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Back to 1998 Headlines

12/26/1998

Who has the answer?

By Pam Regensberg
Daily Times-Call

BOULDER -- While the JonBenet Ramsey murder investigation -- hampered from the start by infighting and clouded by a myriad of sideshows -- enters its third year this week, the public is no closer to knowing who murdered the 6-year-old beauty queen.

Now the 2-year-old homicide case is in the hands of longtime prosecutor, District Attorney Alex Hunter, and a hand-selected group of attorneys. The group is faced with seemingly formidable odds in a case that captured international attention from the onset when John Ramsey found his daughter's body in the basement of their family home.

JonBenet had lived her short life in pictures and videos and had graced many stages with her coquettish smile and her shiny dresses. Her image still appears on the covers of many supermarket tabloids.

JonBenet became perhaps more famous than she would have imagined on Dec. 26, 1996, when her father carried her lifeless body up the stairs and onto the world's stage.

Two years later the public knows one thing for sure: the child's murderer remains free.

``This case is no different than a lot of homicide cases except that it's a high-visibility case,'' said former Arapahoe County District Attorney Bob Gallagher. ``Low-visibility cases have the same problems.''

Indeed. The problems are many.

It has been mired with allegations of police ineptitude, crime-scene contamination, strife within the Boulder Police Department and almost no cooperation from the only witnesses.

Critics have said the Ramseys were given preferential treatment because they were wealthy. The Ramseys , in turn, said Boulder authorities are incompetent.

``He's been handed a hot potato,'' Gallagher said, who recently stepped down as DA after serving 27 years. ``A lot of people think the DAs can perform magic. They can't.''

Hunter also has been the target of numerous potshots from former Boulder Detective Steve Thomas, who said Hunter's office is ``thoroughly compromised,'' and from former Ramsey -family friends, Fleet and Priscilla White. Thomas and the Whites asked that the Ramsey homicide case be taken from Hunter.

``This has been the greatest professional challenge of my life,'' Hunter said in September. Hunter, a usually sociable public official with a ready greeting, has dropped out of sight in recent months and has confined himself to the inner rooms of the Boulder County Justice Center.

``Fortunately, I'm surrounded at the office by attorneys and support staff who enjoy their work and haven't permitted the intensity of the Ramsey case to distract them,'' Hunter noted in a prepared statement. ``At home I'm surrounded by a family who has been understanding toward my absorption in the case and is willing to give me credit for the small chunks of time I'm able to spend with them.''

Nevertheless, if this case can be solved, Hunter has the best team possible, a Denver attorney familiar with the players and the case said this week.

Running the grand jury which convened in September is Michael Kane, a former Denver prosecutor and grand jury specialist. Denver's Chief Trial Deputy Mitch Morrisey appointed in the fall is regarded as a DNA specialist and tried Denver's first case in which DNA was used as evidence. Bruce Levin, on loan from the Adams County DA's office, has tried four first-degree murder cases in the past two years.

``I feel that the selection of the people to work on the case, highlighted by Mike's (Kane) involvement, is a very good one,'' said former Denver prosecutor David Heckenbach who now is in private practice. ``He's a look-under-every-rock, plod-along-until-you-get-it-done kind of guy.''

Heckenbach, who graduated from law school with Kane and started working at the Denver DA's office on the same day with him, said unless the grand jury has much more information than has already been leaked, a conviction might be impossible.

``With there being so many mistakes and wild speculation ... there's enough reasonable doubt,'' he added.

The grand jury that is poring over 30,000 pages of evidence also has an investigative function and can compel people to testify.

But what the grand jury knows and doesn't know is a mystery.

``The secrecy has been maintained completely, an accomplishment in which we take pride,'' said Hunter's spokeswoman Suzanne Laurion. ``Many said we wouldn't be able to control leaks, but we have.''

***

The actual murder mystery began Dec. 26, 1996, in a 15-room Tudor home, 755 15th St., in an affluent neighborhood near Chautauqua Park.

JonBenet's mother and former beauty queen, Patsy Ramsey , wanted to get an early start that morning and wandered down a spiral staircase about 5:30 a.m.

Near the bottom step Patsy Ramsey found a 2\A-page note, causing her to run, shrieking and searching for her youngest child.

The note -- which investigators later determined was written on a tablet found in the Ramseys ' home along with a practice note -- said JonBenet had been kidnapped by a small foreign faction. It demanded $118,000 for the safe return of the former Little Miss Colorado.

Patsy Ramsey called 911 at 5:52 a.m. Initially, investigators were concentrating only on a kidnapping and had neither conducted a thorough search of the large house nor secured the home.

It was nearly eight hours later that Boulder Detective Linda Arndt asked the girl's father, John Ramsey , and his friend, Fleet White, to search the house.

In a small, cold basement room, the Boulder businessman found his daughter's body. He ripped the duct tape from the girl's mouth and hurriedly carried her upstairs. She was in a room that officers had bypassed earlier because the door was stuck.

She had been strangled, beaten and sexually assaulted.

Almost immediately, the Ramseys hired separate attorneys, private investigators to help police, and offered anything else that would help find the killer, including a $50,000 reward.

What they didn't offer, however, was perhaps more telling. It would be about four months before the Ramseys granted the police interviews. The Ramseys , including their 11-year-old son, Burke, granted another set of interviews this summer, that time conducted by a team from Hunter's office.

Patsy Ramsey made good on a promise never to return to the family's Tudor home. The Ramseys are now living in the Atlanta area and are reportedly getting on with their lives.

Yet they remain under the umbrella of suspicion, Hunter has said.

***

During the past two years some media personalities blasted the Boulder police, saying they botched the investigation from the start and that is why the DA's office called in the big guns -- DNA expert Barry Scheck, famed criminologist Dr. Henry Lee, both made famous during the O.J. Simpson murder trial, and esteemed Colorado Springs police investigator Lou Smit -- to redeem the case.

Smit quit in September after working on the case for 16 months. In his resignation letter Smit said he did not believe John or Patsy Ramsey killed their little girl. Critics said Smit shared Patsy Ramsey 's religious beliefs, causing him to side with the family. As with Detective Thomas' sharp letter of resignation in August, Hunter's office said almost nothing about Smit's departure.

Hunter hired Smit in March, just one month after making his dramatic speech to JonBenet's killer.

Looking into the TV camera Hunter said, ``You will pay for what you did, and we have no doubt that will happen. You have stripped us of any mercy that we might have had in the beginning of this investigation. We will see that justice is served in this case and that you pay.''<