The Accidental Jurist
Lee Hill pulls his truck over to the curb in an older, tree-lined Boulder neighborhood. He gets out and glances around, a Glock 9-millimeter handgun concealed beneath his black trench coat.
The home where he's stashed The Witness is a few blocks away, but he doesn't want to park in front -- just in case he's being followed. "You're not paranoid if they really are out to get you," he says, and laughs as if he's not sure how seriously he should be taking all of this. This life of his.
But for now, the forty-year-old, ponytailed lawyer believes he has reason to exercise a little caution. The Witness claims that she's been the victim of a child-sex ring whose participants included a wealthy friend of the Ramsey family. Yes, that Ramsey family.
If what The Witness has to say is true -- and she does have documentation proving at least her family's connection to the wealthy friend, and she's also sent one man to prison for rape -- then her information may shed some light on the possible circumstances of JonBenét's murder. And that could mean she's in danger. Maybe, Hill worries, he is, too.
For the past few days, the Boulder police have been in California checking the woman's story, though from what Hill can determine, they've mostly been trying to find ways to damage her credibility instead of investigating the possibility that maybe, just maybe, she's telling the truth.
Hill knows that police reservations about The Witness are understandable. In the last four years, the JonBenét case has attracted more than its share of nuts, entrepreneurs and conspiracy theorists. The Witness's story is bizarre. But perhaps, he points out, just bizarre enough to be true.
Despite what his critics describe as a penchant for finding high-profile cases, Hill contends he initially tried to avoid getting involved with The Witness. Their meeting, he explains, was just another in a chain of seemingly accidental events that have steered the course of his life and career. In this case, it was all because he sued the National Enquirer on behalf of Boulder resident Steve Miles, whom the tabloid had identified as a pedophile and suspect in JonBenét's murder. He knew Miles because, once, when Hill was nineteen years old, he'd met and befriended writer and junkie William S. Burroughs. Which, of course, had to do with the mother of an old school chum who'd written a book...
Like dominoes set up to fall in intricate patterns, the seminal people and events of his life -- from Burroughs to Allen Ginsberg to the Navy, the CIA, the American Indian Movement -- tumble and click into the next, sometimes falling in a straight line, sometimes taking off on a tangent only to return after several loops and whirls.
All of which lead to this point. Handgun strapped to his belt, he is walking up to a house where a woman is hiding. She may -- or may not -- provide a clue that could blow open a murder investigation that holds a city hostage.
Walter Leon Hill was born March 26, 1959, in Monroe, Louisiana, an only child. Both of his parents were of mixed-blood Choctaw Indian ancestry, though the tribe had long been assimilated into the mainstream. In Louisiana at that time, one was either white or black -- one drop of African blood and you were the latter, everybody else was the former.
An unusually bright child, Hill was extremely bored in school. Hoping to find a way to keep him occupied, his parents placed him in a parochial school at the beginning of the second grade. Fortunately, the principal realized that he was more than merely disruptive and sent him to be tested by noted child psychologist George Middleton, who recommended that he be allowed to skip the second grade.
Even after skipping a grade, Hill found that he was constantly waiting for his classmates to catch up. This was a kid who in third grade was checking out library books on clinical psychology.
His differences weren't easily accepted by his family. Hill's father had been the first on his side to attend college, but was still more the outdoors type, an expert woodsman who taught his son to be one as well. He'd come into the house, see Lee reading a book and ask, "Why aren't you doing anything?" The boy's reply was that he was doing something.
At the end of sixth grade, Hill was accepted into the Louisiana Governor's Program for Gifted Children, which Middleton had started ten years earlier. The program took exceptionally smart children and placed them on the campus of McNeese State University in Lake Charles for the summer. Hill spent the next three summers there, meeting other children who would become lifelong friends, including Tony Kushner, who would grow up to be a Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright; Joe Barnes, who would become the protocol officer for onetime Secretary of State James Baker; and Sammy Charters, whose father Sam Sr. managed such '60s musical talents as Country Joe & the Fish and whose stepmother, Ann Charters, was an aspiring author.
He got an early start in the legal profession as he and Kushner served on the program's "court," which tried and sentenced fellow students for breaking the rules. At the beginning of his last summer, Hill learned what it felt like to be a defendant when he and a half-dozen other boys were caught smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol and trying to sneak into the girls' dorm.
Hill and most of the others had been hauled into Middleton's office, where they earnestly denied the charges. However, Mac Beasley, whose father was one of the founders of Planned Parenthood (and who would himself grow up to be a lawyer), and another boy, Steve Hennigan (the son of a professional football player who would become an infectious-diseases doctor), were belligerently unapologetic. Yeah, they'd all been smoking marijuana, they admitted to the chagrin of their compatriots. So what?
Eventually, Beasley suggested that they all plead guilty "with extenuating circumstances due to hormonal activity." They were grounded for a week. That same week, the rest of the student body elected Hill to serve as chief justice.
But life on campus wasn't all fun and games. It was 1972, and the war in Vietnam was still a hot issue. There was friction between some older college students and the snot-nosed "eggheads" from the governor's program, with their left-leaning instructors and their liberal program, who were wandering around campus in their little Mao caps.
One evening, Hill was standing outside a party when an older college student told him to leave.
"By what authority?" Hill asked.
"By the authority that I'm going to kick your ass if you don't," the older boy said.
If Hill had learned anything from his father, it was that if he was right he shouldn't back down. Still, he was a lot smaller. Then the lawyer in him took over, and he responded, "I'm a minor. You touch me, and I'll have your ass thrown under the jail." The older student turned several shades of red and walked away.
For all of its benefits, the program's learning-for-the-sake-of-learning premise ruined all structured, formal education for Hill. From that point on, he either accelerated through his course work or "punched out" early.
At age thirteen he was auditing college classes at Northeast Louisiana State University in physics, and chemistry courses at fourteen. Even then the only thing that saved him from death by boredom was racing motorcycles on a dirt track -- finding one of the few connections with his father, who proudly wore his "Hill's Pit Crew" motocross shirt -- and becoming the state champion in the 250 cc amateur class.
By the time he was fifteen, Hill was enrolled full-time at the university. Even the college courses bored him, though he was excited to be the youngest member ever of the Kappa Alpha Order fraternity, dating freshmen women and wearing his fraternity shirt to get into bars to drink.
When Hill was just sixteen, his paternal grandfather, a war hero whom he loved and admired, was prosecuted by the federal government for fraud. He'd been made the scapegoat for a scheme to sell stock in a paper mill that the men who'd hired him as a broker never intended to build. He obviously thought the deal was legit -- he'd made gifts of the stock to his grandson. But the government wanted to make an example of someone.
The main witness against Hill's grandfather was a convicted perjurer who swore, as did the prosecutor, that he was not receiving any kind of deal for his testimony. It was later proved that the witness did receive a deal -- in fact, the case would be annotated in 5th District Court records under the heading "prosecutorial misconduct" -- but the perjury was not enough for the appellate courts to overturn the jury's verdict. Visiting his grandfather in a filthy prison convinced young Hill that the government can and does make mistakes -- and that justice was not always its first concern.
A year after enrolling at Northeast Louisiana, Hill transferred to Justin Morrill College on the Michigan State University campus. It was an experimental school where students were allowed to design their own curriculum, and Hill built his around psychology. Following his sophomore year, he was invited to attend the Gestalt Institute of Canada on an island off the coast of British Columbia. To get to Kuper Island, he had to take a ferry.
Approaching the tree-covered island, Hill saw a monolithic building brooding over the bay. It was the largest structure on the tiny island, the only one made of brick and one of the few with a foundation, or, for that matter, more than a dirt floor. However, it was obviously abandoned, all of its windows either boarded up or broken out. He was later told that it had been a missionary boarding school for the island's Indian children. But no one seemed to want to talk much about it.
Kuper Island was a reservation for a Coast Salish tribe. To get to the institute, Hill had to walk through the single village -- mostly rough shacks scattered along dirt roads -- where many of the reservation's inhabitants lived. Hill arrived at his destination to find that the "institute" was more a communal farm than college campus. There were no classrooms or formal instruction. Everything was a lesson in Gestalt therapy, which held that a human's response to a situation must be viewed as a whole rather than a sum of responses to specific elements of the situation: If you were cold, you chopped wood and built a fire; if you were hungry, you cooked something.
As time passed, Hill found himself drawn to the Indian village. It was logging country, but the timber industry was depressed and the community was plagued by high unemployment and alcoholism. Still, the people were friendly, and he felt an affinity for the way they viewed their land as a part of themselves -- though at times they seemed to be living a paradox. Both communities took their showers outdoors and used outhouses, but in many ways, the whites at the institute were more back-to-earth than the Indians in the village. The whites milked the goats to make cheese and butter; the Indians took the ferry to the mainland and bought their groceries. At the institute, the only creature comfort was a stereo and a few classical records; there were no televisions. Over in the village, nearly every shack had a television antenna poking out of the roof. The Indians were at odds with their own culture.
Hill knew that feeling, and it was only heightened when he met an Indian named Leonard. He was in his late fifties, with long black hair that was turning gray, and was missing many of his teeth. Leonard was also the oldest of the tribe's dancers, a title that implied status as well as more spiritual power. Like many of the men on the reservation, he was an alcoholic who could often be found clutching a bottle of wine in front of his shack.
The old man terrified Hill -- in a benevolent sort of way -- by challenging him. "Okay, so you're Indian," he would say to Hill. "Why do you act like you're not?" Still, he accepted Hill, inviting him to a traditional potlatch at his home where he sang ancient songs that raised the hair on the back of the boy's neck.
Much of what Leonard said Hill wouldn't understand for many years. But there were other events on the island that would impact Hill's life as well. Some of the inhabitants were up in arms about the U.S. government's efforts to extradite an American Indian who was suspected of shooting two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation in South Dakota. The suspect had fled to Canada. It was the first time Hill ever heard the slogan "Free Leonard Peltier."
Hill's office is in a small, nondescript building between Foothills Parkway and 28th Avenue, where he shares a suite with several other lawyers. One of them is Julia Yoo, a small, pretty woman of Korean descent who also happens to be his girlfriend.
He works surrounded by the yin and yang of his world. On one wall, next to a "Hill for City Council" placard, is a poster of Soldier of Fortune publisher Lieutenant Colonel Robert K. Brown, wearing jungle fatigues and holding a sniper's rifle, over the slogan, "Communism Stops Here!" It's signed: "Dear Lee, Blow one away for me! Robert K. Brown."
Hill explains that the colonel, a neighbor he met when representing a Colorado militiaman, is much more liberal than his right-wing magazine would indicate. Still, Hill thinks it's funny that he's hung a poster of Soviet tyrant Josef Stalin next to Brown's. "I'm always striving for balance," he chuckles.
On the opposite walls are the obligatory framed pieces of paper proving his college education and law degree. There's also a small plaque dedicated to Ensign Lee Hill from the Blacklion fighter squadron, with the date 19MAR81-22MAR82, on which is inscribed the nickname Boot. "Anyone in a fighter squadron with the last name Hill is automatically going to get the nickname 'Boot,'" he says. Lee "Boot" Hill.
On a filing cabinet is a baseball cap with the logo "Oglala Nation." Above it is a cartoon, drawn by a friend, depicting besieged cavalry men attempting to hold off a war party of Indians on horseback, one of whom is riding double with a man dressed in a pin-striped suit and carrying a briefcase labeled "W. Lee Hill." One of the soldiers is telling the other, "I guess they mean business this time."
The telephone is rarely quiet for more than a couple of minutes. At the moment, Hill is working two phones at once, calling Steven Seagal, the actor and martial arts expert, on a cell phone to talk about several movie and television ideas they're working on together, and, from the phone on his desk, politely trying to deflect media calls regarding The Witness. He'd hoped to keep that whole thing quiet and let the Boulder police do their job -- if they would -- but word got out.
Hill complains that he doesn't "need this. I've got work that two of me couldn't get done." As if on cue, Yoo appears and needs to talk about their lawsuit against the Boulder Valley School District.
In early January, they filed suit in U.S. District Court in Denver, contending civil-rights violations on behalf of a thirteen-year-old, brain-damaged student who had been sexually assaulted two years earlier by a then-fourteen-year-old classmate at Burbank Middle School. The first assault occurred right before Christmas 1997 while the two boys and at least one other student from a special-education class were in a school counselor's office watching the PG-13 movie Anaconda, which Hill described in the federal lawsuit as "a graphic sexual and violent film in which almost all of the characters face gruesome, tortured deaths by the constrictive force of a giant phallic anaconda."
The students' teacher, Rachel Bradshaw, showed the movie as a "treat" for the boys. But when she left the room, the older boy, who was already on probation for sexually assaulting other children, fondled and performed oral sex on the younger boy and threatened to kill him, his mother and his dog if he didn't comply. The victim was then assaulted again, while still on school property, orally and possibly anally.
Bradshaw questioned the boys but got only denials. Her suspicions were referred to county social services that day, but no one told the victim's mother. Nor were the police informed, until five days later when the older boy admitted to a therapist what he'd done. The counselor notified the Boulder police, but the detective assigned to the case somehow determined that it was a case of consensual sex and referred it to the district attorney's office for prosecution on a charge of public indecency.
Still no one told the victim's mother, who'd noticed that her son was despondent and compulsively washing himself. Three weeks later, when she finally learned why, she turned to a friend of her family, Lee Hill.
When news about the case broke in January 1998, then-Boulder police chief Tom Koby (whose department had been under fire for a year for its handling of the JonBenét murder case), admitted that his department "screwed up" and should have contacted the parent.
However, Barbara Taylor, a spokeswoman for Boulder Valley Schools, said that "all the school district's practices and procedures were followed." A week later, district authorities rethought that statement and apologized for the "delayed communication" and a "lack of compassion" in their response.
The older boy eventually pleaded guilty to sexual assault. In the meantime, Hill was trying to negotiate a settlement with the school district, and to change the policy so that a parent would be notified.
He thought the kid had already been handed too many hard shakes. He'd been run over by a car, resulting in brain-damage; now he'd been raped at school, where he should have been safe. The more Hill learned about the circumstances of the case, the angrier he got -- especially when he found out that the older boy's father had warned school authorities that his son should never be left alone with other children.
The lawsuit named the district, Bradshaw, Superintendent Tom Seigel and then-principal Joette Donnelly as defendants. He didn't specify how much he was seeking. However, he noted when he filed, "I don't think a jury will hesitate to assign a value to being raped when you're eleven years old."
Now, Yoo is pointing out that there may be a problem with their case. Apparently there's a conflict between a Colorado Supreme Court ruling that says schools are responsible for the safety of their students and a statute that could be interpreted to say that they're not.
Still, on the heels of Columbine and a recent settlement that paid $1.25 million to the families of five victims sexually assaulted by former Nederland Elementary School teacher David White, the district might not enjoy the publicity of making such an argument. And if they do, Hill thinks he and Yoo could get the issue before the Colorado Supreme Court -- a fight he would relish.
However, he also feels that it's part of his job to keep the case out of court, saving his client the emotional hardship of a trial. He tells Yoo that if the school district will come back with a "reasonable opening offer," they'll drop parts of the complaint.
Of course, a just settlement will make the whole thing go away without the school district having to tell the world that it's not responsible for the health and safety of the children on its campuses. Yoo grins and heads out the door.
A minute later, Hill is back on the telephone explaining to another client that he has a settlement offer ready for him to sign. He comments that the other attorney "is really a pretty good guy."
There's an angry buzzing from the receiver as the client apparently takes exception to that assessment. Hill shrugs and makes a minor correction. "Well, he's a lawyer, which means he's scum. But in a sea of scum, he's near the top."
In 1977, Hill graduated from Justin Morrill College with a bachelor's degree in psychology. He had just turned eighteen and was already accepted into a Ph.D. program at Louisiana University on a full-ride scholarship.
The professors at Louisiana were kind and encouraging. It wasn't every day they saw an eighteen-year-old Ph.D. student. But it soon seemed to Hill that his presence in Louisiana wasn't meant to be. After he arrived, it rained for forty days and forty nights. A neighbor ran into his brand-new sports car. Moreover, he felt out of place in the stodgy ivory tower of traditional academics, and had learned in Canada that human behavior was more than "multi-variate statistical analysis." He abandoned his scholarship and dropped out of the program after just six weeks.
The decision was aided by a trip he'd made to a metaphysical bookstore in Baton Rouge, where he'd spotted a brochure lying on a table. It was for a small Buddhist college in Boulder called the Naropa Institute. The courses looked interesting and the structure less formal than a typical college. Hill paid a visit to Naropa, and soon he had enrolled in the school's master's program in Comparative Buddhist and Western Psychology.
In those days, Naropa was located upstairs in a building on the Pearl Street Mall. One day, Hill hurried up to the second floor, where he hung his coat on a rack before proceeding to the third floor for his class. When he reached the top of the stairs, he realized that he'd left his wallet in his coat. He hurried back down the stairs, noting that a distinguished older gentleman in a stylish fedora was reading a book on a bench across from the coat rack.
Hill reached into the pocket of his coat and retrieved his wallet, then went back upstairs. But he felt like a shoplifter with the eyes of a store manager on him. It was his wallet, but he wondered if the old gentleman thought that he was stealing it.
He ran back down the stairs. The old man was still sitting on the bench reading his book. "I just wanted to say that I wasn't stealing the wallet. It's mine," he stammered.
The old man just looked at him. "I like your fedora," Hill said lamely. He did like the man's hat, but was beginning to feel foolish. "Where'd you buy it?"
The old man seemed to accept his explanation and questions at face value. "Which way are you going?" he asked in a low, gravelly voice.
"What?" Hill replied, confused.
"Which way do you go home?" the man repeated.
Hill said he lived up on the Hill.
"Fine," said the old man. "I go that way myself. When you're ready to go, I'll show you where I bought the hat."
So Hill found himself walking beside the old man, who pointed out a conservative men's clothing store on a corner of the mall. The mannequin in the window was wearing an identical fedora.
The man said his name was William S. Burroughs -- which rang a bell with Hill, but he didn't know why. Perhaps his new friend was on the Naropa faculty.
The next day he was in the Boulder Book Store, and a book caught his eye. Kerouac was the title, but what grabbed his attention was the author, Ann Charters -- the stepmother of his old friend Sammy Charters.
Hill knew little about Jack Kerouac, other than that he had written a book called On the Road, that he had something to do with the Beatniks and there was a writing program at Naropa called the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. He was leafing through the pages of photographs when he stopped short -- there was a photograph, and then another and another, of the old man he'd just met.
Hill began looking for excerpts about Burroughs. The more he read, the more shocked he became. Burroughs was an author, one of the Beat writers along with Kerouac, and had written something called Naked Lunch. But that refined, cordial Southern gentleman, the scion of a wealthy St. Louis family, was also a notorious heroin addict and homosexual who had shot his wife between the eyes while on a drug bender in Mexico City.
Hill was a bit apprehensive the next time he met Burroughs, who was lecturing at Naropa that term, but he soon decided that his first impression had been the more accurate. He would always be thankful that he'd met Burroughs before reaching a conclusion based on what others said or wrote, which was a good lesson.
The man did have a great fondness for firearms and drink, often mixing the two. Even though it had been an accident that he'd shot his wife, that didn't make Hill feel much better when Burroughs was waving a gun around with one hand while clutching a martini in the other.
But no one got shot and Hill learned a lot, including how to properly cook a steak and mix a martini. And if the old man was a drug addict and alcoholic, he was a controlled one. He'd remain sober until five o'clock, then he'd pull out a steak -- more if he was entertaining -- slide a bottle of vodka out of the freezer and light up a bong. All of which he shared generously with his young friend.
Although Burroughs had supposedly kicked his heroin habit (and Hill never saw him inject a drug), the former medical student knew how to keep himself well-medicated. And anyone else, for that matter. Once in the summer of 1978, when Hill showed up at Burroughs's apartment with a "high-altitude cold," the kind with a splitting headache, Burroughs immediately set tea water to boiling and scooted off to his bathroom, returning with a prescription medicine bottle. He poured Hill a cup of tea and dumped in a tablespoon of whatever liquid was in the bottle.
"I'd like you to drink this," Burroughs told him.
He hesitated. "Well," he said, sniffling, "what's in it?"
"Methadone." His mentor smiled.
Hill drank the concoction, and it wasn't long before he pronounced his cold cured. At least until about four hours later, when the effects wore off and his cold returned worse than ever. Such was the price of drug addiction, Burroughs told him.
Burroughs was also generous with his time and encouraged Hill to write. And he handed him a list of books, starting with Celine, the author of Journey to the End of Night and the model for writers from Norman Mailer to Kerouac to Ken Kesey.
Burroughs had a modest view of himself as a writer. Writing was a good gig, he told Hill, if you could get someone to pay you. It paid his bills, but his writing was nothing compared to the great ones.
In the summer of 1978, Hill also met Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. He worked as one of Ginsberg's teaching assistants in exchange for tuition in the writing program.
Hill soon learned that there was at least one fundamental difference between Burroughs and Ginsberg. While Burroughs's sexual orientation was well-known, he never made any advances on his handsome young protegé.
Ginsberg was another story. Brilliant and formal, the author of the Beat anthem "Howl," he was also a sexual predator who liked teenage boys and young men. Hill quickly developed an empathy for women who endure unwelcome advances from men.
Although Hill managed to set boundaries and become a friend of Ginsberg's, whom he otherwise found to be a genuinely good-hearted man who also mentored him in his writing, Hill was disturbed by a couple of things. One was the parents -- white, liberal Boulder Buddhists -- who practically shoved their sons at Ginsberg to learn at the feet, so to speak, of the great man. The second was the fact that Naropa's administration and faculty ignored Ginsberg's tendency to use his position to coerce male students into sexual liaisons. This same group would have found it scandalous if a male faculty member at the University of Colorado seduced and harassed female students. At Naropa they looked the other way, and the hypocrisy was troubling.
Each of these lessons was shaping him, as was the challenge of matching his wit and intellect against unusual thinkers like Burroughs, Ginsberg and, in 1979, one of the great American writers of the mid-1900s. That spring, Hill married a woman who was a hostess at a restaurant where he worked as a bartender. He was twenty and she was 31, a rebellious, beautiful woman who enchanted him with stories about her life overseas. It was his dream to travel and immerse himself in foreign cultures.
He had become increasingly disenchanted with the Boulder Buddhist community, and decided to get away from it all by taking his new bride to Europe, perhaps stop by the gravesite of the poet Rimbaud. Burroughs suggested that since he was going to France, he ought to drop farther down and see one of his old friends and teachers, Paul Bowles, in Tangier, Morocco.
In the 1920s, composer, writer and painter Bowles had run to Paris, where he'd been befriended by Gertrude Stein. He was a protegé of Aaron Copland and had collaborated with Tennessee Williams as a songwriter. He had visited Morocco in the 1930s and returned to Tangier in 1947, where he wrote his most famous book, The Sheltering Sky, which had been high on Burroughs's reading list. As America's most famous expatriate writer, his home was a pilgrimage for other artists from the Beat writers to Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger.
Visiting Bowles in Tangier sounded incredibly romantic. Hill's marriage was already troubled, and he thought the trip might help. And so the Hills had shown up in Tangier where, thanks to Burroughs, Bowles welcomed them into his home.
That time took on a surreal quality. Bowles's own protegé, Mohammed Mrabet, showed up and entertained them with his gift for telling stories. As he wove his exotic tales, Mrabet would smoke hashish while Bowles smoked kif -- a mixture of marijuana and tobacco -- from a long cigarette holder.
Mrabet finished his stories late at night, saying "Life is a dream." Then Bowles urged Hill to listen. There came the sound of yapping and the click of hard nails on brick. "It was jackals running through the streets of Tangier," Hill says.
The telephone rings. Hill answers with one hand, while reaching with the other to turn down the sound -- and somehow maintaining control of the car. It's a friend who's having trouble with her landlord. He groans but assures her that he'll help get the problem resolved.
Hill gets a lot of such calls -- usually without offers to pay, which he probably wouldn't accept anyway. Still, he and Yoo are running their firm on a frayed shoestring, lately having taken several financial hits on cases. "Unfortunately, I seem to attract a lot of intriguing and noisy cases that don't make any money," he says dryly.
Out of the car, he's reminiscing about the past, pointing out where the Boulder Book Store now occupies the space on the mall where Naropa used to be. The spot where he met Burroughs, who died in 1998, has been altered into a staircase. Farther up the street, he notes that the conservative men's clothing store is now a Banana Republic, which sells leather jackets it markets as being like one worn by Jack Kerouac.
Hill apologizes. He doesn't mean to name-drop, he says, but it really is just an accident, the way the falling dominoes brought him into contact with so many famous and unusual people. "I suppose it's the circles one runs in," says Hill, whose business card reads "Representing Artists & Other Criminals."
And sometimes people many folks would consider crackpots. This gets him in more trouble than he bargains for, such as when he represented Kevin Terry, a 24-year-old member of the self-styled Colorado 1st Light Infantry of the U.S. Militia. In May 1997, Terry, along with Ron Cole, 27, the author of a book critical of the government's action against the David Koresh's Branch Davidians in Waco, and Wallace Stanley Kennett, 33, a Branch Davidian who had left the Waco compound before the siege, were arrested in an Aurora home that was stockpiled with illegal firearms and explosives.
While militia members cooled their jets in jail, Hill learned that their landlord had posted an eviction notice, which meant they would lose anything of value left in the house. He called the landlord's lawyer and said he was going to the house to remove, with his clients' permission, as much as he could get out in his truck. The landlord told him to go ahead.
Hill arrived at the house with then-law intern Julia Yoo. They found that a sliding glass door was open, as was a doorway leading from there into the house. The pair searched for those items that were the most valuable.
Hill had just stepped out of the house when he came eyeball-to-barrel with a shotgun held by a member of the Aurora SWAT team. Another officer kneeled off to the side, behind a Plexiglas shield with his handgun drawn, and ordered him to his knees. From there he was told get down on his belly and crawl to the concrete driveway, where he was held down with a knee on his back and a gun to his head while he was handcuffed.
"My law clerk is also inside and she is also unarmed," he told the police, to let them know he was a lawyer and to keep Yoo from getting shot by a surprised cop.
As he spoke, more of the SWAT team hustled past. Julia came out of the house, not frightened but angry as hell. But she, too, had to drop to her knees and crawl to the driveway, where she also was handcuffed at gunpoint.
The pair was escorted into the house for questioning, where they remained handcuffed for 45 minutes. Finally the officers released them, saying they'd received a call from a patrol officer who thought the house was being burgled. Then the cops said that they had been concerned for the pair's safety because the militiamen might have booby-trapped the house.
Then why'd they take us into the kitchen, Hill wondered. He had experience watching the FBI work with local law enforcement, and he could tell that the Aurora cops had been plenty pumped up -- maybe federal agents had a role in the tension level. They seemed to be chasing ghosts.
Hill considered suing the Aurora Police Department, but he and Yoo were just beginning to see each other socially. He didn't want her conservative Korean parents' first impression to come from a newspaper article describing how their daughter had been held at gunpoint with him.
Instead, Hill went about the business of getting Terry off with just probation.
In 1979, out of work, with his marriage falling apart, Hill decided that what he really wanted to do was join the Central Intelligence Agency. He wanted to be a spy.
In part that was because he still dreamed of traveling to foreign places, and this was a way to get paid doing it. But more important, he wanted to know what was really going on in the world. He'd spent a lot of time listening to Ginsberg, who was absolutely paranoid about the agency and its impact on world affairs. Hill wanted to see "the machine" from the inside, to find a balance to the poet's hysteria.
Burroughs was encouraging. In fact, the old man confided that shortly after World War II he'd tried to get on with the OSS, the predecessor of the CIA. He, too, had thought that being a spook would be great fun and a great life experience.
Still, it was difficult for a twenty-year-old to just walk up and join the agency. Hill figured that doing a stint as a Naval Intelligence officer would ensure his eventual acceptance, so he'd signed up. After finishing boot camp, he'd invited only one person to his commissioning: his grandfather. But despite a letter from Hill's commanding officer, his grandfather's parole officer wouldn't grant him permission to travel out of state.
Hill was assigned to the Blacklion fighter squadron, with whom he spent eight "miserable" months patrolling areas such as the Indian Ocean aboard the aircraft carrier USS America. Much of the time he worked inside a top-secret vault, tracking Soviet submarines and aircraft. (A Navy public-relations photograph from that time shows young Hill in an aviator's jacket, posing over a map while writing on a notepad, over the caption: "GATHERING INFORMATION: Ensign Lee Hill uses a map to prepare a squadron briefing." However, what he's actually written on the notepad is just barely discernable: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness..." -- the opening line of Ginsberg's poem "Howl.")
Hill also volunteered for flight training when the carrier returned to port in Florida. And while in port, he contacted the CIA and was invited for an interview. The meeting took place in a large, empty room where one man sat behind a desk. Figuring honesty was the best policy -- and that they'd probably find out anyway -- Hill told him everything about his past, including his drug use, though he did manage to leave out his association with Burroughs and Ginsberg.
It didn't seem to phase his questioner. However, at the end of the interview, the man suddenly leaned across the desk and snarled, "I don't know if you have the killer instinct."
Feeling the sudden accusation might be a test, Hill leaned forward and gave the attitude right back. He had a killer instinct, by God, if he needed one.
The answer seemed to satisfy the interviewer, but the man said the agency couldn't hire him while he was on active duty. If Hill was to somehow go inactive, he hinted, then the agency might be interested.
It so happened that a bad economy, and the release of the movie An Officer and a Gentleman, had swelled the number of volunteers signing up for the Navy. It was announced that anyone who had not completed specialty programs -- such as flight training -- could opt to go inactive and spend the rest of his time in the reserves. Hill had not yet received his wings, and was able to opt out with an honorable discharge. He left the Navy and his first marriage at the end of 1983.
He was disappointed when the CIA recruiter told him he was going to have to wait at least eighteen months. The agency didn't need him right away, so Hill decided to apply to law school at University of San Diego, never intending to practice law -- which he saw as a less-than-honorable way to make a living given his grandfather's experiences. But he believed that a law degree, combined with his Naval intelligence experience, would make him all the more valuable to the agency.
Hill was accepted to law school, where he met a German national who in June 1984 became his second wife. He accelerated his course work and received his degree in December 1985. He prepared to take the bar exam in February, still believing he would never have to work as a lawyer.
The week before he was to take the bar, the CIA flew Hill to San Francisco to meet with a career-operations officer. Like Burroughs, the agent handed him a reading list. This one included spy novels like The Spike (a story about how foreign journalists are manipulated by intelligence agencies) and former CIA operative Philip Agee's nonfiction Inside the Company.
Hill took the bar and then waited for the results. In the meantime, the agency flew him to Washington, D.C., where he was put through another battery of tests, including a polygraph examination. He had never wanted anything so badly in his life. In May, the agency offered him a position. He signed nondisclosure statements, as well as paperwork agreeing to go wherever he was sent. He was told to begin "fading away" -- starting with destroying any written evidence tying him to the agency -- and was even given a "cover" to explain his departure to his friends and family. He did as he was told.
There were a few more minor details to be cleared up, but he would soon hear about the next step. A week after he learned that he'd passed the bar, Hill heard from the CIA -- but it wasn't the news he expected. With little explanation and a polite thank you, he was notified by mail that his services were not needed.
It's 9 in the morning, and Julia Yoo is in her office, tunneling into a birthday cake. Her dad's birthday was the previous Saturday, but it's been difficult arranging all of their schedules so that they can celebrate. So they keep buying, and devouring, birthday cakes until they can get together with him. This is the fourth in a week. Sometimes it appears that the office runs on birthday cake and coffee.
Yoo was born and spent her childhood in South Korea. Her family moved to Colorado in 1982, and she went to high school in Denver. She got her bachelor's degree at Wellesley and was a "nomad" for several years before deciding to return home and attend the University of Colorado School of Law.
Like Hill, she claims she never intended to practice law. "I just figured that with a law degree everyone would want to hire me, no matter what I decided to do," she says. Then in mock outrage, she adds, "It's a lie. No one wants you. You're hostile, confrontational and aggressive! Who's going to hire you? No one!"
She is only half joking when she says, "I'm the real brains behind the operation." At least she's the one who realizes that there is a bottom line and such a thing as cost analysis -- not that she is any less likely than Hill to take on a lost cause or a finance-killing case.
The first case they worked on together, Hill as the attorney and Yoo as his intern, was the Stephen Miles case, in which they sued the National Enquirer for printing that Miles was a pedophile and suspect in the JonBenét murder case. "It was a huge risk -- a poor client, and in the end we were left holding the bag financially," she says.
"He knew the risk, but he wanted to help Steve make a statement, empower him to stand up for himself. Steve needed a champion and Lee was that champion."
It's the same now with The Witness. When the woman first called, Yoo says she counseled Hill not to get involved. "We already had so much going on."
Such as representing the family of Jeong Uk Noh. On January 16, a fifteen-year-old Brazilian named Lucas de Arruda drove a Chevy Suburban to McDonald's. He'd been snowboarding that day with another Brazilian, Fabio Strazzer, 28.
Strazzer had separated his shoulder on the slopes and asked de Arruda, who did not have a driver's license, to drive them back to a friend's house in Boulder. The younger boy had been living in a house in Conifer with his sponsor, a Brazilian named Marcio Dias, a longtime friend of the boy's family. Dias was the caretaker of the house and had lent the Suburban, which belonged to his employers, to Strazzer.
There were several stories of how de Arruda had ended up with the car. One was that he wanted to go to McDonald's and ignored Strazzer's admonition not to take the Suburban for the three-block trip. Another was that he was asked to go pick up food for himself and the others.
While trying to park, de Arruda later told police, he accidentally pressed on the accelerator instead of the brake. The vehicle lurched forward, smashing through an outside dining area and striking Jeong Uk Noh, a 25-year-old South Korean who was attending the University of Colorado, and his girlfriend, Sun Jung Yoon, who had only just arrived for a visit.
Noh died at the scene. Yoon escaped with minor injuries.
Yoo and Hill were soon involved, since Yoo was one of the few area lawyers who spoke fluent Korean, and Hill had experience with international matters.
Apparently, de Arruda's family was well-connected in Brazil. "His mother called the president of the country and pretty quick the Brazilian consulate was involved," Hill says. "So we called the Korean consulate and pretty soon we had an international incident on our hands."
Both consulates let District Attorney Alex Hunter's office know that they would be carefully watching the proceedings. The DA handled the case well, Hill thought, but once again he found himself wondering about the level of communication between the Boulder police and the prosecutors. He was the one who had to tell the district attorney's office that a small quantity of narcotics had been found in the car, though the boy hadn't tested positive for drugs in his system.
Yoo and Hill were able to translate the whole process to Noh's family so that they felt that their voice was heard. And they filed a wrongful- death lawsuit.
On February 25, de Arruda, with a Portuguese translator and his mother at his side, pleaded guilty to careless driving resulting in death and careless driving resulting in injury. In exchange, prosecutors dropped a charge of criminally negligent homicide and agreed to take no position on whether de Arruda should serve jail time. (On March 24, de Arruda received a year's probation.)
At the same time, Hill had received his first call from The Witness, and Yoo was warning him against getting involved. However, when she heard more about what the woman had been through, Yoo, who often deals with sexual-assault cases, agreed that they couldn't turn their backs. "She's no different than many of our other clients. She needed help."
Being turned down by the CIA was devastating to Hill. But he needed to find a job -- all his student loans from 1977 through law school were coming due. He went out and found the best-paying position he could -- as a civil lawyer for a firm that specialized in defending insurance companies against claims.
His first day, he was assigned a case in which the client had been accused of sexual assault. The district attorney's office had refused to even file criminal charges, but the woman was now trying to win civil damages. Hill met with the client, who spoke with an accent that he claimed was German. But Hill's wife was German, and he knew better.
The mystery was cleared up a couple of days later when a lawyer with the Central Intelligence Agency, as well as another from the U.S. Attorney General's office, showed up. They insisted that the firm's managing partner and Hill sign a nondisclosure agreement. When that was accomplished, they revealed that their client was a major Warsaw Pact defector. Hill's firm was to see to it that information about their client, who would be in danger if he was discovered, did not get out in the court proceedings.
All the cloak-and-dagger stuff rubbed salt into Hill's wounds. But he liked his client, a former fighter pilot. The case was ultimately dismissed as a clear attempt by the woman to extort money from the client, and Hill made a lifelong friend of the defector.
But cases like that, where Hill derived some job satisfaction and actually liked his client, were few and far between. Too often his job was to stonewall and quibble until an injured person received far less compensation than was justified. Disgusted, he quit after a year.
He didn't last much longer when he joined a plaintiff's firm in San Diego. This time, instead of sneering at injured clients, he found himself working for partners who seemed overjoyed when a prospective client rolled in who'd been paralyzed or maimed. It was just the flip side of the same awful coin -- a game lawyers played at the expense of either the injured party or the people who paid for insurance.
Hill applied for a position with the San Diego District Attorney's Office. His grandfather's case had demonstrated the power a prosecutor's office had over people's lives. Just as a dishonorable prosecutor had injured the man he loved, he figured that one with good intentions could accomplish a lot on the other side.
While he was with the district attorney's office, he was "drafted" to work for the major narcotics unit in cooperation with federal prosecutors, which meant he was cross-sworn as a special assistant U.S. Attorney. When he was in that position he heard that former Harvard professor and '60s LSD guru Timothy Leary was appearing at a bookstore to sign his latest work. Hill drove to the bookstore, where he introduced himself to Leary as having a mutual friend in William Burroughs. As a lark, Hill handed him his business card. Leary broke out laughing. He thought it was terribly funny that a friend of one of the country's most notorious junkies was an assistant deputy district attorney with a narcotics task force.
But as a deputy district attorney, Hill had opportunities to do good work. The task force took a lot of dangerous criminals off the streets. However, a lot of his work was in asset forfeiture, which allows the government to seize property and funds linked to a defendant's drug business. It was a dangerous job. Many of the defendants, including gang members, thought of the forfeiture program as an "extra" punishment, and Hill began receiving so many threats that he applied for and was granted the right to carry a concealed handgun.
But he also came to view the forfeiture program as "evil work." Not when it took the ill-gotten gains of a violent felon, but when he'd seize some little old lady's car because her son the drug dealer had purchased it for her -- or when he confiscated the house of a couple of old hippies who were caught growing pot in their backyard.
Hill was relieved to be transferred to the Jurisdictions Unified for Drug Gang Enforcement -- an experimental program combining local, state and federal agencies that targeted gang members who violated terms of probation. At times, the JUDGE unit would sweep into a neighborhood and arrest dozens of gang members. He often had to go with the police officers, wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a gun.
It was better than the forfeiture work, but at the same time he was expected to ignore certain aspects of police behavior that violated the rights of the suspects -- another lesson he would carry into the future. Other lessons, like the pattern of falling dominoes, would become more clear years later.
During this time, Hill also received training in prosecuting hate crimes. One aspect of that training was to read Talked to Death, Steven Singular's book about the murder of Denver radio personality Alan Berg by white supremacists. Another domino fell when he began paying attention to one of the cases in the San Diego DA's office. It involved a man named Dale Akiki, who was accused of ritualized torture and sexual assaults on children at a church day camp. The case was lost because an overzealous prosecution team relied on "repressed memory development," in which a therapist used hypnosis to supposedly draw lost memories of assaults out of some of the children. Such techniques are fraught with danger, because hypnosis can plant "memories" of events that never occurred, which the defense was able to demonstrate at Akiki's trial. The jury ended up rejecting the prosecution's case as a result.
The longer he worked for the prosecutor's office, the more Hill felt disabused of the notion that his role was to facilitate justice, whichever way the chips fell. His supervisor frequently reminded him that "it's easy to convict the guilty. It takes a really good prosecutor to convict the innocent."
Recalling what such a philosophy had done to his grandfather, Hill finally quit the district attorney's office in 1993 and went back into private practice.
Hill hurries into the federal courthouse in downtown Denver. He's late, but he has to stop at the security checkpoint and make an announcement. "I have a gun," he says quietly.
There is a tense moment. But one of the guards quickly informs the others, "He's a lawyer" -- which Hill seems to hope will not inspire them to shoot him on the spot.
Another guard advises Hill that "only federal law-enforcement officers" are allowed to bring guns into a federal building. But even before the man has finished his lecture, Hill interjects, "I'm a former special assistant U.S. attorney. And I didn't want to leave it in the car."
"Just this once," they tell him, he can lock up his piece. Hill takes the key and walks over to the small lock boxes where he deposits his Glock.
Then it's back through the metal detector and he's off and running for the elevator to the fifth floor. He's no sooner off the elevator than he spots his client, a young Honduran man, handcuffed and dressed in a federal prison khaki jumpsuit, being escorted by a U.S. Marshal. "You better get in there," the marshal says, indicating the courtroom and the judge inside. "He already called for you."
Hill dashes through the courtroom doors. It's too late. U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Sparr is gone. So Hill approaches a large, bald, black man who's the assistant U.S. attorney on the case.
Soon they are bullshitting and laughing. It turns out that Hill and the attorney have something in common. Heck, they may even be related. "He's got Choctaw blood. Well, actually he says he's Creole, which is the same thing," Hill says.
It doesn't do him any good now, though. Because he was late, Hill will have to wait until Sparr deals with the next case -- make that cases, as nearly a dozen men in khaki jumpsuits are led to the jury box and told to take a seat. They are all Hispanic, and each, including two who managed to make bond and who appear in street clothes, is accompanied by his court-appointed lawyer. It's a big methamphetamine case, but they don't seem too concerned. There's a lot of laughing and pointing to friends and family members -- many of them young women either pregnant or holding babies -- in the audience.
Hill dryly comments on all the lawyers "sucking at the public tit. If the public only knew." His attention turns to a lawyer sitting behind one of the defendants. He says the guy offered to help and then tried to steal his client, Stephen Miles, when they sued the National Enquirer. He doesn't know whether to report him to the bar association or simply strangle him the next chance he gets.
Today's client is one of the two men who made the news last summer when they were hauled out of their car by Denver police officers and pistol-whipped while a television helicopter and camera crew hovered overhead. An independent review of the officers' behavior by the Arapahoe County district attorney cleared them, but amid public uproar then-chief Tom Sanchez called for the officers to be disciplined.
Meanwhile, Hill, Yoo and Eugene Iredale, a San Diego "terrorist with a briefcase" and old friend who had brought Hill into the case, filed notice that they plan to sue the city and its police department. Today, Hill needs to work out some issues regarding the federal drug charges pending against his client.
His client, Aguedo Garcia-Martinez, Hill says, was just an innocent passenger in a 4Runner. That's his story and Hill is sticking to it.
In 1993, Hill met a woman who was a member of the Pala band of Mission Indians, of which there were several bands, on reservations north of San Diego. The woman invited him to a sweat-lodge ceremony on the reservation.
Hill was surprised at how comfortable he felt when he arrived at the reservation and waited for the ceremony to begin. He was caught off-guard, however, when an older woman asked him, "Are you Indian?"
Hill started to explain that he had some Choctaw blood, but the old woman interrupted and asked again, "Are you Indian?" He didn't have a chance to answer before he was escorted into the sweat lodge and the ceremony began.
Nor did he give it much thought until the woman who'd invited him to the reservation called the next morning. She said that tribal members had stayed up all night arguing over whether he was in denial over his Indian heritage.
The woman's call prompted one by Hill to his parents. He questioned them about his family tree. It was the beginning of a journey to learn not only his own family history, but the history of Native Americans and their treatment by the white culture. It would lead him to stop drinking and to let his hair grow long at the insistence of medicine men who said it was a way to honor their ancestors.
It also began a precedent of using his law degree to champion American Indian causes. The first such opportunity involved a battle on behalf of another band of Mission Indians called the Rincon, who were fighting with the state of California for the right to put video gaming machines on their reservation. He enlisted the aid of Russell Means, one of the founders of the American Indian Movement. With Means, Hill was able to attract media attention to what was supposed to be their legal right to contract with states for legalized gambling on reservations.
Just when it appeared there might be a large settlement in the Rincon case, then-California governor Pete Wilson reached an agreement that in effect rendered the lawsuit moot. Hill was out all of his legal fees and most of his expenses from eighteen months of work. It forced him into bankruptcy and pretty much ended his second marriage, which, in part due to his deepening commitment to Indian issues, had been on the rocks. Much of the reason for the failure, he admits, was his fault.
Hill's next opportunity to fight for justice for American Indians arrived when he received a call from Bobby Costilla, the head of California AIM, who asked if he'd be willing to get involved in the case of Leonard Peltier, the man he'd first heard of nearly twenty years earlier. Despite flimsy evidence and questionable government witnesses, Peltier had been convicted of murdering two FBI agents. He was serving two life sentences.
In September 1994, Peltier called Hill at home. Hill felt an immediate rapport with the man who had become a symbol for Indian rights and whose case had attracted the support of celebrities in both the entertainment and legal fields, including William Kunstler, the brilliant legal tactician who had defended the Chicago Seven.
Hill had to admit that he knew little about Peltier's case. Peltier asked him to read Peter Matthiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, written about his case, and then, if he was so moved, to visit him at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas.
Soon afterward, Hill flew to Kansas. The first thing Peltier said to him was, "I did not kill those agents."
"Even if you did, you were not convicted lawfully," Hill replied. Before he left, he asked Peltier to sign his copy of the book.
Hill moved back to Boulder in 1995. He continued to work on Peltier's case, becoming an executive member of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. Much of the work consisted of protecting Peltier from those who tried to attach themselves to his cause for personal gain -- whether it was a plethora of fake wives who all claimed to be the real Mrs. Leonard Peltier or hucksters collecting money for the "defense fund." Other work involved trying to come up with new strategies to win a new trial, or at least examine the more than 5,000 pages of documents the U.S. government has refused to turn over in the case.
Through his work with Peltier, Hill met many celebrities, including Steven Seagal, who called to inquire about obtaining the rights to make a movie on Peltier's life in which he wanted to play the starring role. That created debate among Peltier's supporters on whether such rights should be granted to a non-Indian. At first Hill thought not, but the more he got to know Seagal and saw that his intentions were honorable, the more he thought the actor's star power would create a wider audience for Peltier's story (those negotiations are ongoing). But the Peltier case was another taking up lots of time and resources spent without pay.
Hill's home, a three-story Boulder townhouse, is a mess. Dishes are piled up in the sink, even though Yoo says they haven't eaten dinner there in a year. Clothes appear to have been left where their owners stepped out of them. There's plenty of artwork around, paintings and photographs, much of it in lieu of payment from their clients. "I have this nightmare of dying like Mozart, impoverished in a house full of treasures," Hill says, then laughs. "Only I don't have any treasures."
Except for those things that are treasures to him -- like his books, most of them signed by their authors. Hill pulls out In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. "Lee, it was my pleasure meeting you," Peltier wrote. "I hope we can work together in success for not only my freedom, but also of our Indian Nations." It was the way Peltier emphasized the our that made Hill realize that he belonged.
And he's continued to litigate on American Indian issues. In September, Hill filed a lawsuit against Naropa for "perpetuating cultural genocide" by sponsoring a Native American-studies program in which non-Indians performed sacred rituals in the classroom. The college had advertised the class as being taught by a traditional spiritual Lakota leader.
Hill represents former Naropa student Lydia White Calf and her husband, Royce. Royce White Calf, who is full-blood Lakota, says that when Lydia, who is white, complained, Naropa officials told him he was ignorant of his people's own spiritual practices. A lawyer cousin of Lydia's sent them to Hill, who Royce says impressed him initially because of his involvement with Peltier. The suit alleges fraud, harassment, negligent hiring, breach of duty, defamation and outrageous conduct.
At the heart of the dispute is the contention that the Naropa instructor, who went by the name Eagle Cruz, was not only not qualified to teach the class, use sacred items such as eagle feathers or lead sacred prayers and songs, he was not Indian as he claimed. Cruz told several stories. One was that he was part Lakota, another was that he had been "adopted" by Lakota medicine man Vernal Cross -- until the family of Cross, who had died, said that was untrue. Then Cruz said he was Yaqui Indian and had been born in 1948 and raised on the Yaqui reservation. The only problem there was that the Yaqui reservation wasn't established until some fifteen years ago, and even then, tribal authorities had no one by his name enrolled on the tribal records.
It is important to stop inappropriate use and "exploitation" of Indian spiritual rituals, Royce White Calf says, because it is "the final stage of colonialism. Our identity is based on our spirituality; it's who we are. Once they take over our spirituality, our people will become extinct. We will have no say in our intellectual or cultural property rights."
Cruz has since left his job, sold his house and moved out of state. Meanwhile, Naropa asked for the suit to be dismissed, arguing that First Amendment guarantees of free speech protected the school.
In December, district judge Roxanne Bailin announced that "broad claims of cultural genocide" won't be heard by the court. "Naropa correctly asserts that it has no duty to provide an adequate education," she noted.
Hill says that figures. "That's the crux of their argument. They have no duty under Colorado law to educate their students."
The judge also dismissed all the claims except "breach of contract." Still, Hill argues, the basic issue of the lawsuit -- that Naropa participates in "cultural genocide" -- remains at its heart. "The persons responsible know it for what it really is," he says. "Even though they're in denial."
Hill says it ticks him off that Naropa has made a big deal of noting that Lydia is white. "She has two children who are half-Indian," he says. "She is trying to protect their heritage from exploitation [by whites] to make a buck."
In 1996, the domino pattern appeared to be coming full circle when Hill was invited to be on a panel moderated by Ginsberg. Even back then, Hill had managed to irritate some members of the audience by commenting -- pointedly in the case of Naropa -- that it was fine to study and learn to respect other cultures, but that they should steer away from "misappropriating" traditional and spiritual practices.
Still, it was good to see Ginsberg, who was soon up to his old tricks, asking, "Remind me, did we ever get it on?" Later, the old poet got to the microphone for a little extemporaneous poetry that included asserting, several times, "I am a balding pedophile." The admission seemed to disturb no one but Hill. Some things never changed.
Through Ginsberg, Hill met Stephen Miles, the 47-year-old son of a well-loved Boulder physician. Miles was a photographer, a sort of photo biographer of Ginsberg who was also known for his pictures of rock stars. He'd been arrested in 1989 for possessing photographs of nude teenaged boys and had been charged with sexual exploitation of a child, but the photographs had turned out to be of a seventeen-year-old, above the age of consent. The exploitation charge had been dropped, though Miles had pleaded guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor for supplying beer to an underage drinker.
Ginsberg had told him that he never knew when he might need a good lawyer, and recommended that he contact Hill.
Hill was in the middle of the worst year of his life. He was bankrupt. His second marriage was over. And it would not get any better when he woke up the day after Christmas to the news that a six-year-old girl named JonBenét Ramsey had been murdered in her family's home, just blocks from where he was living.
At first, Hill stayed out of the JonBenét fray. But in 1997, dismayed by the apparent lack of cooperation between the Boulder Police Department and the Boulder District Attorney's Office in the case, Hill decided to run for city council. He argued that there should be civilian oversight of the police department, which he viewed as some sort of rogue elephant.
It didn't win him the election. But it did bring him to the attention of Stephen Singular, who was working on a book about the Ramsey case. Cautiously at first, then increasingly as they got to know and respect each other, the two men exchanged ideas on the investigation.
Singular eventually theorized in his book, Presumed Guilty, that JonBenét's death may have links to where the child beauty-pageant industry brushes up against the child-pornography business. But, he argued, the public had only been given two choices: Either JonBenét's parent(s) killed her or an intruder broke into the house. The real truth, he contended, might lie somewhere in between. The police had not shown much interest in pursuing this avenue of investigation, even when he discussed having seen (but not downloaded, which was a felony) Internet photographs of young children being strangled (as was JonBenét) and sexually assaulted. But he found an interested listener -- at least -- in Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter and a like-minded comrade in Lee Hill. When the book was released in 1998, Singular dedicated it in part to Hill.
By that time, Hill was more involved than he had ever wanted to be. In October 1997, the National Enquirer ran one of its myriad stories on the Ramsey case, this one under the headline, "Dad: We Know Who Did It." Below a pouty-lipped photograph of JonBenét was a picture of Stephen Miles, along with the promise of an "exclusive interview with the man the Ramseys say killed JonBenét."
Enquirer reporters John South and David Wright started their story: "John and Patsy Ramsey expect to be arrested for the murder of their daughter, but they already have their defense strategy in place -- pointing at a man they'll claim is the intruder who killed JonBenét. 'John and Patsy will claim that the real killer is a neighbor, Stephen Miles, who was once arrested and accused of a sex offense against a minor,' a source close to the couple revealed."
Frightened and angry, Miles recalled the lawyer Ginsberg had introduced him to and called Hill. In February 1998, Hill filed a defamation suit against the National Enquirer and John Ramsey.
There were a number of issues to the case, the most important being whether the Boulder Police Department had ever considered Miles, who had never shown any interest in females of any age, a suspect. According to Miles, Miles's mother, Hill and Yoo, Boulder detective Jane Harmer told them that Miles was never a "real suspect." And that, Hill planned to take to the bank.
The lawsuit allowed him to question John Ramsey in an October 1998 deposition that lasted five hours -- the only time Ramsey has been forced to answer questions under oath. Hill was prohibited from asking direct questions about the murder until after a grand jury had decided whether to hand down an indictment, but he figured he would get a second chance when that occurred. Because of the grand jury proceedings, the deposition was sealed.
Hill was stunned when the National Enquirer's lawyers filed a motion to have the case dismissed -- and when he discovered that at the very end of the file was a sworn affidavit from Harmer stating that Miles had indeed been a suspect. He immediately filed a notification to interview Harmer under oath; the Boulder police department fought the deposition. The police lost that appeal but while they stalled, District Court Judge Clarence Brimmer ruled on the tabloid's motion and dismissed the case.
Hill couldn't believe it. He had witnesses who'd heard Harmer tell him just the opposite. What's more, this meant that the police were now saying that a rather harmless gay photographer was the only "official" suspect who had ever been named publicly by the police. Not John Ramsey. Not Patsy Ramsey. Not any of their family friends who had acted suspiciously. Just Stephen Miles.
In a case filled with strange bedfellows, the Boulder Police Department's climbing into the sack with the National Enquirer seemed incredible. It had certainly cost Hill thousands of dollars, but more than that it was unfair to Miles, who'd done nothing to deserve being nationally vilified so a magazine could make money. But when Hill tried to get an answer from Chief Mark Beckner or Detective Harmer, he was referred to the department's legal counsel. Neither Harmer nor Beckner returned Westword's phone calls.
When the grand jury disbanded in October 1999 without handing down an indictment, the seal on Ramsey deposition was lifted. No one, however, asked to look at it.
Hill was at breakfast in November 1999 with Nile Southern, the son of eclectic director and writer Terry Southern of Easy Rider and Dr. Strangelove fame, who needed help collecting royalties owed to his late father's estate, when he was approached by Barrie Hartman, the managing editor of the Boulder Daily Camera. Hartman suggested that they get together for lunch, an event that, as so often happened in Boulder, included a conversation about the Ramsey case.
As a former prosecutor, Hill couldn't understand why no one seemed interested in the deposition -- if for no other reason than to compare what John Ramsey had told him to what he had told the police.
The editor agreed that it didn't seem right. Later that day, he called DA Hunter to ask about the deposition and was told that Hunter thought the police would have looked at it. Hartman told Hill he'd called Beckner, who had replied that they figured John Ramsey was "a liar," so there was no need.
Hartman asked if Hill would be willing to show the deposition to a reporter. With the seal lifted, Hill didn't see why not. It was only after that reporter asked Beckner why the police hadn't looked at the deposition that Hill suddenly got a telephone call from Deputy District Attorney Bill Wise, who had miraculously developed an interest.
When the story broke, other members of the media were suddenly interested, too. A reporter from the Fox Network interviewed Hill, who openly wondered why, after spending $2 million on the case, the Boulder police had not bothered to pick up a free, five-hour interview with one of the prime targets of their investigation.
A thousand miles away, a 37-year-old woman saw the interview. She talked to her therapist, who did a little Internet research on Hill, and together they agreed that he could be trusted with the woman's secret.
The woman called Hill. "I think I have information that may be relevant to the Ramsey case," she said.
Hill's response was to put her on hold and go make a pot of coffee. "Great," he said to Yoo. "Now I got someone who wants to talk to me about the Ramsey case." He hoped the woman would hang up before he got back, but she was still there when he picked up the phone five minutes later.
Resigned, he asked her to tell him her story. She had been victimized since early childhood, she said, by a subculture, including members of her own family, that used children for sex. One of the men who had participated in the abuse was a friend of the Ramseys.
The woman listed the ways she could authenticate her connection to this man and prove what she was alleging. For example, when she was seventeen years old, she had persuaded the police in the small southern California town where she lived to charge a man named Mackie Boykin with sexual assault. Boykin, she said, had choked her using cords, scarves and ropes to make her body simulate orgasm while other men had sex with her. Boykin had pleaded guilty and been sent to prison.
The more the woman talked, the more disturbed Hill became. If even part of what she said was true, she had endured one of the most horrific childhoods he'd ever heard of. And if the woman's therapist -- who The Witness said could verify that she'd been telling this story long before JonBenét was killed -- was legitimate, then this woman was potentially a very important witness.
Within the hour, Hill received another call, this time from the woman's therapist. She confirmed what he'd been told. "I feel sorry for you," she said. "You're where I was ten years ago."
Recalling the Akiki case, Hill's first question was whether she practiced "repressed memory development" or used hypnosis. No, the therapist replied. Her client, like many others who have suffered sexual abuse as children, had mental-health issues dealing with dissociation; but otherwise she was a mentally competent and honest woman who only asked that the police investigate her allegations. "She's doing it for other little girls," she said.
Hill looked for any excuse to dismiss what The Witness had to say. He did not need to get re-involved in a case that had already cost him more than he could afford. He had plenty of other cases to worry about.
Still, this woman sounded so alone and frightened. After several more telephone conversations with The Witness, as he'd now come to think of her, and her therapist, Hill decided he needed to go to California to meet her and review her materials.
At her therapist's office, The Witness laid out what she knew while Hill videotaped. She said she didn't expect Hill, or the police, to take her word for what had happened to her -- what was still happening, she said, as her therapist confirmed that The Witness continued to be assaulted and controlled by this subculture. The police in her hometown just took her family's word for it that she was crazy, despite the fact that she had told the truth twenty years ago and sent a perpetrator to jail.
Hill returned from that trip "a changed man." He believed her -- even if not every word she said was true, even if she was drawing conclusions that might not be accurate, he agreed that a qualified law-enforcement agency needed to look into her claims.
Back in Boulder, Hill spoke to Barrie Hartman, who arranged a secret meeting with Hunter. Accompanied by Singular, who thought that in light of his own research The Witness's story was plausible, Hill met with the district attorney and one of his investigators at Hartman's home.
Hill presented what The Witness had told him. He knew it sounded incredible, but was impressed when Hunter didn't blow him off. He, in fact, asked a lot of questions. They all agreed that they should proceed slowly, that The Witness should gather what evidence she could of her family's own role in the sexual abuse of children and its possible connection to the Ramsey case.
But then things changed drastically. The Witness called, frightened. She had recently been beaten and sexually assaulted by members of her extended family, and they'd warned her about keeping her mouth shut, she said. They were trying to pressure her into coming to Colorado with one of the men she said had been her childhood tormentor, who was connected to the Ramseys. He had been calling her himself, ever since Hill's television interview regarding the Ramsey deposition, to check on her. Now she was afraid she might be abducted, or worse.
Hill contacted law-enforcement friends in the Los Angeles area, where The Witness claimed much of the abuse had happened, to try to get a case going. However, he ran out of time.
On the Saturday of President's Day weekend, the woman's therapist called Hill from her mobile telephone. She had The Witness in her car and they were on the run. "We think we're being followed," the therapist said. The Witness had left everything -- her apartment, her clothes, her belongings, even her car, so that anyone stalking her wouldn't know that she was escaping. They were on their way to an airport four hours away so that The Witness wouldn't be spotted leaving Los Angeles. She was coming to Colorado.
Hill met her at Denver International Airport after midnight. She was frightened and had little more than the clothes on her back. She'd even left her purse and the prescribed estrogen she took because of a hysterectomy she'd undergone several years before (attributable, she said, to the sexual abuse she'd suffered since childhood).
Hill took her to a hotel in Boulder, where he left her to spend the night. He'd contacted Hunter, who'd arranged for him to bring her to the Boulder Police Department on Tuesday. At first, the police said that Hill couldn't be in the interview room with her, at which The Witness balked. But after pointing out that even the Ramseys were allowed to have their attorney sit with them during police interviews, and the fact that there would be no interview otherwise, the police relented.
In the meantime, Hill needed to find a safe place to hide her. His first thought was an official "safehouse" of the sort used to protect victims of domestic violence. However, because Hill would not reveal the name of the man The Witness was afraid of -- whose name would have been instantly recognizable -- the safehouses in Boulder and Longmont refused to accept her, even after Hunter intervened.
On Tuesday afternoon, The Witness met with two Boulder detectives while Hunter watched the interview on closed-circuit television from another room. Hill didn't know it, but The Witness was ill and running a high temperature.
Halfway through what would be a four-hour interview, Hill took a break and went back to his office. He was stunned when he listened to a message from The Witness's therapist. They had figured that The Witness's family would file a missing-persons report in order to locate her; they'd even briefed Hunter about the possibility. Now he learned that the Boulder police had contacted the police in The Witness's hometown and told them that not only was she in Boulder, but that she would be coming to the police station with her attorney, Lee Hill, to talk about the Ramsey case. The police in California had passed all of that information back to The Witness's family -- the very people she didn't want to know where she was or what she was doing.
Livid, Hill returned to the police station and told The Witness what had happened -- in front of the detectives, who tried to explain that they were just following standard procedure. The Witness turned pale. She said she was now concerned over the safety of her niece, who she suspected may be suffering the same abuse she had. And she was worried about the case, because now her family would know to destroy or hide evidence. And she was worried about her personal safety. The man she was naming was wealthy and these people, she said, were ruthless.
At the end of the interview, the detectives slid their business cards across the table to her. But there was one last thing The Witness wanted to tell them. She said that in the most recent assault, she had been burned with a stun gun. She wanted to know if there was a female detective who could examine and photograph the marks as evidence. The cops arranged it.
When she stepped out of the interview room, Hill, who didn't want to make a scene in front of her, demanded that Hunter come into the room. When the district attorney was present, Hill lit into the detectives. They'd done very little about letting The Witness get to the important parts of her story, choosing instead to question her about when she might be "going home."
"She can't go home," Hill yelled. If their leak to the California police was standard procedure, then any stalker in the country could locate his prey by filing a missing-persons report. He was a former law-enforcement officer and he knew that revealing the whereabouts (much less that she was a potential witness in a murder case) of a competent adult who knew where she was didn't wash.
"At considerable risk to herself, she leaves everything and comes forward to try to help you people. Then you needlessly strip her of her only security and tell her pursuers where she is and what she's doing. And all you can give her to shield herself is two fucking business cards. I'll be goddamned if I'm the only one responsible for her safety."
Hunter tried to diffuse the situation, but Hill and The Witness left through the back door. Now Hill was really worried about finding her a safe place to stay. He turned to his friends with the American Indian Movement -- if there was one group of people who weren't afraid of standing up to the government, it was AIM. He called friends, a poor family who didn't have much. Yet without asking any questions about why this woman might be in danger or what risk they might face, they told Hill to bring her over. Suddenly, he felt enormous relief. Leave it to his people to offer what they had to someone in need.
The Witness stayed with them for several days, but Hill knew that they were barely scraping by as it was, so he looked for someplace else to hide her while they waited to hear from the Boulder police.
In the meantime, Hill called an FBI agent he knew and told him the story. The agent recommended a colleague who was a specialist in child pornography. Accompanied by Singular, Hill and The Witness went to meet the federal agent. In one hour, the agent knew more of the woman's story than the Boulder police had learned in four. What's more, whether he believed her or not, he treated her with respect and empathy. And he set her up with an FBI victim-witness advocate who found her a place with a Denver-area safehouse. There, once staffers knew The Witness's story, they hired extra armed guards.
The next day, however, Hartman called Hill. He'd decided that the woman's best protection would be to publicize her story. Then, if anyone made a move against her, he'd draw attention to himself. Hill, Singular and Hunter were against the idea, but Hartman remained convinced that this was the best way. And that's how a brief outline of the woman's allegations hit the newspapers.
The meeting with the FBI and the news story accomplished two things. At the safehouse, The Witness, who had been complaining that she was in severe pain, was taken in for a medical examination, which revealed that she had recently been beaten and sexually assaulted as she'd claimed; in fact, she was suffering from abdominal bleeding, had several sexually transmitted diseases and showed marks where she claimed to have been burned with a stun gun. Her injuries were so severe that she stayed in the hospital for two days.
However, because of the publicity, tabloid reporters were on her trail. The safehouse managers were afraid they'd find her and reveal the location, endangering other women. She had to find someplace else to stay. This time, a friend of Hill's, who had made it a passion to gather information on the Ramsey case through her Web site, offered her home in Boulder. Hill and The Witness gratefully accepted.
The Witness sits on the couch, clutching a pillow to her abdomen. She looks ready to bolt when Hill announces he has an errand to run and leaves her alone to tell her life story to a stranger.
Dressed in a loose-fitting plaid shirt and sweat pants, The Witness would blend in to any crowd. She's of average height and build. Her hair is short, brown and unremarkable. Her blue eyes tear up behind wire-rimmed glasses and her face flushes several times during the interview, but she doesn't cry. When she smiles or laughs, it's always a quick, fleeting thing, as though she's waiting for the other shoe to drop.
She's been living here since the first article appeared in the Daily Camera. She's afraid to go outside. Afraid that they may spot her, and she will have to flee again.
The question is: Are they real? Or are they just the figments of her paranoia, the bogeymen of a troubled 37-year-old woman?
It's easiest to dismiss her story, as the police in Boulder and California apparently have done. But there's also enough to make one wonder.
She was born April 25, 1962, and since that time has led a double life. One life was presented to the public: a pretty little blond, neatly dressed and very polite, though quiet under her mother's watchful eye. And like another famous girl thirty some years later, she was dressed up and posed for photographers -- for example, she's a model for a 1964-'65 calendar that's among the "evidence" she has shown to Hill.
The other side of her life was much darker. Her earliest memory, she says, is of sitting on the toilet in her parents' home when she was three years old, screaming because blood was dripping from her body into the water. "I had been raped," she says.
In hundreds of pages of recollections she wrote down for her therapist, long before JonBenét was murdered, she alleged, "I was taught at a very young age to tolerate the pain or be punished. I was taught at a very young age to always thank the man for being so good to me, and one of the first statements I memorized for my family was, 'It was my pleasure,' even if what had just been done to me hurt me.
"The only problem that they ever had with me was that sometimes when a man was going to start fucking me, I would urinate all over the bed. My urinating in the bed caused me to have more than one beating with a belt, but it seemed to be something that I couldn't help."
Her child's body was too young to enjoy sex or achieve orgasm. Toward this end, a man named Mackie Boykin was appointed as her "handler." Boykin had been in her life, she says, "ever since I can remember." However, he became part of the family after his brother married her mother.
Living just a few houses down the street, Boykin's job was to train her and other little girls -- whom she says her family and their "guests" referred to as their "Pretty Little Whores" -- in sadomasochistic sexual practices. One of his favorite techniques was to get her body to simulate orgasm (through convulsions) by choking her to the point that she almost passed out (and occasionally did). To accomplish this, he sometimes pressed his thumbs against the carotid arteries in her neck, or used a variety of ropes, belts and scarves to bind her wrists and ankles and choke her, all while other men, referred to as "Uncles," sexually assaulted her.
This subculture was a family tradition, according to The Witness. Her own mother told her that, as a child, she had been similarly used by one of the men whom she allowed to rape her daughter.
Some of The Witness's evidence seems innocuous until it's placed in context with the Ramsey case. There are photographs of her on Santa's lap, like those last photographs of JonBenét -- however this Santa, The Witness says, was part of the child-sex subculture, a "warmup for the main event."
There are the letters and photographs, even a name in her baby book that proves she and her family have a long connection -- dating back to the 1930s -- with the family of men she says sexually abused her, including the man who has been a family friend of the Ramseys.
Still, it doesn't prove anything regarding JonBenét's death. They're just tantalizing pieces of an unsolved puzzle, especially in light of recent information that's made headlines -- after The Witness came forward. The Ramseys contend in their new book, The Death of Innocence, that the police need to look at their innermost circle of friends. Also, investigator Lou Smit, a legendary homicide detective who was hired by Hunter but quit because he felt the Boulder police were too focused on the Ramseys, recently said he believes that an intruder entered the house, and noted that JonBenét had stun-gun marks on her. And, as everyone knows, JonBenét was found with a garrote around her neck and a piece of cord tied around one of her wrists.
The most convincing piece of the puzzle is that when The Witness claimed to have been sexually assaulted once before, she told the truth. Boykin was subsequently charged with 64 counts of sexual assault, kidnapping and various other related crimes. He was allowed to plead guilty to four counts and served only ten months. Two days after he was released from prison, he showed up at the doorstep of The Witness, who had moved out of state and was supposedly in protective custody -- but her own family had told him where to find her. She was seventeen, and her torment by Boykin and others, she says, continued for nearly twenty years.
It even continued after November 1996, when Boykin died -- one month before JonBenét was murdered. The question lingers: With the master of sexual asphyxiation of little girls gone, had an amateur messed up and accidentally killed JonBenét?
The Witness does not know. But she and people like Singular, Hill, Hartman and even apparently Alex Hunter believe it is a possibility worth examining. As to whether she seems credible, The Witness doesn't act any crazier than Detective Linda Arndt, who rolled her eyes wildly, talked about counting her bullets because she was afraid of John Ramsey and claimed to know who killed JonBenét in an interview with ABC last fall.
At any rate, The Witness's account is interrupted when Hill returns. She's exhausted and starting to stress out, clutching the pillow ever tighter. She nearly goes through the roof when there's a knock on the door. It's the Boulder police. But how did they find her?
Not to worry. The officer is there to arrest the home's owner because she failed to appear in court over a citation for her barking dog. The tension runs out of the room, lost in the irony as Hill laughs: The Boulder police haven't managed to arrest anyone for the murder of JonBenét, but they can track down a renegade dog owner -- all while a would-be witness in their town's biggest murder case cowers behind the door.
As Hill begins to leave to arrange bond for the home's owner, The Witness looks up from where she's sitting on the ground, petting the dog, and tells Hill, "You're my hero."
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