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The JonBenet Hysteria & The Ignorance of the Press


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Media Matters

Grotesque Ignorance Exposed

By William Tucker

Published 8/30/2006 12:09:50 AM

About ten years ago, while writing a book on crime, I attended a district attorneys' convention in Las Vegas. I wasn't supposed to be there -- they don't like the press -- but I managed to sneak into the back of the hotel ballroom.

After the first speech I struck up a conversation with the assistant district attorney sitting next to me. He was a young black man, neatly dressed, with a trim mustache.

"What's the biggest thing you've learned as an ADA?" I asked him.

He twirled his mustache for a moment, reflected and said, "People are capable of anything."

I wish that lesson had penetrated the head of Boulder County District Attorney Mary Keenan. We might have been spared the last two weeks' farce in the JonBenet Ramsey case.

Was there ever any question that John Mark Karr, the 41-year-old schoolteacher paraded before the TV cameras for the last two weeks, was making the whole thing up? Did his professions of undying love for the victim ring one bit true? Or was he just a partially deranged weirdo obsessed with the case? To my mind, the only serious question was whether he was a true publicity-hound or just seeking plane fare back from Bangkok.

What the whole incident revealed is the grotesque ignorance of the American press. Nobody has the slightest knowledge of police investigations. As any police detective can tell you, people confess to high-profile crimes all the time. Sometimes the investigators have to throw them out of their offices. God knows what motivates these people but it certainly has nothing to do with solving crimes. Yet newspapers and TV stations across the country immediately took the whole confession at face value. Across the country, newspapers wiped the dreary reports from Israel and Lebanon off their front page and ran nothing but "investigations" into this guy's sorry sex life.

One afternoon the New York Post ran six full pages about Kann's private life. "PERV'S LAIR. INSIDE JONBENET SUSPECT'S SEEDY BANGKOK DEN OF SIN," trumpeted the Daily News. "SEX CHANGE SHOCKER" came next. (The word "shock" is the key to tabloid reporting, with "Britney Baby Shocker" the ideal headline. One new publication is dispensing with pretense altogether and naming itself "Shock!") Now I realize you can't expect much from the News and Post but unfortunately both are coupled to rather sensible editorial pages -- and remember, the alternative is reading the New York Times.

The real fault, however, was with the prosecutors. From the beginning, a cloud of suspicion hung over the parents, John and Patsy Ramsey (who died last June of cancer). The Ramseys originally reported their daughter missing to friends and the police after finding a ransom note. The note, from a "small foreign faction," was an implausible garble of bravado and nonsense -- the kind that people make up when trying to cast suspicion elsewhere. When a cursory police search produced nothing, John Ramsey led another expedition that quickly discovered the body in the closet -- and messed up the crime scene in the proceedings. There was no sign of forced entry to the house. There was snow on the ground outside but no footprints.

The couple clammed up early, hired lawyers, and refused to be interrogated or take lie-detector tests. The paintbrush used to garrote the victim came from Patsy Ramsey's paint box. The writer of the ransom note knew weird details about John Ramsey -- including that he had a business, used an attache case, and was from the South. The ransom demand for $118,000 was surprisingly small but exactly matched a bonus John Ramsey had recently received. Patsy's handwriting matched the note in some significant respects. Still, the DA's office could not put together a convincing case and a grand jury refused to indict. Two years ago Boulder police announced they would not investigate further.

In pointing the finger, the Ramseys ended up accusing Chris Wolfe, a Boulder reporter, of being the killer. Wolfe sued the Ramseys for damages but lost. In issuing a decision, however, federal judge Julie Carnes noted, "[T]he weight of the evidence is more consistent with a theory that an intruder murdered JonBenet than it is with a theory that Mrs. Ramsey did it." This inspired Boulder District Attorney Mary Keenan to reopen the case. Her keystone cops office soon settled on Karr, who had been sending lurid e-mails to University of Colorado professor Michael Tracey. Karr fit the profile of an ideal intruder -- a middle-class white male pedophile -- and so he was arrested on nothing more than his own words. The newspapers took it from there.

It's worth following up all possibilities and if anyone else wants to confess to the murder, they should be checked out as well. But the facts of the case remain hard to avoid. The overwhelming evidence is that John and Patsy Ramsey somehow acted in concert in the murder of their child. The most likely scenario is that the father was sexually abusing the daughter and the mother killed her out of jealousy. Not even a marital bond would be likely to keep one of them from cracking unless both were involved.

It's not a pretty story, but this is police work, not the movies or tabloid journalism. In trying to fathom a case like this, it's worth remembering the hard-won wisdom of that assistant district attorney back in Las Vegas: People are capable of anything.


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This guy wanted the publicity, he wants to be famous. For that reason, Glenn Beck refers to him as "Captain High-Pants" :lol: and blurrs his face on his TV show when talking about him.

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I think another factor is the sheer hysteria that surrounds anything smacking of child molestation.

Now, I'm against capital punishment. But for pedophiles, I would make an exception. At the same time, it's apparent nobody uses their brains when this subject comes up.

A good example? Remember the Child Kidnapping Craze of the mid-80s? I was a junior reporter at the time when the FBI claimed that as many as 1.2 MILLION children could be the victims of abduction in this country. And the rest of the reporters around the newsroom were simply aghast at this number. "How horrible!" "Why it's an epidemic!" "Why aren't we doing more?"

So I went to the newspaper's library and came back with a copy of the Census. I don't remember the exact math, but the result was this: If the FBI's numbers were to be believed, then one child in 40 in the country was an abductee. Looking at my fellow reporters, I asked them, "Does that make any sense at all? Does anybody really believe this phoney baloney set of statistics? That means every other school classroom in this country has one abducted child in it."

They stopped for a moment and somebody actually said, "Well, if it prevents one kidnapping from taking place, then it's okay."

Think about that. It's okay to inspire national hysteria and a deep distrust for all strangers based on some cooked up numbers. But that's the way the national press seems to think.

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