Back in January 1997, the worst crime imaginable in Boulder, Colorado, was not the murder of a six-year-old girl, but the publication in a national tabloid of several pilfered autopsy pictures of that little girl. And so the good citizens of Boulder called on local supermarkets to cease and desist distribution of the offending publication (along, no doubt, with other bad-for-you goodies). If the stores failed to do the politically correct thing, these good citizens threatened a boycott.
In the weeks after the murder of JonBenét Ramsey, "tabloid" became such a dirty word that the Rocky Mountain News, the country's largest tabloid (by the official definition of the word, at least, which simply describes a paper's print format) banned the use of the term altogether.
And today, almost three years after JonBenét's body was found and a week after Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter announced that the grand jury looking into her death had concluded its work and no indictment for her murder would be forthcoming, it's a tabloid -- not a killer -- that's under investigation in Jefferson County. A Jeffco grand jury has targeted the Globe, in hot pursuit of the Ramsey story ever since it first published those pictures of the dead JonBenét, and its editor, Craig Lewis, for allegedly offering a Ramsey handwriting expert $30,000 for a copy of the ransom note -- the note that the Boulder DA's office had originally handed over to the Ramseys. That act by the DA's office qualifies as criminally stupid -- but that fact hasn't dissuaded Jeffco from trying to indict Lewis for commercial bribery, a felony.
So far, the only thing stopping Jeffco is a temporary restraining order issued by Federal District Court Judge Walker Miller, who on Tuesday extended that order until October 28. Walker will use that time to determine whether it's constitutional to use the state's commercial bribery statute against a reporter in the process of gathering news. For one of Lewis's attorneys, Tom Kelley, the verdict is already in: "When a statute is capable of being applied in a way that infringes upon common reporting techniques," he argues, "it simply cannot withstand the type of judicial scrutiny that the First Amendment requires."
Such legal pleadings aside, it's also criminally stupid for Jeffco's DA to waste the grand jury's time pursuing charges against Lewis, an investigation that apparently grew out of another case involving nosy private investigators James and Regana Rapp. Then again, this is the same jurisdiction that has yet to interview the parents of Eric Harris -- but last week was demanding action against whoever leaked the videotape of Harris's crime at Columbine to the media, a videotape originally handed over to the Littleton Fire Department by the Jeffco sheriff's office.
In this state of unsolved mysteries -- What really caused the Columbine massacre? Who really killed JonBenét? -- it often seems easier to indict the messenger than to try to understand the message.
And so, at yet another panel dissecting Columbine this week, a national "expert" blamed intolerance on the media. And the Globe could soon be on trial in Jeffco.
But in fact, it was the tabloids and an explosion of talk about JonBenét on the radio and the Web that kept interest in this murder case going strong. Boulder would have liked for the crime to be as dead and buried as the body of Lorraine Lawrence, found in a pit under a plywood board on a Boulder construction site just a few weeks before the Ramseys reported their daughter missing. Lawrence died of exposure, Boulder authorities concluded. And if you buy that, then JonBenét died of over-exposure in the media.
Instead, the story is very much alive. Assorted Ramseys stare from the covers of the October 26 editions of the four leading tabloids (not including the Weekly World News, which no doubt decided long ago that aliens abducted JonBenét). The National Examiner leads off with a photo of a finger-pointing Patsy (left over from the press conference the Ramseys granted to a "Magnificent Seven" of hand-picked media members back in March 1997), alongside the headline "I'm Too Smart to Be Convicted!" The story inside boils down to this: Assorted "experts," including New York lawyer and potential Hunter challenger Darnay Hoffman, think that Patsy Ramsey is taunting authorities: "She's daring Hunter to charge her because she's sure beyond a shadow of a doubt he'll never prove anything in a court of law."
The National Enquirer, "the best-selling paper in America," teases with this cover line: "Cops: Our Case Against Mom & Dad." Inside, the four-page report on "week 147 of the Beauty Queen Murder" includes photos of JonBenét taken on Christmas 1996, her last day alive, as well as interviews with more insiders. Former Ramsey housekeeper Linda Hoffman-Pugh says she told the grand jury that JonBenét didn't like to draw on herself -- but there was a small red heart on the dead girl's hand. Besides the inked heart, the Enquirer lists more evidence in the 30,000-page case file: Patsy's American Express charge at a hardware store in Boulder before the murder, a bowl of pineapple in the kitchen the day after -- the same fruit found half-digested in JonBenét's stomach. (Page 3 of the Enquirer has another Ramsey-related story: Delta Burke, a former beauty queen herself who's recently lost 65 pounds -- or 78, according to another tab -- may land the role of Patsy in the CBS miniseries based on Lawrence Schiller's book Perfect Murder, Perfect Town.)
The Star, whose last cover trumpeted "Exposed: Shocking Sex and Booze Parties in JonBenet's house," a story that detailed how CU students like to have sex in the former Ramsey home, has a "world exclusive" this week. Bo Dietl, "America's #1 Homicide Detective," is now on the case at the Star's behest. "I went to Colorado last month to try to make sense out of the bizarre murder of JonBenet Ramsey, and I came back with shocking conclusions -- and a surprise prime suspect," Dietl begins.
"One afternoon in Boulder, sitting in front of that grand house on 15th Street, with the beautiful mountains on one side of me and the terrible things that happened behind those walls on the other, I was mentally sorting through the facts, trying to put together the three components of any crime -- motive, opportunity and means. Something jumped right off the page at me."
And it wasn't another CU sex-and-booze party.
But at the end of four pages, Star readers learn they'll have to wait until next week to learn "Who really killed JonBonet [sic] -- and why."
This week the Globe devotes a relatively modest amount of its cover to "Dad Blames Mom & Begs for Immunity as Grand Jury Ends." And there's just a single-page story inside, co-written by Craig Lewis -- but then, he's been busy in Jeffco -- describing how the Ramseys' marriage has unraveled. As another one of those ubiquitous "insiders" tells the Globe: "Both of the Ramseys now know that they will not have another moment's peace until investigators get justice for JonBenet."
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But there will be no justice. Although Governor Bill Owens says he's considering appointing a special prosecutor, the time to do that was two years -- and a governor -- ago, not now. And for all the huffing and puffing by Boulder law-enforcement officials during their assorted press conferences last Thursday, their investigative efforts will continue to deflate.
The story will die, and the tabloids will leave town, heading for some other sensational case that will expose idiocies and sell papers.
But the media will have delivered its message: The trash left behind in Colorado is all ours.