What a Circus!
The Boulder City Council just banned circuses, five years too late. The circus came to Boulder on December 26, 1996 -- the day that six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey was reported missing -- and it's never left. Although the Ramsey action occasionally moves out of the center ring and into some lunatic-fringe sideshow, the big top has settled permanently over Boulder.
Boulder officials didn't think their July 3 vote would stop the never-ending media circus, the all-Ramsey-all-the-time show, of course. They were simply expanding on last summer's sentiment that turned pet owners into animal "guardians" by banning exotic-animal acts. But in politically correct Boulder, there's no animal more exotic than a tar baby. And JonBenét Ramsey, the little girl who would have turned eleven next month if she'd been guarded more closely, just won't go away. "Once you touch this case, you're stuck," says Dan Caplis, the talk-show attorney who recently acquired his first legal connection to the case.
"It sticks to everyone it touches," says Tom Miller, a former attorney who just got out of his legal connection to the case. "There's, like, this slime."
Last month, Miller became the circus's star attraction -- the only person who ever went to trial on a Ramsey-related charge. It took four years to get him before the jury. It took that jury under an hour to acquit him.
Back in early 1997, when people actually thought that justice would be done for JonBenét Ramsey, Miller was hired by the Globe -- at $150 an hour -- to help out on its investigation. The Globe was throwing a lot of money around Boulder at the time, and even as outraged townspeople threatened to boycott the tabloid, it was scooping the mainstream press. At the request of Craig Lewis, a Globe editor responsible for much of the coverage, Miller set up a meeting with Donald Vacca, a former Denver cop who was also a handwriting expert -- an expert who'd been hired by the Ramseys' attorneys to examine the ransom note found in their home on December 26.
At the April 1, 1997, meeting in Vacca's Evergreen home, Lewis offered $30,000 for a copy of the note. Vacca wasn't buying.
In August 1999, a Jefferson County grand jury indicted both Lewis and Miller, under the state's felony criminal bribery statute, for attempting to bribe an employee into breaking confidentiality with an employer. That employer was the Ramseys, who were still refusing to cooperate with the Boulder Police Department in its investigation of their daughter's death. Unlike Jeffco, Boulder County hadn't issued any indictments connected to the murder -- unless you count the fellows who pleaded guilty to selling autopsy photos to the Globe, or the Globe reporter accused of harassment, or the Ramsey friend charged with brandishing a baseball bat at two hapless engineers who he mistook for journalists.
The Ramseys may not have been cooperating with Boulder authorities, but Jeffco had no problem cooperating with their lawyers. At Miller's trial his attorney, Gary Lozow, introduced correspondence from Haddon, Morgan & Foreman, the politically connected firm then representing the Ramseys, urging the Jeffco DA to prosecute Miller and Lewis.
Lewis's lawyers fought the indictment on First Amendment grounds, arguing that the state statute was unconstitutional when applied to working journalists. If the law could be used against a supermarket tabloid that may or may not have offered $30,000 for a ransom note that law enforcement officials were handing out for free, what was to stop another DA from using the law against a local TV reporter who bought a source a beer? Ultimately, Jeffco offered Lewis a novel way to settle the case: He admitted to "ethical" wrongdoing, and the Globe donated $100,000 to the University of Colorado School of Journalism.
"Chump change," laughs Michael Tracey, a J-school professor now working on a documentary about the Ramseys. "They could have gotten a million." But it doesn't take the Globe's sledgehammer-subtle stories to recognize the Ramsey case's impact on Boulder. "Everyone wants it to go away, or pretends they want it to go away, but it's not going to," Tracey says. "The number of bodies -- some of them still breathing -- that have been affected."
Miller was offered a deal, too, but he refused it -- even though a criminal bribery conviction carries a sentence of up to eighteen months in jail and a fine of $100,000. "They offered me a plea: Give up the law license, cop to a felony, and everything's fine," he remembers. "I couldn't do that."
He wanted his day in court. He wanted to tell the jurors that he didn't know Lewis was going to offer money to Vacca, and he couldn't have done much if he had. But more than that, Miller says, he wanted those jurors to know that the DA "had turned his back on a murder in order to pay a political favor by destroying the credibility of a witness."
Miller, also a handwriting expert, believes that Patsy Ramsey wrote the ransom note and murdered her daughter. He'd gone public with that belief in the summer of 1997, before the ransom note ever appeared in Vanity Fair, and in Newsweek, and on the Internet, and finally in the Globe.
And so he poured everything he had into his case. He lost his house and his car, but he won an acquittal from the jurors. "They did everything they could to destroy me," Miller says, "and you know what? I feel good." So good that he plans to write a book about not just the Ramseys, but "the deterioration of criminal justice into a system of 'bought justice.'"
"The main event is now long gone," says Lozow, "except our guy got put in the tent." Lozow has an excellent suggestion for what CU can do with the Globe's $100,000: Reimburse Miller what he had to pay to have his say before the jury.
"For those of us in the criminal-justice system," acknowledges one attorney, "this has not been our finest hour."
Or half-decade. And the clock's still ticking.
The day before the jury came back with its verdict, Judge Jane Tidball issued bench warrants for Steve Thomas, the former lead detective on the Ramsey case, and Fleet White, the former friend of John Ramsey who was there when JonBenét's body was found. Subpoenaed by the defense, both men had failed to show up for the trial.
Thomas, who resigned from the Boulder Police Department three years ago and wrote a book about the case, says he wasn't home on June 3 when the process server allegedly delivered his subpoena. (Talk-show host Peter Boyles, also a defense witness, says his subpoena was served improperly, too: "They served my son and marked on the paper that they served me personally, and they did not.") Thomas is now represented by Caplis, who on July 31 will ask the judge to drop the charges -- and cite the process server with contempt instead. "It's preposterous to suggest he would have ignored a subpoena," says Caplis, who points out that his client had no problem showing up for a May 3 hearing. "He simply was not subpoeaned."
There's no question that White was subpoenaed, though: He filed a letter with the court objecting to the subpoena. That's why he didn't show up for Miller's trial and why he was arrested when he later appeared at the courthouse to ask about that pesky warrant. "I have respect for this court," White explained. "I did not have so much respect for this case in which I'd been subpoenaed." He'll get to tell it to the judge on August 31.
And those are just two of the scheduled legal sideshows. Earlier this month, New York lawyer Darney Hoffman won a ruling from a federal judge stating that grand-jury witnesses could not be prohibited from speaking out about their testimony: His client, Linda Hoffman-Pugh, the former Ramsey housekeeper, was one of many witnesses who appeared before the grand jury that investigated JonBenét Ramsey's murder for thirteen months before failing to return an indictment. Hoffman-Pugh has sued the Ramseys for defamation; next week Hoffman will take their deposition. The Ramseys have several libel cases of their own, of course, including one against Thomas. And former Boulder detective Linda Arndt, who presided over the crime scene that gave birth to the Ramsey circus, just appealed a judge's decision that had thrown out her defamation case against the Boulder police.
Even Miller, the only person who's ever gone to trial in connection with the Ramsey case and the only one who's been declared not guilty by a jury, has one more date with a judge: Boulder recently issued him a summons for a barking dog.
The circus is in town.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- Ethniche: 10 Delicious Denver-Area Dishes From a Year of Ethnic-Food Reviews
- Race and Place Matter in Colorado Death Penalty, New Study Finds
- Our Guide to Every Recreational Marijuana Store in Metro Denver