2006-10-12: Westword: "Made for each other"
Made for Each Other
By Alan Prendergast
Article Published Oct 12, 2006
That documentary set the stage for a more ambitious one two years later, Who Killed the Pageant Queen?: The Prime Suspect. Brought back into the official investigation by DA Lacy, Smit was no longer available to emcee, but no matter. This time around, Tracey and Mills wanted to focus not on the theorist, but on possible killers who fit the theory.
The third trip to the well recycles footage from the earlier documentaries, and the producers' trademark bombast. JonBenét is introduced as the "most famous murdered child in history" (history apparently doesn't extend as far back as the Lindbergh kidnapping), and her parents are "the most hated couple in America" (Britney and Kevin must be disappointed). Fortunately, "a completely new team of investigators has recently uncovered dramatic new facts about the murder," all pointing to the prime suspect.
The new detectives on the case turn out to be private investigators who've worked for the Ramseys' attorneys: David Williams, Jennifer Gedde, Ollie Gray and John San Agustin. The documentary notes their prior association with the Ramsey team, then proceeds to hopelessly muddle their role. Lacy's office has sought their help, the narrator explains, and although they're "unpaid volunteers," they're "an important part of the new investigation."
These on-camera sleuths are presented as quasi-official spokespeople. Their investigation has been "set up" by Lacy's office, we're told; they're "a new team of detectives appointed last year." This is pure invention. Lacy invited the Ramsey PIs to a meeting in 2003 to share their research with her team; that's it. As for being unpaid volunteers, Gray and San Agustin (who's also an inspector in the El Paso County Sheriff's Office) have been consulting on the case, without pay, for the Ramsey attorneys since 1999 -- and still are, according to San Agustin. Gedde, who's now an attorney herself, apparently hasn't been actively involved in the case for quite some time.
Also undisclosed is the relationship between San Agustin, Gray and Lou Smit. Smit is San Agustin's former captain in the sheriff's office, and Lou Smit Investigations is part of a linked network of Colorado Springs-based investigative services that also includes Gray's and San Agustin's firm. Between Smit's stints in the DA's office, he and Gray looked into several leads in the Ramsey case together.
"What Lou was doing was totally separate from what we were doing," San Agustin says. "But I wouldn't say there was a wall between us. There was collaboration, up to a point."
Mills defends the documentary's portrayal of the Ramsey team as "new" investigators chasing down leads for the district attorney. "They were the only people who could speak," he says. "The DA, Mary Lacy, gave us no help in making that program. But Gray and San Agustin were extraordinarily well-informed. They knew the key lines of inquiry."
The key lines of their inquiry, anyway -- which is to find the perp or perps who used a stun gun on JonBenét and then killed her. The program soon keys in on one Michael Helgoth, a Boulder resident who died from an odd but apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound less than two months after the murder. Helgoth had a stun gun, a pair of Hi-Tec boots -- and, according to some sources, an unhealthy interest in young girls. Most intriguing of all, his death came the day after Alex Hunter went on television to address the killer, a speech carefully scripted by the FBI: "The list of suspects narrows. Soon there will be no one on the list but you."
But Helgoth isn't the prime suspect. In fact, the Helgoth lead isn't new at all. Boulder police had looked at him years before and ruled him out. They claimed Helgoth's boots didn't match the print in the basement -- although this is disputed by Mills, who says the boot was never properly tested. (Other accounts have linked the print to JonBenét's brother Burke, an assertion San Agustin dismisses as "baloney.") Worse, the police found that Helgoth's DNA didn't match the material in JonBenét's panties.
To Mills and Tracey, and to virtually all proponents of the intruder theory, the DNA is crucial. It's the single most important piece of evidence -- far more important than, say, that silly, inexplicable ransom note. The DNA doesn't match that of any member of the Ramsey family, so it must belong to the real killer. The documentary even reports that the DNA in the undies matches other DNA found under JonBenét's fingernails, all of which "had come from the same unknown white male" -- a dubious assertion, since sources in the district attorney's office have described the fingernail sample as too contaminated or degraded to be meaningful.
"Do we have an exact report on that? No," says San Agustin. "As to the validity of that, I couldn't tell you. That's what we were made aware of."
The documentary zags around the DNA problem by suggesting that Helgoth was one of two intruders in the house that night. Isn't there a second unidentified footprint in the basement? Doesn't the ransom note talk about "two gentlemen watching over your daughter"? Wouldn't it take two people to haul the stun gun, cord, duct tape and other paraphernalia?
The prime suspect, it turns out, is Helgoth's presumed partner in crime, a trailer-park resident "who shared his interest in martial arts and young girls...a close associate, who has since disappeared." Without naming the man, several acquaintances of the suspect describe his threatening manner and violent past, including a prison stretch "for a sexual assault on a child."
"I tried to steer clear of that individual," one witness intones, "because he could have been, you know, a menace to me or my family."
Scary stuff. But the portrait of the prime suspect began to crumble as soon as the documentary aired. An alert viewer in Scotland noticed a close-up of court documents pertaining to the prime suspect. Although the producers had blacked out his name, they'd left the case file number and the man's date of birth clearly legible. Soon the amateur Ramsey sleuths on the Internet knew his name: John Steven Gigax.
Mills is abjectly apologetic about the blunder. "We were determined not to identify him because he might well be innocent," he says. "It's one of the most embarrassing mistakes of my career. It was a piece of incompetence on my part, for which I am ashamed. It was a complete cock-up."
But making Gigax identifiable wasn't the extent of the cock-up. He was also easily found, contrary to the documentary's claim that he'd disappeared; he was, and still is, selling reproductions of Nazi jewelry on the Internet. In fact, at least two of the Gigax acquaintances interviewed by Tracey and Mills were aware that he'd moved to Indiana several months before the Ramsey murder. How could this critical fact have eluded the filmmakers and their crack team of investigators?
"Nobody that we spoke to knew where he was," Mills insists. "And he would not have been eliminated as a suspect had we not made the documentary. It actually makes the thrust of the documentary, that these leads were not being pursued."
Actually, there's no reason to believe Gigax ever was a suspect in the Ramsey investigation -- except to Smit and the Ramsey team. Mills and Tracey are both under the impression that he was "eliminated" by a DNA test after the documentary aired, but that, too, is erroneous. In fact, much of what they report about Gigax was never properly checked.
Gigax first learned of his sudden infamy shortly after the documentary aired. "People I didn't know from Adam were e-mailing me, saying I was this prime suspect in the Ramsey case," he recalls. "I called the Boulder DA's office and talked to Tom Bennett. He said I was not a suspect, that I had never been a suspect."
Gigax offered to send Bennett sales receipts that proved he was in Indiana over Christmas 1996. He also had a dozen witnesses who'd seen him there on Christmas Day. As he sees it, the film mangles basic facts about him, his whereabouts and his criminal record to make him fit the part of a crazed ninja-stalker killer. Calling him a "convicted pedophile" is a bit misleading: After what he describes as a drunken and unconsummated encounter with a teenage babysitter 21 years ago, he was convicted of attempted sexual assault and served less than two years. Yes, he pleaded guilty in 1996 to a menacing charge over a fight in his trailer that ended with the stabbing of a neighbor, but he received probation and arranged to complete it in Indiana.
"Michael Tracey can find an arrest report, and he can't find the rest of the paperwork that goes with it?" he asks. "The people pointing the finger at me and saying I'm a bad, scary guy were both aware that I'd moved. One of them called me to tell me that Helgoth had killed himself."
Gigax says he's never taken a martial arts class in his life. He likes to dress in black, but that's because he's a Harley man. And the sources accusing him, he adds, knew Michael Helgoth much better than he did.
How, then, did Gigax become the prime suspect in Tracey's world? "You have a series of prime suspects that you go through one at a time," Mills says. "At the time we were making that documentary, he was the prime suspect the investigators were interested in."
San Agustin, though, says it was the producers' call to target Gigax: "We never said he's on the top of our list. We just said, 'There's a group of people tied to Helgoth who need to be looked into.'"
Gigax's principal accuser in the documentary is John Kenady, a mechanic and tow-truck driver who introduced Gigax to Helgoth. Kenady is convinced that Helgoth's death was murder rather than suicide. The Boulder police disagree with him.
Like Gigax, Kenady has an ancient conviction for sexual assault on a child, which he says involved a consensual relationship with a teenager; in effect, the producers used one convicted sex offender to point the finger at another. Kenady was also arrested in 2000 for breaking into Helgoth's house and pleaded guilty to trespassing. He says he merely wanted to preserve evidence.
Court records indicate that Kenady suffered a head injury in an auto accident six years ago and was required to undergo a mental evaluation as part of the plea bargain in the break-in. He denies any mental problems. "The DA's office wanted to portray me as crazy," he says. "I couldn't get anyone in the press to talk to me about Mike's death. They're scared to death."
Gigax's alibi in the Ramsey case doesn't impress Kenady. The possibility that Helgoth's death, which occurred on Valentine's Day, might have been a suicide related to girlfriend problems also doesn't dissuade him. "I think there were three people involved in this, possibly four," he says. "Mike would say, 'Maybe I should just shoot myself now and get it over with.' I got a pretty good idea he was into something he shouldn't have been."
Mills says he and Tracey paid no one for interviews in their first two documentaries. But they made an exception in the third film, paying Kenady and another Gigax accuser sums of $200 or less for the "inconvenience" of having to take time off from work. While admitting that he was paid, Kenady says he only agreed to appear in the documentary because Lou Smit vowed he would track down the man who killed Helgoth and JonBenét.
"They went a little far on some of this stuff," he says. "Michael Tracey told me, 'I want to be famous, I want to solve this case.' But they hung me out to dry. Lou said he was going to go find the guy, and nothing happens. Lou, Ollie and I made a pact that we're going to work this until we die. I've put way over a hundred thousand of my own money into this. I sold my Harley, my Corvette. I emptied all my bank accounts. It's ruined everything I had planned because I want to know the truth."
Among the flaws of The Prime Suspect, it's clear that no one made a serious effort to contact the prime suspect before including so many serious allegations about him. San Agustin says that was the producers' job, not his. Gigax hasn't heard a whisper of apology from Mills or Tracey. Every time he reads about Professor Presumption blasting the sleazy tabloid press for violating the most elementary ethical tenets of journalism, he wants to scream.
"Sometimes I think the only way to get any justice would be to go to Colorado and pound the hell out of him," he says. "He's teaching the next crop of journalists damaging and biased techniques. Are we going to have a country of little Michael Traceys running around, trying to crucify people?"
Every five years, CU's tenured professors undergo a post-tenure review of their work. Tracey had his most recent review just a few weeks ago, in the midst of the Karr uproar. Because his scholarly output has taken a back seat to Ramsey sleuthing in recent years -- he hasn't published a book since 1998 -- the last two documentaries were a significant part of the portfolio of professional "publication" that he presented for consideration.
Dean Voakes says he's aware that the documentaries are controversial. Asked about specific issues arising from the third documentary -- misrepresentations, paid sources, a prime suspect who says he was unjustly accused -- he expresses bewilderment.
"Now we're in an area I can't comment on," he says. "I'm not aware of any of that."