Justice, Boulder Style

Patsy Ramsey: I want you to look at me and tell me what you think happened.

Steve Thomas: Actually, I'll look you right in the eye. I think you're good for this. I think that's what the evidence suggests.

-- Larry King Live, May 31, 2000

For Steve Thomas, an experienced officer who joined the Boulder Police Department in 1991, the town's system of justice came as a shock. His recent book on the Ramsey case, JonBenét: Inside the Ramsey Murder Investigation, describes a corrupt district attorney's office and a police department split between a few remaining old-line cops and a new-age chief whose motto was "Police unto others as you would have them police unto you."

Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter is stepping down after 28 years in office, and his successor will be determined in next month's election, when Mary Keenan, who has worked in Hunter's office for fifteen years, faces Republican challenger Dave Sanderson. Keenan is expected to win the race, and Thomas, who now lives in Arvada, says he has little hope for significant change in justice, Boulder style.

"I'm not a resident of Boulder County," he says. "It's not my fight anymore. But I think should someone from within that office inherit the throne, nothing will change. It will be the same dynasty that we've seen for three decades, the same miserable failure of justice in Boulder."

Thomas was the lead investigator on the Ramsey case. He left the Boulder Police Department in August 1998, writing in his letter of resignation that Alex Hunter's office had crippled the investigation. In his book, he expands upon these accusations. He also lists the evidence that he believes points to Patsy Ramsey's guilt.

Thomas was the first member of his family to become a cop. His mother died when he was seven, and his father, who was constantly on the road raising funds for the March of Dimes, moved the family from Arkadelphia, Arkansas, to Dallas, Texas. Thomas and his three sisters were raised by a black nanny, Lee Bass. It was Bass, Thomas says, who taught him that all people are equal. This was a lesson that haunted him during his work on the Ramsey case, as he watched the Boulder legal establishment tiptoe around the multimillionaire family. And it stood him in good stead when -- after publication of his book -- he faced off on national television with the Ramseys themselves and with such famed defense experts as Alan Dershowitz.

Two of Thomas's maternal uncles were naval officers, and from the time he was small, he had planned to enter the Navy -- though he does remember being transfixed by a visit from a police officer to his high school civics class. "This guy was such a hero in my eyes," he says. At the University of Arkansas, Thomas discovered that he had a vision defect that would rule out a Navy career, and his interest in law enforcement deepened. At the same time, he came across Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song and read it over and over again. "I did a paper and some oral reports on that book," he says. "I carried it around in my backpack."

Mailer's book details the life and death of Gary Gilmore, who was released after many years in prison and promptly killed two young Mormon men. Gilmore was tried in Salt Lake City and sentenced to death. At the time, there had been a moratorium on capital punishment in America for over twenty years, but "Gary Gilmore challenged the government," Thomas says. "He said, 'You've imposed the death penalty upon me. I demand that you carry it out.'"

The book made Thomas an opponent of capital punishment. "This was the first time in my life that a prisoner became a human being to me," he says. "Regardless of what he did, this wasn't a monster with three eyes." But the book also made him more interested in the justice system.

Thomas transferred to the University of Colorado, where he studied sociology with an emphasis on criminology. As part of his field experience, he rode with cops from the Denver and Aurora police departments. In a term paper, he described the different kinds of cop he met. "I talked about the Cowboy Cop, the Social Worker Cop, the Burned-Out Cop," he remembers. "I was trying to draw what I saw as the best from each of them. It's so easy in police work to get in a patrol car and do nothing but drive around for ten hours and answer your occasional radio call. Good cops -- the real hustlers -- were the guys that, when they didn't have a call to respond to, were out looking for bad guys, trying to pick up fugitives on warrants. They were cruising the alleys and East Colfax, looking for suspicious cars, people that matched robbery descriptions. And these were the guys who were consistently making an extraordinary number of arrests, recovering stolen guns, getting dope off the street."