Boulder Weekly - 02-29-1999 - What I saw at the feeding frenzy
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In the Boulder Weekly - February 29, 1999
What I saw at the feeding frenzy
A between-the-lines look at the Ramsey case
by Frank Coffman
In the beginning, the Ramsey murder case seemed simple to solve. The day after the murder, as the Ramsey's housekeeper was leaving the Boulder police station, a detective working on the case told her, "I am confident we'll have an arrest by Sunday."
Instead of an early arrest, the Ramsey case turned into an interminable murder mystery and a feeding frenzy for the media. Children are killed everyday in this country, but the death of JonBenet was different. People around the nation and the world wanted to know all about it.
Almost overnight, Boulder was deluged by national media. The town resented the intrusion on its comfortable neighborhoods and on its image as an ideal place to live. At first, city spokesperson Leslie Aaholm refused even to acknowledge that the crime was a murder, referring to it as an "incident." Reporters ran up against a police department with little to say, except for a crabby police chief who scolded them for covering the story.
The Ramseys and their friends were also tight-lipped or hostile to the media. On one occasion, when a TV journalist drove up to the house of the Fernies (friends who were in the Ramseys' house on the morning of the murder), John Fernie walked up and spat on the vehicle before the journalist even got out. This was going to be a tough story, indeed.
To penetrate the wall of silence around the case, tabloid newspapers and TV shows employed methods that the mainstream news media wouldn't dream of using. The TV show American Journal paid the Ramseys' housekeeper $15,000 to appear on camera. the National Enquirer paid $40,000 for photos of JonBenet. One tabloid TV program used private detectives to pry into the Ramseys' telephone call logs and financial records, tracking the couple's whereabouts by keeping tabs on their credit card purchases.
In the months after the murder, tabloid reporters trailed the Ramseys wherever they went. Craig Lewis of the Globe recalls, "In the early days, we had three cars following the Ramseys-one car with reporters and two cars with photographers." Scott McKiernan, of Zuma photo agency, followed the Ramseys and staked out places they frequented. He also used a radio scanner to listen in on the cellular phone calls of former Ramsey friend Fleet White, overhearing him on one occasion tell his father that the Ramseys were trying to cast him as a suspect in the murder.
When the Ramseys moved into the Boulder home of friends Glen and Susan Stine, one tabloid publication convinced neighbors who disliked the Stines to allow reporters to use their house as a base of operations. A video camera was set up in a front window, taping the unwitting Ramseys as they came and went.
National Enquirer reporters grabbed the Stines' trash, gleaning scraps of information on the Ramseys such as the name of their psychiatrist, the kinds of anti-depressants they'd been prescribed, and other leads about their activities.
One day in February 1997, the Stines struck back at the press when Globe reporter Ken Harrell tried a more direct approach. Instead of parking up the street like other reporters, he walked straight up, knocked on the Stines front door and asked to speak with the Ramseys. Susan Stine, who is sometimes called "Patsy's pit bull," opened the door a crack and asked to see his identification. As Harrell held up his wallet to show her his ID, Mrs. Stine grabbed it and slammed the door in his face. She then called the police to report a "stalker" at the front door. Officers arrived to find Harrell agitated to a degree that he indeed bore some resemblance to a crazed stalker. They put him on the ground and handcuffed him, before they realized how Mrs. Stine had contrived the situation.
John Ramsey, who was in the house when the incident occurred, later laughed about how Mrs. Stine handled the Globe reporter. At an employee meeting at the offices of his company, Access Graphics, Ramsey brought up the episode as an example of how to deal with the news media. Diane Hallis, who worked at Access Graphics, recalls that John Ramsey would look out the third floor windows of the offices trying to spot reporters. "He hated them," she says. "His anger was directed toward the media, but never toward the killer. He never mentioned the killer."
John Ramsey said on CNN six days after the murder that he wasn't angry about the crime; however, he seemed enraged at photographers who confronted him. In Atlanta in 1997, John Ramsey and Glen Stine chased a National Enquirer photographer down the street and into a restaurant, where the photographer managed to elude them by hiding in the kitchen.
In January 1998 in the Atlanta airport, John Ramsey tussled with a Globe photographer who was waiting for him in the airport. Spotting a photographer at a street carnival in Charlevoix, Michigan in the summer of 1997, John Ramsey jumped up on a picnic table, pointed a finger at him and screamed at the top of his lungs, "I told you to get your motherfucking ass out of here!"
I got a taste of the Ramsey temper in Boulder one evening last December when I tried to photograph John as he stood on a downtown street corner. "You bastard!" he said, lunging at me. Grabbing my arm and a fistful of jacket, he tried to throw me to the pavement. "Don't, John-it's not worth it!" yelled his attorney, Michael Bynum. Ramsey then released me and rejoined Bynum, "Pasta Jay" Elowsky and his son, John Andrew. As they walked away, I raised my camera for another shot. Ramsey's cool demeanor returned. "Nice camera," he said, sounding almost amiable.
Of course, the tabloids are liable to provoke anger from anyone who feels hounded. But contrary to the notion that tabloids make up their stories, tab reporters sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to get a story. They are willing to use methods that make the mainstream media cringe, such as paying sources for information.
"We do develop sources," says Don Gentile of the National Enquirer. "Instead of getting a source from inside, we get a source from left-field, which may be just as good."
In the Ramsey case, the Globe and the National Enquirer were willing to pay huge sums for a copy of the ransom note. The Globe knew that the Ramseys had a good quality photocopy of the ransom note, given to them by the police. Ramsey lawyers had given copies of the note to handwriting experts for comparison to the Ramsey's writing. In April 1997, two Globe reporters came to the home of one expert in Evergreen. The reporters brought $30,000 in cash (in $100 bills) to induce this expert to give them a copy of the ransom note. He refused and later called the Jefferson County DA with a complaint of "commercial bribery." But the reporters couldn't be charged with a crime. What they did was not against the law.
On a mission from God
Jeff Shapiro, a 24-year old novice reporter under contract with the Globe, moved to Boulder from Florida in March 1997.
Though he came as a journalist to cover the Ramsey murder, Shapiro felt he'd also been sent by God to help solve the crime. His e-mail address: "JBsAvenger" (i.e. JonBenet's Avenger).
Shapiro's plan was to go undercover and work the story from the inside out. Renting a place next door to the Chi Psi fraternity house where John Andrew lived, Shapiro succeeded in befriending Ramsey's son. He even joined the Episcopal Church that the Ramseys attended. But his persistent questions about the murder case blew his cover. John Andrew's friends became suspicious and warned the younger Ramsey off his engaging, earnest neighbor.
Shapiro was forced to move on to conventional news sources.
Surprisingly, the inexperienced reporter succeeded in cozying up to a crucial figure in the case: District Attorney Alex Hunter.
From May until October 1997, Shapiro was in almost constant contact with Hunter, who didn't seem to look upon him so much as a tabloid reporter, but as an energetic, likable young man who happened to have an infatuation with the case. The avuncular DA even gave the tabloid tyro his private phone numbers. Later he allowed a Globe photographer into his office to take his picture, though he had previously condemned the tabloid's publication of stolen coroner's photos of the crime scene and implements as "reprehensible." And by July 15, 1997, the Globe was quoting Hunter praising the paper's $500,000 reward offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case.
Police detectives were also talking with Shapiro. The young reporter had won their favor when he informed them where they could get white nylon cord identical to the kind used in the murder. Detectives promptly went to the store and bought up all the cord. Although Shapiro was glad to take credit for the discovery, he actually learned about the cord when I mentioned it to him in a phone conversation in May 1997.
Shapiro's subjects didn't always appreciate his attention. Learning that the DA's office considered Fleet White a potential suspect in the case, Shapiro took to following White around. One day White noticed Shapiro tailing him in a car and angrily swung his vehicle around and went after the kid reporter. As Shapiro desperately jockeyed for an escape route, White repeatedly cut him off. The two raced across town until Shapiro got ahead in traffic and escaped through a changing traffic light.
Shapiro also found himself in the middle of the clash between Alex Hunter and the police department. The Ramsey investigation was then run by John Eller, an abrasive police commander who rubbed the DA the wrong way. Hunter tipped Shapiro that Eller was being accused of sexual harassment. (That allegation turned out to be false.) Shapiro in turn tipped police about Hunter's tip. In his bolt-from-the-blue resignation letter last August, Thomas alluded to the episode, writing melodramatically that "an informant" had told police of the DA's "plan to destroy a man's career." Last week, the hyperbolic Thomas again called for the Hunter's resignation over the Shapiro/Eller episode, charging that "the DA engaged the tabloids in a smear campaign." In a recent TV interview, Thomas claimed that Shapiro acted as his "mole inside the DA's office." Shapiro calls that characterization "ridiculous," though he concedes that Thomas did try to push him into such a role.
The reporter's tip to police ended up costing him his cozy relationship with Hunter.
Thomas too suffered repercussions when Police Chief Tom Koby chastised him for investigating the DA when he should have been investigating the murder of JonBenet. Koby also warned Thomas that he would be fired if he had any further contact with Shapiro-a directive that the reporter claims Thomas violated.
Shapiro's rapport with Thomas won him certain privileges. On at least one occasion, Thomas allowed Shapiro to sit in on a sensitive investigation. In July 1997, Thomas asked me to come to the police station to phone Pam Griffin, a friend of Patsy Ramsey, so that he could surreptitiously tape the conversation. The detective wanted to document a remarkable assertion that Griffin had made to me: Patsy Ramsey admitted to her that she wrote the so-called "practice note."
However, said Griffin, Patsy claimed that it was just the aborted start of an invitation to some event which Patsy couldn't recall. Thomas allowed Shapiro to monitor my conversation with Griffin. The session was a bust, though, when Griffin dismissed her previous comments as "speculation" about Patsy's actions.
Shapiro came to believe that his acceptance by Thomas made him a kind of junior detective on the Ramsey case. Others in the department considered him a pest and ignored his theory that Patsy Ramsey killed her daughter as part of a religious sacrifice. When Thomas resigned, he broke off ties with Shapiro, leaving the reporter crushed. Shortly after the resignation, Shapiro showed up unannounced at Thomas' home in Arvada, allegedly to warn him that the Globe planned to use pressure tactics to get an interview with him. The former detective responded with a warning of a restraining order if Shapiro ever came there again.
Having lost his official sources, Shapiro began drawing closer to the Ramsey camp. He finally came full circle, apologizing to John Ramsey for his paper's accusations against him. Fired by the Globe two weeks ago, Shapiro would now like to join the FBI. In the meantime, he intends to go on CBS' 48 Hours program to expose his former employer for using what he now believes were unethical methods.
Jeff Shapiro seemed to think that the case revolved around him, and for a brief time, it almost did. Incredibly, he managed to insinuate himself everywhere and gain the confidence of major figures in the case. He achieved enviable access, but he couldn't keep anyone's trust for long.
Sleaze and vanity
In mid-1997 Ann Bardach of Vanity Fair arrived in Boulder. At the height of tension between the police and the DA, an investigator on the case leaked inside information, including the wording of the ransom note, to Bardach. To cover her source, she pressured me to tell the police a false story that would, in her words, "throw sand in the gears of the investigation." When I refused to help with her scheme, she screamed that I couldn't be trusted. Her paranoid accusations stunned me. She then spread the word that I was trying to steal her article. Finally I broke all contact with her. Editor's note: Ann Bardach calls the above anecdote "categorically false." She emphasizes that there was no professional relationship or any other kind of relationship whatsoever between her and Frank Coffman, and the only confrontations she had with him were restricted to her attempts to "elude his harassment."
While Bardach's secret source at the Boulder PD has never been identified, certain clues point to Steve Thomas.
The complaints about the DA's office that he expressed in his resignation letter are strikingly similar in tone and content to complaints voiced to Bardach by her source. In September, 1997, before Koby canceled his plan to polygraph the detectives to identify the leaker, Thomas expressed fear that he would be blamed. And at about the time that Bardach arrived in Boulder, Thomas made inquiries about the reputation of Vanity Fair.
According to Bardach, she used several sources in investigative agencies on the case, including the FBI, CBI, DA's office and Boulder Police Department. She refuses to comment on the identity of any particular sources.
The media frenzy around the Ramsey case appalled her, Bardach adds. "I've never seen such ethical lapses on the part of journalists-if that's what you can call them; many of them hardly seemed legitimate. The tabloid reporters were all working the story with check books."
Bardach's taste for tabloid reporters didn't improve when the Globe wound up with her article before Vanity Fair appeared on newsstands. The piece was stolen from the printer and faxed to The Denver Post, among other publications.
A Globe editor left a message on Bardach's machine "gloating" over their acquisition of the piece, says Bardach.
Information from her story ended up in newspapers before her magazine article could hit the streets.
Ann Bardach came and went from Boulder, but probably not soon enough for Lawrence Schiller, author of the recently released book, Perfect Murder, Perfect Town. According to The New York Post, Schiller tried to discourage sources from talking with her by spreading the rumor that her story had been canceled. (When I asked him about it, the author refused to address the point on the record.)
Schiller, who has a reputation for hardball tactics, has been tagged a "perfectly amoral profiteer" by author Jeffrey Toobin, who like Schiller, wrote a book about the O.J. Simpson murder case.
Schiller's book has been called "an encyclopedia" of the Ramsey case. It is the most thorough account of the investigation to be published thus far. However, from my personal knowledge of certain events depicted in the book, I believe Schiller often embroiders the truth. For instance, while he was working on the book, he quoted a passage to me. I told him that he had somewhat misquoted what Steve Thomas said to me and I advised him to change it, but he kept the inaccurate quotation in the book. Worse, Schiller's paraphrased reconstruction of my conversation with Lou Smit regarding traits of the note's writer (Page 448) is mostly Schiller's concoction.
Others had the same problem. The Ramseys' former housekeeper, Linda Hoffmann-Pugh, confirms most of what Schiller writes about her, but she objects to several apparent fabrications, such as the claim on Page 561 that the authorities showed her a photograph of the Ramseys' dryer with JonBenet's sheets inside. She was never shown such a photo, she says.
Schiller relied heavily on the uncorroborated statements of Jeff Shapiro. Some statements from Hunter and Thomas that appear as verbatim quotations are actually just recollections from Shapiro.
Some of Schiller's sources cooperated with him on the condition he wouldn't use their names-a condition he violated. For instance, the Ramseys' former Boulder nanny talked to Schiller once he promised to keep her anonymous. Later, before the book was finished, she became alarmed that Schiller might violate their oral agreement. I relayed her concerns to Schiller, but he refused to take her name out of the manuscript. (Schiller declined to respond to the accusation for this story.)
Others, however, were permitted anonymity in the book. Clay Evans, columnist for The Daily Camera, hides behind the fictitious name "Cordwainer Bird" on Page 426.
Schiller has already issued an errata list, but it barely scratches the surface. Jeff Merrick, a former Access Graphics' employee who knew John Ramsey, says that "very little of what he writes about me is accurate." For instance, Merrick insists that he never threatened John Ramsey and he never claimed that the company owed him close to $118,000 or any other specific amount. He calls the numerous errors "almost comical."
The Ramseys' defenders
The Ramseys have managed to find sympathetic media ears. Dan Glick at Newsweek became a virtual apologist for the couple, all the while claiming that he was "agnostic" about their guilt or innocence.
On the Internet, "Jameson's Timeline" web site presents a lengthy defense of the Ramseys. "Jameson" is the pseudonym of a housewife in North Carolina who had a vision while taking a shower two days after the murder that the Ramseys were innocent. She has met John and Patsy Ramsey and has even managed to insert herself into the police investigation. In April 1997, a tip from Jameson persuaded Boulder police detectives to fly to North Carolina to interview an imprisoned pedophile as a possible suspect. In another episode in the summer of 1998, Jameson sicced authorities, including the CBI, on the family of a former employee of the Ramseys, alleging that they were part of a child pornography operation. The only thing that came of the investigation was pain for a wrongly-accused family. Now, "Internet sleuth" Jameson, again claiming to have important evidence, is trying to prod the DA's office into summoning her to testify before the grand jury investigating the murder.
When the public first became curious about the Ramsey case, then Boulder Police Chief Tom Koby termed the murder "a sick curiosity." Sick or not, it is a preoccupation shared by the media, by law enforcement and by a large part of the public. Incredibly, the size of the investigation into the murder of one little girl approaches in magnitude the official investigation of the Kennedy assassination. Until the case is solved, there will be a pack of reporters chasing after every scrap of information to serve up to a public that hungers to know who killed JonBenet.
Frank Coffman is a long-time Boulder resident and part-time writer.