Slow Burn

The tabloids could not have made up this story.

In the almost three years since JonBenét Ramsey's lifeless body was found in the basement of her family's Boulder home on the day after Christmas 1996, Jon Morris was sent away for life for the murder of kindergartner Ashley Gray, whose body was dumped in a downtown Denver trash bin. Timothy McVeigh was tried and sentenced to death for bombing the Oklahoma City federal building, taking 168 people with it. Two teenagers executed their own death sentences after shooting a teacher and a dozen fellow students at Columbine High School; one man barely out of his teens was sentenced to prison for selling them one of their killing machines.

In the almost three years since JonBenét Ramsey's body was found, a dozen people have been charged with an assortment of illegal acts connected to her death -- everything from stealing photographs to sell to tabloids, to being found naked after selling photographs to more respectable media outlets ("Send in the Clowns," October 14). But JonBenét's actual murderer has not been identified -- not by the grand jury that spent thirteen months investigating the crime; not by the Boulder district attorney, who promised that "our man won't walk"; not by the Boulder police, who do allow that a certain few are "under the umbrella of suspicion"; not even by our big-talking governor, who has suggested that it would be sporting if John and Patsy Ramsey would cooperate with authorities.

But while the wheels of justice turn slowly in Boulder -- much more slowly than the CBS cameras now filming the TV mini-series based on Lawrence Schiller's book about JonBenét's murder, much more slowly than the presses preparing to roll out the Ramseys' book on their daughter -- they've been moving with dizzying speed in Jefferson County.

On Monday, former private detective James Rapp was in the Jeffco courthouse pleading guilty to one count of racketeering: illegally obtaining information about the Ramsey family (a Rapp specialty that reportedly extended to other celebrities, including Ennis Cosby) and then passing it along -- for a price -- to the media. Four days earlier, Rapp's wife, Regana, had pleaded guilty to the same charge, receiving a two-year deferred sentence in exchange. James Rapp, who has a previous record for auto theft, could be facing 24 years in prison, but Jeffco prosecutor Dennis Hall says he will recommend against a prison term when Rapp is sentenced January 20.

After all, Rapp -- who claims he's out of the investigations biz and now is going to Bible college -- has been cooperating so nicely with prosecutors.

And what have those prosecutors been doing? Presenting evidence of information-brokering and related shenanigans to a Jefferson County grand jury. In June, shortly after the Rapps were rapped, the grand jury issued an indictment for former Boulder attorney Tom Miller, who allegedly served as a go-between in an attempt to purchase a copy of the Ramsey ransom note. That note was in the hands of Don Vacca, a handwriting expert working for the Ramsey team. And who wanted to buy a copy? Allegedly a reporter for the Globe, Craig Lewis, whose publication has been on Boulder's hit list since it first printed photos of the dead JonBenét two weeks after her murder.

Jeffco prosecutors would like to indict Lewis, too, charging him with violating the state's criminal bribery statute, which prohibits anyone from offering "any benefits" that induce an employee to break confidence with his employer. Lewis received his invitation to appear before the Jeffco grand jury when a subpoena server found him in a crowd of reporters waiting for the Boulder grand jury's decision. Since then, Lewis and the Globe and their attorneys, as well as assorted organizations that realize a free society depends on the free flow of more, not less, information, have asked that the investigation into Lewis's actions be quashed. Applying the criminal bribery statute to a working journalist would be unconstitutional, they argue; strictly interpreted, it could prevent a reporter from buying a grand juror a cup of coffee in exchange for some information, let's not even think about the Ramsey investigation. How about the investigation of environmental crimes at Rocky Flats?

On November 4, Jefferson County Chief District Court Judge Henry Nieto heard arguments from Lewis's attorneys, as well as testimony from two alleged experts, myself included ("I Was a Witness for the Globe!" November 11), concerning the constitutional issues of applying the criminal bribery statute to a working journalist. Nieto promised his decision on that motion by November 18, when Hall told the court he was again to present evidence to the grand jury.

Almost three weeks later, Nieto has yet to issue a ruling. Lewis remains in legal limbo. But that doesn't mean everyone else has stood still.

In mid-November, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation searched Tom Miller's Boulder home, in the process seizing a diary. According to the search warrant, Miller and another man loaded with cash -- presumably Lewis -- had met with Vacca, a former Denver police officer and handwriting expert engaged to analyze the ransom note for the Ramsey team, on April 1, 1997, in Vacca's home. That home happened to be in Jefferson County, which provided Jeffco with its handy reason for plunging into Ramsey-related crimes.

And the only reason Vacca had a copy of the note was because it had been taken out of evidence by District Attorney Alex Hunter and given to the Ramseys -- then, as now, "under the umbrella of suspicion" in their daughter's death. But Jeffco collected enough evidence to indict Miller and is still seeking to indict Lewis, and a search of Miller's house could only bolster its chances. Unless, of course, another Jeffco judge currently reviewing that search decides that Miller's diary is inadmissable.

At this rate, that decision is likely to beat Nieto's ruling on the motion regarding Lewis. But then, Nieto has been busy, too. The week after he heard the criminal bribery arguments, he took on a task much more easily understood by the general public: the sentencing of Mark Manes, who'd turned himself in shortly after the Columbine shootings and confessed to having sold a handgun to minors. Although even the probation department argued that Manes should not go to jail, Nieto sentenced him to six years.

Ten days later, Nieto got his own life sentence: Governor Bill Owens appointed him to the Colorado Court of Appeals.

Before he ascends to that bench in January, Nieto has promised to deliver his long-delayed Lewis decision. And now he's stuck, because no matter what he decides, the other side is bound to appeal. Which means that new Appeals Court Judge Henry Nieto will be considering arguments to overturn a decision made by Jefferson County District Judge Henry Nieto. And either way the appeal goes, the press will have a very personal interest in following the case.

Recently, Nieto has discovered how unappealing such scrutiny can be. His appointment came just ten days after the Manes sentencing, the only Nieto decision mentioned in Owens's announcement -- giving rise to some speculation about timing. If Owens could shake a finger at the Ramseys, he certainly could extend a hand to a tough judge who'd just made a popular decision.

People want someone to pay for Columbine, and they want someone, anyone, to pay for the murder of JonBenét Ramsey -- even if it's a journalist. Even if Colorado's most sensational unsolved crime has nothing to do with sensational journalism.

The Globe isn't the only tabloid feeling the heat. Last week the Ramseys filed a $25 million lawsuit claiming that the Star, sibling of the Globe and the National Enquirer, libeled their son, Burke, with a story that carried the headline "JonBenet Was Killed by Brother Burke" (the tabloid retracted the piece soon after). According to new Ramsey attorney Lin Wood, more libel suits may follow.

The Ramseys will have their day in court. Even if they, like Lewis, must pay for it.

But almost three years after her death, JonBenét may never get hers.

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