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Survey: Relatives rarely murderers in child-abduction cases

by Greg Avery
Daily Times-Call

BOULDER -- Television satellite trucks have reappeared and reporters from national media outlets have filtered back to Boulder in anticipation.

After seven months of secret meetings, those watching the Boulder County grand jury investigating the JonBenet Ramsey murder sense the proceedings might be coming to an end.

Whether the eight-woman, four-man grand jury -- which is cloaked in secrecy in accordance with state law -- will indict someone in the slaying remains to be seen. Who the jury could indict -- John Ramsey , Patsy Ramsey , an unexpected third party or some combination of each -- is cause for even greater speculation.

Dates in the Ramsey reporters' betting pool on the announcement of an indictment have passed uneventfully, and the best experts on the case are unsure whether District Attorney Alex Hunter would veto an indictment or sign it and allow a case to proceed.

But what if John or Patsy Ramsey -- or both -- were the subjects of an indictment, arrested and booked at the Boulder County Jail?

First, the news would be faxed to about 120 media outlets all over the world, and the far-flung interest in the case would be instantly re-engerized.

``Once the grand jury completes its work, you'd see as many 50 media outlets who would want to be in Boulder to report on the conclusion first hand,'' Hunter's spokeswoman Suzanne Laurion said.

Few investigations have drawn the kind of international attention given the Ramsey murder , and in the 28 months since the 6-year-old beauty queen was found beaten and strangled in her parents' Boulder home on Dec. 26, 1996, interest in the Ramsey case has waxed and waned but never completely subsided.

The case has produced Lawrence Schiller's best-selling dissection of the county's legal system ``Perfect Murder , Perfect Town,'' spawned Internet sleuthing clubs and inspired a stream of Late Night with Jay Leno jokes that would make any Boulder police officer cringe.

And if the investigation produces an indictment, the idea of prosecuting a case against either John or Patsy Ramsey , or both, could make the assigned prosecutor do the same.

Harvard law professor Alan Derschowitz, a brief player in the country's last media circus murder trial -- the O.J. Simpson case -- recently told the Associated Press how he viewed the significance of any indictment the grand jury could hand down.

``It takes no talent to indict,'' he said. ``Conviction is very, very different. It's a case where it sounds like it will be impossible to satisfy the legal standard of proof.''

Public sentiment seems to favor putting one or both of the Ramseys on trial, but known evidence leaves open the possibility of reasonable doubt in the case.

A palm print and shoe print found in the cellar near the girl's body remains unidentified, as does the source of DNA found on her body.

Other grand juries in similar but lower-profile cases have targeted parents suspected in a child abduction murder with little success, illustrating how difficult getting an indictment and conviction in a child abduction// murder can be.

In St. Petersburg, Fla., the Nov. 24, 1997, disappearance of 5-month-old Sabrina Aisenberg took on a feeling reminiscent of the Ramsey case.

The baby vanished out of her parent's home without a trace.

The parents, Marlene and Steve Aisenberg, insisted the case was a kidnapping, but when investigators began focusing on them as possible suspects, they hired lawyers, refused in-depth interviews with investigators and began publicly criticizing police for missing the real culprit in their zeal to prosecute them.

Investigators never named the parents as suspects, but to borrow a phrase from Hunter's announcements about the Ramseys , the Aisenbergs remained under the umbrella of suspicion.

Eventually, the case was referred to a federal grand jury and the Aisenbergs appeared before the secret panel in February 1998. It is assumed they used their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and declined to answer questions.

No indictment or arrest has ever been made.

In Las Vegas, Nev., 3-year-old Randi Evers disappeared after a 1992 birthday party for his father, Mike Evers. The toddler's parents reported the disappearance as an abduction, but police had trouble swallowing their story and understanding their demeanor in the early parts of the investigation.

Authorities were split by competing theories that the boy had been sold by his parents into white slavery or had been killed by one of his parents after the inebriated party-goers had gone home or passed out.

A grand jury was given the case. It reviewed reams of information from detectives and interviewed nine witnesses under oath before dropping the case without an indictment.

Further complicating investigators' views of the Ramsey case was a Washington Attorney General's Office and U.S. Department of Justice statistical analysis of 621 child abduction murders in America.

The report, released six months after JonBenet Ramsey 's death, caught the attention of some people close to the case because it exploded some of the most basic assumptions made about such crimes.

The analysis stuck to cases in which police initially responded to a call believing a child had been abducted and -- regardless of whether the abduction report was later discovered to be unfounded -- the child was ultimately found murdered .

The Ramsey murder was not included as part of the study, but it would have qualified for inclusion had it happened earlier.

One statistic in particular jumps off the pages when looked at in light of the Ramsey murder and the prevailing speculation that John or Patsy Ramsey had something to do with the crime.

In 92.5 percent of the study's cases in which the victim was under 10, the killer was either a stranger or an acquaintance of the family. The involvement of a family member or intimate partner in the abduction murder of anyone under 18 was extraordinarily rare, the study found.

Women were the killers in fewer than 2 percent of the study's cases, and nearly 60 percent of the killers studied had prior records of sex-related or violent crimes.

Though the Washington study outlines what many people feel is the most thorough guide for investigators in child-abduction murder cases, statistics always have exceptions. That is especially true when the findings are applied to the Ramsey murder , said one of the study's authors.

Washington Attorney General's Chief Criminal Investigator Bob Keppel, a co-author of the study, said little about the Ramsey case fits the statistical profile of most child abduction murders .

``This case is an anomaly,'' Keppel said.