Pilot Archuletta tabloid story
#1
From Brill's Content February, 2000



For many reporters, getting the story out ultimately became more important than getting it right. And context was hardly the only element missing. Tabloids such as the Globe, which kept JonBenét on the front page for three years (and counting), fabricated stories outright, says Jeffrey Shapiro, a freelancer who exclusively reported for the Globe from February 28, 1997, to February 11, 1999.

Such a manufactured news bulletin began, Shapiro recalls, over the weekend of August 22, 1998. Shapiro was facing more pressure than usual to find a blockbuster headline. Just a few days before, the National Enquirer had landed the biggest tabloid scoop of recent months: "911 Call Nails Brother in Murder Cover-Up-And It's On Tape," blared the Enquirer.

Shapiro had been a tireless tabloid soldier. He admits that short of paying his sources and breaking the law, he would do anything to live up to his e-mail address: jbsavenger. He pestered people he believed had information; he climbed trees to peek through windows to watch police investigations of the Ramsey home; he even tried to get close to the Ramseys' minister by pretending that he wanted to convert from Judaism to Christianity.

Shapiro defends his tactics even as he betrays his lack of perspective about how big of a deal the Ramsey case is. "Do you believe in undercover journalism?" he asks. "If you were a journalist who knew you had to go undercover to break up a big drug ring that was the cause of death to innocent people or to even solve one of the two mysteries-what is on the missing 18 minutes of Watergate tapes or about the grassy-knoll assassin who shot President Kennedy-would you go undercover? I would. I would in a second," he says with complete earnestness.

Days after the Enquirer's 911 scoop, Shapiro's editor had a big lead for him. Late in the night, on August 22, 1998, Shapiro says, one of his editors, Joe Mullens, called him at home to tell him that Mullens had found a source with the perfect juicy nugget. The lead, Shapiro recalls, was that John Ramsey had handed his pilot, Michael Archuleta, a box potentially filled with evidence, such as the cord used to strangle JonBenét and the tape found covering her mouth. (Mullens referred questions on this topic to the Globe's press representative. So did Tony Frost, the paper's editor. The press representative declined to comment.)

Shapiro says that when his editor filled him in on the details of the tip, he questioned the accuracy of the main source, who turned out to be Archuleta's brother. Apparently, in addition to telling Mullens about Ramsey's having allegedly dropped off the murder weapon at his pilot's home, Archuleta's brother gave Mullens another tip that Shapiro knew was demonstrably incorrect-the details of a conversation Shapiro knew could not have taken place.

Mullens defended his source, Shapiro says, telling the young reporter that although the pilot's brother may have been wrong about the conversation, he was sure about the box delivery. Shapiro says he wasn't convinced.

But Mullens assigned Shapiro to look into the tip anyway, and Shapiro went to stake out Archuleta's house. After waiting for hours, Shapiro called Mullens to inform him that nothing was happening.

Just wait. The police are on their way over to Archuleta's, Shapiro says Mullens told him.

How do you know? Shapiro says he asked.

Because we called the police and told them, so we know they'll be heading over there, Mullens replied, according to Shapiro. Shapiro kept at his post.

Meanwhile, inside the house, Archuleta got a phone call from a Globe editor. According to the pilot, the Globe editor said that Archuleta's brother had told the Globe that John Ramsey had given Archuleta a box of evidence. Would he care to comment? The Globe editor inquired.

Archuleta told the editor that he had been estranged from his brother for about five months. "If you're taking information from my brother, that shows me how stupid you people are," he recalls having told the Globe editor.

Soon after, Archuleta says, an investigator contacted him to tell him that law-enforcement officials were going to come out to his house that night to ask him about information that had just been called in from the Globe. The pilot says he had told the investigator that the police knew from extensive prior interviews that he had not been at the Ramseys' house the morning after the murder. Archuleta says he asked, "Why do you guys chase your tail around every time a Globe reporter calls?" The investigator told Archuleta that they had to follow up every lead, and if the tabloid press wrote that law enforcement had a tip that they didn't look into right away, the police department could get fried in the mainstream papers. (Mark Beckner, chief of the Boulder Police Department, declined to comment while the Ramsey investigation is still active.)

Sure enough, the police arrived at the pilot's house late in the night, Shapiro was there to capture the moment, and the Globe had its headline: "World Exclusive! Cops probe breakthrough charge in Little Beauty murder case...JonBenét: dad caught hiding key evidence. Ramsey hid deathbed sheets, girl's nightie and stuffed animals in box, then gave it to pilot-says source." The article included only one word of Archuleta's comments: "inaccurate."

From the beginning, the story was never based on legitimate sources, according to Shapiro: "They initiated the whole thing...fed it to the police, got the police to react on it so they could write the story."
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