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Back to 2000 Headlines

3/12/2000

Hunter is retiring after 7 years, but when people remember his career, they will always think of JonBenet Ramsey

by DeeDee Correll
Daily Times-Call

BOULDER The images of the 6-year-old child beauty pageant winner haunt Alex Hunter's offices like a ghost.

Among the law books and personal effects stacked on his bookshelves, an entire shelf is dedicated to material from the investigation into JonBenet Ramsey 's Dec. 26, 1996, homicide.

A large portrait of the slain beauty queen the image seen by millions on a book cover, in the tabloids and mainstream news organizations looms above Hunter's desk next to a bust of Abraham Lincoln.

On a nearby shelf, a pair of 3-ring binders full of case documents are graced by a different JonBenet photo, a wallet-sized reproduction of an elementary school yearbook shot, less iconic than the famed glamour picture.

Gone are the make-up, styled hair and the pageant allure that made the little girl's murder a national obsession. In this photograph, JonBenet is just another little girl.

The difference in the images is telling, not just about the notorious murder case but about Hunter's legacy.

Hunter announced this week he would not seek re-election as Boulder County's chief prosecutor, calling an end to his 27-year career as an elected official.

Look at Hunter's career through the lens of the glamorized, sensationalized JonBenet case and it looks decidedly different than if the murder had never occurred.

In talking about his decision to step down, Hunter wanted to focus on the entire breadth of his life as district attorney but, even for him, the gravity of the JonBenet murder and its place in the media pulled the conversation back.

"You know, if you took the pageant footage out of this, it's just another murder ," Hunter said, musing on the reasons for the media's unending fascination with the case.

But the footage was there, to be played over and over again in the three years since her body was discovered in her parents' Boulder home.

It attracted national news outlets, the tabloid press and a host of self-described sleuths who still follow and speculate about the case on the Internet.

The attention wrenched apart careers and destroyed relationships between Hunter's officers and Boulder investigators.

Hunter's role in it became the backbone for much of Lawrence Schiller's tome "Perfect Murder , Perfect Town" and his television movie that aired earlier this month.

Hunter long prided himself on his unusually open relationship with the media as district attorney.

Reporters were let into the office to wander in search of prosecutors for comment on ongoing cases, and Hunter's door was often open as well.

That would come back to haunt him in the Ramsey case, as documents turned up in the press and leaks some allegedly from Hunter himself damaged Boulder police detectives' reputations.

Thursday, he said the height of the media frenzy in 1997 and 1998 turned his job into a "battlezone, a war situation" where reporters from around the country called asking for him 120 times a day.

Writers dug through the trash at his home and the Boulder County Justice Center.

A tabloid paid $10,000 to a former nanny of Hunter's now 14-year-old daughter, Britanny, to dish dirt on his family.

"That was such a hurtful thing to my daughter," Hunter said, adding that the experience wasn't all negative. "I've learned a lot about loyalty, disloyalty, courage and lack of courage ... On reflection it's been a terrific opportunity, an intellectual challenge."

Recently, Hunter spoke to college criminal justice classes about handling a high profile criminal case, and later this year he will address a national organization of district attorneys on the same topic.

Hunter foresees lecturing on the media and criminal cases after his term ends, and possibly handling cases with his 40-year-old son Alex Hunter III, an area attorney.

But asked about his legacy, Hunter wants it to go beyond the Ramsey case.

"I'd like to think people will say 'the guy had guts, guts to do what's right whether or not it's popular,'" he said. "The system was working when I was here."

Boulder County has less serious crime than other areas of its size, he said, and nearly no instances of police corruption, brutality, selective prosecution, lack of compassion for youth and apathy for crime victims problems rife in the criminal justice systems of other areas. Those are what he hopes to be remembered for.

At weeks' end, others involved in the system suggested Hunter should be remembered for bringing many organizations together to try to solve problems in society that lead to crime.

Susan Ransbottom, coordinator of the county's Domestic Abuse Prevention Project, said Hunter backed prosecutor Kathy Delgado's project to start the organization in 1986.

First funded as part of the district attorney's office, the project has since become its own, permanent organization within the county's social services.

"Alex was a leader in getting it started, and it was a model for those kind of cooperative ventures around the state," Ransbottom said. "I can't remember Alex turning down any substantial request to battle domestic violence ... I hope the next DA is as supportive."

Hunter's collaborative approach a phrase frequently used to describe Hunter's legacy resulted in the state's first victim's compensation fund, first district attorney's consumer protection bureau and other organizations.

Hunter advises his successor, whoever it may be, not to shut out the media. Don't let pressures that arise around a case change how they are pursued, he said.

"I'd tell them to be true to the law. Follow the law, and follow the rules," Hunter said. Most of all, only prosecute a case when there is enough evidence for a jury to convict.

Those sentiments rose long before the Ramsey case.

After briefly gaining national attention for a no-plea bargaining policy in the late 1970s, Hunter scrapped that policy and became know as a soft touch on plea agreements.

His inclination to let public opinion into the justice process hasn't always helped his reputation with law enforcement, however.

Hunter angered some Longmont police officers by throwing open a police-shooting investigation to public opinion.

In 1989, three Longmont officers fatally shot 41-year-old bar manager Tim Wood.

Drunk, armed with a knife and moving toward officers outside the now-defunct Captain Jack's bar on south Main Street, officers opened fire and killed the man.

Hunter organized public meetings where the shooting investigation results were made public, and public comment was accepted before ruling the officers were justified in pulling their triggers.

"It brought every cop-hater in the city with an agenda out of the woodwork, and this was with guys' careers on the line," one longtime Longmont officer said recently, asking to remain anonymous.

The three-month process told some officers that Hunter would not back them if something they did became controversial.

When asked what case typified Hunter's career, especially in relationship to police, Sheriff George Epp recalled the 1981 Mary Ann Bryan murder in Longmont.

The 27-year-old pharmacy worker was abducted, brutally beaten and left to die in a mountain outhouse by "Tattoo" Bob Landry, who had been hired to kill Bryan by her ex-husband.

After failing to get a death penalty jury seated, Hunter got Landry convicted on a life sentence. He died in prison. The husband also received a long prison sentence and remains behind bars, but a handful of people who either knew of the plot or assisted in a minor way received wha