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Media, system failed public in wake of slaying

By Bruce Plasket
Special to the Times-Call

There’s no such thing as a routine homicide.

But there are murder cases, and then there is the JonBenet Ramsey case. Quentin Tarantino couldn’t have written a more bizarre script than the story that unfolded nearly 10 years ago in the upper-middle-class shadow of the Flatirons just off Baseline Road.

Had they been fiction, the twists, turns and side stories surrounding the case would have been considered darkly humorous instead of deeply tragic.

The Ramsey case was Pulp Non-Fiction from the beginning. In a world where the criminal justice system investigates and prosecutes crimes while the media serve as watchdogs over the system, both components imploded at the same time. The victims of that failure included the public’s right to be informed, the credibility of both police and the media, and, of course, 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey, an innocent child whose murder likely will never be solved.

My former Times-Call colleague and close friend Pam Regensberg and I were among the scores of reporters who covered the case. Pam and I are no longer in the business. Neither are many others who got disgusted or fell apart covering a story that consumed them and seemed to destroy everything and everyone it touched.

Alcoholics who had been on the wagon for years fell off. Marriages crashed and burned. Careers ended or ended up in convenience stores.

I remember racing one day during the 14-month but seemingly interminable term of the Ramsey grand jury probe from Boulder to Aurora during a lunch break to undergo hypnosis to quit smoking. I was smoke-free for two hours.

The first few months of the Ramsey investigation offered a glimpse into the madness that would go on for nearly three years. A soon as the story broke, the freak show was on. Each sideshow seemed more bizarre than the last.

A man calling himself J.T. Colfax was arrested for stealing the mortuary log-book pages that recorded JonBenet’s death. Colfax was later accused of trying to burn down the Ramsey home.

An art student painted a mural on the University of Colorado campus with the words “Daddy’s Little Hooker.” The mural accused John Ramsey of killing his daughter.

The police added to the freak show when they inexplicably sent the crime-scene photos to a one-hour photo-processing place and a photo technician — you guessed it — sold copies to a tabloid. That same clerk was later arrested on suspicion of exposing himself to a little girl.

Two other men were arrested on suspicion of trying to sell copies of the ransom note to the tabloids.

A reporter was arrested on the roof of the Ramsey home.

Lawsuits abounded, with a police officer suing the police department, a former housekeeper suing the Ramseys, and New York lawyers suing to force the prosecution of Patsy Ramsey — buried Thursday after succumbing to ovarian cancer — fingered by police and reporters as the prime suspect despite evidence that pointed squarely away from any member of the family.

The Times-Call was one of the smaller newspapers providing daily, comprehensive coverage of the investigation. At times, that was a detriment in a media pecking order based on circulation or viewer numbers. But it also was a blessing. Fortunately, Pam and I were allowed to examine all avenues, suspects and sideshows without interference from the preconceptions of some faraway assignment editor.

Covering the case was never easy, given that public officials rarely told the truth — at least publicly. It was frustrating to watch then-Boulder Police Chief Tom Koby, whose department was butchering any chance of solving the case, say with a straight face that the case was being investigated “by the book.” Unfortunately, that book turned out to be more like Archie comics.

Reporters also shirked their responsibility to let the public know the depth of the infighting between police and the district attorney’s office.

Alex Hunter, to his credit, refused to bow to police pressure and charge the Ramseys with a crime they didn’t commit. He failed, however, to take charge of the situation — a failure that ended up as the legacy of his otherwise-commendable 28-year tenure as district attorney.

I had always admired Hunter, but he and I clashed almost daily during that period. We fought mightily in spite of, and perhaps because of, his habit of scheduling periodic “sit-downs” with reporters. In those informal sessions, Hunter privately admitted the case was in trouble and spared no words in describing the terrible relationship between police and his office. He would privately refer to the police as “those morons over on 33rd Street,” then publicly claim the departments were getting along just fine.

Had Hunter let his true honesty shine through in public, the police may well have had to put a halt to their media-manipulating attempts to pinch Patsy Ramsey.

Our coverage of the case took Pam and me from Chautauqua Park to a porn store in Boulder. When she left the paper, I was left to cover the last few months of the grand jury term. By then, it was getting really old.

The daily grind was broken by events so absurd that perhaps someday they will be funny.

Yellow-tape days — a reference to the tape that reserved parking spaces for grand jury members when they were in session — were crazy, but nothing substantive ever happened. Just more sideshows. Reporters resorted to interviewing other reporters. Hunter’s spokeswoman issued statements like, “We are preparing to be prepared.”

By its end, the grand jury circus was truly out of control. Officials announced they were making no special plans for the media crush expected at the end of the term and questioned the need for such a plan. That proved to be a bad idea when a court security officer who also was a sheriff’s deputy decided to solve the problem by banning all reporters from the justice center. The deputy, whom I had privately referred to as Sgt. Pinochet in honor of the Chilean dictator, was heading reporters off at the door and sending them packing. When I told him his actions were illegal, he asked me if I wanted to go to jail.

“I’ll get back to you on that,” I said as I retreated back outside.

Assistant District Attorney Bill Wise eventually intervened and talked Sgt. Pinochet out of the trees. We were all allowed in — sort of. Several offices in the building were adorned with large signs that read “Media-Free Zone.” I wondered how any public building in America could be made a media-free zone, thinking such places existed only in places like Russia and China. And now Boulder.

The Ramsey case faded from view shortly after the grand jury term ended with no indictments. But the lessons learned from watching the government and the media fail at the same time shouldn’t go away.

Justice, free speech and effective government, however, were only minor victims in the Ramsey-case meltdown.

The real victims were and are the Ramseys — those both living and dead.

Bruce Plasket is a former reporter and editor at the Daily Times-Call. He is one of the reporters who covered the JonBenet Ramsey case from its inception.