Editor’s note: This article appeared originally in Denver Westword.
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.
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.”
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.
Tracey became the director of CU’s Center for Mass Media Research, which was supposed to trawl for grants and provide opportunities for faculty research. But according to evaluations by the journalism school’s outside accreditation team, the concept never took off. A 1992 report noted that the center “does not appear to have met its promise.” Another report, six years later, found that “the CMMR appears to be an entity in name only.” The current journalism dean, Paul Voakes, pulled the plug on the inactive operation shortly after his arrival three years ago.
“I thought that whatever materials we had for the school ought not to be referencing the center,” Voakes explains, “because the center hadn’t produced any work, that I could tell, in recent years.”
Tracey didn’t respond to questions about the center. But he contributed in other ways to the journalism school’s development over the past eighteen years. He teaches two courses a semester, and many students consider him one of their most dynamic instructors. He was instrumental in launching the school’s much-praised Center for Environmental Journalism. He’s currently the fourth-highest paid of the school’s six full professors — and the only one to recognize that the media coverage of the Ramsey murder, which occurred just a few blocks from the campus, presented a matter for serious study.
In 1997, less than nine months after the murder, Tracey wrote an op-ed piece for the Daily Camera headlined “Media-Saturated Culture Quick to Judge Ramseys.” He denounced the rabid coverage and the presumably puerile, benighted audience that ate it up. He was promptly contacted by Ramsey attorney Bryan Morgan, who told him that Patsy wanted to talk to his journalism class about her media ordeal. A bit taken aback, Tracey soon came up with another idea: Why not make a documentary, with the Ramseys’ help, about all the inaccurate, lynch-mob reporting on the case?
Their attorneys were understandably dubious about letting the Ramseys be interviewed, even under the most benign conditions. But a deal was soon drawn up in writing. The Ramseys would not be paid or have any editorial control; the film wouldn’t air in the United States as long as there was a possibility of a grand jury. Tracey knew little about making documentaries, but years before, he’d been interviewed by David Mills, a respected British TV producer known for documentaries on education, and the two had become good friends. Mills agreed to co-produce the project, which was soon sold to Britain’s Channel 4 for $320,000.
The program, Who Killed JonBenet?, aired in the United Kingdom in the summer of 1998. Tracey was unhappy with the network’s title, since the documentary scarcely addresses that question; it’s primarily a critique of several media myths surrounding the case, such as the mistaken notion that an intruder couldn’t have committed the crime because there were no footprints in the snow around the house.
“It took us about three weeks to knock down every major story that was being told in the media about that case,” Mills recalls. “That was one of the most disturbing experiences of my life.”
Actually, the documentary doesn’t tackle every major story about the case. Most of the straw men it knocks down are absurd tabloid inventions about John and Patsy Ramsey that were largely ignored by the mainstream coverage, yet the producers’ thesis is that there’s no difference between the gutter media and the “respectable” press. The Ramseys are trotted out occasionally to denounce the media and deny that they’re child molesters, but tough questions about their own behavior and the criminal investigation are never posed.
“We didn’t know what the police evidence was,” Mills says. “We made a personal judgment, from getting to know them, that they couldn’t possibly have done it.”
Mills says his production company obtained a release from the Ramseys that allowed the documentary to air, first on local TV in Denver that August, then on the A&E cable network on September 28, 1998 — two weeks after a grand jury began to hear evidence in the case. Both the timing and the content drew sharp criticism. Talk-show host Peter Boyles and then-Denver Post columnist Chuck Green, two frequent Ramsey critics, described the film as a “crockumentary” and a Ramsey infomercial.
Fleet White Jr., a former friend of the Ramseys who’d split with them shortly after the murder, was even more incensed. He and his wife Priscilla wrote to the CU Board of Regents, questioning Tracey’s competence and demanding an investigation. “The program was a lopsided and biased attempt to generate public sympathy for the Ramseys and to reinforce the notion that an intruder murdered JonBenet,” they wrote. “Mr. Tracey was attempting to deflect suspicion from the Ramseys on the eve of the grand jury investigation.”
Nothing came of the Whites’ demands. Tracey, who claims to love a good argument, seemed energized by the criticism. He insisted he’d done what he set out to do, which was to expose the woeful shortcomings of the coverage of the case. The suggestion that he was cashing in on the murder was ridiculous; the initial sale in the U.K. barely covered costs of production, he explained, and a big chunk of the American sale had gone to Channel 4. What was left had been divided among Mills, Tracey and two additional producers from Newsweek. “I wish I had made some bloody money,” Tracey groused to a reporter from the Boulder Planet. “It’s been an absolute nightmare.”
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.”
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 Camera columnist.
You really hurt me when you just drop out for months at a time. I was really starting to open up to you about what happened to me in the United States and you just left me hanging. You know how important it is to me to talk about JonBenét to someone. If not you, who? — “December1996” e-mail to Tracey, March 11, 2006
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?
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.”
D: I’m not a character. I’m a human being.
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.
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.
If nothing happens then I think I’m going to call my various contacts in the media, beginning with CBS and Todd Hartmann at the Rocky and say, “fellas, got a great story for you.” And you know as well as I do they will be all over it…Problem with that is that Daxis or whoever the hell this guy is will disappear totally and will have–quite possibly–gotten away with it. And that would be sad. — Tracey e-mail to Lou Smit and Ollie Gray, May 7, 2006
In 2002, Mills and Tracey cranked out their second Ramsey documentary, aired in the U.K. as Who Killed the Pageant Queen? and on Court TV as JonBenet: A Second Look. The program signals Tracey’s transformation from bemused observer of the Ramsey media brawl to Minister of Information for the Ramsey camp. It’s also a wet, sloppy kiss to Lou Smit, who takes viewers on a step-by-step orientation to the intruder theory.
An intruder could have slipped through a basement window, Smit explains, hid under a bed to await the Ramseys’ return from a party, used a stun gun on JonBenet to remove her from her bedroom, dropped the note on the stairs, strangled her in the basement and fled, leaving his DNA and possibly other evidence.
Smit is seen climbing through the basement window, driving his DeLorean in the mountains and poring over crime-scene photos. Other interviewees, drawn chiefly from law-enforcement agencies in Colorado Springs, are brought on camera to say what a helluva cop Lou Smit is. In the last act, Smit fights for his right to testify before the grand jury — saving John and Patsy from “a latter-day lynching,” the Brit narrator notes. It’s the Lou Smit Show.
Journalistically, the piece is as balanced as a fatwa. There are no interviews with dissenting sources. The script includes a couple of disparaging quotes from former Boulder detective Steve Thomas, but there’s little hint of the real controversies posed by Smit’s theories. Some investigators believe that Smit, a deeply religious man, got too close to the Bible-toting Ramseys from the outset. His stun-gun scenario is based on photos of small marks on the body and experiments with anesthetized pigs; the autopsy report indicates the marks are abrasions, not burns, and a more definite conclusion would require actual tissue examination. Several of the clues Smit stresses — an unidentified Hi-Tec boot print in the basement, odd hairs and fibers — are the kind of residue that defense attorneys routinely use to conjure up mystery suspects. Every crime scene is going to have some unexplained crud.
A few of the mysteries have been cleared up over the years, including a basement palm print that was eventually matched to Melinda Ramsey, JonBenet’s adult half-sister. Others remain, including the unexplained DNA. That has led some observers, including a Georgia judge hearing a libel case against the Ramseys, to conclude that it’s more likely that an intruder killed JonBenet than either parent. But the documentary’s worshipful slant — Lou Smit said it, so it must be true — transports the whole stun-gun-wielding-sadist scenario from theory to near-certainty.
That documentary set the stage for a more ambitious one two years later, Who Killed the Pageant Queen?: The Prime Suspect. Brought back into the official investigation by DA Lacy, Smit was no longer available to emcee, but no matter. This time around, Tracey and Mills wanted to focus not on the theorist, but on possible killers who fit the theory.
The third trip to the well recycles footage from the earlier documentaries, and the producers’ trademark bombast. JonBenet is introduced as the “most famous murdered child in history” (history apparently doesn’t extend as far back as the Lindbergh kidnapping), and her parents are “the most hated couple in America” (Britney and Kevin must be disappointed). Fortunately, “a completely new team of investigators has recently uncovered dramatic new facts about the murder,” all pointing to the prime suspect.
The new detectives on the case turn out to be private investigators who’ve worked for the Ramseys’ attorneys: David Williams, Jennifer Gedde, Ollie Gray and John San Agustin. The documentary notes their prior association with the Ramsey team, then proceeds to hopelessly muddle their role. Lacy’s office has sought their help, the narrator explains, and although they’re “unpaid volunteers,” they’re “an important part of the new investigation.”
These on-camera sleuths are presented as quasi-official spokespeople. Their investigation has been “set up” by Lacy’s office, we’re told; they’re “a new team of detectives appointed last year.” This is pure invention. Lacy invited the Ramsey PIs to a meeting in 2003 to share their research with her team; that’s it. As for being unpaid volunteers, Gray and San Agustin (who’s also an inspector in the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office) have been consulting on the case, without pay, for the Ramsey attorneys since 1999 — and still are, according to San Agustin. Gedde, who’s now an attorney herself, apparently hasn’t been actively involved in the case for quite some time.
Also undisclosed is the relationship between San Agustin, Gray and Lou Smit. Smit is San Agustin’s former captain in the sheriff’s office, and Lou Smit Investigations is part of a linked network of Colorado Springs-based investigative services that also includes Gray’s and San Agustin’s firm. Between Smit’s stints in the DA’s office, he and Gray looked into several leads in the Ramsey case together.
“What Lou was doing was totally separate from what we were doing,” San Agustin says. “But I wouldn’t say there was a wall between us. There was collaboration, up to a point.”
Mills defends the documentary’s portrayal of the Ramsey team as “new” investigators chasing down leads for the district attorney. “They were the only people who could speak,” he says. “The DA, Mary Lacy, gave us no help in making that program. But Gray and San Agustin were extraordinarily well-informed. They knew the key lines of inquiry.”
The key lines of their inquiry, anyway — which is to find the perp or perps who used a stun gun on JonBenet and then killed her. The program soon keys in on one Michael Helgoth, a Boulder resident who died from an odd but apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound less than two months after the murder. Helgoth had a stun gun, a pair of Hi-Tec boots — and, according to some sources, an unhealthy interest in young girls. Most intriguing of all, his death came the day after Alex Hunter went on television to address the killer, a speech carefully scripted by the FBI: “The list of suspects narrows. Soon there will be no one on the list but you.”
But Helgoth isn’t the prime suspect. In fact, the Helgoth lead isn’t new at all. Boulder police had looked at him years before and ruled him out. They claimed Helgoth’s boots didn’t match the print in the basement — although this is disputed by Mills, who says the boot was never properly tested. (Other accounts have linked the print to JonBenet’s brother Burke, an assertion San Agustin dismisses as “baloney.”) Worse, the police found that Helgoth’s DNA didn’t match the material in JonBenet’s panties.
To Mills and Tracey, and to virtually all proponents of the intruder theory, the DNA is crucial. It’s the single most important piece of evidence — far more important than, say, that silly, inexplicable ransom note. The DNA doesn’t match that of any member of the Ramsey family, so it must belong to the real killer. The documentary even reports that the DNA in the undies matches other DNA found under JonBenet’s fingernails, all of which “had come from the same unknown white male” — a dubious assertion, since sources in the district attorney’s office have described the fingernail sample as too contaminated or degraded to be meaningful.
“Do we have an exact report on that? No,” says San Agustin. “As to the validity of that, I couldn’t tell you. That’s what we were made aware of.”
The documentary zags around the DNA problem by suggesting that Helgoth was one of two intruders in the house that night. Isn’t there a second unidentified footprint in the basement? Doesn’t the ransom note talk about “two gentlemen watching over your daughter”? Wouldn’t it take two people to haul the stun gun, cord, duct tape and other paraphernalia?
The prime suspect, it turns out, is Helgoth’s presumed partner in crime, a trailer-park resident “who shared his interest in martial arts and young girls…a close associate, who has since disappeared.” Without naming the man, several acquaintances of the suspect describe his threatening manner and violent past, including a prison stretch “for a sexual assault on a child.”
“I tried to steer clear of that individual,” one witness intones, “because he could have been, you know, a menace to me or my family.”
Scary stuff. But the portrait of the prime suspect began to crumble as soon as the documentary aired. An alert viewer in Scotland noticed a close-up of court documents pertaining to the prime suspect. Although the producers had blacked out his name, they’d left the case file number and the man’s date of birth clearly legible. Soon the amateur Ramsey sleuths on the Internet knew his name: John Steven Gigax.
Mills is abjectly apologetic about the blunder. “We were determined not to identify him because he might well be innocent,” he says. “It’s one of the most embarrassing mistakes of my career. It was a piece of incompetence on my part, for which I am ashamed. It was a complete cock-up.”
But making Gigax identifiable wasn’t the extent of the cock-up. He was also easily found, contrary to the documentary’s claim that he’d disappeared; he was, and still is, selling reproductions of Nazi jewelry on the Internet. In fact, at least two of the Gigax acquaintances interviewed by Tracey and Mills were aware that he’d moved to Indiana several months before the Ramsey murder. How could this critical fact have eluded the filmmakers and their crack team of investigators?
“Nobody that we spoke to knew where he was,” Mills insists. “And he would not have been eliminated as a suspect had we not made the documentary. It actually makes the thrust of the documentary, that these leads were not being pursued.”
Actually, there’s no reason to believe Gigax ever was a suspect in the Ramsey investigation — except to Smit and the Ramsey team. Mills and Tracey are both under the impression that he was “eliminated” by a DNA test after the documentary aired, but that, too, is erroneous. In fact, much of what they report about Gigax was never properly checked.
Gigax first learned of his sudden infamy shortly after the documentary aired. “People I didn’t know from Adam were e-mailing me, saying I was this prime suspect in the Ramsey case,” he recalls. “I called the Boulder DA’s office and talked to Tom Bennett. He said I was not a suspect, that I had never been a suspect.”
Gigax offered to send Bennett sales receipts that proved he was in Indiana over Christmas 1996. He also had a dozen witnesses who’d seen him there on Christmas Day. As he sees it, the film mangles basic facts about him, his whereabouts and his criminal record to make him fit the part of a crazed ninja-stalker killer. Calling him a “convicted pedophile” is a bit misleading: After what he describes as a drunken and unconsummated encounter with a teenage babysitter 21 years ago, he was convicted of attempted sexual assault and served less than two years. Yes, he pleaded guilty in 1996 to a menacing charge over a fight in his trailer that ended with the stabbing of a neighbor, but he received probation and arranged to complete it in Indiana.
“Michael Tracey can find an arrest report, and he can’t find the rest of the paperwork that goes with it?” he asks. “The people pointing the finger at me and saying I’m a bad, scary guy were both aware that I’d moved. One of them called me to tell me that Helgoth had killed himself.”
Gigax says he’s never taken a martial arts class in his life. He likes to dress in black, but that’s because he’s a Harley man. And the sources accusing him, he adds, knew Michael Helgoth much better than he did.
How, then, did Gigax become the prime suspect in Tracey’s world? “You have a series of prime suspects that you go through one at a time,” Mills says. “At the time we were making that documentary, he was the prime suspect the investigators were interested in.”
San Agustin, though, says it was the producers’ call to target Gigax: “We never said he’s on the top of our list. We just said, ‘There’s a group of people tied to Helgoth who need to be looked into.'”
Gigax’s principal accuser in the documentary is John Kenady, a mechanic and tow-truck driver who introduced Gigax to Helgoth. Kenady is convinced that Helgoth’s death was murder rather than suicide. The Boulder police disagree with him.
Like Gigax, Kenady has an ancient conviction for sexual assault on a child, which he says involved a consensual relationship with a teenager; in effect, the producers used one convicted sex offender to point the finger at another. Kenady was also arrested in 2000 for breaking into Helgoth’s house and pleaded guilty to trespassing. He says he merely wanted to preserve evidence.
Court records indicate that Kenady suffered a head injury in an auto accident six years ago and was required to undergo a mental evaluation as part of the plea bargain in the break-in. He denies any mental problems. “The DA’s office wanted to portray me as crazy,” he says. “I couldn’t get anyone in the press to talk to me about Mike’s death. They’re scared to death.”
Gigax’s alibi in the Ramsey case doesn’t impress Kenady. The possibility that Helgoth’s death, which occurred on Valentine’s Day, might have been a suicide related to girlfriend problems also doesn’t dissuade him. “I think there were three people involved in this, possibly four,” he says. “Mike would say, ‘Maybe I should just shoot myself now and get it over with.’ I got a pretty good idea he was into something he shouldn’t have been.”
Mills says he and Tracey paid no one for interviews in their first two documentaries. But they made an exception in the third film, paying Kenady and another Gigax accuser sums of $200 or less for the “inconvenience” of having to take time off from work. While admitting that he was paid, Kenady says he only agreed to appear in the documentary because Lou Smit vowed he would track down the man who killed Helgoth and JonBenet.
“They went a little far on some of this stuff,” he says. “Michael Tracey told me, ‘I want to be famous, I want to solve this case.’ But they hung me out to dry. Lou said he was going to go find the guy, and nothing happens. Lou, Ollie and I made a pact that we’re going to work this until we die. I’ve put way over a hundred thousand of my own money into this. I sold my Harley, my Corvette. I emptied all my bank accounts. It’s ruined everything I had planned because I want to know the truth.”
Among the flaws of The Prime Suspect, it’s clear that no one made a serious effort to contact the prime suspect before including so many serious allegations about him. San Agustin says that was the producers’ job, not his. Gigax hasn’t heard a whisper of apology from Mills or Tracey. Every time he reads about Professor Presumption blasting the sleazy tabloid press for violating the most elementary ethical tenets of journalism, he wants to scream.
“Sometimes I think the only way to get any justice would be to go to Colorado and pound the hell out of him,” he says. “He’s teaching the next crop of journalists damaging and biased techniques. Are we going to have a country of little Michael Traceys running around, trying to crucify people?”
Every five years, CU’s tenured professors undergo a post-tenure review of their work. Tracey had his most recent review just a few weeks ago, in the midst of the Karr uproar. Because his scholarly output has taken a back seat to Ramsey sleuthing in recent years — he hasn’t published a book since 1998 — the last two documentaries were a significant part of the portfolio of professional “publication” that he presented for consideration.
Dean Voakes says he’s aware that the documentaries are controversial. Asked about specific issues arising from the third documentary — misrepresentations, paid sources, a prime suspect who says he was unjustly accused — he expresses bewilderment.
“Now we’re in an area I can’t comment on,” he says. “I’m not aware of any of that.”
T: Why did you take the rope in?
D: The what?
T: The rope, you know, that you took in with you. Why that? What were you thinking?
D: What do you mean by “the rope”?
T: The rope that you left around her neck.
— Phone call between Tracey and Daxis, June 5, 2006
T: Why don’t we just kind of reverse roles here, then. I will tell you what I understood you to have told me in the e-mails — and then maybe that will help you speak.
D: Why don’t you do like what I said about the ransom note?…I want to know, what was it about that note that made you think of Speed, Ransom and Dirty Harry?… Can you please help me understand that?
T: This is sort of out there. “Don’t try to grow a brain” is from Speed.
D: Well, can I put it to rest right now? Totally irrelevant.
— Phone call between Tracey and Daxis, July 6, 2006
Last spring, Tracey went to the Hungry Toad for an interview with Gaby Wood, a writer for London’s Observer who was working on a lengthy piece about the Ramsey case. “He arrives with a manila envelope and tells me knowingly that he feels very close to solving the case,” Wood wrote.
The envelope contained crime-scene photos. Tracey showed Wood a close-up of the noose pulled tightly around JonBenet’s neck and explained that this was a “vicious attack,” not a piece of staging. “There’s no question in my mind now that someone came in who kind of knew them, who got off on little girls,” he declared. “I think it was a very sick game by a very sick person.”
At the time of the interview, Tracey was engaged in a different game with the man he believed to be that very sick person. Call it a collaboration, one that would finally produce a prime suspect worth arresting. The e-mail relationship with Daxis had intensified. Soon it would lead to marathon phone calls that Tracey would place to various numbers in Thailand — all recorded, of course, for the benefit of the DA’s office. It was a relationship forged by mutual need. “I love you but I’m not gay, Michael,” Daxis explained in their first-ever phone call. “I love you because I need, I suppose.”
In spite of his claim of prior contact with the Ramseys, Daxis needed Tracey because of his access to Patsy, who was battling ovarian cancer. Daxis badly wanted to confess to her. (She died June 24.) And Tracey needed Daxis. He wanted to clear the Ramseys of any lingering suspicion, he explained, by bringing the real killer’s confession to the world. So the two of them agreed to write a book about Daxis. Tracey agreed to give 50 percent of the proceeds to his misunderstood collaborator — later upped to 80 percent, after Daxis pointed out that he was doing most of the work.
But Daxis insisted on keeping his distance. He wouldn’t reveal his real name. He hinted that he had been one of JonBenet’s teachers, then backed off again. He wouldn’t give a DNA sample. “Michael, you don’t owe a publisher crap,” Daxis told him. “If you run across a publisher who looks at you and says, ‘Well, where’s the DNA evidence?,’ just tell them to go to hell.”
The elaborate make-believe put incredible strain on both parties. It was Daxis’s job to play Scheherazade, to offer one fascinating tale after another, to weave the confusing detritus of the Ramsey mess into a compelling confession. It was Tracey’s job to be fascinated, to indulge his faceless partner’s quicksilver moods and endless digressions about his sexual exploits with young girls, to listen politely and never show revulsion, spurred on by the storyteller’s promises to reveal much, much more.
“I think it is time for me to share the words JonBenét and I shared,” Daxis wrote last May. “Will you help me feel comfortable enough to do that?”
Tracey tried. He knew if he didn’t humor him, Daxis would disappear again; he’d threatened it many times. But it was difficult to profess absolute belief in someone who was clearly “several apples short of a picnic,” as Tracey put it in an e-mail to Smit. Daxis made absurd claims about having “borrowed” young girls from their parents and returned them without consequences, about girls who mailed him their underwear as if he were some kind of pedophiliac Tom Jones, about eight-year-olds who “dominated” him sexually. It all sounded so…unreal.
“In every case where I had a sexual or romantic relationship with a little girl, 10 or younger, I have gone straight to the mother and revealed my feelings and actions,” he boasted in one e-mail. “Their reactions might surprise you.”
His version of JonBenet’s death, as it began to spill out in bits and pieces of e-mails, also smacked of fantasy. JonBenet had gone with him to the basement without struggle, had willingly participated in sex games with him, had inadvertently been choked to death. Several elements contradicted theories that Tracey held as absolute gospel. There was no stun gun, Daxis insisted. It was an accident, not a brutal murder.
Tracey had trouble with this at first. But Daxis had lengthy, if somewhat shifting, explanations for the discrepancies. If the marks on her face didn’t come from a stun gun, maybe they were made by a cross Daxis wore. The more Tracey thought about it, the more he became persuaded that the ways the story deviated from his preconceived notions made it more believable. He became even more enamored of the story after Daxis began telling it to him in detail over the phone — an elaborate and emotion-charged confession that stretched over several calls. Much of it was nervously recited from the book Daxis was writing.
“It’s precisely the details, the way you describe it, the way you describe what you said to her, that makes it believable,” Tracey reassured him.
Occasionally, after Daxis would make some particularly outrageous claim, Tracey would wonder if his pen pal wasn’t simply a “wannabe nutcase,” as he put it to Smit. But as the relationship deepened, he became convinced that Daxis was unreal enough to be real. No stun gun? Okay, there was no stun gun — or maybe, he wrote Smit, Daxis was “doing his Alice in Wonderland thing and saying the opposite of what he knows to be the truth.” Or maybe he was “setting up a defense,” or had simply blocked it out of his memory.
By that logic, almost anything could be credible. The possibility that Daxis was a fraud no longer seemed to be on the table.
As Daxis heaped on the details of his tragic encounter with JonBenét, he made several blunders that should have been obvious to anyone as well-steeped in the evidence as Tracey. But Tracey wasn’t inclined to probe the many cracks in his story. Perhaps, having been warned, he feared that the game would end if he expressed the slightest doubt. But that doesn’t explain why he ignored so many contradictions in the sordid tale Daxis told — and, at times, even seemed to be helping Daxis get his story straight.
The e-mails and phone calls are riddled with red flags. Daxis claims to be suffering from post-traumatic stress and warns that he’s blacked out most of what happened ten years ago from his memory. Yet with Tracey’s encouragement, he soon comes up with an amazingly detailed account of his every movement and gesture that night, as well as “pages and pages of dialogue” between himself and JonBenet.
“I’ve come a long way since I talked to you two weeks ago,” he tells Tracey at one point, boasting of his miraculously recovered memories. But he still can’t recall where he got the blanket that was found with the body; in fact, Tracey has to tell him that there was a blanket. “Thank God,” Daxis gratefully responds. “I couldn’t quite remember that.”
For all its detail, the confession is also suspiciously vague on some basic points. For example, he talks about removing “what was covering her feet” as if he isn’t sure whether JonBenet was wearing socks, slippers, Doctor Dentons or combat boots. He also shies away from details that would tend to be killer-specific, such as what the more cryptic passages in the ransom note might mean. In fact, he tells Tracey that he hasn’t seen all of the movies referenced in the note, raising the question of how the references got there.
The knots in the cord around JonBenet’s neck are another taboo subject. He calls them “interesting knots” but refuses to describe them. He frets that if he ever gets to speak to John Ramsey, he may have to.
“He’s probably going to ask me some silly test question,” he fumes, “and when he does that, I’m not going to respond. He’s going to ask me how I tied some kind of knot. It’s been ten years, and I wouldn’t have remembered the next day how to tie that knot.”
At times he peppers Tracey with questions, clearly fishing for help: “How do you think blood was drawn? Where did the blanket come from? What was the role of the broken paintbrush handle? Why didn’t I run out the side door as my escape?”
Tracey deflects many of these. But when Daxis claims that the noose was placed around JonBenet’s neck after her death, Tracey can’t resist pointing out that the marks on her skin indicate she was alive when it was applied. Daxis then changes his story; he used one garrote on her during sex play, then used another that killed her. Unexplained, and unasked, is how he was able to position the second noose so as to eliminate any trace markings from the first.
The professor helps out in other ways. When Daxis boasts of removing JonBenet’s panties and keeping them as a souvenir, Tracey feeds him little-known details about one of the more peculiar aspects of the case: JonBenet was found wearing oversized panties, size twelve rather than her usual six. “There were larger-size panties in her drawer that had originally been intended for an older cousin,” Professor Blabbermouth prompts. “Can you clarify. It’s one of those little details that’s a real stone in the shoe.”
Daxis takes the cue. Although he’d earlier denied taking any “knickers” from JonBenet’s bedroom, he now explains that he grabbed a fresh pair from her drawer before taking her downstairs and later dressed her in those. How was he supposed to know they would be too big? “It’s almost like a breach of trust that another girl’s knickers would be in JonBenet’s drawer,” he complains.
With Tracey’s patient prodding, Daxis is able to clarify many points. But he keeps getting it wrong. At one point in the phone conversations he describes how he “pierced her sex” with an unspecified weapon in order to drink JonBenet’s blood. Tracey assumes he’s referring to a broken paintbrush that was found at the scene and could have been used to penetrate the child. But closer analysis suggests that what Daxis is actually saying is that he cut her vagina with something sharp — an injury that’s totally inconsistent with the autopsy report’s findings. When Tracey brings up the paintbrush, Daxis is at a loss, but quickly recovers.
“I didn’t describe everything,” he says, annoyed. “I don’t even want to use that term…I don’t want to use terms like ‘rope around her neck’…. Where you wish to see junk, I see something magical.”
Tracey tries to see the magic. Maybe he does. At times the discussion turns giddy. Daxis dreams of completing his sex change and going to Switzerland as a nanny, where his good friend Michael can visit him. They’ll sip champagne on a terrace, do good works with the profits from the book, and Tracey will never have to return to teaching undergraduates — which, Tracey confides, doesn’t interest him much anymore (“They drive me goddamn crazy”). A regular Chatty Cathy, Daxis boasts of his Kate Hepburn impersonation and wonders if they can get Johnny Depp to play him in the inevitable movie.
Tracey tells Daxis that the relationship has changed his life. “You and JonBenet, and at a lesser level, you and me,” he writes. “Profound intimacy.” After their first phone conversation, he refers to Daxis as “he of the velvety voice” and gets a lush response: “God I love it when you talk to me like that.”
But in time the collaboration begins to resemble a bad marriage. Daxis chides Tracey for his inattentiveness, his brief responses. He flies into a jealous rage when he realizes Tracey is working with John Ramsey on another documentary when he should be devoting all of his time to their book. He’s as clingy as an eighth-grade sweetheart, and Tracey finds it hard to maintain his mask.
“I’m totally sick and tired of this prick,” he writes to Bennett in late July. “If I had the opportunity to rip his throat, I just might take it.”
He hung in there long enough to send his velvety-voiced friend a framed portrait of JonBenet, taken on the last day of her life. It went to a Mailboxes Etc. in Bangkok. On August 7, a short, skinny, clean-cut Caucasian male riding a mountain bike picked up the package. A surveillance team composed of U.S. immigration agents and Thai police followed him to a cheaply furnished apartment complex called the Blooms.
Tracey hadn’t caught the killer. But he was about to make John Mark Karr the media freak show of the week, the latest prime suspect in the most famous child murder in history.
T: Absolutely. The one doesn’t cancel the other out. Don’t worry about that.T: I’ll tell you this in confidence…John [Ramsey] is basically broke, financially. And we’re trying to put together a deal where we would basically pay him for an interview. Now, journalistically, that is breaking all the rules. But to hell with the rules in this instance.
D: I didn’t even know you were making a documentary about this…I thought this book was supposed to be released by the tenth anniversary.
— Tracey phone conversation with Daxis, July 22, 2006
When David Mills got his own copies of the Daxis tapes, he was alarmed to hear his co-producer promising to pay John Ramsey for an interview. “I was cross with that,” he recalls. “I went and rang Michael.”
Tracey explained that the promise was just one more “invention” in the web of lies he was weaving to build trust with Karr. Mills says his partner may have gotten the idea from discussions they’d had about sharing the profits with John Ramsey if they came into a windfall from Karr’s capture.
“If he had been the killer, the documentary would have sold for two or three million dollars,” Mills says. “I would have felt slightly unfeeling, profiting from John Ramsey’s suffering. If we suddenly got some sort of huge fortune, I think I’d want to pass it on to John.”
According to another source, Tracey hinted to friends after Karr’s arrest that he was in negotiation with CBS to sell the e-mails for a tidy sum. Of course, a “How I Caught JonBenet’s Killer” book would also be huge. But it all went thud when the DNA tests came back. Karr was exposed as the wannabe nutcase Tracey had once suspected he might be, before they both got caught up in the fairy dust and make-believe, the Alice in Wonderland thing. Nothing is impossible, if wishing makes it so.
The Boulder district attorney shared in that wishfulness. Sharply questioned by reporters about whether there was any real evidence to justify Karr’s arrest other than his confessions to Tracey, Mary Lacy insisted that Karr’s story appeared to be highly credible. He’d told Tracey all sorts of wild tales, true, but some of them, like his mother trying to set him ablaze when he was a child, turned out to be true. “I’m not embarrassed,” she said. “I feel bad for a community that questions what we did.”
Tom Bennett and other investigators backed Lacy up. Karr’s story matched the physical evidence in the case (except when it didn’t). His story was consistent (except when he changed it). He’d confessed in such detail, with such emotion, how could you not take him seriously? The investigators had a fallback argument, too: Shortly before his arrest, Karr had been observed putting a young female student on his lap in his classroom in Bangkok. It was one of the girls he’d been fantasizing about in his e-mails to Tracey.
Most men wouldn’t be arrested for putting a child on their lap, but Karr is an exception. His escalating interest in young girls has attracted numerous investigations over the years. Yet he’s never been charged with molesting anyone. Last week, a California judge dismissed the misdemeanor child-porn case, a case for which Karr had already served seven months in jail, including time served during his seven-week odyssey from Bangkok to Boulder to Sonoma County to freedom. His own unhinged desire to be linked to JonBenet’s murder — when arrested, he offered to plead guilty but refused a DNA test — has made him appear far more dangerous than any number of actual convicted felons.
“John Karr has never molested a child in his life,” declares Gary Harris, a Georgia attorney who’s served as a spokesman for the Karr family. “Up until the time he was 37, there was none of this in the guy’s history.”
Tricia Griffith, the Internet critic who first unmasked Gigax as Tracey’s “prime suspect” two years ago, believes that both Tracey and Lacy had a predisposition to believe Karr. “Lacy has pigeonholed herself into the intruder theory, and she will do anything to make it fit,” says Griffith, who hosts the website Forums for Justice. “It didn’t take much for her to want to believe this.”
Last week, Boulder officials put a price tag on the Karr investigation: $23,656 for Lacy’s office, another $11,000 for the Boulder Sheriff’s Office. (CU also plans to bill the county for the calls Tracey made to Thailand from his office.) The fiasco demonstrates why the Ramsey case will never be solved by a confession alone. Virtually every detail about the case is available online, in bookstores or on television. The media-obsessed can study the raw material and make up any story they like. In Karr’s case, the images of a prancing, pint-sized beauty contestant became a monstrous fantasy about a vamping princess who consents to her own violation. Completely lost in that story, murdered all over again, is the six-year-old child who still wet her bed.
The story of what really happened to JonBenet reached an impasse long ago. But there are other stories to tell. Karr isn’t the killer, but he is grist for Mills Productions. Tracey and Mills are now hard at work on their fourth Ramsey documentary, and Mills says it will answer lots of pressing questions.
“The whole Karr episode needs to be properly and adequately explained,” he says. “Michael Tracey has been attacked. Mary Lacy has been attacked. The reality, as far as we have been able to establish it, is that there was no alternative but to take that individual seriously. To bring him in at a cost of only $24,000 was an incredible value. When you really look at the evidence, this is exactly the sort of lead that needed to be followed up.”
Call it the John Karr Story: The story of a troubled man who played an unreal role in JonBenet’s death — and the professor of presumption who brought that story to life.