JonBenet Ramsey: How the Investigation Got Derailed -- and Why It Still Matters

JonBenet Ramsey: How the Investigation Got Derailed -- and Why It Still Matters
Brian Stauffer

Bad news often comes in the night. It arrives in a whirl of dread and confusion, like a drunk trying to get into the wrong house, shattering the pre-dawn silence and bursting our dreams.

When Priscilla White answered the phone at her Boulder home at six in the morning on December 26, 1996, she knew that something terrible had happened. Why else would anyone be calling so early, the day after Christmas? But the news was worse than anything she could imagine.

The voice on the line belonged to a frantic Patsy Ramsey. "JonBenét's been kidnapped," she said. "Come over right now. Call the FBI."

She hung up before the stunned Priscilla could say much of anything.

Priscilla and her husband, Fleet White Jr., had been with John and Patsy Ramsey just ten hours earlier. The Ramseys and their two children had come to the Whites' house for Christmas dinner. Nine-year-old Burke Ramsey had played Nintendo games with seven-year-old Fleet III, while best friends JonBenét and Daphne White, both six, had played in Daphne's room. There had been nothing remarkable about the evening, but now the Ramseys were making desperate calls for help.

See also: Westword's JonBenet Ramsey Archive

Fleet and Priscilla hurried to their friends' house. The police were already there, and more friends, summoned by Patsy, were on their way. But Patsy was inconsolable. She sat on the floor, clutching a crucifix and praying to Jesus. "They have my baby," she moaned.

She'd woken up that morning, she told detectives, to find a three-page handwritten note on the spiral staircase leading from the children's bedrooms to the first floor. The garrulous note, claiming to be from a "small foreign faction" and signed "S.B.T.C.," demanded $118,000 for the return of JonBenét, who was missing from her room. Patsy had screamed for her husband, then dialed 911.

Fleet and Priscilla had never seen Patsy so hysterical, flailing and collapsing in sobs. John Ramsey wasn't known for displaying emotion -- Fleet, who'd done a lot of sailing with him in rough weather, had admired his calm in even the worst storms -- but he looked distraught, too.

While arrangements were under way to assemble the cash demanded, the Whites did what they could to be useful. Recalling how his own daughter had once gone missing only to be found hiding under her bed, Fleet took a quick tour of the basement, looking for hiding places. He and John collected Burke Ramsey from his room, and Fleet drove him to the Whites' house, to keep him away from the awful situation.

As the day dragged on with no word from the kidnappers, several of the visitors got a glimpse of a police photocopy of the ransom note. It was a melodramatic epic, full of odd lines from movies ("Don't try to grow a brain") and squiggly, palsied lettering, as if the writer was trying to disguise his handwriting.

Priscilla was struck by the taunting tone of the note, which was addressed to "Mr. Ramsey." She wondered who could hate John Ramsey that much, to put him through this. She believed it had to be someone familiar with the layout of the Ramsey house, a three-story, much-modified Tudor with a labyrinthine basement; Priscilla herself had lost her way more than once the first few times she'd visited.

Around one in the afternoon, Boulder police detective Linda Arndt suggested that Fleet take John Ramsey around the house to see if they'd missed anything -- probably just to give the anxious father something to do. After inspecting several rooms in the basement, Ramsey headed toward a storage room known as the wine cellar. It was a door Fleet had opened on his earlier tour, but he hadn't found a light switch and hadn't gone inside. Moving a few feet and seconds ahead of Fleet, Ramsey opened the door and snapped on the light.

"Oh, my God," he said. "Oh, my God."

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Fleet and Priscilla White saw their relationship with the Ramseys deteriorate shortly after JonBenét's death.
Fleet and Priscilla White saw their relationship with the Ramseys deteriorate shortly after JonBenét's death.
Anthony Camera

The events in the Ramsey household that day have been the subject of thousands of articles and dozens of books over the past eighteen years. What began as a kidnapping case became a homicide investigation the moment John Ramsey discovered the lifeless body of his daughter wrapped in a blanket in the wine cellar -- and then carried her upstairs, further contaminating an already problematic crime scene.

The girl had been bludgeoned, strangled and sexually abused. Forensic evidence, the peculiar ransom note and other clues pointed in a bewildering variety of directions -- and so did the media circus that soon erupted around the case once reporters learned about JonBenét's brief career in child beauty pageants. Tabloid hustlers, true-crime opportunists and amateur cybersleuths cranked out a wealth of theories and suspects, from the parents to a Santa Claus impersonator to a roving, shadowy gang of pedophiles.

Yet despite a police investigative file that now exceeds 60,000 pages, as well as a grand-jury investigation that stretched on for more than a year, no one has ever been convicted of JonBenét's murder. It remains the most infamous cold case of modern times.

The failure to solve the homicide has often been blamed on police missteps early in the investigation, or then-district attorney Alex Hunter's supposed reluctance to prosecute, or the well-publicized feud that broke out between the cops and the prosecutors. But Fleet and Priscilla White say it's not that simple.

"The death of JonBenét Ramsey was a tragedy," Fleet says today. "But everything that's happened since is horrendous."

For the Whites, the question of who killed JonBenét or why the investigation stalled isn't simply fodder for a parlor game or online chatter. The case turned their lives upside down. Because of their close association with the Ramseys before the murder and what they saw in the days that followed, they emerged as key witnesses in the investigation. Initially strong supporters of John and Patsy -- "There's absolutely no way it could be a family member," Priscilla told police in her first official interview -- they eventually became highly critical of Hunter's handling of the case and what they perceived as the powerful influence being exerted by the Ramseys' well-connected attorneys.

They also found themselves with targets on their backs, their credibility under assault from several self-interested parties in the Ramsey-case demimonde. Meanwhile, the Ramseys received a highly unusual apology and "exoneration" from Hunter's successor, Mary Lacy, based on DNA evidence that now appears to be far less conclusive than Lacy claimed.

Over the years, the Whites have been courted by the likes of Jane Pauley, Connie Chung and Lawrence Schiller, hoping to wrangle their confidence and their secrets. Tabloid writers have tried to eavesdrop on their calls, stolen their phone records and combed through their garbage. They have declined every interview request, lecturing reporters about the sleaziness of their profession as they ordered them off their property. Although they've fired off numerous letters to public officials about the case, they have refused to speculate about what happened in the Ramsey house before they got there that morning -- though it's clear they don't accept the theory of a murderous intruder, a theory heavily endorsed by the Ramsey camp.

In the last few months, though, the Whites have become far more outspoken in their long quest for answers. They have been emboldened by the release late last year of documents indicating that in 1999 the JonBenét grand jury had voted to indict John and Patsy Ramsey on a charge of felony child abuse resulting in death and on an accessory charge; Hunter declined to sign the indictments, which remained a secret for more than a decade. The Whites have gone to court, seeking to get still-suppressed pages of those "true bills" released. They have appeared before the Boulder City Council, seeking other documents related to the case. And they agreed to talk to Westword about what they know.

"For the longest time, we didn't talk to anybody," Priscilla says. "We wanted to be good witnesses if there ever was a prosecution. Then, after we realized there wasn't going to be one, we wanted to make sure this wasn't going to affect our children. That's what's driven me."

"We didn't want to be carnival freaks," Fleet adds. "What were we supposed to do, go on Larry King when he called? Sit down with Connie Chung? We knew they had larceny in their hearts."

Some pundits have sought to dismiss the Whites as obsessed with the Ramsey case and prone to complicated conspiracy theories about what went wrong. But the Whites say they're trying to set the record straight -- no easy task, when basic facts about the case have been buried under years of accumulated media spin and outright lies. The couple had to deal not only with the brutal murder of their daughter's best friend, hours after they'd served JonBenét her last meal, but with the abrupt rupture of their close relationship with the girl's parents as the Ramseys retreated behind a wall of lawyers. They were quickly drawn into the maelstrom of a murder investigation that, with its multiple leaks and animosities and blunders, seemed to defy all the rules of how such an investigation should be conducted.

And they had a front-row seat for the grim spectacle that followed. A grand-jury process they believed to be warped by the influence of money and political power. A procession of district attorneys who seemed bent on burying the case and its secrets. Waves of cynical exploitation of the murder for commercial gain, until memories of the six-year-old girl the Whites knew have been all but obliterated by gooey tales of the "Little Miss Christmas" she never was.

"What happens is that evil comes in," Fleet says. "If you don't have truth, all you have are lies, then what comes in is evil. And evil just does its thing. In the Ramsey case, it just did its thing, and it's eaten up so many people."

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Burke and JonBenét Ramsey (left)and Daphne and Fleet White III were frequent playmates.
Burke and JonBenét Ramsey (left)and Daphne and Fleet White III were frequent playmates.

It was geography and, of course, the children that brought the two families together. Fleet had grown up in the Southern California surfer culture, worked in his father's oil and gas exploration business, and married Priscilla in 1979. In 1994, the Whites moved from Newport Beach to Boulder, knowing hardly a soul there. But two doors down from their house on University Hill was another recently transplanted family, with two kids close to the same ages as theirs.

"John and Patsy stapled themselves to us," Fleet recalls. "They really liked our kids, liked us. And they were nice folks. We had fun. We had birthday parties."

John Ramsey had started a modest computer-component business in his basement in the Atlanta suburbs and built it into a highly successful company, Access Graphics. In 1991, Lockheed Martin bought Access and moved its headquarters to Boulder, keeping Ramsey at the helm; by late 1996 the company had reached a billion dollars in annual revenues. His wife, Patsy, found the move disconcerting -- Boulder, with its liberal politics and casual ways and disdain for mink coats, was a world away from Atlanta -- but her husband's growing prosperity helped smooth the way, allowing for elaborate remodeling of their house on Fifteenth Street.

The Whites and Ramseys came from opposite sides of the country, but they shared many common interests. Fleet and John became sailing buddies. JonBenét and Daphne attended the same pre-kindergarten program. Although the Whites eventually moved to another house a few miles away and saw less of the Ramseys in the last months of JonBenét's life, John continued to invite them to Access Graphics parties, and Priscilla was deeply involved in planning Patsy's fortieth-birthday party in the fall of 1996. The Ramseys celebrated Christmas at the Whites' home two years in a row; the Whites visited the Ramseys at their vacation home in Michigan two summers in a row. The Ramseys would later describe the Whites as "our closest friends from Colorado."

One interest they didn't share, though, was child beauty pageants. Priscilla found she had to bite her tongue sometimes around Patsy, a former Miss West Virginia, over the latter's interest in transforming JonBenét into a pageant princess -- all the makeup and costumes, the hair-bleaching, the whole showbiz treatment of a little girl who was still wetting her bed. Priscilla considered it unhealthy and even gave Patsy a book, Surviving Ophelia, that dealt with how to prepare girls for the turmoil of adolescence.

The real tension in the relationship began to develop in the immediate aftermath of JonBenét's death. Following the discovery of her daughter's body, Patsy descended into a Valium fog. For many of the family's friends, it was a time of shock and sleeplessness and frayed nerves. Yet behind the scenes, a legal team was already being assembled to protect the parents' interests. Or rather, two teams -- one for John, one for Patsy.

On December 26, just hours after finding the body, Fleet was surprised to get a call from Mike Bynum, an attorney and Ramsey family friend who'd offered to help John and Patsy find appropriate representation and had fended off initial police attempts to formally interview the parents. The next day, Fleet had his first interview with the police detectives -- and then, at Bynum's request, went to the lawyer's office late that afternoon, where he was introduced to an attorney from the prestigious law firm of Haddon, Morgan and Foreman, as well as a private investigator. Team Ramsey wanted its own debriefing on what Fleet had seen and done.

Over the next couple of days, as the JonBenét case began to make headlines, Fleet heard wild speculations on talk radio about John Ramsey's son from a previous marriage. He called the police, demanding a press release stating what the cops and insiders knew to be true: that the young man wasn't even in Boulder when the crime occurred. He says he received an angry call from one of John's attorneys, Bryan Morgan, warning him not to interfere.

The situation deteriorated further when the Whites flew to Atlanta for JonBenét's funeral. They were expected to stay at the home of Rod Westmoreland, John Ramsey's financial advisor, but the Whites felt ill at ease among the Ramseys' "Atlanta friends" and alarmed at the direction things seemed to be heading.

"I'd never been to the South before," Priscilla says. "It was very different from Colorado or California. Very pretentious. Maids. Everybody was drinking champagne. I finally looked at the woman who was supposed to be our hostess and said, 'We can't stay here. You don't know what we've just been through, and you're worried about whether we're using your Baccarat crystal glasses?' So all of a sudden, we were the crazy ones."

Several accounts of the trip to Atlanta have claimed that there was a "blow-up" between Fleet White and John Ramsey; some have even hinted that the meltdown had something to do with JonBenét's murder. The Ramseys' own account, in their book The Death of Innocence, doesn't go that far. But it does portray the Whites as unduly agitated, and Fleet's behavior, in particular, as erratic, "unreasonable" and vaguely threatening.

The Whites' version of what happened -- supported, to a significant degree, by contemporaneous notes and conversations with detectives -- is quite different. There was no blow-up, they insist, just a somewhat testy conversation between Fleet and Westmoreland, who took him aside and told him to "back off." The Ramseys had lawyers, private investigators and a crisis-management firm to look after them now, Westmoreland explained, and they were planning on staying in Atlanta.

"I got really pissed," Fleet says. "I said, 'You do that, and it's not going to go anybody's way.' And I told Priscilla, 'We've got to get out of here and go talk to John.'"

The Whites visited with Jeff Ramsey, John's brother, then tracked John down at the home of Patsy's parents, Don and Nedra Paugh. The conversation was passionate but hardly menacing, the Whites say. "We just laid out a case for John about why he needed to go back to Boulder," Fleet recalls. "I told him, 'What you do in the next 24 hours is going to define the rest of your life. You need to talk to the cops. Patsy needs to talk to the cops. We all need to do that and find out what happened to JonBenét.'"

Ramsey listened calmly, leaving the room a couple of times to take phone calls. The Whites assumed he was speaking with his attorneys. Patsy was nowhere to be seen. At one point John returned and announced that he was going to offer a $50,000 reward for information about his daughter's death.

"You're going to sound like O.J.," Priscilla said.

By the end of the session, Ramsey was assuring the Whites that he and Patsy would return to Boulder. Far from being incensed, the Ramseys invited the couple to brunch at the Paughs' on New Year's Day. The Whites arrived and learned that John and Patsy were scheduled to appear on CNN later that day. Priscilla helped Patsy, who was still heavily medicated, get ready for her close-up, urging her to not to wear her diamond ring and mink coat. John Ramsey would later claim that it was Fleet White's idea for the parents to appear on national television and defend themselves; Fleet denies it, saying he was intent on getting the Ramseys to cooperate with the police. Priscilla remembers the two men sitting together on a couch that morning, talking earnestly and holding hands for several minutes before the Whites left for the airport.

That was the last conversation of any substance the Whites ever had with John and Patsy Ramsey. Fleet saw them once at church after they returned -- there are conflicting versions of that meeting, too -- but that was it. The Whites had been exiled from the inner circle.

"They fired us," Priscilla says. "We were telling them what to do, and it was exactly the opposite of what the lawyers were telling them to do."

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The Ramseys maintained that it was the Whites who broke off contact. For a little while, the Whites continued to receive little notes and cards from the Ramseys, but nothing they regarded as a serious invitation to get together. Priscilla noticed that Patsy's handwriting was different, altered in several respects from what it had been before the death of JonBenét.

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In 1997, John and Patsy Ramsey offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of their daughter's killer.
In 1997, John and Patsy Ramsey offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of their daughter's killer.
Patrick Davison/afp/getty images

The appearance of the Ramseys on CNN, just five days after the murder of their daughter, marked the emergence of the case as a lurid, upscale whodunit, one that would send packs of tabloid journalists sniffing around Boulder. It also signaled that this wasn't going to be a conventional criminal probe, but a highly public affair, with elaborate campaigns on all sides designed to win favor in the court of public opinion and try to influence the direction of the investigation.

Even as the police struggled to process a crime scene they'd failed to control, the hunt for evidence began to bog down amid procedural and legal hurdles. It was months before investigators were able to obtain the clothing the Ramseys had worn the night their daughter was killed, and even longer before they could get access to the parents' phone records and credit-card bills.

The sniping, finger-pointing and internecine warfare between the Boulder police and the district attorney's office didn't help, either. Some prosecutors believed the detectives were too fixated on the parents as suspects and failed to adequately explore other leads. Cops accused the DA of being too chummy with (or intimidated by) the Ramsey legal team, too quick to share evidence and lab results with the Ramsey legal team, depriving the police of any tactical advantage.

There had been talk early in the game of turning the case over to a grand jury, which, with its subpoena powers and cloak of secrecy, can be an efficient way of proceeding toward an indictment in a complex investigation. Yet the people in charge seemed to equivocate for months about the possibility of such a move. Shortly before the one-year anniversary of JonBenét's death, the Whites met with Governor Roy Romer, urging him to appoint a special prosecutor in the case. Romer declined to intervene. A few weeks later, the Whites went public in a letter to the editor about their lack of confidence in Alex Hunter, saying that his office's leaks to the press had "created the strong appearance of impropriety, professional incompetence and lack of objectivity."

As the Whites saw it, various entities connected to the case had strong reasons for delaying a grand-jury investigation. Hunter, whose office rarely went to trial on homicide cases, was just one. Lockheed Martin, one of the state's largest employers, was another. The company had been attempting to sell Access Graphics at the time JonBenét was killed. Any risk that the company's top executive would be facing a possible indictment would not have helped the divestment plans.

As the feud with the DA's office escalated, the Boulder police accepted the aid of a "dream team" of three attorneys who offered to provide pro bono counsel in the case. Curiously, one of the attorneys had served as outside counsel to Lockheed Martin in several cases. The second belonged to a firm that had also represented the company. The third had been co-counsel with Hal Haddon, John Ramsey's criminal attorney, in another matter. The Whites met with members of this dream team, who said they were in favor of a grand jury, but they didn't seem to be in any particular hurry to get one.

"They talked about all these things that needed to be done first," Priscilla recalls.

In the summer of 1998, lead detective Steve Thomas abruptly quit the force, blasting Hunter in his resignation letter and saying that the DA's office had "effectively crippled this case." The Whites marked the occasion with a lengthy letter "to the people of Colorado," detailing their suspicions that the long-awaited grand jury had been deliberately delayed for more than eighteen months to serve several agendas. They had learned that an obscure new law, pushed by the Colorado District Attorneys Council in 1997, allowed a grand jury to issue reports in first-degree murder cases in which an indictment wasn't returned; the reports could even include a public exoneration of the unindicted. But the new law would only apply to juries convened after October 1997. People interested in obtaining a public absolution of the Ramseys would have to get the matter before a jury seated after that date.

"The people running the investigation had long ago decided against filing charges in the case," the Whites wrote. "Their motivation for presenting the case to a grand jury has little or nothing to do with obtaining new evidence, grilling 'reluctant' witnesses or returning an indictment, and everything to do with sealing away facts, circumstances and evidence gathered in the investigation in a grand jury transcript."

Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter, who'd been involved in drafting the new law and was also on a team of district attorneys advising Hunter, denied that the legislation had been written with the Ramsey case in mind. But there was little question that a grand-jury investigation had been repeatedly delayed by backstage maneuvers, as well as a series of much-ballyhooed summits of experts and formal presentations of evidence -- what the Whites described as "well-publicized but clumsy attempts by the district attorney and police leadership to look busy."

Lockheed Martin sold Access Graphics, an asset reportedly valued at around $200 million, to General Electric in late 1997. The grand jury began hearing evidence in the Ramsey case in September 1998.

The delay was damaging on several fronts. Leaks proliferated. Witnesses altered their stories or sold them to the tabloids, undercutting their credibility in any future prosecution. The state of limbo fueled an online rumor mill and provided a window of opportunity for book and film projects, including Lawrence Schiller's hefty doorstop of a book, Perfect Murder Perfect Town, Stephen Singular's highly speculative Presumed Guilty, and a pro-Ramsey documentary co-produced by University of Colorado journalism professor Michael Tracey -- and aired locally just weeks before the grand jury began to hear evidence in the case. The Whites turned down every media suitor, only to see material from their interviews with police turn up in Schiller's book.

"It was not a happy time," Fleet says. "All the sleaze buckets came in as a result of the delay."

Initially resistant to the idea of cooperating with a grand-jury process overseen by Hunter, the Whites did eventually testify, impressed by the determination of the veteran prosecutor, Mike Kane, brought in to run the grand jury. (According to Priscilla, Kane later told her that if he'd known "how bad it was" inside the Boulder DA's office, he would have turned down the job.) After more than a year of hearings, the proceedings ended with no indictment being filed.

"I and my prosecution task force believe we do not have sufficient evidence to warrant a filing of charges against anyone investigated at this time," Hunter announced at a 1999 press conference.

What he did not mention -- what would not be made public for another fourteen years -- was that the foreman of the grand jury had signed a true bill seeking the indictment of John and Patsy Ramsey on two felony counts each. The statute of limitations for any possible prosecution of those charges expired three months after Hunter's announcement.

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Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute anyone for JonBenét's murder.
Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute anyone for JonBenét's murder.

The failure to indict anyone in JonBenét's death didn't put to rest the frenzied media speculation over who had killed the little girl. It did, though, shift the focus of public attention to a seemingly endless supply of alternate suspects. Lou Smit, a veteran homicide detective who'd resigned from Hunter's team because he believed the Boulder police were obsessed with nailing the Ramseys, presented a PowerPoint version of his intruder theory on national news shows, insisting that some creeper armed with a stun gun had subdued and brutalized JonBenét.

John and Patsy Ramsey published their own account of events, lamenting their rough treatment at the hands of police and the media and the unfortunate rift with the Whites, which they blamed on manipulative police detectives trying to turn their friends against them. The Ramseys also launched a counteroffensive against their tabloid accusers, filing lawsuits against them and mainstream outlets that had repeated their more outrageous lies.

The Whites weren't exactly silent themselves. They contacted executives at CBS Paramount to protest the planned miniseries based on Schiller's book. They bent the ears of CU's Board of Regents about Michael Tracey's biased documentaries. At the same time, they were targets of a whisper campaign among Ramsey supporters, suggesting that the Whites made pretty good alternate suspects -- when, in fact, the police had formally cleared them of any suspicion early in the investigation. The Whites were chagrined to learn that John Ramsey had said in his police interviews that he thought Priscilla was the sort of person who might own a stun gun and use the words "fat cat," a term found in the ransom note.

But the strangest attack came from the shadows, from someone the Whites had never met. It was an allegation so absurd, so unsubstantiated, that it should have blown away in the wind -- but in the mire of the Ramsey case it flourished, with long-lasting repercussions.

One day in February 2000, the Whites found a message on their answering machine from a Daily Camera reporter, seeking last-minute comment about a story the paper was planning to run on a "pedophile ring" and the Ramsey case. The next morning, splashed across the front page, was a copyrighted story by Barrie Hartman, the paper's opinion-page editor, announcing "new information" that "could provide a major breakthrough" in the JonBenét case.

The information came from a 37-year-old mystery woman from California, who claimed to have suffered years of sexual and physical abuse dating back to when she was three. Much of the abuse had come during holiday parties, she said, and involved asphyxiation and blows to the head -- similar techniques, in her view, to those used on JonBenét. Although the perpetrators of these ritual-abuse parties weren't explicitly identified, the article went on to explain that "the woman said she knows the Ramseys through the Fleet White family. She said the godfather to her mother is Fleet White Sr., 86, of California."

Hartman's report noted that Boulder police had interviewed the woman for several hours and were skeptical of her claims. But her attorney, Lee Hill, described her as "among the most credible witnesses I have ever interviewed." And the punchline came from District Attorney Alex Hunter, who was quoted as saying that the woman's story was "very believable" and "warrants investigation."

The story quickly went viral. It would be almost three months before the Boulder police and prosecutors issued a statement debunking the woman's "child sex ring" claims about the JonBenét murder. By that time, sordid speculations about multi-generational pedophilia in the White family were circulating across Boulder and cyberspace. It would take years of open-records battles and court action before the Whites were able to learn more about how the woman had managed to insert herself into the Ramsey investigation, win the ringing endorsement of the top prosecutor in the case, and be the subject of a front-page story that was as remarkable for its omissions as for its wide-eyed gullibility.

The woman's name was Nancy Krebs. She had a documented history of sexual abuse by a family member, who'd been convicted of sexual assault in 1980, and her grandparents had been good friends of Fleet White Sr. -- that much was true. She said she'd contacted Boulder attorney Lee Hill, who'd represented a local man in a civil case related to the Ramsey investigation, because she'd seen him on television and her therapist was urging her to come forward with what she knew. Hill, in turn, had introduced her to Hartman.

Hartman was hardly a disinterested party in the case. The Camera's coverage had been highly sympathetic to the Ramseys and critical of the police. Hartman apparently paid for Hill's plane ticket to California so he could meet with Krebs. The ultimate objective, Hartman later admitted, was to bring the mystery woman and her story directly to Alex Hunter, since he didn't trust the Boulder police to adequately investigate her claims.

Hartman arranged a meeting between Hill and Hunter at Hartman's house. Also present was a DA's investigator, who took meticulous notes, and Hill's friend, author Stephen Singular, whose book on the Ramsey case had theorized that JonBenét's death was tied to a pedophiliac subculture in Boulder. Singular asked Hunter "if there was interest in investigating the White family."

"Alex Hunter responded that he was interested in any nexus to Fleet White," the investigator noted.

Hill talked at length about the need to protect his client from a vengeful ring of abusers, including members of her own family, and expressed his belief that the supposed rift between the Whites and the Ramseys was "just subterfuge."

When the police sat down with Krebs and Hill a few days later, they soon discovered several huge problems with her story. She was the subject of a missing-person report from California. She claimed to be a witness in at least two other homicide investigations. She claimed that she'd been sexually assaulted at different times in her youth by Fleet White Jr., Fleet White Sr. and "Uncle" John Ramsey, and that her mother and niece were present at the Whites' 1996 Christmas dinner, hours before JonBenét was killed.

But the detectives found no evidence that Krebs had ever met Fleet Junior or Ramsey. Her mother and niece weren't at the Whites for Christmas dinner. Almost nothing about her account of that evening fit the circumstances of the JonBenét homicide. Hartman, who interviewed Krebs extensively himself before running his front-page exclusive, didn't respond to a request for comment. But it's doubtful he would have published such a tale if Hunter hadn't remarked how "believable" the witness was.

Hunter had sat in on the first round of police interviews. Hartman would later tell investigators that Hunter had been opposed to going public with the story. So what prompted him to endorse the mystery woman in print? Hunter didn't respond to a request for an interview for this article, but he backpedaled on his comments almost as soon as they were published. "Opinions about believability are premature before...a full investigation is complete," he acknowledged in a hastily issued press release.

A secretary's notes of phone messages coming into Hunter's office after the article appeared indicate that his enthusiasm for pursuing the Krebs allegations took some of his colleagues by surprise. A message from prosecutor Michael Kane: "Kane thought you had come to the conclusion that this woman is a goof ball, so Kane is curious how this hit the paper the way it did."

Message from Boulder police chief Mark Beckner: "Mark thought you and he had come to an agreement on Sunday that, yes, while there were some credibility issues, Mark agreed that they needed to follow it up.... Obviously you believe she is more believable than they do at this point."

Other media outlets quickly picked up the story. The local CBS affiliate, News 4, even used its report on the mystery woman to tease the upcoming Schiller miniseries. Fleet and Priscilla suspected that more than coincidence was involved in the trashing of their reputation, just as the miniseries was hitting the airwaves (based on a book the Whites had denounced as riddled with inaccuracies) and the Ramseys were preparing to launch their own book. "The 'umbrella of suspicion' needs to reach beyond the heads of John and Patsy Ramsey," huffed an editorial in the Camera -- and that wider net had ensnared and befouled the entire White family.

"We really don't know where Nancy Krebs came from," Fleet says now. "I can't prove this, but I believe that one reason people came after us is to demonstrate to the world that there were other suspicious people out there. We were already in the crosshairs. We were the flavor of the month."

After eleven weeks and extensive interviews with members of her family, the Boulder police concluded the Krebs investigation, having found no credible evidence linking anything the woman said to JonBenét's murder. (Krebs, who has said she never wanted her story published but has also never recanted, could not be reached for comment.) The Whites embarked on a long, frustrating campaign to seek criminal libel charges against the Camera and those individuals responsible for disseminating the woman's allegations. In 2003 a special prosecutor declined to pursue the matter, noting the shaky legal standing of the state's seldom-used criminal libel statute and other considerations. The newspaper emerged unscathed from the legal machinations surrounding the Ramsey case. Not so the Whites. In 2001, Fleet White was summoned by the defense to testify in the trial of attorney Tom Miller, who'd been charged with commercial bribery after his client, a tabloid editor, allegedly attempted to buy a copy of the ransom note. White defied the subpoenas, concerned that his testimony might compromise the murder investigation.

Miller was acquitted. White was found guilty of contempt of court and sentenced to thirty days in the Jefferson County Jail.

Continue to keep reading "JonBenet Ramsey: How the Investigation Got Derailed -- and Why It Still Matters."  

Mary Lacy offered an apology and exoneration of the Ramsey family based on DNA results.
Mary Lacy offered an apology and exoneration of the Ramsey family based on DNA results.

After more than a quarter-century as Boulder's district attorney, Alex Hunter left office in 2001. His successor, Mary Lacy, believed the evidence in the case indicated that an intruder had killed JonBenét -- although her notion of what constituted evidence was different from that of some of the police detectives working the case. According to Steve Thomas's book, she'd once remarked during her days as a deputy DA 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."

Under Lacy, the DA's office took over from the police department as lead agency in the Ramsey investigation. She brought back Lou Smit, the most celebrated intruder theorist, to join the team. In 2003, a judge in a civil case in Georgia ruled that it was more likely that an intruder had killed JonBenét than a family member. Lacy made a point of issuing a statement praising the ruling as "thoughtful and well-reasoned."

James Kolar, who was for two years the chief investigator of the Ramsey homicide under Lacy, had trouble getting with the program. As he saw it, many of the odd bits of evidence upon which Smit's intruder theory was originally built -- an unidentified palm print on the wine-cellar door, a hair on a blanket, a footprint in the dust -- had been subsequently identified or explained away. Kolar's own review of the video taken of the crime scene convinced him that an intruder hadn't gained entrance through a basement window, as Smit had proposed. And, as Kolar details in his 2012 book Foreign Faction, the tiny abrasions found on JonBenét's body, which Smit believed were burns caused by a stun gun, didn't match up with the prongs of any stun gun Kolar could find; he suspects the impressions may have been made by the metal points of a toy train track found in the Ramsey basement.

Kolar's efforts to refocus the investigation on the people known to be in the house that night weren't welcomed by his boss. The official probe was no longer about the Ramseys but about tracking down random, sometimes wacky tips and leads. Although the body had apparently been wiped down, investigators had found minute amounts of unidentified DNA, including male DNA mixed with JonBenét's blood in her underwear. Find the owner of that DNA, the mantra went, and you'd have your perpetrator. Lacy was determined to pursue the intruder scenario, wherever it might lead.

In 2006 it led to creepster John Mark Karr, a teacher in Thailand who was fascinated with the case. Karr struck up an anonymous, online relationship with documentarian Michael Tracey and, in a flood of e-mails and phone calls, fine-tuned a confession to the murder he'd been working on for years. With the aid of Smit and other investigators, Tracey reeled Karr in. Boulder authorities flew him to Colorado amid much hubbub and expense. A few days later they released him, amid much ridicule and disgust, when it turned out that his DNA didn't match the underwear sample and that Karr hadn't even been in Boulder at the time of the murder.

"I'm not embarrassed," Lacy told reporters. "I feel bad for a community that questions what we did."

In 2008, a few months before leaving office, Lacy took another bold step that left many longtime observers of the case spluttering in disbelief. She sent a letter to John Ramsey -- Patsy had died of ovarian cancer shortly before Karr's arrest -- formally exonerating his family of any suspicion in JonBenét's death.

"To the extent that we may have contributed in any way to the public perception that you might have been involved in this crime, I am deeply sorry," she wrote. "No innocent person should have to endure such an extensive trial in the court of public opinion." The exoneration, Lacy explained, was based on new developments in so-called "touch DNA" -- the detection and analysis of microscopic traces of cellular material, often found in places where no obvious stains could be discerned. Scrapings of the long johns worn by JonBenét had turned up two sites of male DNA that matched the profile found in the panties. Two years earlier, Lacy had conceded that the weak underwear sample could be "an artifact" and not the killer's at all, but now she referred to it as "powerful evidence" of an unknown perpetrator: "Despite substantial efforts over the years to identify the source of the DNA, there is no innocent explanation for its incriminating presence at three sites on these two different items of clothing that JonBenét was wearing at the time of the murder."

Since it was issued, Lacy's exoneration has been routinely cited in most news stories about the Ramsey case, usually in a way that implies the Ramseys have been positively and unambiguously "cleared by DNA." But Kolar considers the letter to be misleading at best. It fails to mention that investigators also found unidentified DNA from two males and one female under the victim's fingernails -- samples too tiny and badly degraded to put into a database or even determine if they came from blood or skin tissues. They also gathered additional samples of DNA from two males that came from the cord and garrote used in the crime. None of these samples match each other or the touch DNA obtained from the clothing.

"DNA can be very helpful in any criminal investigation, but it needs to be looked at in the context of all the other evidence," Kolar says. "If you look at all the trace samples involved in this, if you follow the DNA evidence solely, then we should be looking for six perpetrators, not one."

Lacy's assertion that there's no "innocent" explanation for one partial DNA profile showing up in three locations is also dubious. Dan Krane, a biochemist who's testified as a DNA expert in criminal cases around the world, says the ability to gather ever smaller amounts of DNA has raised increasing concerns about the "provenance" of that evidence. "The DNA in your tests could be there because of a contact that was weeks, months, even years before the crime occurred," he says. "It's not possible to make inferences about the tissue source here. We can't say that it came from semen or saliva or blood or anything. What if one of the medical examiners sneezed on one of these articles of clothing and it came into contact with the other one? There are just so many possibilities."

Even if the DNA samples Lacy cites did belong to someone involved in the crime, Krane is skeptical that such material could ever be admissible in court. At the moment, there's no generally accepted method for assigning a statistical weight to a mixed sample with as few genetic markers as the male DNA found in JonBenet's underwear, he explains. No statistical weight, no way to explain to a jury the likelihood that the sample belonged to the accused.

"At the end of the day, I don't know if there's enough to secure a conviction," Krane says. "Someone has optimistically concluded that they can have confidence in these results, and that just seems misguided."

But Lacy's letter wasn't about convicting the owner of the phantom DNA as much as it was about absolving John, Patsy and Burke Ramsey because their DNA didn't match the material. The declaration prompted Fleet and Priscilla White to renew their own efforts to get an apology from the DA for all the harm the Ramsey investigation had inflicted on their family. They had tried before to get Lacy to issue a public statement, confirming that they had always been considered witnesses, not suspects, and had been rebuffed. Now that the Ramseys were officially no longer suspects, they didn't want to see themselves back in the crosshairs of speculation.

After some prompting from Ritter, now the governor, Lacy wrote a terse letter to the Whites, affirming that they were regarded as "key witnesses" and not suspects. No apology was forthcoming.

Out from under the umbrella at last, John Ramsey wasted little time spreading the news. He gave an interview to author and journalist Lucinda Franks that was published on the Daily Beast website in October 2008, three months after Lacy's apology. The article discussed how Ramsey had sold his big houses, was burning through his retirement savings and had "lingering suspicions" that "someone in the family's inner circle" killed his daughter:

"He and a few allies from Boulder suspect one particular friend who was familiar with the Ramseys' home and details of their life. However, District Attorney Mary Lacy...says that this individual 'has been thoroughly vetted and cleared through the new DNA.'"

Continue to keep reading "JonBenet Ramsey: How the Investigation Got Derailed -- and Why It Still Matters."  

The White and Ramsey families on a ski trip together.
The White and Ramsey families on a ski trip together.

In early 2013, the Daily Camera had another front-page exclusive about the Ramsey case. Citing anonymous sources, Charlie Brennan, a veteran of the Ramsey beat, reported that the grand jury had voted in 1999 to indict John and Patsy Ramsey for felony child abuse resulting in death. Brennan then went to court to seek release of the actual "true bills" signed by the jury foreman.

Stan Garnett, the current Boulder district attorney, submitted eighteen pages for judicial review. Last fall, Judge Robert Lowenbach decided to release only four redacted pages, showing that the grand jury had indeed sought to indict the parents on identical counts of felony child abuse and an accessory charge.

In some quarters, the revelation was quickly downplayed as no big deal; Ramsey attorney Lin Wood called the true bills a "historical footnote," nothing more. Hunter hadn't signed the indictments or submitted them to the court, and there's a vast difference between the "probable cause" standard grand jurors are supposed to consider in voting to indict and the DA's burden at trial to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Besides, Wood's clients had been exonerated by Hunter's successor years before.

But the Whites, who'd followed the court battle with great interest, thought it was highly significant that the grand jury's decision had been quite different from what the public had been led to believe for so many years. The panel had heard testimony from all sides, Whites and Ramseys and intruder theorists included, and reviewed all the relevant evidence available in 1999, and had come back with the crazy idea that the parents should be prosecuted. The existence of the true bills didn't prove anybody's guilt, but it did raise many questions.

Why had Hunter kept their existence secret? Who else, in addition to Hunter, Lacy and Garnett, had known about the documents? Had their suppression been part of a plan to exonerate the Ramseys? What was in the remaining pages that the judge refused to release?

DA Garnett says the Whites are asking "fair questions" -- even if he's not in a position to answer them all. He says he learned about the Ramsey true bills in a meeting with Mary Lacy the day before he was sworn into office in 2009.

"When I took over, we had a bunch of meetings in the office, basically saying, 'What the hell are we going to do with these?'" he recalls. "I've tried to run an office as open as it can possibly be to the public and the press. The one exception to that is grand-jury stuff. There might have been a public interest in releasing [the indictments], but the rules on grand-jury secrecy are so strict and so clear that I felt it would be inappropriate for me to release them on my own."

Garnett says he has "tried to distance myself from the Ramsey nightmare" over the past six years. One of his first moves was to turn the investigation back over to the police. He insists that he isn't bound by Lacy's exoneration letter -- which he's described as "weird" and "a stretch" -- and that he would be prepared to prosecute the case if he's ever presented with sufficient evidence to convict. And he's troubled by the long-term credibility issues his office has faced as a result of its treatment of what is now a cold, cold case.

"I actually think, of the many things that were mishandled by my predecessors, there's an argument that the true bills should have been filed with the court, and then the district attorney could say he wouldn't prosecute them," he says. "One of the problems that Alex had was that he didn't use the grand jury very much and didn't have a lot of confidence in it."

Tom Kelley, the media attorney who represented Brennan and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in the court battle, calls Hunter's burying of the true bills a "terrible precedent." "It was an incredible decision to pocket that indictment and lead the public to believe there had been no indictment," he says.

Kelley disagrees with the judge's decision not to release the rest of the pages -- which might contain other charges the grand jury considered but didn't pursue, or the specific set of factual allegations underlying the child abuse and accessory counts. But the plaintiffs chose not to appeal the ruling. "We thought the chances of getting any further on appeal were slim enough not to make it worth the trouble," he says.

Convinced that Colorado law requires that the documents be released in full, the Whites went to court themselves. Judge Andrew Hartman granted Garnett's motion to dismiss the case -- and suggested an injunction might be in order "to control frivolous filings by pro se litigants."

Fleet and Priscilla haven't given up. They have peppered Garnett's office with open-records requests, trying to obtain communications between prosecutors, the Ramsey attorneys and others, only to be told that no correspondence from the Lacy years remains and that e-mails are deleted after six months. This year they demanded and received yet another statement from the Boulder police that they are witnesses, not suspects, after the Denver Post presented a photo roundup of "Former Suspects" in the Ramsey case that included John and Patsy Ramsey, John Mark Karr -- and Fleet White. (While not acknowledging its goof, the Post quickly changed the headline in its online edition to "Investigation Touched Many.") Garnett declined to issue a similar statement.

"I have a lot of sympathy for the Whites," Garnett says. "I think they're a little obsessed with the issue. If you want chatter to die off about you on the Internet, then quit saying things. Quit generating news stories."

But the Whites aren't about to quit saying things. Last spring they appeared before the Boulder City Council with their children, Daphne and Fleet III, both graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy, seeking release of police investigative files on the Krebs matter that have been moldering since 2000. Their efforts were rebuffed, and the files remain sealed.

Garnett says he still gets an average of one tip a week about the Ramsey case. "Half the time it's people who were just baptized by the Holy Spirit in Arkansas, and God told them who killed JonBenét," he says. "I tell them, 'Until God tells me, we're not going to have any discussion.' There's a sordid interest out there in the Ramsey case that you just have to tune out and ignore."

The Whites can't ignore it. Not entirely. One day they were a happy family, with good friends whose little girl played with their daughter, and then the girl was dead and the friends were no longer their friends. And evil came in and did its thing.

"All we want," Fleet says, "is for the truth to come out."

Have a tip? E-mail alan.prendergast@westword.com.


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