Raised From the Dead

It wasn't so very long ago that Governor Roy Romer wanted to promote Colorado as the "best place to raise a child."

Just a few murders ago, in fact.
The state couldn't buy the attention that's been focused on Colorado children lately--but it's hardly the promotional coup that Romer envisioned.

On Tuesday morning Colorado again led the national news--thanks to Monday's release of the almost-complete JonBenet Ramsey autopsy report, much of which had been under seal for six months. (The few still-censored items, scheduled to be made public August 13, follow the section where Boulder County Coroner John Meyer first approaches "the decedent's body" at 8:20 p.m.--at least six hours after John Ramsey carried his dead daughter upstairs from the basement and placed her under the Christmas tree.)

Newly revealed details show that JonBenet's death was far more violent than most people have allowed themselves to imagine. Yes, there was the garrote around the neck, the one shown in the Globe's pilfered pictures, and specifics on just how deeply the resulting ligature had dug into the six-year-old's skin. But the real revelation, the one that hits the reader with horrifying force, was the brutality of the blow to her skull. That eight-and-a-half-inch wound was delivered with a deadly power, the experts agree, a power consistent with rage, even madness.

And there the experts stop agreeing.
On one side is Pittsburgh coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht, who from the start has been vehement--and vocal, on venues ranging from the Globe to local talk radio--that JonBenet was the victim of sexual abuse, and likely repeated sexual abuse. How else, he says, can you account for a tear in the hymen that appears to have been sustained before the night JonBenet died? How else to account for the damage around her vagina? The blood?

And on the other side is Dr. Richard Krugman, current dean of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and former head of the Kempe Center, a nationally recognized authority that has helped make Colorado the leading center on child abuse. It was the Kempe Center that pushed the "believe the children" theory of sexual assault a decade ago; it was the Kempe Center that first teamed up with Marilyn Van Derbur when she wanted to help survivors of incest.

But Krugman has another relevant credential: He's a member of the prosecution's dream team, as announced by Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter months ago, back when Hunter promised an arrest in the JonBenet Ramsey case--and people believed him. Krugman's connection with the prosecution makes his willingness to speak surprising enough, given the closed lips of Boulder officials. Even more surprising, though, is what Krugman is willing to say.

According to Krugman, the autopsy showed no evidence of prior sexual assault--and, in fact, no definitive evidence of an actual assault that evening. Krugman had said as much before. Now, though, he's elaborating on his opinion: The injuries around the vagina, even the tear in the hymen, could have been caused by some other trauma. Even irritation from a bubble bath.

If so, there are a lot of people behind bars in Colorado--some put there by testimony from Krugman's Kempe Center experts--who are guilty of bathing their children.

And Krugman doesn't stop with that. "The problem in abuse cases when a child dies in the middle of the night when there are several adults around," he says, "it's impossible to tell who did it."

Is Krugman sure he isn't a member of the defense team?
After all of this is over, Krugman continues, maybe everyone can finally sit down and have a serious discussion of the real problem.

And what, precisely, is that problem? The shortage of department stores that stock bow ties? The fact that to get face time on the Today show you have to get up so dang early?

The real problem can't be child abuse, because Marilyn Van Derbur, who's no longer affiliated with the Kempe Center, brought that subject up months ago. And so far, in this state filled with authorities on the issue, she's been about the only person willing to speak out on behalf of abused children--and specifically, on behalf of JonBenet.

JonBenet can no longer speak for herself, of course; perhaps that's why Krugman cannot believe this child was sexually abused.

From Boulder, it is only a short hop to Greeley, where jury selection is under way in the trial of Renee Polreis, charged with child abuse resulting in death. To be precise, she's accused of beating her adopted son with a wooden spoon so brutally that he died.

Colorado's taking a beating with the publicity over that case, too. Much of the national attention focuses on Polreis's defense strategy, which argues that the boy suffered from "reactive attachment disorder" and essentially killed himself.

Renee and her husband adopted David from a Russian orphanage in July 1995. Within a few months Renee was telling friends that she feared David, that he was destroying her marriage and making her life a living hell.

David was a two-year-old boy.
Renee took the boy to therapists, who told her he might have an attachment disorder--essentially, an inability for a child to attach, to bond. Colorado is also the center for experts on that disorder, although the founder of The Attachment Center, Foster Cline, left the state under a cloud several years ago.

Severely unattached children can be cruel, even harmful to others. And they can hurt themselves.

Here is what the defense plans to argue in Polreis's case: Alone one night in Greeley in early 1996, Renee might have disciplined her son--but David essentially beat himself to death. That's why, they plan to argue, David was found unconscious in the bathroom of his parents' home, bruised over most of his body.

Never mind the two wooden spoons wrapped in bloody diapers that were found in the trash can.

But at least someone was charged in connection with David Polreis's death.
Six months after JonBenet Ramsey was killed, the Boulder cops look no closer to an arrest than they did the day her battered body was laid under the Christmas tree.

Maybe they're waiting for someone to step forward and suggest that JonBenet killed herself.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun