By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
From the start, Tracey had informed the Ramseys' private investigators of his correspondence with "Daxis." He'd also shared excerpts of it with his students and with Lou Smit, the foremost proponent of the intruder theory. A retired Colorado Springs homicide cop of some reputation, Smit had been brought onto the case by then-DA Alex Hunter in 1997 and resigned a year later, claiming that the Boulder police were "going in the wrong direction" by focusing on the parents. In 2003 he was brought back into the investigation on a part-time basis by new DA Mary Lacy; in the interim, he'd been a key source for Tracey's documentaries.
Last April, Tracey forwarded a particularly telling e-mail to Smit, in which Daxis referred to himself as "a person you feel strongly to be JonBenét's killer (I hate that term)."
"Is this the confession?" Tracey asked Smit. He added that he'd done his best to fool the man into thinking that he was his friend: "I think I was a con artist in another life."
Smit sent the e-mail on to Tom Bennett, the DA's chief investigator on the case. "I think we should take this one seriously," Smit advised Bennett. "If we could just get a fix on his e-mail, we may be able to ID him and maybe get DNA."
T: I know you are.
D: I've been treated like a character all my life.... I guess I was some piece from a film. -- phone conversation between Daxis and Tracey, July 6, 2006
The man Tracey and the investigators were hunting had been working on his confession for years. It was his one notable achievement in a life scarred with failures and disasters: A mother who once tried to set him on fire. Two marriages to teenage girls -- one annulled, the other ending in divorce. Twin daughters who died at birth, three sons living far away from him. Several short-lived teaching assignments. And an alleged history of weirdness that would soon have the tabloids twitching in ecstasy.
Beneath the stage name of Daxis stewed John Mark Karr, a drifter with an all-consuming interest in the famous murders of young girls. He'd babbled so much about JonBenét, even detouring to visit Boulder on a cross-country trip in 2000, that relatives assumed he must be researching a book about the case. In 2001, while living in Petaluma, California, he'd sought out a woman named Wendy Hutchens, hoping to gain access through her to Richard Allen Davis, the murderer of twelve-year-old Polly Klaas. Hutchens was so disturbed by Karr's incessant references to JonBenet that she began taping their phone conversations.
Invited by Hutchens to "profile" the mysterious killer of JonBenet, Karr gradually spun a scenario that could easily be disproved. He claimed that his brother worked for John Ramsey; that he was on vacation in Boulder in 1996; that he was invited to a Christmas party at the Ramseys'. Other details, such as spying JonBenet at the party and hiding under a bed in a guest room Christmas night, seem to have been lifted from books on the case and the speculations of Lou Smit himself.
By the time he unburdened himself to Tracey, Karr had fine-tuned his confession considerably. But Hutchens found the early, cruder version persuasive enough to contact the FBI and the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department.
That investigation ultimately led to Karr's arrest on misdemeanor charges of possession of child pornography; he fled the country a few months later. Sonoma officials say they turned over Hutchens' information about Karr and the Ramsey case to the Boulder DA's office five years ago. Lacy has denied that her office ever received any such information.
Certainly, if Boulder had opened a file on Karr in 2001, it could have saved the DA's office considerable expense and embarrassment down the road. After Daxis was unmasked, one look at his earlier performance with Hutchens might have been enough to dismiss him as a suspect. But last spring the Ramsey investigators apparently found little reason to question Daxis's credibility.
By that point, though, there was ample reason to question the credibility of their undercover informant, Michael Tracey.
Selling a virus: Tracey's first documentary featured an exclusive interview with John and Patsy Ramsey, denying any role in the death of their daughter, JonBenet
Maybe Tracey truly did believe "from the get-go" that Daxis was JonBenet's killer. Maybe his keen investigative instincts were aroused as far back as 2002, when he received the first e-mail. If so, the belief didn't stop him from publicly accusing others of being involved in the murder, including a dead man and a "convicted pedophile" who was supposedly on the run and untraceable. But then, his experience making documentaries had taught him a great deal about blending fact and theory, drama and supposition -- and stagecraft.