2 years later
#1
Clues elusive 2 years later
Conflicting theories still only theories in JonBenét Ramsey murder investagation
By Matt Sebastian
Camera Staff Writer




Joe Barnhill once thought the mysterious murder of his angelic young neighbor, 6-year-old JonBenét Ramsey, would be solved within three days.
Today, he's still waiting for that closure, as the investigation into the death of the one-time Little Miss Colorado enters its third year.
"I'm just beside myself," Barnhill said last week, having just returned from a walk with JonBenét's dog, which he and his wife still care for.
"It's so sad," he said quietly. "We loved that girl."
For the second time since the 1996 Christmas slaying, the anniversary of JonBenét's death will pass without an arrest — even though her parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, remain under intense and constant suspicion.
Many of the actors in this nationally televised drama have changed over the past two years, and the case is now being considered by Boulder County's grand jury. But the key questions remain:
Has this couple gotten away with murder? Or, as the Ramseys themselves insist, was there an intruder in their Boulder home that Christmas night?
Police officials and members of Boulder County District Attorney Alex Hunter's prosecution team remain optimistic that the current grand jury inquest may still solve this mystery.
"There are people working on this case that won't stop working until it's solved," Adams County District Attorney Bob Grant said recently.
Another one of Hunter's advisers acknowledges that it's an uphill battle.
"This whole case just boils down to a lack of information," Dr. Henry Lee, director of the Connecticut State Police Forensic Science Laboratory, said last week.
"The crime scene was already contaminated from day one," said Lee, who has worked on the Ramsey case since early 1997. "And as for physical evidence, we do not really have any major pieces."
    
POWER TO COMPEL    
After long pondering the move, Boulder's district attorney — with the aid of three special prosecutors — finally began presenting the labyrinthine Ramsey murder investigation to the county's grand jury this past September.
Using the panel's power to compel testimony and secure documents under subpoena, Hunter and police hope to answer some of their remaining questions about what happened that Christmas night.
Even the Ramsey family, which had repeatedly criticized the police investigation into JonBenét's death, hailed the progress in the case.
Today, Patsy Ramsey's sister says the grand jury is the best hope yet to find JonBenét's killer.
When asked recently if she still believes the case can be solved, Pam Paugh emphatically answered, "Absolutely!"
"If the faith I continue to have in Alex Hunter holds any water," she quickly added.
Over the course of the fall months, with the 12 jurors and five alternates meeting twice most weeks, the panel heard evidence from Boulder police officers and detectives, as well as Colorado Bureau of Investigation handwriting analysts and chemists.
The jurors toured the former Ramsey home and subpoenaed documents from a variety of sources, including the private hangar where John Ramsey kept his plane.
Currently on a five-week holiday hiatus, the grand jury is expected to reconvene Jan. 5 and work into the spring.
    
INSURMOUNTABLE?    
But for all the power of the grand jury, it remains unclear whether it can overcome the Ramsey case's own history — especially the crucial mistakes allegedly made on the first day of the investigation.
Henry Lee, famed for his work on behalf of O.J. Simpson's defense team, said a successful investigation is based on four crucial elements — a good crime scene, strong physical evidence, witnesses and "a little bit of luck."
"Unfortunately, we lack all four of those elements," Lee said. "But we always keep a sort of hope. We never give up."
Boulder police officers Rick French and Karl Veitch arrived at the Ramsey home, 755 15th St., at 5:52 a.m. on Dec. 26, 1996.
Patsy Ramsey had called 911 after she said she found a 2½-page ransom note on a spiral staircase in the rear of the sprawling house. The note demanded $118,000 in exchange for the safe return of JonBenét.
But after calling police, the Ramseys contacted several friends and their pastor. At least five people arrived at the home shortly after the two officers. The first detective, Linda Arndt, didn't show up until 8 a.m.
"You just don't want people traipsing through your crime scene," said former FBI profiler Gregg McCrary. "If you believe a stranger has been in that house, you don't want other people in there.
"Even before they were aware it was a homicide, it was at least the scene of an abduction that needed to be contained and cordoned off."
Police didn't even tape off JonBenét's bedroom until 10:30 a.m., according to a search warrant affidavit.
Perhaps the most crucial error came at 1 p.m. Tired of waiting for the supposed kidnapper to call, Arndt asked John Ramsey and two of his friends to search the house.
John Fernie went upstairs; Fleet White followed Ramsey down to the basement. But White came running back upstairs almost immediately.
John Ramsey had found his daughter's lifeless body beneath a blanket in an unused, windowless room. He removed a strip of tape from her mouth and carried her body upstairs.
"Why in God's name were John Ramsey and Fleet White allowed to find that body without a police officer present?" asked retired Boulder police officer Dale Stange, an investigator with eight years of homicide experience. "That just destroyed everything right there."
Ten months later, then-police Chief Tom Koby would admit, "If we had it to do all over, we would do it differently."
Privately, current Boulder police officers say they wish Koby had acknowledged that earlier and more sincerely.
Mark Beckner, who has headed the Ramsey case since fall 1997 and succeeded Koby as Boulder police chief in June, won`t discuss that first day.
"I`m going to really choose not to go back and review the history of this case at this point," Beckner said recently.
THE 'UMBRELLA'    
Boulder police still deny that John and Patsy Ramsey are suspects in their daughter's murder, instead describing the couple as falling under "the umbrella of suspicion."
But many people have little doubt that the Ramseys were the police department's only real suspects and now are under full grand jury investigation.
That's still surprising to some.
"Somebody wearing a badge who's had access to the facts says the Ramseys are innocent," Denver defense attorney Larry Pozner said, referring to the recent resignation of detective Lou Smit, who served as an investigator on the case for Hunter.
A retired El Paso County homicide investigator, Smit left the district attorney's office last September, saying he was convinced of the Ramseys' innocence and afraid Hunter was bent on prosecuting them.
"That's very troubling," Pozner said. "You just don't ever see that."
The Boulder Police Department has been sharply criticized by the Ramseys and their supporters for, they say, single-mindedly going after JonBenét's parents.
Even Hunter admitted as much, telling The New Yorker magazine, "The cops became so convinced that the Ramseys did it that they've never been able to look at the evidence objectively."
Throughout the case, the district attorney's office has been perceived as being open to other theories about the crime — so much so that some close to the case allege Hunter is in cahoots with the Ramseys, a charge both sides deny.
In May 1997, the district attorney's office said in a court filing that there remained "the real possibility that the murder was committed by an intruder."
Even Boulder County Sheriff George Epp mulled over the idea of running an investigation parallel to the Boulder Police Department's.
"Somebody had suggested that to me, but it just wouldn't have been a good idea," Epp said last week, declining to say who brought it up.
    
INTRUDER?    
After two years of work, is it possible that Boulder police have missed the boat entirely, letting an intruder get away with a crime?
David Protess, a Northwestern University journalism professor, thinks it could be possible. He has seen it before.
"I certainly have investigated, as a journalist, a number of cases involving children who vanish from their beds and are later found murdered," Protess said. "In most of those cases, the parents are not involved.
"What we don't expect or accept is that a young child could vanish from her bed in the middle of the night and be killed. I think our society would prefer for the parents to have committed this crime. It makes us safer to believe that, even if the assumption is false."
Ramsey supporters point to several pieces of evidence that they say will shed doubt on any future case against JonBenét's parents.
Just this past month, police asked Pam Paugh and four other Ramsey family relatives to submit DNA for comparison to genetic material found under JonBenét's fingernails and on her underwear.
The Ramsey relatives, who were not in Colorado at the time of the murder, voluntarily complied.
Police also have long sought the match to a still-unidentified palm print found somewhere in the house. More significant yet is the imprint of a Hi-Tec boot found in the same room where JonBenét's body was found.
And despite the Ramseys' initial report to police that all their doors and windows had been locked Christmas night, subsequent investigation revealed one unlocked door and a half-dozen unlatched windows.
For these reasons and because of his own faith in his neighbors, Joe Barnhill is firm in his opinion of the Ramseys.
"I've never thought the parents did it and I still can't believe they did," Barnhill said.
Now Barnhill, like the rest of Boulder — and the whole world — will wait and see if the county's 12 grand jurors can determine what happened in that house two years ago.
And, all involved must hope a third Christmas doesn't pass before a killer is brought to justice.

December 26, 1998
 
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