This week's cover story, "The Coldest Case," looks back at the still-unsolved 1996 murder of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey -- and the long, lonely battle waged by Fleet and Priscilla White, former friends of the Ramseys, to learn how the investigation got so badly derailed. The case had a devastating impact on many folks who were drawn into it. But it's also worth noting that the hunt for JonBenet's killer became a matter of consuming interest for a lot of people who never set foot in Boulder.
It's been said that JonBenet' s murder, like that of Nicole Brown Simpson, was made for the supermarket tabloids. Both cases had the right mix of glitz and sordidness, shocking details and rabid public curiosity to bring out the worst strains of Enquirer-style journalism. But the Ramsey case, with its endless clues and possible suspects, its queasy connections to the world of child beauty pageants and the sexual objectification of little girls, was also made for the Internet -- and became the impetus for an entire subculture of online sleuths, speculators and voyeurs.
O.J. Simpson's 1995 murder trial came a little too early in the cyberrevolution to get much online traction; most people followed the case on television. But by the time the JonBenet case began making headlines outside of Colorado in early 1997, a nation primed with AOL accounts and dial-up service was ready and eager to weigh in -- anonymously, of course.
As noted in this early appraisal by former Westword web editor Chris LaMorte, the JonBenet virtual community got its start in the Boulder Daily Camera's online News Forum, which featured back-and-forth posts from readers curious about the case and a live chat room. The rising traffic from the Ramsey-obsessed soon led to the launch of websites providing opportunities for more detailed discussions about the case.
One of the most popular new sites, Mrs. Brady's URLs, became a much-imitated template, offering links to breaking news and emerging discussion forums. A spectrum of sites catered to various shades of opinion, from those convinced that an Intruder Did It (IDIs) to those who thought the parents were good for it -- referred to disparagingly by IDIs as BORGs, a Star Trek reference that also served as an acronym for "Bent On Ramsey Guilt." There were also sites for fans of dreamy lead detective Steve Thomas, detractors of District Attorney Alex Hunter, and more.
The surging online phenomenon produced some impressive archives of Ramsey-related documents, recordings and photos; the still-active JonBenet archive at A Candy Rose remains one of the most useful and extensive. It also led to a brief bout with celebrity for one poster named Jameson, whose apparent inside knowledge of the case triggered other speculations and intrigues. Her fierce defense of the Ramseys ultimately got Jameson -- actually a North Carolina woman named Susan Bennett -- an audience with John and Patsy and an appearance on 48 Hours.
Studied all over cyberspace: The world's strangest ransom note.
The sharp divisions among the camps, coupled with the anonymity of online chatter, produced some hellacious flame wars, as well as chronic and persistent vilification of just about anybody associated with the case. "What Patsy and I have lived through might go down in history as the first cyberspace lynching," John Ramsey wrote in the couple's book, The Death of Innocence. But the Ramseys weren't the only targets.
In early 2000, shortly after a Boulder grand jury had failed to return any indictments in the case, startling allegations surfaced about a "breakthrough" in the investigation. The allegations came from a California woman, with ties to relatives of Fleet White, who claimed that JonBenet's murder was tied to a pedophile "sex ring" engaged in abusive rituals similar to what the woman said she'd endured as a child. The Boulder police found no credible evidence to support the woman's claims, but it was years before the woman's police interviews were released, revealing the many incoherencies and improbabilities in her story. In the interim, debate over the supposed sex ring rocked the Justice Watch website, contributing to its ultimate demise.
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The accuser "had a group of very small but very loud and hardcore believers," recalls Tricia Griffith, who now runs the Websleuths and Forums For Justice websites. "If you asked questions or asked them to show you evidence, you would just get attacked. When the transcripts [of her interviews] were released, it was like a breath of fresh air. It was everything we thought -- and worse. It seemed like an organized attack on the Whites. How do you unring that bell? That was a horrible accusation, and it was thrown out there like it was nothing. It blew up a wonderful forum."
Many of the sites, like Websleuths and Forums For Justice, have been repositioned over the years to encourage discussions of other high-profile crimes or missing-person cases. The advent of social media has made it easier than ever for amateur crime fighters to promote their pet theories about particular Boulder suspicious characters, from Santa Claus to Bob Enyart, or to rant about Casey Anthony. But the true-crime niche online has also been a fruitful area for false confessors; with so much information about the actual evidence in the JonBenet case just a few clicks away, hoaxers like John Mark Karr can effortlessly fine-tune their accounts of how they done it for maximum effect.
For more about the tumultuous online history of the Ramsey case, check out our JonBenet Ramsey Archive.