy Ramsey's emotional 911 call. "There's a note left and our daughter's gone," she said breathlessly to the dispatcher (and then said something else, perhaps, after she thought the call had ended, with other voices heard in the background -- but that's another point of contention, never resolved by the poor copy of the recording released years later). It was the day after Christmas, and a short-staffed police force responded to the Ramsey home, along with a cadre of family supporters.

The police failed to control the scene, fully search the premises or account for the movements of various family members and friends hovering around the place. The body in the basement wasn't discovered for hours, and then it was John Ramsey who found her, ripping the tape off JonBenét's mouth and bringing her upstairs, where a hysterical Patsy collapsed on top of her. By the time the cops knew they had a homicide scene on their hands, it was already a nightmare of contaminated evidence, a muddle of fibers and prints and hairs that might or might not have something to do with the crime.

Things got worse. Within days, Patsy's sister, Pam Paugh, was allowed back into the house with a police escort to retrieve a few items, a trip that police detective Steve Thomas would later describe as "a one-woman raid on the crime scene" that removed boxes of clothes, photos, toys, bills, personal papers and other possible evidence.

It would be months before investigators were able to obtain the clothing the Ramseys wore the night their daughter was killed, and even longer before they could get access to the parents' phone records and credit-card bills. In the meantime, the case went slowly, inexorably cold. Anyone could see that the Boulder Police Department didn't have the resources or the leadership to manage a complex, high-profile murder investigation.

Anyone, that is, except Chief Tom Koby, who continued to insist, "We've done it just right." He said so right up until his retirement from the force in 1998, at the ripe old age of 49.

The list of suspects narrows. Soon there will be no one on the list but you.

-- Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter, addressing "the person or persons who took this baby from us"

The early mistakes in the investigation might have been rectified had the police had sufficient guidance and the full backing of prosecutors. But if the cops were ill-prepared for the pressures of the Ramsey case, the district attorney's office -- where Alex Hunter had been entrenched for a quarter-century -- was even worse off. Hunter and his crew were known for plea bargains and feel-good compromises, not for taking risky homicide cases to trial.

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.

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.

Smit was hardly alone in his peep show. He had the support of the Ramseys' private investigators (two of whom were former colleagues), the Ramseys themselves, and University of Colorado journalism prof turned documentary producer Michael Tracey, who banged the drum for Smit's theories in a relentless campaign to clear the Ramseys by serving up alternate suspects. The cabal also got a boost from an unlikely source: Mary Lacy, Hunter's successor as district attorney.

In late 2002, after almost two years in office, Lacy wrote to the Ramseys' Atlanta attorney, Lin Wood, stating that she believed the case deserved "additional investigation by fresh eyes." While not exempting the Ramseys from this new inquiry, she made it clear that she was quite eager to "work cooperatively with Lou Smit, the Ramseys, and the Boulder Police Department."

Lacy's critics have suggested that she caved in response to the threat of yet another lawsuit by the Ramseys, but other accounts indicate that she was already leaning toward the intruder scenario while still a deputy DA. (According to Thomas's book, she once remarked that "the body language of John and Patsy Ramsey wasn't suggestive of deception and that men were not in a position to judge Patsy's demeanor.") She brought Smit back into the official investigation. In 2003, after a judge in a civil case in Georgia ruled that it was more likely that an intruder murdered JonBenét than a family member, Lacy took the unusual step of issuing a statement praising the ruling as "thoughtful and well-reasoned."

Last August, the hunt for a phantom intruder who might match the phantom DNA finally led to the only arrest of a suspect in the murder. Unfortunately, it was the wrong guy.

JonBenét Ramsey told me she loved me. Those were her last words.

-- "Daxis"

Keep your babies close.

-- Patsy Ramsey

Daxis, as John Mark Karr called himself, was just the sort of creepy-crawly that the intruder scenario called for; if he didn't exist, it might have been necessary to invent him. In a sense, he was invented. Karr cooked up his elaborate confession over the course of a four-year correspondence with Michael Tracey, who alerted Smit, who told Lacy that Karr should be taken seriously. Lacy bit, and the debacle that ensued -- the headline-making arrest last August, the business-class flight from Bangkok, the collapse of charges in Boulder and California, Karr's subsequent rounds of the cable-show circuit -- has made Boulder law enforcement the focus of yet another flurry of standup routines.

Karr's DNA didn't match the foreign DNA found in JonBenét's underwear. There isn't a shred of evidence putting him anywhere near Boulder the night of the murder. His bogus confession changed significantly in response to information Tracey supplied to him, yet still contained many details that contradicted the evidence ("Made for Each Other," October 12). Despite all that, some intruder diehards -- including Tracey and his British documentary partner, David Mills -- continue to push him as a possible accomplice in the case, insisting that he's being investigated by Homeland Security. But the Boulder District Attorney's Office denies that Karr is still under the umbrella in the Ramsey case. "We're not involved in any ongoing investigation of John Mark Karr," says Carolyn French, Lacy's spokeswoman.

In the wake of the Karr fiasco, KHOW's Dan Caplis and Craig Silverman have sought extensive records of the investigation from Lacy's office, including the complete e-mail correspondence between Tracey and Karr. Lacy has released only portions of the material, and the case may be headed to court soon.

Even if the talk-show attorneys prevail, larger questions remain about the credibility of the Ramsey investigation at this sorry juncture. Just how solid and unequivocal is the evidence of an intruder contained in Smit's PowerPoint, and why isn't that selectively disclosed material available to the public in its entirety? Is there proof that the DNA under the dead girl's fingernails matches the DNA in the underwear -- as asserted in at least one Tracey documentary -- or is this one more distortion of the evidence by the Ramsey spin machine, to point to an intruder who may not exist? How likely is it that the DNA is an "artifact," as Lacy herself has suggested? And what does Lacy's "ongoing investigation" consist of at this point, anyway?

These aren't idle questions: Westword is involved in a records hunt of its own on those issues that also may lead to court. Records already released show that the investigation has become a hunkered-down affair, waiting for the owner of the mystery DNA to show up. Until the Karr frenzy of last summer, Lacy's office had devoted little of its resources to the Ramsey homicide: nothing in 2002, a few thousand dollars in 2003, a few hundred bucks on travel expenses in 2004, nothing in 2005.

Several players in the Ramsey drama have passed away, including Patsy Ramsey and Bill McReynolds. Barring some dramatic breakthrough in forensic sleuthing, the case may never be solved.

These days, Lacy's office is catching heat over the absence of charges in the death of Jason Midyette, a ten-week-old infant who suffered multiple fractures and a head injury before being taken to a hospital last February; he was taken off life support in March. The baby's parents have declined to speak to police. The father, Alex Midyette, is the son of prominent Boulder architect and Pearl Street developer J. Nold Midyette. Two weeks ago, after a barrage of media criticism, Lacy's office acknowledged that a grand jury started meeting about the case in October. That's more than six months after the death, but still a good fifteen months earlier than a grand jury was convened in the Ramsey case.

Justice comes slowly sometimes -- if at all. In Boulder, the specter of JonBenét's unsolved murder is still worth remembering -- as a reproach, a plea to treat the next brutal death of a child with greater professionalism and less timidity. It's taken ten years, but maybe the lessons are starting to sink in.

Maybe this time our guy won't walk.

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