That evening, I call Jeff Shapiro, the Globe freelancer, and asked if he had spoken with Hunter lately.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Santa Claus.” They’re still looking at him.”
Shapiro was referring to Bill McReynolds, a former journalism professor at the University of Colorado, who lived up in the mountains with his wife, Janet; they had been married for thirty-four years. McReynolds had a long white beard, a roundish body, and a cornball poetic way of speaking. He exuded the kind of warmth and fuzziness that charms some people and leaves others uncomfortable.
For the past three holiday seasons, McReynolds had played Santa Claus at the Ramseys home. Dressed up like Ol’ Saint Nick, he delivered presents to JonBenet and Burke while telling them stories about riding across the sky with his reindeer and big bag of Christmas gifts. He put silver sparkles in his beard and let JonBenet find them, explaining to her that when his reindeer ran into stars, sparkles fell off and landed on his whiskers.
Ever since meeting JonBenet, McReynolds had found her to be a special child. Echoing others, he said that she had a certain “look” and was “luminous.” He compared her to an angel. She had, in fact, been a bright, effervescent, and charming girl. She had taken violin and piano lessons and had recently made the Stars Honor Roll at High Peaks Elementary, excelling in math. She liked to sing and dance and to eat macaroni and cheese at home after school while curled up in front of her favorite star, Shirley Temple. JonBenet was somewhat of a natural ham herself, and during the recent High Peaks holiday festivities had dressed up like a Christmas present and sung “Jingle Bell Rock.”
At her memorial service, Bill McReynolds had spoken about his relationship with JonBenet, and about some other kids he had known who were no longer alive. He kept a harp at home, he said, and on it he had carved the names of the dead children he had been close to.
Laurie Wagner, a longtime business associate of John Ramsey who worked in public relations at Access Graphics, heard McReynolds speak at the service and was taken aback.
“It was really creepy,” she told me, “and others who were there had the same reaction. I think this man really believes that he’s Santa Claus. Only an oddball would do that. At the memorial, he described a conversation he’d had with JonBenet in her bedroom. It struck me as one of those things you do with your children, where the dialogue is so familiar that kids give you a rote response. He asked her where Santa was when he was not with her. “In my heart,” she said. Then he asked her where she will be when she’s gone. “In Santa’s heart,” she told him. These words sent chills up and down my spine. McReynolds told a reporter that he was looking for a place on his harp to put JonBenet’s name.”
In his role as Santa Claus, McReynolds had hidden gifts in the Ramseys’ home. Although he knew the complicated layout of the fifteen-room house – and might have even known his way around in the middle of the night – he was sixty seven years old and had had double bypass heart surgery only four months before the murder. He was not supposed to do anything strenuous.
“As I listened to him at the memorial,” recalled Wagner, “I could create a scenario that answered all of my questions. He may have had a key to the house and he’d been there as recently as December 23, the night of the party. He may have told JonBenet that he had a present for her down in the basement. It all sort of fit together.”
Back in the seventies, Bill McReynolds’s nine-year-old daughter had been abducted with a friend of hers in Longmont, Colorado, about an hour away from Boulder. The McReynolds girl was not harmed in the incident, but she did witness the molestation of her friend. Around that same time, Bill’s wife Janet wrote a play, Hey, Rube, which dramatized the sexual assault, torture, and murder of a girl whose body was found in a basement. The play was based upon a 1965 homicide in Indiana. Hey, Rube won the Western States Arts Foundation regional prize and earned Janet McReynolds $7,500 from the National Endowment for the Arts.
When, early in 1997, these details surfaced about Bill and Janet McReynolds, they suddenly became the talk show suspects of the moment; that speculation soon faded away. What was not pursued on the airwaves was that the Ramseys may have been familiar with the play Janet McReynolds had written, just as they were familiar with a book authored by John Douglas, the FBI profiler hired by the family following the murder. Douglas’s book, Mind Hunter, which was retreived from the Ramseys’ home by police, also contained a section about a child who was abducted and found dead in a basement. Patsy Ramsey, there is reason to believe, was frightened by both of these homicidal scenarios – frightened enough that by late 1996 they were still stirring in her memory.