One day this spring, J.T. Colfax crossed the line.
He's been on the edge before. The time he papered a New York City wall with stock shots of actors who'd been cut at an audition and labeled them "rejects." Colfax made the New York news with that one. The time he visited Clarksburg, a West Virginia town he'd chosen for a year-long piece of performance art--much of it involving sending intimate confessional mail to unwitting Clarksburgians picked at random from the phone book. He managed to make it out of there alive.
But Colfax, who was born James Thompson in 1963 and renamed himself Colfax in honor of his hometown's longest street, considers himself a writer. (That's why he changed his name, so that there wouldn't be any confusion with the author of The Grifters.) He considers himself an artist. And sometimes that means acting out--way out.
After several years in New York working in galleries and working on his art, Colfax returned to Denver just before New Year's. He got a job with a transfer service, moving dead bodies for morgues. He'd done the job before, with a similar outfit in Los Angeles and then at a San Antonio mortuary; his specialty was first calls, "the actual removal of the dead." In February he switched to M&M Transport, which has the City of Denver's contract for dead-body pickup. Between the first of the year and the start of May, Colfax moved 600 corpses.
He'd drive around alone, listening to the radio--the van got only three stations, and although Dr. Laura made him beat the dashboard, Jay Marvin soon became a favorite--and drinking. One day in late April, a call took Colfax up to the Boulder County morgue. He had to wait for a transfer, so he "shuffled around, went outside to smoke a cigarette, came back in, looked through the pages of a log book." That's when he saw the name: JonBenet Ramsey.
Her body had come in December 26, 1996.
While Colfax worked, he liked to shoot pictures. He decided to take a picture of the Ramsey page in the log book, too.
But he couldn't figure out how to do it without someone noticing the flash. He took the book into a "cooler filled with buckets of brains," he remembers. "It never occurred to me to look for her brain. I was more interested in printed matter." But the cooler had windows, and he worried that someone could still see the flash. "So I just ripped the pages out."
Most of Colfax's morgue shots wound up in his collection, which dates back to his days in L.A. "I was collecting all kinds of material, although I wasn't exactly sure what I would do with it," he says. "I was collecting everything I could get while I could." The array that spills out of his bag includes a 1997 Cadillac calendar that touts hearse models, casket catalogues--"those are just full of lies," he says, "like about the durability of caskets"--and route sheets that show the "average body is worth $13." And photos, lots of photos. Some of the snapshots are relatively harmless--a casket showing through the van doors on a lonely mountain road. Some are not: the photograph of the corpse with a hand-lettered "Happy Birthday" sign by his head, for example. Or pictures of crematoriums. Or a gruesome photo of a corpse on a meat hook (which is how they were stored in one California med center, according to Colfax). He says a tabloid would pay $25,000 for that one.
But Colfax didn't plan to sell the Ramsey log sheet. He wanted to use it to make art. Xeroxing the page, he added a photo of the morgue door, colored the composition, then sent copies off to artist friends all over the country. "I did not profit by it," he says. "In fact, I will pay dearly."
That's because someone in New York tipped off someone else who tipped off the media, which means the police now know--or soon will know, anyway--that Colfax is the guy who took that log page. He's not the person who murdered JonBenet--he wasn't even in town December 26--but sure as shooting, he knows he'll wind up getting punished. And maybe that's a good thing: "I just want to get all of it over with," he says.
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Besides, Colfax hears the Boulder jail is very nice, and he doesn't have anywhere to live, anyway. He lost his last place after all the publicity when he was arrested April 30--not for stealing the Ramsey log sheet, but for the photos on another roll of film that he'd dropped off at a local Safeway. Arrested for those photos and the fact that he sort of tried to walk off without paying for the processing. Within minutes Colfax was surrounded by Denver cops, who looked through his photos--the corpse with the noisemaker in her mouth, the casket being hoisted on a DIA forklift--and threw him in jail for three days. On May 7 he was formally charged with "abuse of a corpse"--charged not by Denver, but in Littleton and Englewood, where two of the mortuaries in his pictures are located. "Naturally," he says, "I'm glad that Denver isn't charging me, but it irks me when I see the Denver Police Department lie to the press in saying no photos were taken in Denver." He's slated to appear in Arapahoe County Court June 18.
And maybe then his life will finally get cleared up. Actually, that's what the Clarksburg Project, which remains "my most favorite thing," was designed to do. "I think a lot of it was crappy," he says of the piece that he started in December 1994, "but I actually founded a brand-new art form."
Clarksburg, it turns out, is the fingerprint-identification capital of the country. (Incidentally, it also has a thriving casket-construction business.) Surely by sending a year's worth of irritating mail, Colfax figured, he'd convince someone to check for fingerprints. And then they'd find that the perpetrator was wanted for probation violation in Denver, Colorado. Back in 1989 Colfax spent seven months in jail for stabbing a guy ("We were drunk," he explains), and then skipped town after just six weeks of probation. He supported himself by gay hustling, then moved to Atlanta, where he worked in a bookstore, then on to New York. But somehow, Denver lost any record of his violating probation. The Clarksburg Project was supposed to resurrect it and then "have them catch me."
This, anyway, is how Colfax's story goes.
He just doesn't know how it's going to end.