By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Mills says all three of the documentaries he's done with Tracey have been supervised by an independent executive producer, in compliance with British broadcasting standards. "Anyone who thinks Michael has been writing whatever he wishes to write, or is pursuing a biased slant, doesn't understand how carefully regulated this is," he insists.
Mills and Tracey have split the profits from the second two documentaries, but Mills characterizes those profits as modest: "They've been very small sums. Nine thousand dollars here, seven thousand dollars here -- hardly more than twenty or thirty in a year. There is no money in documentaries." Getting the shows aired on American television, he adds, has been like "selling a virus."
Profits aside, the experience raised Tracey's profile, both on campus and as a critic. He even had a brief run as a media columnist at the Rocky Mountain News,skewering political coverage from a lefty perspective and lamenting "a public mind fashioned by the forces of a marketplace of competing falsehoods." Holland Shand, a CU journalism grad who decided to pursue media studies after her own brush with celebrity as a regular on MTV's Road Rules, recalls Tracey showing pieces of the 1998 documentary in class and defending the Ramseys passionately.
"Discussions were great," Shand says. "Sometimes he played devil's advocate just for the sake of getting under your skin. It's good to have that challenge. But sometimes he stepped over the line a little bit.
"I think there's always room for discourse, but there were times when that wasn't an option with him. It was just, 'This is what I believe, this is what the truth is.' It was like that when he presented the Ramsey thing. People would challenge him, and he was almost defensive about it."
Michael Tracey faces the media. (photo: Michael Roberts)
A two-hour version of Tracey's documentary, now called The Case of JonBenet: The Media vs. the Ramseys, aired several times on A&E in 1998 and 1999. One avid viewer, a man in his mid-thirties, was particularly impressed with how Tracey and Mills had obtained exclusive access to the Ramseys. In the summer of 2002, the man happened to strike up a conversation outside a Paris bookstore with Michael Sandrock, a Boulder author of books on running and a Daily Cameracolumnist.
The man asked if Sandrock knew Michael Tracey. In fact, Sandrock replied, he'd had a beer with Tracey at the Hungry Toad in Boulder just a few days earlier. The man seemed keenly interested in the JonBenet case and Tracey. Sandrock gave him the professor's e-mail address.
Two months later, Tracey received his first e-mail from someone calling himself "December251996" -- the last day of JonBenet's life. Titled "Our Sweetest JonBenet," the message mentioned the encounter with Sandrock and went on to discuss the sender's fascination with young girls, a subject that would consume endless pages of subsequent e-mails.
Since his emergence as a Ramsey defender, Tracey had heard from all kinds of theorists and true-crime buffs, offering their insights as to who might have been the killer. But there was something different about this one, Tracey would later tell investigators: "At some kind of intuitive level, I've thought from the get-go...that this is him."
The writer was coy. He declined to identify himself. He claimed to have special knowledge about JonBenet's death and to have "spoken to the parents and grandparents of JonBenet" at some point. He also claimed to be a psychic who speaks to the dead. But when Tracey pressed, the fellow deflected questions with his own questions. It was a flirtation, a deadly slow strip tease. Only the most gentle treatment would encourage the writer to reveal anything at all.
At times Tracey didn't respond to the barrage of e-mails promptly enough, or with enough warmth, to suit his pen pal. The writer pouted and scolded, changed e-mail addresses and sulked in silence. The messages dropped off in 2003 and disappeared entirely in 2004, only to resume in September 2005. Now Tracey's mystery date was getting a bit more explicit: "You are chasing in the wrong direction (as always) and leaving the most important link to JonBenet behind. You chased me away."
Over the next few months, the game cranked up. The e-mailer began to hint that there were two intruders in the Ramsey house that night -- one male, one female. He provided tantalizing details about what JonBenet was wearing when her body was found, right down to the "Wednesday" printed on her underwear.
Virtually everything he offered as proof of his inside knowledge could have been gleaned from the autopsy report, the press coverage, the many books about the case -- or Tracey's own documentaries, for that matter. But certain details seemed fresh. The writer, now calling himself Daxis, claimed that JonBenet had a runny nose that night. Mucus had been found under the duct tape, but not many people knew that. It could have been a lucky guess -- six-year-old noses tend to run often, and JonBenet's pediatrician had been featured in the 1998 documentary, discussing her frequent sniffles and trips to the doctor -- but what if it was more?