Off Limits

The right write stuff
Saturday's services for veteran journalist and sometime politico Sherry Keene-Osborn, who died last week at age 54, brought out numerous writers who'd gotten their start when she edited the Rocky Mountain Business Journal (now the Denver Business Journal) back in the '70s. But during three decades of work, Keene-Osborn sometimes made news herself.

In 1982, as the Denver newspaper war was becoming bloodier than the Battle of Gettysburg, Denver Post staffers went to the bedside of Michael Balfe Howard -- the Scripps Howard scion who had amped up the company's flagship Rocky Mountain News until the tabloid's circulation finally overtook the Post's -- to interview the by-then former editor about his cocaine use. The resulting series of front-page stories reverberated across the country, and in June of that year, the Colorado Senate began looking into Howard's involvement with assorted law-enforcement officials, including Ron Pietrafeso, a member of the state's organized-crime strike force and occasional Howard bodyguard. During the hospital interviews, Howard had told Post investigative ace Jack Taylor and Chuck Green (yes, the Dogfather of Denver columnists) that Pietrafeso had been aware of his drug habit. Howard also dropped more prominent names than the Denver Blue Book.

But Keene-Osborn -- a friend of Howard's then-wife, Candy, who thought the Post was taking advantage of Howard's condition and indicated as much when she called the paper's interviewers "creeps" and "scavengers" -- appears in person on one transcript released by the Post to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1982. Eighteen years later, her comments still provide insight into the state of journalism -- and the human condition.

At one point, Howard's wife turns to the Post interviewers: "I want to ask why and how this story will help drug reinforcement? The Michael Balfe Howard story? How much he used?"

Green: "We have Mike to tell us what he thinks, how it will help...What's the most important thing you have to tell readers of the Denver Post? The public?"

Howard: "This is the most dangerous"

Later, Candy tells the reporters she wants them to leave, and Osborn adds this stinger: "All of this altruism that you've expressed for Mike's welfare is bullshit."

As a stringer for Newsweek fifteen years later, Keene-Osborn again became part of the story when she covered the JonBenét Ramsey case. Her name appears repeatedly in Lawrence Schiller's book Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, and Schiller even reprints a phone message she left Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter, advising him to be careful in interviews:

"Here are some of the things good reporters learn to do over the years: A reporter finds out something about the person they're interviewing, some personal thing, and pretends that has happened to them, too, to gain a simpatico relationship. Or the reporter gets into an intellectual discussion, and the person lets down his guard and says things he doesn't mean to say. Getting the person mad is another way to do it if the other methods don't work. Confessing something to the person being interviewed makes the subject sympathetic to the reporter and more talkative. Reporters can be really nasty. Watch your ass!"

Such straight shooting was typical of Keene-Osborn, who was devoted to doing what was "right," as her husband, Mike Osborn, recalled at her service. This town will be duller without her.

Strike while the irony is hot
The first portion of the miniseries made from Schiller's book is set to air February 27, right at the end of sweeps month. But even as Boulder prepares itself to look less than perfect, another drama is unfolding behind the scenes.

The Globe -- whose employees, particularly ex-reporter Jeff Shapiro, pop up frequently in Schiller's book -- hasn't taken the indictment of news editor Craig Lewis lying down. Shortly after a Jefferson County grand jury determined that Lewis could be charged with violating the state's commercial bribery statute -- he allegedly tried to purchase a copy of the Ramsey ransom note from Donald Vacca, a former DPD cop and handwriting expert who was retained by the Ramsey family attorneys -- the Globe's lawyers jumped into action: They've subpoenaed representatives of the Boulder District Attorney's Office, the Boulder Police Department, the law firms that represented assorted Ramseys, and even Vacca regarding their knowledge of the ransom note.

Although the entire note wasn't published until September 1997 -- in Ann Louise Bardach's piece in Vanity Fair -- insiders were surprised it hadn't leaked earlier. "The Ramseys, their lawyers, their investigators, their close friends, every detective on the case, the coroner, the city attorney, six people in Hunter's office, even Sherry Keene-Osborn of Newsweek -- all had seen it, and some had copies," Schiller writes. "With all the money the tabloids threw around, it was ironic that it turned up in a publication that hadn't paid for it."

If you have a tip, call Jonathan Shikes at 303-293-3555, send a fax to 303-296-5416, or e-mail [email protected].

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