1998-02-19: The Unusual Suspect
Does this look like JonBenet's murderer to you?
The Unusual Suspect
Does this look like JonBenet's murderer to you?
BY STEVE JACKSON
From the Week of Thursday, February 19, 1998
"On February 3, Stephen Miles, a 49-year-old Boulder photographer, filed a defamation case against the National Enquirer, two of its reporters and John Ramsey. The October 21, 1997, issue of the tabloid had trumpeted a "JonBenet bombshell" on its front page: "Dad: We Know Who Did It." Below a pouty-lipped photograph of JonBenet was a picture of Miles, along with the promise of an "exclusive interview with man Ramseys say killed JonBenet."
Enquirer reporters John South and David Wright started their story with this: "John and Patsy Ramsey expect to be arrested for the murder of their daughter, but they already have their defense strategy in place--pointing at a man they'll claim is the intruder who killed JonBenet. 'John and Patsy will claim that the real killer is a neighbor, Stephen Miles, who was once arrested and accused of a sex offense against a minor,' a source close to the couple revealed."
But another anonymous source, this one close to the Ramsey team of lawyers, denies that John Ramsey ever made such an accusation. "Over the course of time, if you look at who we've let interview John, we've been pretty damn careful," says the source. "Now I ask you: Are we going to let him go talk willy-nilly to some fucking dog biscuit at the National Enquirer?"
Nor did John Ramsey make the accusation to anyone who might have repeated it to the Enquirer, the source says
Lee Hill, Miles's attorney and a former Boulder city council candidate (on an anti-Koby platform), counters with this: "What we know is that the Enquirer published a story saying that John Ramsey said Steve Miles killed their daughter. If John Ramsey never said that, then this is a great opportunity for him to prove that and join us in going after the Enquirer.
"This lawsuit is not an inquisition," he adds. "It's an attempt to develop the truth."
That's something that's always been in short supply in the Ramsey case."
"As the BPD investigation bogged down, the DA's office brought in retired detective Lou Smit as a special investigator. Although the cops considered the Ramseys their prime suspects, Smit pursued the theory that an intruder had broken into the Ramsey home, stolen the girl from her bed, killed her in the basement, then taken the time to write a lengthy ransom note on a legal pad found in the home.
That's when word leaked out that the Boulder police were checking out child sex offenders. (Convicted sex offenders must register with the police when they take up residence after release from prison.) The cops had plenty to choose from: There are 71 registered child sex offenders in Boulder and another 30 in Boulder County.
But Miles, who lives with his 89-year-old mother six blocks from the Ramsey house, is not a convicted child sex offender. He has been arrested before--but for possessing photographs of teenage boys. So why go after him for the murder of a six-year-old girl?
Miles was working in the garden last October when next-door neighbor Judith Phillips came rushing over. Phillips, a photographer herself and a former friend of the Ramseys, was breathless, he says.
"She said, 'You need to come over to my house right away. It's extremely important... use the side door,'" Miles recalls. "She put her hands on my shoulders and said, 'Trust me.'"
Miles did as he was asked. Phillips led him into her darkened living room, he says, where she introduced him to a man named John South.
South told him he worked for the Enquirer. "He said, 'We've learned that the Ramsey camp is targeting you as the killer of JonBenet,'" recalls Miles, imitating South's British accent. "He said, 'They want to confuse the issue and take attention away from themselves. Can you think of any reason why they would choose you?'"
Miles told the Enquirer reporter that he had several drug arrests, the last in the late 1980s, on his record, and that he'd also been arrested for sexual exploitation of a child in 1989.
That year the Boulder police raided Miles's home and seized a number of photographs of teenage boys in various stages of undress. Because there were three copies of one particular photograph, it was considered to have been taken for commercial purposes, netting Miles the exploitation charge.
However, that photograph was of Peter Hale, a friend of Miles's and, more important, a male then seventeen years old--and therefore above the age of consent.
Like the other photographs, the Hale picture was fairly modest. "Michelangelo's sculpture of David is more revealing," notes Hill, Miles's attorney. The photograph has since appeared in several mainstream photography magazines.
The exploitation charge was dropped; however, Miles pleaded guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor, for supplying beer to an underage drinker. As part of the deal, he was told to report to a monastery in Pecos, New Mexico, that bills itself as a retreat/counseling center for "wounded healers," where his brother was the abbott for counseling.
Miles's therapy was geared to helping him develop "more age-appropriate relationships." He also was told to stay away from minor children and from Penny Lane, a Boulder coffeeshop/ poetry venue then known as a hangout for the young and disenfranchised.
Now here was the Enquirer's South, asking if Miles had noticed anything strange in the past few days. As a matter of fact, Miles told him, someone had stolen every bit of his trash that week, and a camper had been parked across the street for two days.
After South warned him that "this is quite serious," Miles says he assumed the theft of his trash and the camper's presence confirmed that the Ramseys were after him. South told him he had a plan. "Your story will prove they are barking up the wrong tree," Miles remembers him saying.
"Now I wonder if it wasn't the National Enquirer going through my trash, and their camper," Miles says.
The next day Phillips asked Miles to come over again--this time to take his picture for the story. At first, Miles says, Phillips said she wanted to photograph him in his garden, of which he is exceedingly proud. But then she asked him to put his hands behind his head and snapped the shot when he was unprepared.
It was that photograph of a harassed-looking Miles that ran on the front page of the Enquirer a week later.
The photograph of Miles was published again inside, along with a full-page story. "I can't believe this nightmare is happening to me," Miles was quoted as saying. "Why are they doing this to me? Are John and Patsy so cold-blooded as to try to make me the fall guy to save their own skins?"
The article intimated that Miles knew he was on a "list of pedophile sex offenders living in Boulder." But Miles takes issue with that. "I am not a pedophile," he says. "I am gay, openly gay, and have been for years. I never said that I knew I was on a list or that the Boulder police were looking at me."
And that list can't be the registration that the police are required to keep, since Miles isn't a convicted child sex offender.
In fact, the first contact Miles had with the Boulder police regarding the Ramsey case was three weeks ago, after his lawsuit against the Ramseys and the Enquirer was filed. "My lawyer asked if I was on any sort of list, and the detective said no," Miles says. "They just asked me where I was that night, and I told them with my mom. We had Christmas dinner with relatives and then we went home...They said, 'Sorry for the inconvenience.'" But they also asked for a handwriting sample, a mouth swab and a palm print, Miles adds.
Miles also disputes the magazine's characterization of him as a drug addict. "I consider myself a recovered drug addict," he says. "I do take methadone. It's a prescription I have for pain. I have lupus and some other health problems for which I need pain medication. But I don't take it to get high."
His mother is also in bad health, and the article was hard on her. But South approached him again, Miles says, and told him, "'I know you and your mom are going through hard times' and handed me $200. He then gave me a little piece of paper to sign saying I'd received the money." Miles says he took the cash and signed.
Soon after, Miles says, South and his fellow writer, David Wright, showed up at his house. This time Wright fanned "twenty crisp $100 bills in my face," Miles recalls. "He said, 'I know that you're a little unhappy about the story, but we'd like you to sign a contract giving exclusivity...I know you and your mom can use the money.'
"He said they'd write another story 'cleaning me up' and I'd get another $2,000."
As Wright spoke, Miles says, South stood at his side whispering, "'Take the money. Take the money.' I felt like I had a little devil on my shoulder."
The money was tempting, Miles says; between his and his mother's medical bills, they have difficulty paying the mortgage. He asked for time to read the contract; they gave him half an hour. In addition to the exclusivity clause, the Enquirer wanted him to sign that the first story, including the quotes attributed to him, was accurate and that he knew that he was on a pedophile list.
Miles turned the deal down.
Soon after, a producer from Hard Copy called and asked Miles to appear on the show. He did, and was paid an amount he won't disclose, but he says on TV he got the chance to tell the truth about the Enquirer allegations.
Of all the allegations in the Enquirer piece, the one that bothers Miles most, he says, is that he's a pedophile– defined as someone who attempts sexual contact with a prepubescent child.
The pedophile label dredged up old suspicions against Miles in Boulder. Part of that sentiment, Miles believes, can be traced to his friendship with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Miles often photographed Ginsberg, who encouraged him to publish a photography book he had assembled of male figure studies.
One of the founders of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute, Ginsberg caused consternation several years back when he came out in support of the North American-Boy Love Association. Ginsberg, who was gay, publicly defended his position as supporting NAMBLA's right to free speech. He wasn't so circumspect with friends.
Hill, Miles's attorney, also describes the poet as a "dear friend." Hill was one of Ginsberg's writing apprentices at Naropa in the late 1970s and was on a panel with him when the poet described himself as a pedophile.
"It was abhorrent to me," Hill says. And that's why, he adds, he wouldn't be working for Miles if he believed that his client was a pedophile.
Although Miles is openly gay, he says he's never attempted to develop a relationship with anyone below the age of consent. "Sometimes gay kids have come to me to talk about what they're going through," he says. "My house has been a place for kids to hang out who have nowhere else to go. And yes, there have been some parties."
And while he concedes that he's sometimes attracted to the young males he photographs, he says he doesn't break the rules. "I've been asked by parents here, including people in the mental-health field, to take photographs of their sons," he says. "They know I'm gay, and they know about my arrest, but they're comfortable with me being around their sons. I am not some predator...I just sometimes relate better to younger people. I consider them my peers."
The Enquirer story damaged the way of life he'd worked to rebuild since his 1989 arrest, Miles says. And while he understands that no one is above suspicion in Boulder, he wonders why the magazine focused on him--particularly since there's no indication he's ever been interested in females of any age. (The Enquirer reporters did not return calls to their Boulder office. Phillips did not return Westword's call, either.)
The Ramsey legal team source says he didn't even recognize Miles's name when he saw the tabloid story. He wouldn't put it past the Enquirer to make up the "source close to the couple" in order to get Miles to jump through the hoop, he adds.
"I know Stephen Miles," says former Enquirer reporter Joe Mullins, who now covers the Ramsey case for the Globe, "and I don't believe he could hurt anyone and don't believe that anyone ever really considered him a suspect."
Hill agrees. "If you knew Steve, who's really very meek and not in the greatest health, you'd wonder why they ever chose him," Hill says. "To tell you the truth, JonBenet would have kicked Steve's ass."
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westword.com | originally published: February 19, 1998