American Culture

JonBenet, pt. 1: the establishment of a narrative

by Michael Tracey

SHE pass’d away like morning dew
Before the sun was high;
So brief her time, she scarcely knew
The meaning of a sigh.

As round the rose its soft perfume,
Sweet love around her floated;
Admired she grew–while mortal doom
Crept on, unfear’d, unnoted.

Love was her guardian Angel here,
But Love to Death resign’d her;
Tho’ Love was kind, why should we fear
But holy Death is kinder?

– Hartley Coleridge

On August 16 2006 MSNBC broke the story that an arrest had been made in the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, a pretty 6 year old girl, winner of several beauty pageants, who had been garroted and bludgeoned to death on Christmas night 1996 in Boulder, Colorado. Through 1997 the case became the biggest story of any kind in the United States, until another princess died on August 31 in a Paris tunnel. The story was fueled by the wealth of her parents, the brutality of the assault, its savage cruelty, even if in the annals of mayhem and murder in the Republic, in the long list of slaughtered innocents, JonBenet’s death was not especially exceptional.

What really got the collective pulse beating feverishly were videos of JonBenet taking part in child pageants, dressed and acting in ways that many saw as a sexualized child prancing around in a suggestive manner, an alluring, pouting, posing Lolita, a pedophile’s dream. I understand that there was for many people something, shall we say, curious about the images but to go from that to the argument that she was being sexually abused by her parents, which would emerge as one of the strongest narratives in the media story was, to my way of thinking, a real stretch. That, however, she might have caught the eye of sexual sadist seems highly plausible, someone who would lust for her, not rest until he had her.

As the years passed and no arrest was made, and a grand jury in October 1999 failed to hand down an indictment, the story slowly slipped from the headlines and the public imagination, a chill set in, it became a cold case. When news emerged of the arrest in Bangkok, following an investigation involving the Boulder DA’s office, the FBI, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, British Intelligence, and the Royal Thai Police, within hours hundreds of reporters, camera crews, producers, not just from the United States but from all over the world, were flocking to Boulder. The case of JonBenet had gone from cold to hot in barely a heartbeat.

I happen to know something of this since I was the one who, for four years, had been receiving emails from the man arrested, and it was his confessions in this long exchange of emails and phone conversations that he was responsible for the death of JonBenet, that led to the intense, international investigation. I found myself in the middle of an extraordinary, even hysterical, media firestorm as well as a truly bizarre sequence of events. It was a curious place for a media scholar to be, and it felt at times like having a berth on the Titanic. It provided, however, a fascinating position to think through again some basic questions: how did it all come to be; what did the renewed explosion of interest say about the nature of contemporary media and the cultures that they serve; issues of ethics with which I was confronted; and the most profound question of all, “why are they all here?

“…the miscarriage of American civilization”

The story begins ten years earlier when I had an idea, to make a documentary about the way in which the media had dealt with the murder of JonBenet. I floated the idea with a friend of mine, David Mills, an extremely experienced, London based film maker. The reasons for wanting to do this were both simple and complex, but primarily birthed by those concerns and feelings I expressed in the Prologue. It seemed obvious to me that there was a serious problem with the manner of the coverage: it was both overdone and unfair. Overdone in that there was so much of it, unfair because from the get-go any presumption of innocence was denied JonBenet’s parents, John and Patsy Ramsey. It also troubled me greatly that so many in the public seemed so willing, so needing, to believe what they read and heard. In other words, the story was a profound and troubling metaphor for everything that was going wrong with American journalism and, in a sense, the larger culture. I was reminded of Freud’s comment about “the miscarriage of American civilization,” by which he meant the disconnect between the lofty 18th century ideals upon which the Republic had been founded, and the sorry condition he observed in the 20th century.

My initial fascination was with the manner in which the story of her death was told in the media, the sheer vastness and luridness of the coverage by mainstream and tabloid media alike. What became clear was that the story was a narrative within which were certain themes, suggestions, declamations, a nudge here, a wink there. “Clues” and “conclusions” were thrown about like confetti at an Irish wedding. The essential themes told, basically, one story, but it was rather like a pointillist painting, in which a picture is constructed from dots of pure color that one has to step back from and which viewed from a distance form into a recognizable shape, in this case a portrait of two child killers. The more I researched, the more I came to know, the more evidence I unearthed, the more people I spoke to, the more I studied child murder the more flawed that portrait appeared. There is no space here to render all the stories that were told and retold about the crime and the family but two or three will make the point.

Almost from the beginning, that is within hours and days of her body being found, by her father, in a dingy basement room, that narrative was being laid down. It was claimed, for example, that the house at 755 15th St, was basically a fortress, alarm on, windows and doors locked. Not true. The alarm was off, doors and windows open. The police knew this because it’s in the police report from the morning of December 26, but they whispered their untruths to reporters who, to borrow that by now familiar phrase, acted as stenographers as they began to lay down, totally uncritically, the conceptual groundwork that it was clear that John and or Patsy Ramsey had killed their daughter. As early as December 27th an assistant DA was telling the media, anonymously of course ( though it would emerge later that it was Bill Wise) that “something’s not right.” A few days later the mayor, Leslie Durgin, announced to the press and the public that parents need not fear for the well being of their children, that police were not scouring the streets of Boulder for a crazed child killer.

When I asked her, in an interview for our first documentary, who had told her this she said “the Chief,” that is the police chief, Tom Kolby. The comment may have been an unfortunate mixture of the stupid and the unprofessional, but the implication was obvious and overwhelming, the police were working off the assumption that it was someone in the house who killed JonBenet, which of course they were.

Another, key story emerged in March 1997 when it was reported that police found it curious that there were “no footprints in the snow,” around the house. The implication was obvious, and intended: no footprints, no intruder. The slight problem with this, as law enforcement knew and the crime scene photos from December 26 make clear, was that there was little or no snow around the house.

Another little gem: John Ramsey, it was reported, had flown his private jet back to Atlanta, with his family and JonBenet’s casket on board. So there it is, Ramsey is so calm, so not grieving, so in control, so mentally calm that he could fly a jet. Ergo, he was a sociopath who killed her.

The source was, as we were told by the reporter who first broke the “story,” a member of law enforcement who had always been “reliable.” Problem was, not true. Dan Glick, a stringer for Newsweek who worked with us on the first documentary, did something which we used to teach in Journalism 101, he checked the facts. In particular, he checked the FAA take off and landing log at JeffCo Airport and discovered that in fact the jet had been sent by the Chairman of Lockheed Martin, which had bought Ramsey’s company, Access Graphics, and that the pilot was a Lockheed pilot. When we interviewed the reporter who broke this story, who is as far as I can tell a really nice guy, and I asked him why, he asked me in return “maybe you can tell me it wasn’t his plane and he didn’t fly it.” The script line that followed that soundbite in the documentary was obvious and, to be honest, devastating, “…it wasn’t his plane and he didn’t fly it.”

For the documentary we drew on many sources, tabloids, television, newspapers, news magazines, interviews with the Ramseys, family and friends, attorneys and reporters. We would be accused of overemphasizing the role of the tabloids, to which we would respond that there was little if any clear water between them and the mainstream media. Perhaps the most profound example of this was in a piece in Vanity Fair by Annie Bardach, which had the distinction of being the first publication with the text of the ransom note, but was also riddled with error, half-truth and downright untruths.

She wrote: that the Ramsey’s behavior was “odd;” she quoted Linda Arndt, the first detective on the scene, as reporting that between 10.30 and noon John Ramsey left the house to pick up the family mail. Arndt had said this, but it would later to be shown to be incorrect; she reported that only a small child or a midget could have entered through the basement window. Not true, I’ve been through as have people larger than me; she said that near JonBenet’s body was her red “pageant nightgown. Not true, it was a Barbie nightgown. She reported that Hal Haddon, the senior Ramsey attorney, was a political ally of the District Attorney, Alex Hunter, when in fact they had never even met; she reported investigators saying that the ligatures around JonBenet’s neck and wrists were “very loose,” and were consistent with a staging. Not true, as we now know from the autopsy photos which show that the ligature was so tight it caused a deep gouge in the child’s neck; she reported the story that there were no signs of forced entry, and no footprints in the snow; she reported that JonBenet was a chronic bed wetter and that Patsy had taken JonBenet to her pediatrician 30 times. In fact, it was 27 over a four year period, some of those with the nanny. Dr. Francesco Bueff, the pediatrician, told us that there was nothing abnormal about this, that there were no signs of abuse and that she was not a chronic bed-wetter; Bardach also reported the story that John Ramsey flew a private jet back to Atlanta for the funeral. Not true.

Bardach’s piece was the very gold standard of the media errors, and yet it was certainly influential and was perhaps cited more than any other single piece as laying out the case that the Ramseys were involved in their child’s death.

Frothing at the Mouth

And then there was the big one, the story of all stories: this was all about sex, and JonBenet had been sexually abused at home. The evidence for this ~ which we searched long and hard to find ~ well, it doesn’t exist, but vast numbers of people simply assumed that it did for the simple reason that this is what they were being told, ad infinitum.

Then there were the things that weren’t said because they didn’t fit the police theory that Patsy had flown into a rage over JonBenet’s bed wetting, somehow smashed her head, staged the garroting, tied ligatures round her wrists and then wrote a two and a half page “ransom note.” It seemed to me a palpably silly idea, if only because there was nothing in her past to indicate any disposition to violence, let alone violence of this depravity. What was also missing from the public account was, for example, the clear indication that JonBenet was stun gunned; and the truth about the state of the house, the absence of the snow, the fact that he didn’t fly his jet and so on.

Crucially missing in the public case that was being made was the fact that DNA tests led the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to exclude, among others, John and Patsy Ramsey. This was known to the police by January 15th 1997, when the CBI lab completed the analysis of forensic samples provided by the Ramseys, along with a number of other people. This would be confirmed by further analysis in the early fall of 1999. For reasons best known to themselves the police chose not to share the first test results with the DA’s office until July 22, 1997 and, of course, kept the public blissfully unaware. The DNA was “foreign,” that is belonging to no known individual and was found in two drops of blood in the panties which, to say the least, needs explaining.

Mitch Morrissey, an aggressive member of the Denver DA’s office, who was one of a number of advisers to the Boulder DA, Alex Hunter, theorized, it would emerge later, that it belonged to someone in the Taiwanese factory where they had been manufactured, perhaps by sneezing as the panties were being made or wrapped in their packing. They even sought a supplementary budget from the County Commissioners to send a detective to the factory. The Commissioners declined the suggestion.

There was one other, telling moment involving the Commissioners. Bill Wise was speaking with them at a meeting and assumed that the microphone in front of him wasn’t live. He was heard to say that the person who killed JonBenet was “wealthy.” John Ramsey was wealthy, though not the billionaire that some claimed and while Wise’s gaff led to his removal from any involvement with the case, it nevertheless was shaving with the grain of prevailing belief about the case, the Ramseys did it.

There is so much more, but this will, I hope, give something of a sense of what was going on here: the establishment of a narrative that would convict the Ramseys in the public mind ~ a mind which seemed to want to believe in their guilt ~ and force the then DA, Alex Hunter, to indict, take it to trial, get them convicted and perp walk one or both to death row.

The laying down of that narrative seemed to happen in barely a moment as the whole world just “knew,” the child had been killed by her parents, that “bastard billionaire, John Ramsey,” and the “white trash with cash, Patsy Ramsey, oh God how I hate that woman.” These were the mantras, the banshee squeals around the case that echoed across not just the United States but the whole world. I lost count of the number of times I had people screaming at me, frothing at the mouth, when I even dared to question their certainty of parental guilt. What was really fascinating was that when I asked how come they were so certain, so knowing, the reply was often along the lines of either repeating the media stories but, more often, commenting that they “looked guilty,” or “ it’s a gut feeling.”

I have searched long and hard in the Constitution and in law manuals and have yet to find the proposition that, if accused of a crime, I have a right to be judged by a jury of my peers’ guts.

Monday – JonBenet, pt. 2: vile bigotry and voodoo stupidity


14 replies »

  1. This has been interesting so far, Michael. I’m having to consciously force myself to read it because I’m one of the people who knew that the Ramsey’s did it. The child pageant thing colors my entire response to this case, and having children of my own has only strengthened my resolve against child pageants. But as someone trying to be a part-time journalist myself, I have a far better understanding of all the failures you’re describing than I did at the time.

    I can’t say I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this series – the topic is too hard to read and cognitive dissonance isn’t exactly fun – but I’ll keep reading. Thank you for writing it.

  2. Brian: the pageant thing bothered me then and it bothered me now, and I think it’s important to separate some stuff. Nobody is really saying the Ramseys were saints on all fronts, and when (if) we finally get the whole truth on what really happened, I won’t be the least bit surprised to learn that the pageants are how a pedophile found JonBenet in the first place. I won’t speak for Michael here, but it’s more than possible that the family’s parenting choices set things in motion. Maybe, possibly, whatever.

    However, that is NOT the point of the story. And I originally thought John had to be involved, too – for one thing, in cases like this it’s often the father, and two, I “knew” a lot of things that turned out to be the horrific fictions. I’ve said before that the Ramsey case is perhaps the worst example of journalistic malpractice in American history, and if I’m wrong, I’m not wrong by much.

    So keep reading, and instead of battling the facts – and let me emphasize the word FACTS – think more about how badly you were lied to and ask yourself what else you’ve been lied to about.

    When I think about this case, the run-up to Iraq, the Cassie Bernall lie, and the Elian Gonzales circus, it’s just about impossible for me to trust anything I get from the media anymore.

  3. Brian, I just read your comment and thought I’d add that I actually provided some research assistance on Tracey’s first documentary, which interrogated the role of the media in establishing that ‘of course the parents did it.’ I came to the project assuming they probably were involved, but rather quickly came to recognize the amazing way in which those assumptions were shored up — created for me, even — by the deeply flawed media accounts that Tracey critiques. My role as a researcher was to examine in detail several months’ worth of broadcast coverage (both TV & radio) of the case, immediately after the crime and on into the spring and summer of 1996. What was so fascinating was to engage all this in a compressed timespan (i.e., watching hours and hours of this stuff at once, rather than over time as it actually unfolded). In such a context it was easy to see the presumptions, the leaps of belief, the insistence on the parents’ guilt based not on rationality but on media suggestion and ‘gut feelings.’

    When I first agreed to join the project, I met Dan Glick (then of Newsweek), with whom I would be working, in the kitchen at the Ramseys’ home. I toured the house, including the so-called ‘wine cellar’ where JonBenet’s body was found. It was so interesting later, as I was reviewing the media coverage, to hear a reporter from American Journal stand in front of the house there on 15th Street and refer to “this maze of a house…with its secret room.” It was a large house, yes, but no “maze,” and the “secret room” was easily located with one right turn at the foot of the basement stairs. It struck me as I watched this guy that he had never been in the house, yet he was speaking as if he had. It was thus ludicrous to discover that the reporters interviewing the Ramseys’ housekeeper (Linda-somebody; I can’t remember her last name) were buying her statements that she “never knew of” this hideaway. If not, then she’d simply never opened doors in the basement, as it was no hidden room.

    That’s just an anecdote, but it’s indicative of the kind of reactions I had over and over to what the concerted research revealed. Tracey has been vilified and pilloried on a multitude of fronts, but he for a long while was a mostly lone voice in a hostile wilderness on this case. I think, despite the cognitive disconnect, that you will find reading his work to be intellectually very engaging, if not deeply troublesome. It makes the open-minded reader really ponder how we “know” what we know.

    Incidentally, though I never met the Ramseys, JonBenet attended my kids’ elementary school and had attended the same preschool where we also knew a number of people, including the preschool director, who knew the family. None of them — well, none that I met, anyway — believed for a second that Patsy Ramsey could have had any role whatsoever in the death of her daughter. I, too, am totally turned off by the whole child pageant-thing, but these other parents confirmed that it was a sort of Southern-belle hobby that in Patsy’s mind was cute and innocuous (this is not a perspective I hold, but I don’t come out the pageant culture myself). The stories I heard of the Ramseys through personal connections were so very different from the picture of them painted in the vulture-like media accounts.

  4. I’d like to add a few things here:

    Let’s not forget that Michael Tracey is the man who gave us John Mark Karr and a dozen other phony suspects.

    Tracey claims he looked for evidence that JonBenet was a victim of sexual abuse but found none. Isn’t that interesting? Maybe he just didn’t look hard enough. A whole slew of forensic pathologists and pediatricians, including, but not limited to, Drs. John McCann, David Jones, Ronald Wright and James Monteleone. Holly Smith is an investigator into child abuse cases. She’s on their side, as well. As for JonBenet’s pediatrician, he admits he never performed an internal exam to make sure.

    Tracy claims Patsy had no predisposition to violence. As the FBI told the cops, “that’s a statistical argument, not evidence.” It might mean something if this were premeditated murder, as Tracey seems to suggest. It most likely wasn’t: it was an accidental killing with massive staging, an idea confirmed by said FBI.

    Tracey claims the DA and Hall Haddon never met. But the DA’s office, Bill Wise included, were part owners of a Boulder shopping mall.

    Tracey trashes Mitch Morrisey, a prosecutor with a history of winning cases. How many has Tracey won? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

    Lastly, Tracey takes the approach of his American counterpart, Michael Moore by finding the craziest, hate-filled random statements he can find, then tarring everyone with the same brush. Well, as Edward G Robinson said, “that don’t go with me.”

    If Prof. Tracey wishes to debate me on this, he’s welcome to name the time and place. I just hope he’s wearing his cast-iron protective cup.

  5. It didn’t look like he was trashing Mitch Morrisey in the paper, just pointing out that his theory was disregarded.

  6. Although I agree strongly with Tracy about the media distortion of facts, I disagree with his conclusion that there is no evidence of prior abuse. Just look closely at the photo posted in the Part 1 article, and you will see what I believe are stun marks on her leg.