Made for Each Other

The Karr fiasco is over, but Michael Tracey's quest for unlikely suspects in the Ramsey case goes on and on.

Tracey's actions in the Karr affair are troubling, too. He was much more than a passive audience for a goofball's confession; in the hundreds of pages of e-mails and fourteen hours of taped phone conversations, there are unsettling instances of Tracey supplying key information to the fumbling Karr, details that Karr was able to use to make his lies more credible. Adding to the ironies of the fiasco is the distinct possibility that Karr obtained some of his "inside" knowledge of the murder from studying Tracey's documentaries.

Always quick to scold the mainstream media for its tabloid excesses, Tracey has been less eager to respond to challenges to his own work. When Westword requested an interview to discuss his documentaries and the Karr investigation, he emphatically declined.

"I'm sick of talking about the damned thing," he said. "And your editor has attacked me several times."

Collaborators: Professor Michael Tracey, with John Mark Karr inset
image: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images. Photo illustration
Collaborators: Professor Michael Tracey, with John Mark Karr inset


See also:
Special John Mark Karr/Michael Tracey archive
With creepy documents and weird phone calls
Hear the former JonBenet Ramsey suspect for yourself
All at Denver Westword

I feel horrible that the world says her name like it is a brand name. Her name was so unique and special. It has been traded by the media like a cheap commodity. Damn them to hell. -- Daxis e-mail to Tracey, May 7, 2006

John Karr's favorite adjective is unreal, as in, "I played an unreal role in JonBenet's life and her death." Of course, most of what Karr describes as unreal truly is unreal -- it didn't happen. But much of the JonBenet case has always seemed unreal, in the sense of being contrived, prefab, a cynical piece of show business rather than a flesh-and-blood tragedy on a quiet street in Boulder. A six-year-old girl was brutally murdered in her own house on Christmas night, but the media frenzy and behind-the-scenes power plays quickly turned the crime into the stuff of lurid fictions.

From the kiddie-beauty-pageant videos to the on-camera histrionics of Patsy Ramsey, from the world's longest ransom note to a suspect list that included Santa Claus, the case was made for the tabloids. Even the crime scene appeared staged, by someone who knew his or her way around the house and didn't mind improvising. There was a noose around JonBenet's neck, duct tape over her mouth and evidence of sexual assault -- but were these proof of a child-molesting killer, or desperate efforts to mislead the cops after cracking her skull? There was the bizarre three-page ransom note, but if a kidnapping really had been on the menu, the "small foreign faction" seemed a mite disorganized: using a pen and pad found in the Ramsey home, tossing around words such as "deviation" and "attaché" while misspelling "business," relying on bad-guy lines from Hollywood movies ("Don't try to grow a brain John") -- then leaving the body behind.

As every citizen of Boulder surely knows by now, the crime scene was also contaminated. It was John Ramsey, not the cops, who found his daughter's body in the basement, and things quickly deteriorated from there. Fibers found under the duct tape could have come from Patsy Ramsey's clothing, or maybe from somewhere else. Male DNA in JonBenet's underwear didn't match that of anyone in the Ramsey household and could be the killer's -- or it could be the remnant of a sneeze by a worker in the factory where the underwear was made. Depending on what handwriting expert you believed, the ransom note was possibly the work of Patsy Ramsey, or it most definitely was not. No clue seemed to offer conclusive proof of anything.

Media contamination followed. Private eyes working for the tabloids offered bribes for autopsy photos, the ransom note and other key evidence. Cops and prosecutors, at war with each other, leaked like rusty buckets to reporters in an effort to put pressure on the opposing camp and the Ramseys. The Ramseys responded with a PR machine of their own, carefully managing their press contacts, meeting the cops' spin with counterspin, and eventually filing lawsuits against media organizations over what they considered the most scurrilous attacks.

Clearly, it was possible to tell more than one kind of story about the Ramsey case. Michael Tracey recognized this at an opportune moment, when the prevailing story, which demonized the Ramseys, was beginning to lose steam. That story, while compelling and profitable, didn't have enough facts behind it to persuade a grand jury to hand down any indictments. But there was a counterstory that could be just as compelling and possibly profitable -- and Tracey soon became one of the principal tellers of that tale.

To Tracey, the Ramsey circus was a perfect example of the money-grubbing American media at work and the impoverished culture and eroding moral values that it reflected -- a system and a society he'd been deploring in his lectures and writings for some time. Raised in Oldham, England, Tracey had headed the Broadcasting Research Unit in London, a think tank supported by the BBC. He'd watched with increasing alarm as European models of public broadcasting declined, under assault from what he would later describe as "a global order which danced with ever greater fervour to the tune of the market." He'd been wooed to CU in 1988 and offered a full professorship, waiving the tenure process, in the hope that he could develop a similar center for studying media issues at the university.

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