JonBenet case, later assault show parallels

Police chief doubts same person killed Ramsey, attacked teen girl


By Charlie Brennan / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

BOULDER, Colo. – Nine months after the slaying of JonBenet Ramsey, a girl who attended the same dance studio as the young beauty queen and lived just two miles away was assaulted in her bed by an intruder while her mother slept nearby.

That crime, detailed in Boulder police reports, has common threads with the Ramseys' theory that their 6-year-old daughter was attacked by someone who hid in their home on Christmas night 1996.

Key players in the Ramsey drama – including the prosecutors who led a fruitless grand jury probe into JonBenet's slaying – learned of the September 1997 incident only last week.

Police Chief Mark Beckner said he doesn't see strong similarities between the cases, primarily because JonBenet was killed while the other girl, a 14-year-old, escaped serious injury. But last week, he ordered comparisons of partial palm prints found at both scenes.

Chief Beckner said the prints appear to be from different parts of the hand, but he assigned a detective to re-examine that issue "to see if there is something there that we missed." He said he did not know when the results would be available.

The Ramseys, who plan to meet with Boulder police late this month, were told about the second case on Monday. Police said they consider the couple suspects in their daughter's slaying. The Ramseys maintain that they are innocent.

"The fact than an assault was made in a home of a young girl in Boulder within nine months of JonBenet's assault is hugely significant," Mr. Ramsey said. "Fortunately, there are not that many creatures like this out there, so this is very significant."

He said he was eager to learn more details about the other assault.

The Ramseys' attorney, Lin Wood, and investigators who reviewed the police reports last week, said the assault on the 14-year-old and the Ramseys' version of JonBenet's final night have similar elements.

Mr. Ramsey confirmed Monday that JonBenet took lessons at Dance West, a studio where the second victim had performed. The studio owner, Lee Klinger, said he has never been contacted by police investigating either case.

Both girls performed at public functions in Boulder not long before being victimized: The 14-year-old girl danced in several public performances in the year before her assault. JonBenet, the reigning Little Miss Christmas, was featured in a holiday parade shortly before she was killed.

Investigators surprised

Investigators who worked on the Ramsey case for Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter said they were surprised last week to learn about the second attack.

"I'm shocked," said Steve Ainsworth, a Boulder County sheriff's detective who spent a year as a consultant on the case to Mr. Hunter. "I think this is something that definitely should have been brought up. I was pretty amazed at the similarities."

According to Boulder police reports, there was no sign of forced entry in either incident. The 14-year-old's attacker knew her by name, while a ransom note in the Ramsey case suggested JonBenet's killer somehow knew her family. And in both cases, the sexual assault was penetration by a finger or an object, police reports said.

Mr. Ainsworth, who has never ruled out an intruder in the Ramsey slaying, said the second case shows that the Ramseys' theory is plausible.

"One of the things that people are saying is, 'Well, what did the guy do? Go in there and hide for a couple of hours until they came home?' Like, as if that's something that would never happen, that it's so stupid, no one would ever consider it," Mr. Ainsworth said. "Well, that's what happened in this case."

Nevertheless, Chief Beckner said he did not see strong similarities. Asked if he was confident that the cases are not connected, he said, " I think as reasonably as you can be, at this point.

"The problem with this kind of work is, you never want to say yes or no definitively, until you know the answer," he said. "So I would not rule anything out, but I would be skeptical that they are related."

Mr. Ramsey said he wanted to limit criticism of the Boulder police, particularly in light of fresh talks scheduled with investigators this month in Atlanta, where the family moved after the slaying. However, he said, "The police have operated on an eliminate-the-defenses approach: 'No, it can't be that, because,' and 'No, it can't be this, because,' and what do they have left? 'Well it's got to be the Ramseys.'"

A grand jury considered evidence in the Ramsey case for 13 months but disbanded in October1999 without returning an indictment.

R.W. Peterson, a Denver private investigator hired by the 14-year-old's family, said her case was never seriously examined by police for possible links to the Ramsey case.

"They're not really connecting any of this stuff," he said. "They're only looking at the parents, because they're so invested in it. It's just preposterous."

Mr. Ramsey said that the solution to JonBenet's slaying lies outside his family and that the key might be found in such cases as the September1997 assault.

"We know for an absolute fact that there was an intruder in our house," Mr. Ramsey said. "And we believe that he was there when we got home, and he waited until we were asleep.

"And that fits."

Attack got little attention

The September 1997 crime received no media coverage at the time, despite the heavy presence of reporters from around the country following the Ramsey saga.

According to the 33-page police report, the family was out of the house from late afternoon on the eve of the crime, until after dark. The girl's father was out of town, traveling. An older sibling was away at college.

The mother and daughter watched television, then prepared for bed. They thought they were alone in their home – a $595,000 property in an older, upscale section of this university town.

The mother set the security alarm at 11 p.m. The back door, which was unlocked until then, is presumed to have been the intruder's point of entry. Slipping in before the alarm was set, the intruder would have had to wait at least four hours before entering the girl's second-floor bedroom, said Mr. Peterson, the private investigator.

"He had to have been in, already, because she set the alarm," Mr. Peterson said.

At 3:17 a.m., the mother woke to what she thought was the sound of her daughter having bad dreams. She called the girl's name but got no response.

Then, hearing the sound of whispering, the mother grabbed a canister of Mace. As she approached her daughter's room, a man dressed in black and with a black ball cap worn backward bolted out the door, dashed down the hall into the master bedroom and fled through a door that opens onto the second-floor roof.

The mother and child fled through a door on the ground floor, triggering the security alarm.

The 14-year-old told police that when the suspect entered her room, she thought it might be her father, having returned from his trip. But then the intruder crouched by the bed. He told her to "shut up" and put his hand over her mouth.

"Don't scream," he ordered. "I know who you are, I'll hurt you." He called her by name and threatened to knock her out.

The 14-year-old told police that the man sexually assaulted her with his hand and orally but was interrupted by her mother.

Although saliva contains DNA and the victim was swabbed soon after the assault, no foreign DNA was recovered from her body. In the Ramsey case, a small sample of DNA was recovered from JonBenet's underwear. The source hasn't been determined even though police have DNA samples from many of the Ramseys' friends and family members.

The mother described the assailant as about 5 feet 7 inches tall, 20 to 30 years old, with blond hair. She noted that he had an angular, thin face, with a jaw line that "really stood out."

Some not told of case

Even though three Boulder police detectives working the Ramsey case also investigated the September 1997 incident, several other Ramsey investigators had never been told about it.

Mr. Hunter, who is retiring after 28 years as district attorney, declined to comment on either case.

Mr. Peterson, the family's private investigator, said he thinks the two cases could be connected. "I think there is a possibility. The m.o. is great. The guy was in the house for quite a while," he said.

The Ramseys have made a similar claim in their daughter's killing.

Mr. Ramsey states in The Death of Innocence, the book he wrote with Patsy: "I believe he entered our house during our absence and was hiding when we returned, possibly in the basement. ... The killer probably crept silently up the spiral stairs after we had fallen asleep, and got into JonBenet's bedroom without waking anyone."

A supplemental police report states that the parents of the 14- year-old –whose name has been withheld to protect the juvenile's identity – "both believed that the suspect may have been the same suspect in the JonBenet Ramsey murder."

While the 14-year-old was not violently harmed, JonBenet was found strangled and beaten in her parents' basement about seven hours after her mother reported finding a note demanding $118,000 for the safe return of the kindergartner.

Chief Beckner points to the Ramsey ransom note and the girl's body being found in the family's basement as major distinguishing features from the second crime. But Mr. Ainsworth, the detective who was a consultant for the district attorney's office, disagreed, noting that the second crime was interrupted.

"Where does it end?" Mr. Ainsworth said. "We know where JonBenet ended, but we don't know where this other one would have ended."

Mr. Ramsey agreed.

"Well, the second guy wasn't done" when he was surprised in the act, Mr. Ramsey said.

Lou Smit, a veteran Colorado Springs homicide detective who came out of retirement to work on the Ramsey case for about 18 months, was one of the few investigators who agreed to be quoted about the second case. He said he firmly believes an intruder killed JonBenet.

"The person who assaulted the girl was a high-risk criminal," he said. "From my experience, there are many instances of high-risk crimes being committed. It is not that uncommon.

"Some criminals seem to get great pleasure out of these high-risk situations. I believe that this is the type of individual who killed JonBenet."

--Charlie Brennan is a free-lance writer based in Boulder. Frank Coffman, also a Boulder-based free-lance writer, contributed to this report.