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Swarmed by reporters outside the Boulder Justice Center this past August, Michael Tracey was in his element. After a long hiatus, the national media was back on the case, the unsolved 1996 murder of six-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey. It's a case that Tracey, a University of Colorado journalism professor and staunch defender of JonBenet's parents, has never left.
Hours earlier, police in Thailand had arrested a suspect in the murder, John Mark Karr -- a man who'd been corresponding with Tracey anonymously for four years and confessing to him for months, in a deluge of epic e-mails and rambling phone calls. The media hordes had rushed to Boulder to attend a press conference called by District Attorney Mary Lacy. But even before that unrevealing briefing could begin, the famished press turned to Tracey for sound bites. He was happy to oblige.
Sporting a dark blazer and open collar, boom mikes hovering above his head like cudgels, the 58-year-old Tracey lectured the assembled scribes on his favorite topic: The Presumption of Innocence. Karr should be presumed innocent, he declared, which is more than the media had been willing to presume about John and Patsy Ramsey for the past decade.
"I don't know that he is guilty," he said. "Let him have his day in court. I do not like trial by media."
Halfway across the world, the man whose rights Tracey was so magnanimously defending sat in a Bangkok jail, eager to tell anyone who'd listen that he was "with JonBenet when she died." With his dark eyeliner, budding breasts -- the result of estrogen therapy, the first phase of his planned sex-change surgery -- and fixation with young girls, John Mark Karr is the embodiment of flesh-creeping Otherness. He'd been obsessing on the JonBenet case for nearly a decade, but it wasn't until he established an online relationship with Tracey that he became a serious suspect.
Tracey's role in thrusting Karr into the spotlight, like his role in the Ramsey investigation itself, is a complicated one. Operating as police informant, amateur sleuth, fellow obsessive, trusted confidant and unabashed self-promoter, Tracey cajoled Karr into opening up by offering to collaborate with him on a book about his life -- which, he assured Karr, would be a "huge" success.
Among journalists, Tracey's efforts to capture Karr have been defended and condemned. "I use Mike as an example in class of a couple of things journalists shouldn't do," says Len Ackland, a longtime colleague of Tracey's -- and one of only two professors out of 26 tenured faculty at CU's School of Journalism and Mass Communication with a substantial background as a practicing journalist rather than a doctoral degree. "Good journalists should not become part of the story, and good journalists typically don't hand over their files to the cops. But there are a lot of gray areas. To Mike's credit, he makes the point that he's not a journalist. He has the investigative instincts, but he's much more of an advocate."
Tracey prefers to describe himself as a scholar. He's a professor of media studies, the author of parched treatises on the sad state of public broadcasting and a self-appointed critic of media coverage of the Ramsey case. But he also happens to be the co-producer of three commercial documentaries that defend the Ramseys' innocence and blast the Boulder police for failing to pursue the real killer or killers.
He's been able to draw on his $103,000-a-year CU salary while pursuing his documentary career, as well as use unpaid student interns. The university considers the films to be part of the "scholarly research and professional work" requirements of his faculty position rather than moonlighting. Professor Presumption is also working on a book and a documentary about his dealings with Karr -- projects that his co-producer says would have been worth millions if Karr had proved to be JonBenet's killer.
Outside the Justice Center, a reporter asked Tracey if he has "a dog in this fight." Tracey responded with a good-natured bark.
Of course, Tracey doesn't have just one hound in the fray. He has a whole pack, despite the collapse of the case against Karr shortly after he was brought from Thailand to Boulder on August 24.
In fact, Karr wasn't even in Colorado at the time of JonBenet's death, a detail Boulder authorities failed to establish before his arrest. And DNA tests soon showed that he had been confessing to a murder he didn't commit. But Karr's lawyer wasn't notified of the test results until a day after Tracey was -- a good indication of the professor's remarkable backstage access to DA Lacy and the homicide investigation.
That folks in the DA's office used Tracey to capture Karr -- and were, perhaps, used by him -- is disturbing on many levels. Tracey has a dismal track record as a Ramsey sleuth. He's been barking up the wrong tree for years, serving up one implausible suspect after another. His documentaries, although well-received in Europe, are glaring examples of shoddy, agenda-driven reporting and the packaging of speculation as fact. As Tony Ortega first reported in the Broward-Palm Beach New Times shortly after Karr's arrest, a 2004 Tracey documentary focused on an alleged ninja-stalker "prime suspect" who'd supposedly "disappeared" -- but one of Tracey's critics was able to locate the supposedly elusive suspect within minutes on the Internet. The man wasn't considered a suspect by authorities and was living in Indiana at the time of the murder.