JonBenet's Murder: A Sick Circus That Consumed an American Town
Let the games begin -- again.
Sitting in a Hong Kong newsroom reading Bangkok-based wire stories screaming that a man in Bangkok has confessed to one of America's most famous murders-- the 1996 slaying of the child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey -- is a surreal experience for me, a one-time resident of the city where the 6-year-old child was murdered in her own home. It packs an odd jolt of disconnect, deju vu and news junkie adrenalin for anyone who watched the sick circus unfold 10 years ago.
"I know it was enormous in the United States," a British page editor said when I asked what coverage the paper planned. "A media frenzy, right? We were hardly aware of it here."
Hardly aware? Sputter. Cough. I was freelancing -- and, I confess, like the accused John Mark Karr sometimes a substitute teacher -- stories about the murder for MSNBC and other media. I knew one of the principals, though not the Ramseys, who were about a 10 minute drive northwest of my house in the college town of Boulder. And like many other jurors in the court of public opinion I long ago tried and convicted the late mother, Patsy Ramsey.
To say JonBenet's slaying consumed Boulder is an understatement. Popularly known as ``20 square miles surrounded by reality'' and/or ``People's Republic of ...'' its Birkenstocks, bicycles, patchouli oil and wheat grass aura took a harsh beating in sideshows that ruptured friendships and ruined careers, including those of the police chief, some investigators and one young woman reporter at the Boulder paper.
Of course it also brought out the loonballs (no mean feat in a town renowned for them). Some, like a mortuary worker and self-proclaimed artist who called himself ``JT Colfax'' -- Colfax Avenue being Denver's major east-west artery -- who earned two years in the Boulder jail for stealing a page from JonBenet's morgue log and setting a small fire at the front door of the then-abandoned Ramsey home.
There were the quiet nutjobs, too. Like my lawyer's secretary, who, five years after the murder unwisely showed me a six page scenario she'd written theorizing that her employer had done it. She was serious, and seriously unemployed shortly thereafter.
My then-wife and I also had some twisted fun with it including running a popular weekly JonBenet trivia column -- sample question, ``John Ramsey admitted to being on a prescription drug during the time of Jon Benet's death. The drug, if not taken daily, could lead to paranoia. What is the name of the drug?'' -- on AOL's Digital City Denver website as part of their Boulder coverage.
We also entertaind out-of- town visitors with drives to the death house to pose for photos.
No fun was found for those close to the case. One casuality was a friend and former teacher of mine, a journalism professor who in retirement had grown out his white hair and beard to become a year-round Santa Claus, a loveably eccentric figure who became a Boulder icon. He'd embraced the role and entertained at JonBenet's last Christmas party.
He also became an unofficial suspect, as did his playwright wife after it was learned she'd written a drama in the 1970s that contained rough similarities to JonBenet's death. The attendant media blast (``Did Santa Slay JonBenet?'') eventually drove them out of town and broke his spirit. He died shortly thereafter.
Others thrived on the tragedy. A favorite figure for news junkies and amateur Internet sleuths was a 40-something anonymous Indiana housewife who called herself ``Mrs Brady'' in tribute to the TV sitcom, The Brady Bunch. Though the forum and term wasn't popular at the time Mrs Brady hosted an seminal blog devoted to the mystery. Called ``Mrs Brady's URLs,'' it received 1.13 million page visits from 1997 through its last update at 7:21 pm on March 12, 2003. She retired quietly thereafter.
Through it all Mrs Brady found time for television and talk shows, print interviews and -- her best bit -- sponsoring a three day ``Cybersleuth Housewives Boulder Tour'' for herself and about four or five admirers. They toured the town visiting sites such as the Ramsey home, a restaurant owned by a former Ramsey friend -- who himself later became publicly unhinged in an incident involving a Bible and a baseball bat -- and documenting it all on the Internet and video tape.
I began wondering about her after the news broke and tracked down her old site for some memories.
I found them and a note from a new, anonymous caretaker which read: ``If news of importance happens, I'll pick up where Mrs. Brady left off -- however humble of an attempt that will be. Only Mrs. Brady will ever be Mrs. Brady.''
And, bless their soul, they made good on the promise.
There were more than 10 new links, including one to, amazingly enough, China Daily.
Suddenly, I felt at home both in Hong Kong and Boulder.