The Hungry Toad
When CU Professor Michael Tracey isn't lecturing his students on journalism ethics or pounding pints at his off-campus office, he's hunting for JonBenét's killer—turning up the likes of John Mark Karr to feed his obsession.
It’s 7 p.m. on a school night and professor Michael Tracey is tipsy again. Leaning over the table, his face red from the alcohol or the conversation, or more likely from both, he launches into a monologue about his favorite topic: JonBenét Ramsey.
It was 10 years ago this December that the 6-year-old beauty queen was brutally murdered inside her family’s Boulder home and the three-ring circus surrounding the tragedy began. And throughout it all, it has been Tracey, a University of Colorado journalism professor, who has served as the controversial ringleader. Stepping into the macabre spotlight, he’s built a career and gained international fame and infamy.
For his contributions to the unsolved homicide, Tracey has been exalted and eviscerated, especially in the last few months—Tracey is the one who cultivated the “confession” of the enigmatic bust of a suspect that was John Mark Karr. Local and national media pundits like Denver radio talk-show host Peter Boyles once again took to calling the professor an opportunist, claiming he has perpetuated the JonBenét mystery for his own benefit. Others, like Paul Voakes, the dean of CU’s journalism school, defended Tracey as an altruistic investigator.
On this late autumn night, I’m with Tracey at the Hungry Toad, north Boulder’s British bar. It’s where the 58-year-old has been drinking for nearly 20 years, since he emigrated with his family from England. Tracey calls the Toad his “downtown office;” he’s famous campuswide for being the professor who holds office hours at a bar. Most Tuesday and Thursday nights you’ll find him here, throwing back pints and solving the world’s problems with a revolving posse of admiring students, armchair scholars, Ramsey aficionados, and drunks.
Tonight, he’s surrounded by the few people he believes he can trust: his 23-year-old son, the eldest of three children from his first marriage; Tracey’s longtime pal Paul Christman, who’s written a play about JonBenét’s murder; and his girlfriend, Jen Davis, who, since Tracey dragged Karr from obscurity, has acted as her boyfriend’s publicist. Tracey asked me to join them at the Toad for what he described as a secret meeting. “I’ve got interesting information about Karr in Thailand,” he had called to tell me. “But we can’t talk about it on the phone. Meet me at the Toad.”
So far, Tracey’s already polished off three pints of Fuller’s and his accent has grown stronger, his voice louder. His son, who until now has been busy text messaging, attempts to lighten the mood: “You’ve probably noticed my dad gets passionate about stuff. You should see him when he can’t get the remote control to work.” The table erupts into laughter. Tracey smiles coyly at me, as if to convey, See what I have to deal with? Then he motions to the waitress for another beer.
A couple of weeks earlier, in his campus office, Tracey’s emotional wheels are spinning from the Karr debacle; the professor is feverishly recounting his career highlights from the past 10 years—sounding like a man desperately trying to justify himself. Around him, the four walls of his office are covered with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves swelling with the papers and books he’s stockpiled during his tenure as a professor. One entire shelf is dedicated to the books and articles he’s written. Lately he’s been working on his ninth book—this one about JonBenét. The manuscript was 50,000 words at last count, only a third finished, yet he says he’s already got an agent trying to sell it.
On top of a filing cabinet there’s a research binder labeled “Mothers Who Kill Their Children.” At the foot of his desk there’s a pile of VHS tapes, copies of the three JonBenét documentaries Tracey has coproduced. On his desk, there is a pair of white, porcelain baby shoes; written in gold paint on the toes: “JonBenét 1996”—a gift from one of the investigators on the case.
Tracey pulls out the autopsy pictures of JonBenét’s tiny, obviously abused corpse. The pictures, he says, are a reminder of what he’s fighting for. He points to a close-up shot of JonBenét’s wounded neck—the deep, red gashes caused by a makeshift garrote the killer used to restrain her while he penetrated her, just before killing the child. Tracey feverishly flips to another picture, this one of JonBenét’s bludgeoned skull, an enormous crack through the middle.
With great theatrical flair, he tosses the pictures across the desk to me and begins to make his case, not so much to me but more like he’s addressing any and all critics who would dare to question him. “That penetration was real. There is the general sense that there was an intruder.
“You don’t sort of, in your 40s, become a homicidal maniac,” he continues, referring to JonBenét’s now deceased mother, Patsy. “Patsy doesn’t suddenly, out of nowhere, have the capacity to do that [crime]. She may be lacking in taste—the pageants are not my style—but nothing about her would suggest this kind of behavior.” He pounds his fist at the end of every sentence. “If I have to spend the rest of my life telling America one by one that the Ramseys didn’t do it, I will.” He leans back in his chair.
Tracey’s wearing what he wears almost every day: worn-out jeans, sport sandals, and a wrinkled cotton shirt, unbuttoned one too many times. He has that I’ve-just-been-on-a-hike tan that many CU professors enjoy. His wavy, silver hair is glazed with an unctuous gel. “There are times when I feel like a mini-Clinton,” Tracey says defiantly. “He was one of those characters who people either really loathed or liked. And I sometimes feel like I’m in that position. If you like the Ramseys, you like me. If you don’t like them, you hate me.”
Considering the myriad cul-de-sacs and characters of the JonBenét saga, it’s easy to forget how Tracey got involved in the first place. Almost from the very moment back in December 1996, the day after Christmas, when John Ramsey discovered the mangled body of his 6-year-old daughter in the basement of their Boulder home, he and his wife were considered prime suspects. Those were the days you could overhear someone at a cocktail party say, between sips of Chardonnay, “I just know that trashy Patsy did it. You can see it in her eyes.” On “The Geraldo Rivera Show,” a staged jury declared John and Patsy were “liable” (read: guilty).
Watching this all unfold from its Boulder epicenter, Tracey decided to weigh in on the case. A media scholar by training, he saw the Ramsey story as a perfect example of a flawed American media, the broken Fourth Estate, and he wrote an op-ed piece for the Boulder Daily Camera. Titled “Media-Saturated Culture Too Quick to Judge Ramseys,” Tracey’s article chided the press for its sensational coverage, its endless imagery of a bedazzled JonBenét, and its rush to judgment, as well as the consumers who devoured it all. He asked society to step back, take a breath, and grant the Ramseys their basic inalienable right: the presumption of innocence. “If I wrote a scholarly article about the media coverage, who the hell was going to read it?” Tracey has said about his work. “The choice I made, to engage people, was to get in the boxing ring. That’s where the debate is.”