by Michael Tracey
“O hateful error, melancholy’s child!
Why dost thou show, to the apt thoughts of men,
The things that are not?”
– (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, ib, 67)
Then something strange happened. In 2002, a friend of mine Mike Sandrock, a sports writer for the Boulder Daily Camera, was in Paris and met a young American who it quickly became clear, after Mike had mentioned he was from Boulder, was extremely interested in JonBenet and in me.
After Mike had returned he received an email from this man, who used the email handle “De-cember25 1996,” signed the mail with the letter “D” and wrote that he very much wanted to communicate with me. It was a rather roundabout way of proceeding, though, as would become clear, nothing about this person was straightforward. Mike forwarded the email and I, in what some might regard as a moment of madness, replied saying something to the effect that I see you want to talk, so let’s talk. In my mind, I saw “D” as one of many people who were fascinated with the case, used the internet to explore its every nook and cranny, and about whom I eventually wanted to write. It didn’t quite turn out that way.
The Killer Loved Her
The correspondence began, at first on an occasional basis. All the emails are available out there in the vastness of the Internet and so I am not going to dwell on them in any detail, not going to seek to psychoanalyze them any more than I am gong to try and “understand” him. All I will say is that they were the product of a highly intelligent, if strange and controlling mind, and that they were torrid, violent, sinister, an endless word tapestry of unyielding compulsion. Here’s a sampling:
“it was never a kidnapping attempt, Michael. Never. Her death was a ritual and every aspect is harbored by her killer.”
“Patsy, please, I beg thee, listen to a man who has a connection with your daughter as no other can have…”
“On my last visit to her home, I remembered the sweetness of JonBenet’s laughter.”
“She ‘played rough’. She was no ‘sugar and spice’ girl. She did not break easily.”
“The killer loved her. He made love through killing her.”
“He is mortified that his violent passion has culminated in the death of the very object of his love.”
“JonBenet’s killer is not a serial killer. He is a serial lover.”
“We must cure ourselves of the word torture. It was a sexual act.”
“Do you know what it is to crave the blood of a lovely child. Do you know what it is to want this so bad yet not want death for her?”
“Michael, my face was the last JonBenet saw. Does that not connect me with her mother?”
“Would you like too hear my voice? It’s nothing special but it was the last voice JonBenet heard.”
One question I had to engage was how to “read” the emails. They were extraordinarily detailed and graphic, written by someone who clearly had an obsession with JonBenet, was clearly highly intelligent and who might just be telling the truth. It was also clear that he might be a total nut case. How to decide?
It is worth recalling that eventually these emails would be read by the Boulder DA’s office, the senior judge of Boulder county, the FBI, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, a British intelligence agency, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, ICE, Homeland Security, Thai police and a Thai judge. At no point did anyone say, at least to my knowledge, this is a waste of time, he’s just crazy. Every single agency felt that whoever he was and wherever he was, “D” had to be found and the more he wrote and spoke, the more that became the case. And one remarkable coda: no one leaked, a small miracle in this day and age.
In a sense the most interesting emails are those that contain details that can be verified: the fact that he knew that JonBenet’s nickname for her grandmother, Nedra Paugh, was Neddie; his apparent detailed knowledge of the Paugh property; the fact that his description of abducting his first wife, who was just 12 years old at the time, was true; that the description of the schoolroom in Bangkok was accurate, down to the wall coverings; that the children in Bangkok, and his behaviour with them, that he detailed in a number of emails, was confirmed in interviews conducted with them by US agents; the fact that he had indeed begun the process of a sex change operation. In fact, one of the final mysteries of the whole saga is why he was telling the truth so often, but apparently lying about his relationship with JonBenet?
From the beginning there was a strange tone to the emails. It was quite clear that he was hinting that it wasn’t just that he was interested in the case, but that he knew more than he was revealing. I used to occasionally show them to my then assistant Dona and say, “have a look, what do you think?” Her reply was invariably “that’s creepy.” There were constant hints and allusions, with one theme being “Michael read closely and carefully.” It was as if he was suggesting he was writing in code or with a deliberate opacity. It all became very strange, very fast. It also became very clear that he had a deep need for young girls in general, and JonBenet in particular. At some point he also began to suggest that his love for JonBenet was matched by his love for Patsy Ramsey. Then, in early 2004 he disappeared for about a year. Nothing.
I had been in the habit of forwarding the mails to Lou Smit. I had got to know him well when we made the second of our documentaries about his intruder “theory.” As I became more and more perplexed and intrigued by the emails it seemed natural to share them with him and ask his advice. He found them intriguing enough that he forwarded them to Tom Bennett, the DA’s chief investigator in Boulder.
As he would later tell me, Tom ignored them because he thought I was making them up. In a curious kind of way, I welcomed Tom’s skepticism, since I would have done exactly the same thing. One thing I learnt from Tom and Lou was that good cops always question, are always looking for clues, eying possibilities, picking apart evidence, letting that evidence lead them to a conclusion, rather than having a conclusion first and then letting that be the guide through the evidence, which is exactly what happened with certain figures in the Boulder police’s investigation.
In that sense to be a good cop you have to have a certain obsessive compulsive quality; you can never close shop. This seems to me a necessary quality to do anything well. I noticed, however, that when anyone wished to get at me ( or imagine that they were getting at me) because of my work on the Ramsey case they would say I was “obsessed.” Had I been a grisly, old archeologist who had spent thirty years digging away at the same patch of sand in Egypt they would have said I was dedicated. Buried inside the “accusation” of obsession is a subtext, one suggesting that this person is a tad off kilter, misplaced, “unmoored,” as one journalist would put it ( and of whom more later) and that, therefore, anything I said or did about what actually happened to JonBenet was almost certainly wrong, illegitimate.
2005. One day I check my emails and he’s back, the correspondence starts again with an increasing pace and force. He is clearly telling me that he knows who killed JonBenet, referring to “the killers.” In one set of exchanges he says that not only was there a man involved but that there was also a woman in the basement. He then implied that one of them left as the assault proceeded. I told him that I assumed it was the woman who had left to which he replied, “why would you assume that?” He then writes that he no longer wishes to talk about the woman, she’s not there, forget her, move on Michael, read closely and carefully. I did.
Beginning early in 2006, the pace gathers and the confession begins. It was him, he was clearly saying, who was involved in the death ~ not murder, a key nuance ~ of JonBenet.
He begins to tell me in great detail what had happened, and he was pleading with me to put him in touch with Patsy so that he could say how sorry he was for what he had done and to beg her forgiveness. What he was begging forgiveness for was his accidentally killing her daughter, in a manner that was as awful as it was bizarre, and that clearly reflected either direct knowledge or, at the very least, a careful study of the injuries actually incurred by JonBenet.
I’d asked him at one point what the letter “D,” with which he signed his emails, stood for. I’d been expecting ~ naivete fully present ~ that it would be Donald or Delbert or David. The reply came that it stood for “daughter, death, December.”
Later he asked if I would really like to know. Why not? It came back, “D” stands for “Daxis.” Well of course, obvious. Next step, Google it. Nothing meaningful emerges, and to this day the meaning has never been properly explained, though inevitably there has been a good deal of speculation on the internet. He himself would say that it meant “son of the Devil,” though I suspect he said that as something of a joke.