MT's essay
A Devastating Critique
Elsewhere, everywhere, in homes and offices across America, disbelief. Since the beginning of January 1997, when the media first began to really cover the case, the American pubic had lived within a narrative for which there could be only one ending: indictment, trial, conviction, execution – certainly of Patsy and possibly of John as an accomplice. That this wasn’t going to happen beggared belief because, of course, we all “knew” they were guilty.

It is vitally important to remember just how certain almost everyone was that there would indeed be a trial and conviction. The lawyers had already discussed with law enforcement the way in which the Ramseys would be handed over, and had arranged with a bank the monies that would be needed for any bail. That there wasn’t going to be a trial one suspects, though this has never been made clear, was because Hunter did not ask the grand jury to vote. Had he done so they may well have indicted, and Hunter was smart enough to know the difficulty he would have at trial. That he felt this way was almost certainly because he understood two things: he would be up against a superb defence team; and he knew the power of the case that Smit had developed, one which had the backing of America’s premier crime profiler, John Douglas and the extremely bright assistant DA Trip DeMuth. DeMeuth had been asked by his boss, Pete Hofstrom, to “defence” the case – that is, to look at the evidence in the way that the defence attorneys would. On 12 May 1998 he presented his report to the police and members of the DAs. I have read the report. He picked away at the investigation, its intellectual and conceptual flaws, its clear biases, the brute truths it had refused to face, like a buzzard devouring dead carrion. It is a devastating critique. The police case was inherently flawed and weak.

We can see this now. Then was a different story. On Saturday September 25 1999 David Mills and I had lunch with Bryan Morgan at Turley’s Restaurant in Boulder. I had originally suggested the Regal Harvest House but Bryan demurred at that saying that there were too many paparazzi there. This was only a short time before the grand jury would report its findings. Boulder was once more crawling with journalists and camera crews, and Bryan was in no mood to be caught on camera talking to the two of us. His mood was also sombre, his mind utterly convinced that the Ramseys were going to be indicted. His reasoning seemed strong, resting on the received truth that grand juries will always go with the prosecution – the clichéd phrase is that any prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. He felt that Alex Hunter, the DA, had lost control of events and that Michael Kane, an assistant DA who was leading the grand jury inquiry was determined to indict. I tried to argue, somewhat precociously since Bryan had vast legal experience, that the mistake he was making was two-fold. Hunter did not seem to me to be out of the loop – I knew this because of a request I had from him for some information about another suspect, a request which could only be interpreted to mean that he and his office were looking at other people as possible suspects, even as the grand jury was drawing to a close. The nature of the request, and its timing, made it clear to me that he was far from convinced that the Ramseys would, or should, be indicted. It also seemed clear to me that this was not like all the other cases which fed that conventional wisdom about the malleability of grand jurors. Morgan, though, thought differently. We had met to discuss our plans for a second documentary, that would investigate the investigation. For that we would need the cooperation of his clients. He told us that this would depend upon the results of the grand jury, that this would, however, be our last conversation until things were resolved and that he was now “going into trial mode.” We shook hands at the end of lunch with the clear sense that we would not be speaking with him for a long time, until in fact the trial was over.

In the first documentary that David and I made about the case, we drew heavily on the media accounts, the story that was told about the death, the alleged role of the family, particularly of JonBenet’s parents. David knew little about the case, but we had both long shared a growing concern as to how the media in general, and the news media in particular, were evolving as we both saw on the far horizon the growing, dark cloud of market forces.

We had first met after the publication of my biography of Sir Hugh Greene, Director General of the BBC from 1960 to 1969. Hugh was not just a great public service broadcaster, he was a great and brave man with a passionate belief in certain fundamental rights. I had met him when I wrote a chapter of my doctoral thesis about the manner in which he was forced to retire from the BBC – he was, to the government of the day too independent, a troublesome priest who had to go. When I got my doctorate in 1975 I had the temerity ( since I had at that time published hardly anything) to ask him if I could write his biography, to which he immediately said yes, an answer which would prove to be even more life-changing than entering the world of a murdered child in Boulder.
JonBenet, pt. 3: time to wake up, Professor Tracey

In the mid-1980s David Mills had tried to get a budget together to make a documentary based on my work on public broadcasting, making the case that market forces would prove disastrous for broadcasting as a means of serving the public interest. We would also argue that deregulation, along the lines of American television, would be deeply unfortunate, along with the more nuanced argument that there is, anyhow, no such thing as de-regulation – there is only regulation (ie someone making decisions about content) in the public interest or a private interest. Culture is never, finally, neutral.

David’s efforts came to nothing. We did however keep in touch. He was aware, vaguely, of how during 1997 I had been drawn into talking about the case in scores of interviews, across all media. It was, in fact, a good opportunity to make the point about the problems of journalistic practice in a market-driven environment that he and I had discussed many times.

In September 1997, I decided to write an op-ed piece for the Sunday edition of the local paper, the Daily Camera (cf. appendix.) The peg for the piece was the debate about the role of the paparazzi in the death of Princess Diana in Paris on August 31, 1997. I argued that the question of the tabloid and mainstream media obsession with Diana should come as no surprise to anyone, particularly anyone living in Boulder. We had had for nine months a pitch perfect example of exactly the same kind of obsession in the coverage of JonBenet and her parents. At the end of January, a month after her death, there were three hundred reporters in Boulder, covering the case. The rhetorical question that the piece asked was simple: how come we all know the Ramseys are guilty? The answer was obvious, as I have already stated: that was the only story being told.

Shortly after the op-ed appeared I got a phone call from Bryan Morgan. I didn’t know much about Bryan then (we have since become good friends) other than that he represented John Ramsey and that he was founding partner, with Hal Haddon, of one of the most powerful criminal defense law firms in the western states. My immediate reaction was to wonder if there was something in the article I had written that had raised his hackles. I couldn’t imagine what that could be since I think I can reasonably claim that it was one of the first times the possibility had been raised in the media that maybe the case wasn’t so tight and shut as everyone was assuming. He told me that he wanted to come and talk, and so we did, meeting in my small cramped office in the Norlin Library on the CU campus. I explained to him my position, a mini-version of the arguments I expanded upon in the Prologue, and added that I had no view as to the guilt or innocence of his clients, and that my main concern was with the nature of the media coverage, the role of the tabloids and the fact that, guilty or innocent, the Ramseys still had rights that were being trashed. It was an interesting conversation but when he left I assumed that was the end of it.

A couple of days later, however, Bryan called me again with a startling proposal. He told me that Patsy Ramsey wanted to come and talk to one of my classes. I must admit that I burst out laughing. The Ramseys were the most wanted couple in America, the ultimate “get” for all the major media figures like Barbara Walters, Dan Rather, Diane Sawyer, but they had been totally hunkered down, on the advice of their attorneys, for whom defense law 101 is your clients don’t talk, and here she wanted to come and talk to a bunch of college kids. We agreed to meet next day for lunch.

As I put the phone down, I had an idea and called David. I found him in a bookshop in Scotland. I briefly explained the context and then with that temerity again showing its head said that we should make a documentary that would allow us to make the point that we had discussed all those years before by telling the story of how the story of JonBenet had been told. And I added, if I can get the Ramseys will you produce it. Barely thinking (something that there would be many moments he would regret) he said yes.
The First Time I Met John Ramsey
I met Bryan the next day at The James Irish Pub. With him was Pat Burke, Patsy’s attorney. They had come expecting to discuss how we could get Patsy into one of my classrooms, without drawing any media attention. I suggested that I had a better idea. I told them that I wanted to make a documentary about the media story of JonBenet’s death, but that to do that I had to put their clients on camera. In television terms you could no more make such a movie than you could stage Hamlet without the Prince. There was also a practical reason, in that no network was going to put up a budget if they were not interviewed.

As they heard my proposal, Bryan and Pat – both of whom are very high-end criminal defense attorneys whose talents you definitely never want to be in a position to need – looked at me as if I were a lunatic. When your clients are assumed by the whole world to be guilty of killing their daughter, when an indictment is obvious, when the whole of the world’s media would love to talk to them and is anyhow spewing forth extraordinary amounts of so-called “information,” the absolutely last thing you do is let them talk. However, as I was about to learn for the first (but not the last) time, the normal laws of moral physics do not exist in the universe that swirls around her death. They said that they would put my proposal to the Ramseys, clearly assuming that there was no way this was going to happen. They were wrong. Within about 24 hours Bryan called me again and said, much to even my amazement, “they’re interested.”

The first time I met John Ramsey was in the foyer of the Hyatt in Marietta, Georgia, in early December 1997. He had come to take Bryan Morgan and I to his house on Paces Ferry Road. David would be flying in later from filming in Bucharest. As we shook hands on first meeting, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I were shaking hands with a child killer. That whole weekend had a kind of out of body sense to it: trying to negotiate an interview, all the while looking at them, searching for a clue, something that would reveal an inner, ghastly persona capable of killing.

Nothing. Here was a life, it seemed of wealthy ordinariness, caught up in vicious extra-ordinariness. There were other little clues that weekend. We went to dinner at a private, elegant club on Peachtree, in Atlanta, where they were well known. The waiter greeted them warmly, not it seemed to me out of any obsequiousness, rather out of genuine affection. At one point in the evening David, who was sitting next to Patsy, asked how she coped with the pressure of being accused by the whole world of killing her child. She started to cry. Not out loud, rather out of what seemed like a private agony. David and I would both note that John seemed not to react, carrying on his conversation with me. Instead Bryan got up, moved around the table, put his arms around her, and led her from the dining room. From another table, a lady rose, followed them out, and suggested she take Patsy into the ladies powder room so that she could compose herself.

Later David and I discussed this incident and John Ramsey’s apparent aloofness to his wife’s distress. Could it be, as many had suggested, that he did indeed have ice in his veins, that he had the cold stone heart of man who could indeed kill his own child with blithe indifference? Or could it be that in the context of unimaginable pressure and accusation he had to hold his composure, for his sake, for Patsy, for the family? For if not him who could, would, should? I now see John Ramsey as man with almost surreal courage, the likes of which I have never, before or since, seen.

The following morning, Sunday, David and I sat down with the Ramseys at the dining table in their home to discuss the interview. Bryan sat quietly alongside one wall. We had a drawn up a list of conditions that we insisted on. Looking back there was nothing if not British hubris in this: here were two people who were possibly, one or both, facing the death penalty, who were being begged by their attorneys not to talk to us, who were in demand by every major news organization in America for “the interview,” and here we were saying we’ll do this but only if you accept our conditions. These were basically that we could ask any question we wanted, no exceptions; that they would have absolutely no editorial involvement, indeed that they would never see the programme before it was broadcast; and that if we found out anything damaging to their case we would use it. The only clause which Morgan asked to be included was that we would agree not to broadcast the documentary during the time that any grand jury – if it were empanelled – was sitting. ( This clause would cause much confusion and silliness, and in the end was revoked by the attorneys at our bidding.)

That we had put these conditions forward came largely from the fact that we knew that any attempt to get a commission out of the UK would be very much dependent on our convincing the commissioning editor that what we were proposing was a piece of independent investigative journalism and not – as we would inevitably be accused – a softball interview. We laid out these conditions to John and Patsy, and generally discussed our ideas as to what we had in mind: a story had been told about them and this crime, a story which we wanted to interrogate to see if another story could have been told. They listened , agreed, we stood up, facing each other across the table, shook hands and they signed the agreement. Bryan Morgan went to an even whiter shade of pale because of what had just happened.

The inevitable thought that came to mind, however, was why would two people, if they were the killers, allow two Brits to interview them with these terms. If they were guilty, and they were still agreeable to cooperating, in the form of a major interview, then we were clearly involved in something that married the bizarre with the surreal. It could be argued that they, or at least those, like Susan Stine, whose counsel they sought knew something of my own position because of the numerous media interviews I’d given over the previous months. That position, however, was never that that they were innocent or guilty, only that the media coverage was vastly overdone and deeply prejudicial to any legal rights they had under the Constitutional provision to be presumed innocent.

However, they could have no idea about Mills’ position on the case if only because he didn’t really have one. I also explained to them that David came out of a tradition of broadcast journalism, that of British public service broadcasting, that treasured its integrity and independence. His mentor, Ray Fitzwalter of Granada Television, was legendary for both his nurturing of brilliant investigative journalism and for his utter, incorruptible integrity ( pity the producer who put in padded expenses to Ray, or didn’t nail the story factually as well as conceptually.) The Ramseys would have been stupid beyond belief to imagine that Mills would allow himself to become – please forgive the pun – a patsy.
Left Hand, Right Hand
When I returned home after this meeting there were the inevitable questions of: well, what are they like, did they do it? To which my reply, utterly subjective, grounded in nothing more than a feeling, was “no way.” But I was always quick to add: but even if they did, that’s irrelevant to us.

Later, as we filmed, the same experience would confront others. Dan Glick and Sherry Keene-Osborne, who wrote for Newsweek, were working with us as associate producers and had done some wonderful, revisionist journalism about the case. Neither had met the Ramseys until we started to film the interview. Both came away with that same sense of “no-way.” Having said that, it is important to understand that Dan and Sherry were as open to evidence that pointed at the Ramseys as that which pointed away. Dan and I in fact used to keep what we would call our left hand, right hand column moments. In the left column would be evidence that pointed away, the right evidence that pointed at them, and in particular Patsy. There was also one memorable moment at dinner the first night of filming, in March 1998. Bryan Morgan, tears in his eyes, recalled the moment when he realized that John at least was not involved. It was when, at one point in 1997, he was describing how JonBenet had died and it became clear to him that John “hadn’t a clue.”

For me, though, one reaction in particular stood out. We had hired as our cameraman-director Patrick Turley. Patrick is wonderful at his craft. He was by this time semi-retired. He had won numerous awards, and when Stanley Kubrick had wanted someone to shoot the New York scenes of Eyes Wide Shut, he had asked Patrick to do it – Kubrick famously never traveled. Patrick could also be testy, something that reflected both his perfectionism and an edgy psychology. He was also deeply cynical in a manner that Brits have mastered. He had in his career seen and filmed it all, war, mayhem, corruption. That same first night of the interview he said, to no-one in particular, “ I can’t see it.”

Of course, none of this was, or could, be conclusive. To have “seen” in the Ramseys “innocence,” would have been as wrong-headed, as irrational and stupid, as to have “seen” in them “guilt.” Over the next several years and two more documentaries , however, Mills and I became convinced that they were innocent. Following the December Atlanta meeting there were weeks of intense negotiation, a back and forth between me and the attorneys, as David was back in the UK trying to get a budget together.

What became quite clear was that whatever the advice, John Ramsey wanted to talk, indeed needed desperately to talk. I remember one key meeting, on a Saturday in the law offices of Mike Bynum, John’s friend and business partner. Everyone was there, (with one key exception): David, Dan, Sherry, Bryan, Pat Burke, Hal Haddon and Lee Foreman, the other senior partner in the Morgan, Haddon law firm. I made the pitch as to why they should do it, basically arguing that we would be professional, that their clients needed to be heard and definitely wanted to be heard.

There was surprisingly little opposition, because John Ramsey, the one vote that counted, had decided that we should proceed, and had told his attorneys of his decision. The deal was done. David got a budget from the British network, Channel Four, and in March 1998 we arrived in Atlanta. It had started.

There was one strange, vivid moment that, looking back, suggested the real extent to which JonBenet would enter my life. I had set my alarm for 6:00 am on the morning I would fly out to Atlanta. I had a dream about her, and recall vividly her saying, “Time to wake up Professor Tracey.” I awoke, slightly startled because it really did feel real. It was 5:59 am.

In January, 1998 I wrote a longish note to David suggesting what seemed to me to be the essential themes we needed to confront:

“David/ here are a few initial thoughts on the programme. We will obviously need to think long and hard about how to proceed. The trump card which we have is the Ramseys. Their involvement is what will get the attention. The down side to that is that we will be accused of being part of their PR campaign. So we will need to stay focused on the heart of the matter, which in effect is to put the American media on trial, and in so doing put America itself in the dock because without an audience for what Teddy White called “the schlock storm” it wouldn’t exist.Background

On December 26th 1996 the body of JonBenet Ramsey was found in the basement of her home. Her skull had been fractured, she had been strangled and she may or may not have been sexually assaulted. She was six years old, her home was in Boulder, Colorado and her death was to become the latest example of an American pastime, private tragedy as public spectacle.

Almost immediately two things happened:

1. her death became a major news story, with remarkably extensive coverage on tv and radio and in newspapers. At one point in January there were three hundred journalists in Boulder covering the story. It became a fixture on local television news, on cable programmes and primetime network news magazines. Even the London Sunday Times was to carry it as the cover story for its magazine, which featured a photo of JonBenet and the line “The Kiddie-Porn Killing: How the murder of a six year-old beauty queen chilled America’s soul.” That in itself was interesting because what it represented was the way in which an essential interpretation of what had happened, that the case was an example of familial sexual abuse, had become so prevalent that it had crossed the Atlantic.

2. there was an immediate and widespread assumption, fueled by media coverage, which was itself partly fed by the Police Department, that the parents were guilty of killing the child. The flow of “information” went: police dept leaks info to media, including tabloids and local paper, which publishes it as ‘fact,” which reassures the public, which has already been reassured by Durgin’s statement ( this was the mayor’s statement on January 2, that the police were not scouring the streets of Boulder for a child killer, a comment she said, when we interviewed her for the first documentary, she very much regretted) and which is anyhow disposed to believe the spin because of its own sense of how these kinds of crime happen, and which is anyhow fascinated with the case, and which wants more, which leads to further leaks to the increasing numbers of journalists covering the case, and so on as a public “understanding” of what happened and who did it becomes a powerful and unquestioned orthodoxy.

There is an obvious connection between the two, since the overwhelming tone of the coverage has often implied, and sometimes overtly stated, that the parents were guilty. It is clear that this was a conclusion that was arrived at early on by the police. Their problem was that they were then unable to make the case so that an indictment could be brought. This is why they decided to use the media to create a climate of public opinion which would force the DA to bring the Ramsey’s to trial. In my first conversation with Bryan Morgan, John Ramsey’s attorney, he said that when the story of the case was eventually told the real hero who would emerge would be a figure in the DA’s office (I now know that Bryan had Pete Hofstrom in mind, a man who was widely regarded not just an excellent assistant district attorney but someone who was ethically unimpeachable, and who has maintained a studied silence on the case to this day.) He seemed to be suggesting that it was this person in particular who had been primarily responsible for resisting the pressure to go to trial. In the recent Louise Woodward case ( an English nanny working in New England who had been accused of killing a child) it became clear that many Brits were surprised, shocked even, by the role of the media in the case, for example the television appearance of the parents before the jury had arrived at a verdict. The reality is that there was nothing unusual in this in terms of the relationship between the US media and the judicial process. In the context of the Ramseys there is no-one in the whole of the United States who has not been repeatedly told that the parents did it. One real puzzle, however, which may be beyond the scope of a television programme is why there was such a ready and potent willingness among the public to accept such an interpretation given that there is little meaningful evidence to sustain such certainty.”

Looking back there is little that I would change.
Storming the Bastille of Words
The errors in the media story were especially egregious precisely because they were fundamentally unfair and utterly denied the Ramseys the most basic of rights, to be presumed innocent. In the end the system worked and there was no indictment, but it was all perilously close.

The point David and I have been trying to make through the documentaries was that the story of JonBenet’s murder was a perfect avatar for a brute and new reality about American journalism, one which is increasingly boorish, banal, corrupt and debased, and that more importantly its condition was metastasizing into the body politic, and in particular into the judicial process and the rights of the citizen under the Constitution. So the brute premise was that even those – perhaps especially those – who would eventually be found guilty of heinous crime had rights. This was, it seemed to me something which never came close to being granted to the Ramseys.

There is, I believe and hope, a certain reasonable purpose in spending a decade of one’s life focused on one child murder. I am, I recognize, grasping here for a certain justification of purpose. Why her, why this case? I’ve thought about this question many times, but only recently began to fathom what might be an answer, with the help of many hours of conversation with a wise and gentle man whom I’ll refer to here simply as DG. It was, in fact, those conversations that guided me to the thoughts that I expressed in the Prologue.

In the same year that JonBenet died there were 804 children below the age of twelve murdered in the United States. She was one. Yet her death took on iconic status. She became Marilyn, Elvis, the Diana of slaughtered children, as her name entered the inner sanctum of public memory and knowledge. About that six year old child, about her demise, a mountain of lies were told. And if we cannot tell the truth about a child’s death, what else can we, as a culture, lie about?

The right to know the truth about JonBenet’s death is no different than the right to know the truth about, say, war and security. Tom Paine warned that if the majority of the people were denied the truth and ideas of truth it was time to storm what he called the “Bastille of Words.” David Mills and I set out to storm that Bastille of Words about the Ramsey case using the power of television. One obvious aspect was that as a student of culture who has spent many years writing and talking about the deepening corruption of cultural and, in particular, journalistic values here was a pitch perfect example of the argument, and it was on my own door step. As I suggested in the Prologue, the nature of the coverage suggested that the country I had idealized as a boy was falling well short of those ideals.

I was also motivated by a profound sense that, not only was she an innocent about whose death the truth should out, a child who had not, in all likelihood been killed by her parents, but that the family were being bullied, by the media and a great swathe of the public, and in my world view there is a special place reserved on the inner ring of hell for the bully.

I’ve felt this way since childhood, perhaps because when your father dies when you are only four years old the world becomes a scary place, and you develop a fearful sense that it is peopled by those who will prey on the vulnerable and when you are four, and your dad has gone, who will protect you? Yourself, if you can. And with that comes a belief, at least it did with me, that when you see someone being bullied, you have a moral responsibility to help them.

I guess it was as simple as that: this was not the America of my boyhood dreaming; it didn’t make sense that they would do this; and I felt profoundly sorry for them.
Daxis, pt. 1: son of the Devil

Then something strange happened. In 2002, a friend of mine Mike Sandrock, a sports writer for the Boulder Daily Camera, was in Paris and met a young American who it quickly became clear, after Mike had mentioned he was from Boulder, was extremely interested in JonBenet and in me.

After Mike had returned he received an email from this man, who used the email handle “De-cember25 1996,” signed the mail with the letter “D” and wrote that he very much wanted to communicate with me. It was a rather roundabout way of proceeding, though, as would become clear, nothing about this person was straightforward. Mike forwarded the email and I, in what some might regard as a moment of madness, replied saying something to the effect that I see you want to talk, so let’s talk. In my mind, I saw “D” as one of many people who were fascinated with the case, used the internet to explore its every nook and cranny, and about whom I eventually wanted to write. It didn’t quite turn out that way.

The Killer Loved Her
The correspondence began, at first on an occasional basis. All the emails are available out there in the vastness of the Internet and so I am not going to dwell on them in any detail, not going to seek to psychoanalyze them any more than I am gong to try and “understand” him. All I will say is that they were the product of a highly intelligent, if strange and controlling mind, and that they were torrid, violent, sinister, an endless word tapestry of unyielding compulsion. Here’s a sampling:

“it was never a kidnapping attempt, Michael. Never. Her death was a ritual and every aspect is harbored by her killer.”

“Patsy, please, I beg thee, listen to a man who has a connection with your daughter as no other can have…”

“On my last visit to her home, I remembered the sweetness of JonBenet’s laughter.”

“She ‘played rough’. She was no ‘sugar and spice’ girl. She did not break easily.”

“The killer loved her. He made love through killing her.”

“He is mortified that his violent passion has culminated in the death of the very object of his love.”

“JonBenet’s killer is not a serial killer. He is a serial lover.”

“We must cure ourselves of the word torture. It was a sexual act.”

“Do you know what it is to crave the blood of a lovely child. Do you know what it is to want this so bad yet not want death for her?”

“Michael, my face was the last JonBenet saw. Does that not connect me with her mother?”

“Would you like too hear my voice? It’s nothing special but it was the last voice JonBenet heard.”

One question I had to engage was how to “read” the emails. They were extraordinarily detailed and graphic, written by someone who clearly had an obsession with JonBenet, was clearly highly intelligent and who might just be telling the truth. It was also clear that he might be a total nut case. How to decide?

It is worth recalling that eventually these emails would be read by the Boulder DA’s office, the senior judge of Boulder county, the FBI, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, a British intelligence agency, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, ICE, Homeland Security, Thai police and a Thai judge. At no point did anyone say, at least to my knowledge, this is a waste of time, he’s just crazy. Every single agency felt that whoever he was and wherever he was, “D” had to be found and the more he wrote and spoke, the more that became the case. And one remarkable coda: no one leaked, a small miracle in this day and age.

In a sense the most interesting emails are those that contain details that can be verified: the fact that he knew that JonBenet’s nickname for her grandmother, Nedra Paugh, was Neddie; his apparent detailed knowledge of the Paugh property; the fact that his description of abducting his first wife, who was just 12 years old at the time, was true; that the description of the schoolroom in Bangkok was accurate, down to the wall coverings; that the children in Bangkok, and his behaviour with them, that he detailed in a number of emails, was confirmed in interviews conducted with them by US agents; the fact that he had indeed begun the process of a sex change operation. In fact, one of the final mysteries of the whole saga is why he was telling the truth so often, but apparently lying about his relationship with JonBenet?
From the beginning there was a strange tone to the emails. It was quite clear that he was hinting that it wasn’t just that he was interested in the case, but that he knew more than he was revealing. I used to occasionally show them to my then assistant Dona and say, “have a look, what do you think?” Her reply was invariably “that’s creepy.” There were constant hints and allusions, with one theme being “Michael read closely and carefully.” It was as if he was suggesting he was writing in code or with a deliberate opacity. It all became very strange, very fast. It also became very clear that he had a deep need for young girls in general, and JonBenet in particular. At some point he also began to suggest that his love for JonBenet was matched by his love for Patsy Ramsey. Then, in early 2004 he disappeared for about a year. Nothing.

I had been in the habit of forwarding the mails to Lou Smit. I had got to know him well when we made the second of our documentaries about his intruder “theory.” As I became more and more perplexed and intrigued by the emails it seemed natural to share them with him and ask his advice. He found them intriguing enough that he forwarded them to Tom Bennett, the DA’s chief investigator in Boulder.

As he would later tell me, Tom ignored them because he thought I was making them up. In a curious kind of way, I welcomed Tom’s skepticism, since I would have done exactly the same thing. One thing I learnt from Tom and Lou was that good cops always question, are always looking for clues, eying possibilities, picking apart evidence, letting that evidence lead them to a conclusion, rather than having a conclusion first and then letting that be the guide through the evidence, which is exactly what happened with certain figures in the Boulder police’s investigation.

In that sense to be a good cop you have to have a certain obsessive compulsive quality; you can never close shop. This seems to me a necessary quality to do anything well. I noticed, however, that when anyone wished to get at me ( or imagine that they were getting at me) because of my work on the Ramsey case they would say I was “obsessed.” Had I been a grisly, old archeologist who had spent thirty years digging away at the same patch of sand in Egypt they would have said I was dedicated. Buried inside the “accusation” of obsession is a subtext, one suggesting that this person is a tad off kilter, misplaced, “unmoored,” as one journalist would put it ( and of whom more later) and that, therefore, anything I said or did about what actually happened to JonBenet was almost certainly wrong, illegitimate.

2005. One day I check my emails and he’s back, the correspondence starts again with an increasing pace and force. He is clearly telling me that he knows who killed JonBenet, referring to “the killers.” In one set of exchanges he says that not only was there a man involved but that there was also a woman in the basement. He then implied that one of them left as the assault proceeded. I told him that I assumed it was the woman who had left to which he replied, “why would you assume that?” He then writes that he no longer wishes to talk about the woman, she’s not there, forget her, move on Michael, read closely and carefully. I did.

Beginning early in 2006, the pace gathers and the confession begins. It was him, he was clearly saying, who was involved in the death ~ not murder, a key nuance ~ of JonBenet.

He begins to tell me in great detail what had happened, and he was pleading with me to put him in touch with Patsy so that he could say how sorry he was for what he had done and to beg her forgiveness. What he was begging forgiveness for was his accidentally killing her daughter, in a manner that was as awful as it was bizarre, and that clearly reflected either direct knowledge or, at the very least, a careful study of the injuries actually incurred by JonBenet.

I’d asked him at one point what the letter “D,” with which he signed his emails, stood for. I’d been expecting ~ naivete fully present ~ that it would be Donald or Delbert or David. The reply came that it stood for “daughter, death, December.”

Later he asked if I would really like to know. Why not? It came back, “D” stands for “Daxis.” Well of course, obvious. Next step, Google it. Nothing meaningful emerges, and to this day the meaning has never been properly explained, though inevitably there has been a good deal of speculation on the internet. He himself would say that it meant “son of the Devil,” though I suspect he said that as something of a joke.
Daxis, pt. 2: Bangkok

In the spring of 2006 one email caught my attention. Daxis had been demanding that I provide him with contact details for Patsy, an email address and a phone number. I had of course refused to do this and, in a highly frustrated tone he wrote that he would be sitting in their living room in Charlevoix before he got the information.

How to interpret this? He claimed that he was out of the country, that there was an arrest warrant for him (which we now also know to be true) and that he could never return. What if all that was nonsense, what if he did intend to go to find Patsy, what might he do? Hindsight, to borrow a cliché, is an exact science but then it was less than clear as to what he was implying or threatening. I chose to err on the side of caution and interpret the message as a threat, that he would indeed turn up in Charlevoix.

An Extraordinarily Courageous Decision
I decided in the first instance to share some thoughts and concerns with Lou Smit, and on April 22 wrote an email to him:

“Lou, I’ve been seriously thinking of going to Bryan Morgan and Pat Burke about December -man. I have said nothing to them to date, but there were a couple of comments he made recently that trouble me. Let me explain. In the e-mail of April 17 where he is raising the question of wanting to communicate with Patsy, he says: ‘ I believe I will be sitting in her living room before I get the phone number and e-mail contacts I requested.’ I’ve obviously been stalling on this. When I didn’t reply immediately he repeats the same point in the mail of April 19. When I did reply I picked up on this and reminded him that he has repeatedly said that he couldn’t come back to the US. He replies: ‘ What strange reaction to such a strong statement.’

First point, I had this weird feeling that he was here, Boulder. I then began to think about the way he represents himself and the case. What he has been trying to say is that everything is the opposite of how it appears. The ransom note was indeed not serious, the ‘magician’s trick;’ the murder was not an act of violence, but an act of ‘love’; the asphyxiation was not torture, but a means of creating euphoria; the whole thing was not a sadistic ritual but a ‘dance,’ ‘a symphony.’ And don’t forget that his great hero is Charles Dodgeson aka Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland where everything is topsy-turvy.

His expression of his love for JonBenet is of course total bullshit since – perp or not – he is drawn to the violence of what happened to her, but reconstitutes it in this bizarre romantic form – as with all his little girls. The thing that worries me about the reference to being in the living room is that he is also back to saying how much he loves and adores Patsy, rather in the way he did JonBenet. My worry is that the person he really wants to harm – given the idea that everything is the opposite of what it appears – is Patsy. Hence my thinking that – just in case – they should know about this guy.

Or you could tell me that he really is a total nut-case, and I can end this weird, Kafka-like situation I find myself in.”

I finally decided that it would be prudent to share my concern with Bryan Morgan, John Ramsey’s Boulder based attorney, a man I had come to like and admire but whom I knew to be cautious and not given to panic. I took a copy of the email to Bryan’s house, along with examples of the kinds of things Daxis had been saying about the murder. He read them that afternoon and immediately decided that he had to talk to Mary Lacy, the DA. A meeting was arranged for the following morning, testimony if nothing else to the ability of a very senior criminal defense attorney to get prosecutorial attention.

They met, she read and was horrified. I received a call from Bryan, from her office, asking if I could provide more of the emails, which I did that afternoon. Lacy took them home and spent that evening poring over them and, as she would tell me later, feeling the hair on the back of her neck stand on end.

The decision to begin the investigation was made by her that night, having read the mails. I am convinced that only a woman such as Lacy, who has a reputation for a serious lack of affection for those who commit sex crimes, and here was a sex crime and a homicide, could have launched this investigation. I think to her the risk of being wrong was less important than the possibility that she might be right, and save other children from JonBenet’s appalling fate. It was an extraordinarily courageous decision.
A Brave Woman, a Truly Decent and Dedicated Man, and a Father of Two Daughters
I was asked to go and meet with the DA, and two of her senior colleagues, Bill Nagel and Pete McGuire. Tom Bennett was also present, as was Lou Smit. I understood that this was becoming a very curious position for a media scholar to be in, but in a curious way it felt then, just as it does now, that this was a proper thing to do.

What had happened as the narrative of the emails had unfolded was that I had gone from being a media scholar to someone who was becoming more and more concerned about what I was reading. I was a father of two daughters, I was a member of this community, this society, I was horrified by the possibility that what I was reading may be true and that here was not just a killer but a serial pedophile.

I cannot imagine the moral universe within which one would not try to do something. I would be attacked later. I could care less. I did what I thought, and think, was the right thing to do.

There is, however, something about JonBenet, or rather the tortured universe that surrounds her, that makes the most decent people do bad things. At the meeting in Lacy’s office something happened that was strange and, to be honest, deeply troubling. That morning Smit and I had gone to meet with Mike Sandrock. Lou wanted to meet Michael and get a description of what had happened in Paris. We met in The Trident coffee house, I introduced them and they started to talk. I was there because Michael had requested that, on the reasonable grounds that he wanted someone there other than just a cop.

He gave his description of the meeting at the Shakespeare bookstore near Notre Dame. He described the young American, Lou took some notes and that was it. It all seemed to me necessary, if not especially revealing. That afternoon in Lacy’s office Lou mentioned, in passing, the meeting with Michael.

To everyone’s surprise she started to berate him and in a curious gesture slouched across her desk, her face almost touching its surface, looked at Lou, pointed her finger and said, barely containing her anger, “that (the meeting) was out of order.” Lou did not miss a beat and, himself looking furious, said that he was resigning from the investigation there and then.

It was embarrassing and, whatever the reasoning for the rebuke, unnecessary and deeply unfortunate. Lou Smit is truly decent and dedicated a man, who was working the case for the DA without pay, only receiving expenses, and did not deserve to be treated this way in front of colleagues and, me, a civilian. More importantly it was stupid to lose Smit in this way, since he still knew more about the case, and had thought about it more, than anyone. Here was an important asset which would now not be available. The obvious question was why did she behave in this way? As I sat there and watched this unfortunate scene I was totally perplexed, and remain so. Nevertheless, she was a brave woman.
The emails continued, with ever greater pace, ever greater detail, confession followed by further confession, soaked in a certain self-pity and a belief by Daxis that is was all a misunderstanding: “it wasn’t meant to be the way it was Michael, I loved her, I love all little girls, but JonBenet was the most precious of all…” Here was the perpetual mantra.

Responding to the mails became an almost daily task. There were times when I simply needed to get away from the communication and so I would make up stories, for example that I was going on a camping trip or helping friends to move and so would not have Internet access. The brute reality was that I knew in my heart and head that I was trapped by the logic of the situation, that if this is the killer he cannot be allowed to disappear, he has to be found, and now law enforcement wanted him to be found.

The first effort was to try and trace the emails. The service he used was “Hushmail,” one designed for people who do not want to be found and whose servers are in Vancouver, Canada. International law kicked in and even though Canadian law enforcement were eager to help, and there was a technical way, possibly, to identify the user and the location, all of this required overcoming the bureaucracy that is attendant on all international law ~ formal requests, a court order and so on. It never happened.

There then came a moment when Daxis asked me if I would like to talk to him. I thought about this for oh, I would say, a nanosecond. Yes. He sends me a number, but I wait, I don’t immediately call it. On a late, early summer’s afternoon Bennett phones me and asks if I will go to the Justice Centre and make the call. The reason for making the call from there was that he wanted me to use one of their phones, one that they use so that the receiver of the call cannot trace it or get the number ~ this is mainly used to protect, for example, victims of domestic violence.

I turn up at the JC, Tom is waiting, it’s about 6pm. We know that Daxis is somewhere in the Far East because he’d told me that he would be going “up,” to Malaysia. For a time I thought he was in Australia, but as it turned out he was in Bangkok. I have the number, Tom has hooked up a digital recorder, I hit the keys on the phone. Suddenly a voice is heard, one of those robot sounding voices, “sorry, there are insufficient funds in this account to make this call.” We looked at each other, and expletives flew! Daxis is expecting the call, so what to do? It wouldn’t be wise to use one of the ordinary phones in the JC. I suggest that we go to my office. We call. The conversation is on. This was all getting even weirder.

In the calls my role was to make it clear to Daxis that I was not going to stand in judgment. I just want to understand, I told him, which in truth, to a certain extent, was the case. I was appalled by what I was reading and hearing, but understood that it would have been nonsense to moralize with him. But I also wanted to hear him say what he had been saying in the emails. The calls were of course recorded, as I think he instinctively knew. Slowly he opened up about JonBenet, of his feelings for her, as we edged towards his account of that night.

While these initial conversations had been taking place, Bennett had been working on getting a trace established. The technology of this surprised me, since it depends upon the fact that every phone emits a unique signal and it is this that is employed to do the trace. So I had to use the same phone for each call. Bennett worked mainly with the FBI in Atlanta, but the trace would also include a British intelligence agency, one office in London, one in Manchester, and US intelligence agents in Bangkok.

The idea was simple, keep him talking. We knew that he was using a cell phone that he had specifically bought for our “chats,” that it would be switched off when we weren’t talking and would only be switched on at an agreed time. Daxis was nothing if not controlling. The way the trace would work would be to follow the signal and then triangulate it in relation to cell phone towers, picking up the signal that any cell phone emits when it is live.

The time came to make the call that would begin the trace. Tom Bennett was there, in contact with the FBI in Atlanta. About 5 minutes into the call he handed me a note, “they can’t do the trace.” It turned out later that the CU phone system was one of about 1% of phone systems in the United States which they couldn’t tap into, which may bring glee to those who fear that civil liberties are being increasingly threatened. At the time it was deeply frustrating. I had to carry on talking to Daxis, maintaining the pretense. Tom then handed me another note, “hang up.” I made an excuse, saying that I heard someone coming into the office, needed to hang up but would call later. The FBI had called Tom with a code that had to precede Daxis’ cell phone number. I tapped it in, made the call, and the trace was on.

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