BOULDER — Five years ago today, Boulder underwent a transformation from a sleepy, well-heeled college town to the center of the most covered, most maligned, most expensive and most controversial murder investigation in the state’s history.
On Dec. 26, 1996, the killing of JonBenet Ramsey became America’s Murder.
For the next three years, the 6-year-old’s slaying dominated the news and served as daily fodder for Jay Leno and David Letterman.
Boulder’s darkest hour also dominated the media — from nightly coverage by Geraldo Rivera and Larry King to that of tabloids whose weekly headlines offered solutions to a case whose history has become littered with shattered careers, shattered hopes for justice and an apparently financially shattered Ramsey family.
And Lin Wood, the attorney for the only two identified suspects — John and Patsy Ramsey — has called for the release of information he claims will prove that police never seriously looked at other suspects and botched an investigation that has so far cost more than $1.75 million.
With the case now five years old, long gone are the days of bravado, when then-Boulder police Chief Tom Koby defiantly proclaimed, “Our man won’t walk,” and then-District Attorney Alex Hunter pointed at the TV cameras and declared, “We will find you.”
Hunter, now retired, refuses to discuss the case. His wife, Margie, told reporters she has been deleting all phone messages seeking comment before Hunter hears them.
The case that began with grandiose guarantees came to a whimpering end in October 1999, when a grand jury was dismissed without bringing any indictments and was ordered to remain silent for life.
Now, the case seems to have little life beyond the commemoration of its fifth anniversary.
“People don’t want to hear about it,” said current District Attorney Mary Keenan, who in 2000 won a rancorous election to replace Hunter, who declined to seek an eighth term. “They don’t want to hear about it unless something important happens.”
Keenan said her office’s role now is confined to periodically reviewing the 43,000-page case file, passing leads on to police and providing them with legal advice.
“It’s in their hands,” she said.
Boulder police Chief Mark Beckner, in whose hands the case now rests, offered little reason for optimism.
“It is still an open investigation, and we are periodically working on it,” he said.
While four investigators are still assigned to the case, Beckner said their part-time role consists of mainly following up leads and re-examining evidence.
Five years after JonBenet’s body was found in a basement closet in her family’s Chautauqua Park home, however, the quality of that investigation from its inception remains a subject of debate. In a civil trial earlier this year, police blamed one of their own — former Detective Linda Arndt — for a series of mistakes that continue to cripple the case. Arndt, the first detective on the scene, was criticized for placing a blanket — and possibly contaminating evidence — on JonBenet’s body and for allowing John Ramsey to search the house with family friend Fleet White.
Arndt, who filed the suit against the Boulder Police Department claiming she was scapegoated in the case, had a different version. She said her supervisors failed to send backup officers to the scene for nearly two hours — leaving Arndt to deal with what she called “a house full of people” with no help.
Beckner, in a recent interview, said the investigation also was hampered by the media, both mainstream and tabloid reporters who seemed one step ahead of police in interviewing — and often offering money to — witnesses.
“You always like to be the first one to interview people,” he said. “That wasn’t always the case.”
While a judge dismissed Arndt’s suit in midtrial, her performance on the morning of Dec. 26, 1996, was not the only bone of contention among investigators and prosecutors. From the beginning, the case was marked by disputes that would leave many careers littering the political landscape of the mid-’90s like blown-up Iraqi tanks on the road to Baghdad.
Detective John Eller, who headed the investigation in its early days, did not get along with Hunter or his chief Ramsey -case assistant, Peter Hofstrom. Eller would soon quit the police department and move to Florida.
In an interview as he left office, Hunter admitted he once told Eller he thought he “had a screw loose.” In an earlier conversation with a reporter, Hunter had referred to the police as “those (expletive) morons up on 33rd Street.”
Another detective, Larry Mason, sued the department, saying he was falsely accused of leaking information to the media. The case was settled with a $10,000 check written to Mason.
Koby also quit his post after receiving a no-confidence vote from his officers, and Detective Steve Thomas later followed him out the door after writing a scathing letter criticizing Hunter.
The personnel shuffle also hit Hunter’s office. Hunter hired retired Colorado Springs Detective Lou Smit to provide what he called “a fresh set of eyes” in the case, but Smit would later leave after a series of disagreements with the police department. Hunter also hired Michael Kane as a grand jury specialist and, under pressure from police, removed Hofstrom and fellow Deputy District Attorney Trip DeMuth from the case. DeMuth later quit his job, ran for district attorney and was defeated in the Democratic primary election by Keenan. Prior to leaving the district attorney’s office, both DeMuth and Boulder county sheriff’s Detective Steve Ainsworth were investigated — at the urging of Boulder police — as possible suspects in the break-in of the “war room” from which the investigation was run. CBI investigators followed the two and even seized their home computers before announcing they had made a mistake and there had been no break-in.
Kane, in turn, left shortly after the grand jury was disbanded in October 1999.
Wood, the Atlanta attorney who has represented the Ramseys , has since become one of the case’s most vocal critics. Wood is currently defending the Ramseys in a libel suit filed by former Boulder County part-time journalist Chris Wolf, who was named as a suspect in a book written by the Ramseys .
Wood claims police have ignored all but two of the 140 potential suspects interviewed in the case — John and Patsy Ramsey .
“I know for a fact there are possible suspects who have not been thoroughly investigated in the case,” he said. “I am confident you will find that no other suspect in this case has been thoroughly investigated other than John and Patsy.”
When attorneys for Wolf deposed the Ramseys less than two weeks ago, Wood made the transcripts available to the public and now wants the deposition of others in the case — mainly Hunter, Beckner and Thomas — made public. He said the release of those depositions would show the depth of police ineptitude and infighting during the investigation.
“The Ramseys want all the cards to be put on the table,” he said. “We are going to fight for the other testimony to be public.”
According to Wood, the case has virtually bankrupted the Ramseys , who are trying to sell the Atlanta-area home he says they can no longer afford.
“John’s not able to get a job,” Wood said. “He’s unemployable. I would expect that if Boulder has spent $1.7 million on the case, John Ramsey has outspent that.”
Wood said the Ramseys are now “living off John’s retirement fund” and said the couple hopes police will someday admit their innocence to remove the stigma from their name.
“Until those things happen, John and Patsy are treading water, trying t