1997-02-13: The JonBenet Ramsey murder case grips Boulder in a sensationalist media frenzy
February 13, 1997
The JonBenet Ramsey murder case grips Boulder in a sensationalist media frenzy
By Chris Brown
Campus Press Staff Writer
If the members of Chi Psi fraternity had come downstairs last semester to find a prowler wandering through their chapter house, they would have been shocked. When it actually happened last month, somehow they weren't really surprised.
Twenty-year-old John Andrew Ramsey's fraternity, like many people with a connection to the Ramsey case, was the target of a fierce media blitz in the days and weeks following the murder.
One desperate reporter from a tabloid-television news program went so far as to let himself into the fraternity one day to search for information that could be used in a story, fraternity members said.
The avalanche of national media that came crashing into Boulder in the days following the discovery of 6-year-old JonBenét Ramsey's body in the basement of her family's home, moved quickly to gather information and locate sources.
But with the Boulder Police department, keeping details of the investigation under tight wraps, journalists soon found themselves at a loss for story material. Before long, CU students and faculty found themselves the targets of interviews, questions -- even bribes.
The university's public relations office began fielding calls from inquiring reporters looking to interview faculty members soon after the murder.
"It hasn't dominated our work," said Pauline Hale, director of public relations. "But we have had a number of calls."
Marianne Wesson, a professor of criminal law at CU and a former federal prosecutor, was one of a number of faculty members to whom Hale's office referred reporters. Journalists contacted Wesson dozens of times, asking her to explain aspects of evidenc e law, police procedure and investigative processes.
She appeared more than once on the CBS Evening News to talk about issues surrounding the Ramsey case and said the reporters she talked with were very polite, even a welcome distraction in some cases.
"When I was useful enough for it to be satisfying it was great, but on some more intense days it was disruptive and cut into class preparation," Wesson said. "Overall though, I'd say it was fun."
"Fun" is not the word members of Chi Psi would use to describe their experience with the media. "Harassment" might sound more accurate to them. Before classes even started Jan. 13, the chapter house on 14th Street was swamped by journalists, some from as far away as Scotland, interested in digging into the personal life of JonBenét's half-brother.
Someone rifled through the fraternity's mail, the house received phone calls at obscene hours, and members had more than one strange experience with reporters.
Chi Psi member Will Lamb dealt with a strange episode one night when he got a call from a man who wished to speak with fraternity president, Chad Conrad.
"This guy made it seem like there was some family emergency he had to talk to Chad about," Lamb said.
"When he realized I wasn't going to help him, he told me he didn't necessarily have to talk to Chad, that if I answered some questions he would pay me as much as $1,000."
Lamb refused the offer, keeping tight-lipped as all Chi Psi members say they have, and suspecting that no matter what he might have told the reporter, the meaning of his words would have been twisted into something completely different.
Chi Psi's refusal to discuss anything with the media left some already news-starved journalists desperate for information.
The Campus Press was approached by a reporter from the National Enquirer who, turned away by the fraternity, sought to pay a student reporter to gather information from its members.
William Pizzi, another criminal law professor at CU who was interviewed about the Ramsey case, did not encounter the type of tabloid tactics members of Chi Psi did.
He gave about a dozen interviews to reporters, including one that aired on ABC's "Nightline" on Jan. 31. While Pizzi did have to turn down one reporter who wanted to attend a class and interview his students, he said talking with reporters was a pleasure.
"I enjoy talking with these people," Pizzi said. "They're interesting and intelligent, and many of them have worked on very interesting stories in the past."
Pizzi had one condition for the journalists he talked with: He refused to discuss specific aspects of the case itself, agreeing only to discuss the legal issues surrounding it.
"We just don't know enough yet to be discussing the case," Pizzi said. "I respond to questions about the law, and try to avoid speculation."
Gene Nichol, a professor and former dean of CU's law school, said that because of the sparse details being released by the police department, journalists have shown an increased willingness to speculate about the case and have their sources do the same.
Nichol said he doesn't think that the reason some people have had good experiences with the press while others have found journalists is due to the press showing more courtesy or respect to highly-educated faculty members.
"If you're trying to get someone to speculate, you have to be nice to them," Nichol said. "I don't think they're showing deference to anyone, it just depends on what they're after."
Brian Morgan, the attorney representing John *** Ramsey, is teaching an ethics class through CU's law school, and his class has been yet another target for journalists. A group of reporters is often camped outside his classroom, pestering Morgan's students for statements about their instructor.
On Monday, one subject of repeated interviews and photographs apparently reached the limit of how much media attention he could stand.
Jay Elowski, owner of Pasta Jay's Italian restaurant and a friend of the Ramsey family, was arrested after he allegedly threatened journalists staking out his house with a baseball bat.
Police also found a loaded 9-mm pistol in Elowski's possession.
Some journalists in town went so far as to try to get Patsy Ramsey's hairdresser to supply details about the family. Sandra Kennedy said she was surprised that reporters came to her for information were often steadfast in their pursuit of a statement.
"I don't understand how they found me," Kennedy said. "Even when I said no (to an interview request), they were very persistent."
While Pizzi may not yet know enough to feel comfortable talking about the case, it is not because too little time has passed since the murder.
With the investigation entering into its eighth week, the story is not exactly fresh -- yet story after story is published, report after report is aired.
"They're hungry," Pizzi said.
Michael Tracey, a journalism professor and the director of CU's Center for Mass Media Research, said the media's coverage of the Ramsey case is an indictment of the state of American journalism.
"It's appalling," Tracey said of the media's conduct. "American news media seems to develop an obsession with certain stories, and when there is no news, they create news."
Attributing the condition of journalism in the United States to the fact that it is a market-driven industry, Tracey said the Ramsey case has all the ingredients of a story sure to draw a large audience: sex, money and mystery. As such, he is not surp rised by the conduct of the media covering the Ramsey case.
Even if the media in town are behaving in typical fashion and just trying to do their jobs, it is not much comfort to the members of Chi Psi, to Kennedy, or to anyone else with even a remote connection to the case, who will undoubtedly face many more interview requests, pleas for information -- possibly even more bribes.
Conrad summed up what is probably the sentiment of all his fraternity brothers, and possibly many others in Boulder.
"It's just a big hassle," Conrad said. "It's pathetic what they're doing. For John's sake, we just want it to be over with."