The Spin Crowd
In the 21 months since JonBenet Ramsey's body was discovered in a Boulder basement, Colorado has tried the two men charged with the Oklahoma City bombing, convicting both Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols and sentencing McVeigh to death. We have hosted the Summit of the Eight. We have won the SuperBowl. We have located a missing A-10 bomber, if not its nuclear bombs. We have lost--and found again--John Denver.
But we still have not found the killer of JonBenet--or lost the attention of the national media.
Since December 26, 1996, reporters have blanketed school shootings, killer nannies, loose-lipped White House interns. But they keep coming back to cover the Ramsey case. And this week Boulder, Colorado, is once again the center of the media world.
It's spinning out of control.
For every action, there's a reaction. For every spin to one side, a spin from the other. Listen carefully.
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New police chief Mark Beckner--the replacement for Tom "Next Question" Koby--set the merry-go-round in motion this spring, when he announced that the Boulder cops believed the case should go to a grand jury. For two days in early June, District Attorney Alex Hunter considered the cops' evidence. He promised a decision on a grand jury within a few weeks.
It didn't come.
What did finally arrive was a lengthy resignation letter from Steve Thomas, another investigator on the case, lamenting the performance of the district attorney's office in general and Hunter's failure to promptly convene a grand jury in particular. "The primary reason I chose to leave is my belief that the district attorney's office continues to mishandle the Ramsey case," Thomas wrote. "As an organization, we remained silent when we should have shouted...On June 26, after leaving the investigation for the last time, I wept as I drove home."
Thomas's letter went public in August, two months after Hunter had promised a decision on a grand jury, while the DA was vacationing in Alaska.
That's when Governor Roy Romer suited up in his summer-weight bomber jacket and finally joined the fray. Although he'd been asked by former Ramsey friends Fleet and Priscilla White last December to get involved, it took Thomas's letter to spin him into action. The governor called together the four metro district attorneys that Hunter had added to his "dream team" in February 1997, consulted with Hunter himself and then announced that, since the Boulder DA did plan to take the case to the grand jury after all, there was no need for a special prosecutor.
Romer's announcement sent Fleet White spinning. He sent off a second letter, expanding on his original missive to Romer, detailing why a special prosecutor was necessary in all-too-cozy Boulder. And then a third letter a few days later, further detailing the incestuous ties.
For every action a reaction.
From the first draft of the ransom note to John Ramsey's Monday missive--with its special messages for Romer, for the Boulder police, for the killer, for anyone interested in a $100,000 reward, and for "the fanatic fringe who surround this case, making demands, creating sensationalism and calling for officials' heads"-- the letters keep coming, each adding a new twist.
In his letter, Ramsey salutes Lou Smit, the retired Colorado Springs cop who was working with the Boulder DA's office until last week, when he wrote his own letter of resignation. "Alex, you are in a difficult position," Smit told Hunter. "The media and peer pressure are incredible. You are inundated with conflicting facts and 'expert' opinions. And now you have an old detective telling you that the Ramseys did not do it..."
Smit's letter followed reports that an ABC producer was in town, working on a 20/20 piece on the Ramsey case, which had finally gone to the grand jury on September 15 and so again was big national news. Word had it that 20/20 had snagged some big fish, maybe even Steve Thomas in his first interview since his resignation letter. But on Sunday, the day 20/20 would air its piece, the headlines were all about Smit's resignation. Spin and spin again.
Less than 24 hours later, Michael Tracey's documentary on the Ramseys surfaced for a third time. Tracey, a journalism professor for the last ten years at the University of Colorado, had gained access to John and Patsy Ramsey, seemingly the most reluctant of interview subjects, after he wrote a column in the Boulder Camera chiding the media coverage. Tracey's five days of interviews with the couple, along with other interviews defending the Ramseys, were condensed into a 49-minute film shown on British television this summer.
But Tracey and his partner had trouble finding an audience in America--maybe because, as Tracey suggests, the Ramsey version of the story isn't particularly popular with the media (he kept running into reporters' "deep conviction that the Ramseys are guilty," Tracey says), or because lengthy documentaries aren't particularly popular with the media companies. Finally, in August--right about the time Romer was announcing that, yes, the case would be going to the grand jury--Channel 9 aired a seventy-minute version of the film followed by a discussion of the case among all the usual suspects who've been talking about it for almost two years now.
Then A&E bought the rights to Tracey's movie--JonBenet's America is what he likes to call it--for $150,000 and showed its own version on Investigative Reports Monday night. Although the show stretched to two hours, "it was our script, with one or two minor word changes--no editorial changes at all," says Tracey. The difference was that host Bill Kurtis, rather than Tracey himself, narrated what basically served as the flip side to 20/20's critique of the Ramseys.
For every action a reaction.
Tracey himself has been slapped for his role in producing what is essentially an infomercial on the Ramseys, parents of a murdered girl who hired a PR firm almost as quickly as they did attorneys. And slapped by the Boulder press for producing it while collecting a hefty salary as a full-time CU professor. But Tracey insists the work was legit, and with A&E, he was careful to fill out all the appropriate CU paperwork. "I'm a very good bureaucrat now," he says.
But if the Boulder legal community is incestuous, the CU j-school is under the covers on this case, too. Besides Tracey, there's Suzanne Laurion, the adjunct professor who signed on with Hunter in spring 1997 for a twenty-hour-a-week job doing PR; after six semesters, and with plenty of demands on her time from the DA's office, she's taking the fall semester off. While at CU, Laurion says, she had exactly one brief conversation with Tracey. And she also met another character who keeps cropping up in the case, a familiar figure who makes everything from impromptu appearances on the Today show to command performances at Ramsey Christmas parties: Santa, retired journalism professor Bill McReynolds, who knows a thing or two about spin, too.
Two weeks ago, Santa wrote his own letter calling for a special prosecutor because Hunter, Laurion's boss, has botched the investigation, in the process catching McReynolds and his family in the "web of evil surrounding this case." A web that keeps on spinning.
For every action a reaction. Or, since this is Boulder: For every action an inaction.
"Boulder defies the laws of physics," says Tracey.
It defies the laws, period.
Twenty-one months later we've spun full circle, with a renewed reward and no killer.
JonBenet must be spinning in her grave.
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