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From Brill's Content
This is just part of a larger story


On March 10, 1997, Charlie Brennan, a 15-year veteran of the Denver Rocky Mountain News, was sitting at his desk in the newsroom when a colleague tapped him on the shoulder and gave him a tip about the JonBenét Ramsey case. It sounded like a good one, so Brennan, 44, followed up by calling a man Brennan characterizes as a "law-enforcement source."

The source confirmed the information Brennan's colleague had passed along: The police noted in their initial report that there were no footprints in the snow outside the Ramsey home the morning after the murder. This made it unlikely that an intruder had entered the home. Brennan scribbled down notes, made a few more calls, and hunkered down to write his page 4 report:

Police who went to JonBenét Ramsey's home the morning she was reported missing found no footprints in the snow surrounding the house, sources said Monday.

That is one of the earliest details that caused investigators to focus their attention on the slain girl's family, police sources said.

Although there was no significant storm just before police went to the house the morning after Christmas, it had snowed lightly several times from Dec. 23 to 25, weather records show.

Brennan's scoop was as close to a smoking gun as anything publicly known at the time. Until that point, a broken basement window on the south side of their home meant an intruder could have gotten into the house and killed John and Patsy Ramsey's daughter. Now a lack of footprints in the snow indicated otherwise.

Brennan's findings made national headlines, appearing in publications such as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the San Francisco Examiner. Even The New York Times reported Brennan's findings. (Those papers' combined readership is 2,519,501.) In all, 23 publications and news programs picked up the report, according to a search on the Lexis-Nexis database.

His No Footprints In The Snow scoop solidified Brennan as an important force on the Ramsey beat. When journalists from national publications began parachuting into Boulder to get their share of the action-such as Vanity Fair's Ann Louise Bardach, and Lawrence Schiller, who had been commissioned by The New Yorker to cover the Ramsey murder-Brennan was the man they called. In fact, when Schiller decided to expand his New Yorker article into a book, he hired Brennan to help with the reporting. (Brennan won't say how much money he made from collaborating on Perfect Murder, Perfect Town. The hardcover and paperback editions both reached best-seller lists.)

Although Brennan was beginning to enjoy the national exposure-The New York Times was reporting his discovery, Larry King Live was calling-his scoop would soon quietly fall apart.

When Daniel Glick heard about Brennan's No Footprints headliner, he thought it was a bombshell. Glick, a former Washington correspondent for Newsweek who now writes for the magazine from Boulder County, even went so far as to say on Larry King Live that if the Ramseys' claims of an intruder were to be believed, the killer must have had the power to "levitate."

But in mid-June 1997, Glick and his writing partner, Sherry Keene-Osborn, both began to question the story's accuracy. Keene-Osborn said she got a call from an "impeccable source" who warned her that much of what ran in the newspapers and magazines (including Newsweek) was flat wrong. Glick says he raised an eyebrow when, while visiting the Ramseys' Boulder house, he noticed that flagstone surrounded its south side.

They started re-reporting Brennan's scoop. Glick says he found a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who told him that there was little snowfall and that the temperature had been mostly above freezing in the week prior to the murder. Glick says he then deduced that because there were no leaves on the trees to block the sunshine from reaching the flagstone patio outside the broken window, there probably wasn't any snow on the ground outside the broken window-even though there were patches of snow on the lawn. To confirm, Glick says, he contacted a "frost expert" who told him that scientifically one couldn't even determine whether or when frost would have been on the ground outside the window. In other words, the police notation of "no footprints" was meaningless; it certainly did not rule out the entrance of an intruder.

Glick and Keene-Osborn wrote a story that questioned Brennan's reporting. The article was largely ignored by other print outlets, though Geraldo Rivera mentioned Newsweek's report on Rivera Live and Glick discussed his findings on two episodes of Larry King Live. Given the relatively little play by the media outlets that had so quickly picked up Brennan's No Footprints piece, Glick and Keene-Osborn's piece hardly made a dent in what John and Patsy Ramsey's attorney now calls "the greatest urban legend of the case." In fact, five months after Newsweek disputed Brennan's story, The Washington Post reported that "from the start, circumstances surrounding the crime focused suspicion on the parents....There were no conclusive signs of forced entry at the home and no footprints in the snow that fell that night."

The importance of the No Footprints story, Brennan contends, is not whether there actually were footprints or not. Rather, he says, his report showed the direction in which the police investigation was heading: By noting a lack of footprints (wrongly or rightly), the police were clearly considering the potential guilt of the Ramseys. "What I reported was that police noted in their reports an absence of footprints," says Brennan. "That's not Charlie Brennan saying, 'Hey, there was an absence of footprints.' I'm saying, 'Hey, the police put it in their reports.' And they did! They did! That was never wrong."

But when The New York Times ran its story about Brennan's No Footprints article, the paper didn't play up the aspect of the direction of the police investigation. The Times's headline was "No Sign Of An Intruder At Home Of A Slain Child."

To Glick, Brennan's piece unfairly threw a dark shadow on the Ramseys and forever cast them as the homicidal parents. Again, Brennan disagrees: "The public opinion train was way out of the station by the time that story broke," he asserts.

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.
  • No Snow on Sidewalks"Contrary to media reports that had discredited an intruder theory, based on the lack of a "footprint in the snow," there was no snow covering the sidewalks and walkways to defendants' home on the morning of December 26, 1996. (SMF P 139; PSMF P 139.) Hence, a person walking along these paths would have left no footprints." (Carnes 2003:90). 
  • Fernie Account.  "John Fernie was angry when he read Charlie Brennan's story about footprints. Like many media stories, this one came from an unnamed source and made the Ramseys look guilty. Fernie wondered if the source was provided the reporter with all the facts. He knew that his own footprints were there in the snow that morning. He had driven up the back alley to the Ramsey's house just after 6:00 A.M. in response to Patsy's frantic call that terrible morning. He remembered walking along the brick sidewalk to the patio door, looking through the glass panel, and reading a line or two of the ransom note, which was lying on the floor just inside the door. Then he ran through the snow-covered grass, around the south side of the house, to the front door (emphasis added). If the cops had been looking, they would have found his footprints. A year and half after JonBenet's death, Fernie told a reporter that the police still had not checked the shoes he wore that day, though a shoe imprint had been discovered next to JonBenet's body" (Schiller 1999:236).

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