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.

January 2007

John Ramsey’s attorney Bryan Morgan in Boulder read the op-ed piece. He picked up the phone to thank Tracey for his refreshing viewpoint. And over the next few months, Morgan says, Tracey convinced the lawyer to talk to his clients about doing an interview.

The embattled Ramseys hadn’t granted a formal interview in months, not since a horribly botched press conference in May 1997, when the Ramseys had insisted they didn’t do it; to which the whole world responded, Oh, yes you did! Suspicion of their guilt intensified, especially in Boulder, eventually running the Ramseys and their son out of Colorado, to relatives in Atlanta. Until Tracey’s op-ed, John and Patsy, adhering to the counsel of their attorney, avoided the media.

The Ramseys agreed to sit down with Tracey. Getting the couple to talk, particularly with a grand jury yet to convene and perhaps indict them for murder, was a journalistic coup, not to mention a potential gold mine. The professor, touting himself as an unbiased scholar, offered them a safe platform from which they could tell their side of the story, and John and Patsy committed to cooperating with the interview. Tracey called his friend David Mills, a television producer back in England known for his work at the U.K.’s Granada news production company, and told him to get on the first plane to America. They all met at the Ramseys’ new home in Atlanta to work out the details of the interview.

The resulting documentary, “Who Killed JonBenét?”, aired on Britain’s publicly owned Channel 4 in July 1998. In their Atlanta home, with Patsy in a mock-turtleneck sweater retelling tear-filled memories of JonBenét, the Ramseys indeed appeared to be parents in mourning, not savage killers. Their friends and family, also interviewed, appeared supportive, too. Even John Ramsey’s ex-wife, with whom he had two children, was exceedingly cordial, insisting he was incapable of such violence.

The biggest takeaway, though, was when the Ramseys challenged predominate misgivings about them. Point by point, they answered questions that had been frequently raised by the tabloid media. You hired a publicist and a lawyer soon after the murder, surely that means you’re guilty. We hired a lawyer because it was becoming clear the police saw us as prime suspects. It was our right to seek legal counsel. Our lawyer hired the publicist—to field all those calls from journalists. And so on…

The program, produced by Mills’ private company, Mills Production Ltd., with the help of two reporters from Newsweek, sold for a relatively modest $150,000. In August 1998, after it aired in Britain, Denver’s NBC affiliate, KUSA, aired it without commercials. The A&E network later broadcast the show, retitled, “The Case of JonBenét: The Media vs. The Ramseys.” Mills says that, in total, their personal payday for the production was about $25,000. If they really wanted to, Tracey says, he and Mills could’ve made millions with the interview footage, but they refused to sell anything but the whole documentary.

But Tracey and Mills wanted to maintain control over their message; that was the whole point. “We had to [make that documentary] because what was happening was wrong,” Tracey says. “The story of JonBenét is a wonderful metaphor for a larger problem…. It was wrong in moral terms, it was wrong in professional terms, and it was wrong in constitutional terms. And so that’s how I felt, and that was what I was going to say.”

Critics of the documentary faulted Tracey and Mills for, among other things, the timing of the production, as it aired on KUSA only one month before the grand jury convened in Boulder and chose not to indict. However, beneath the controversy, Tracey’s thesis was rooted in a valid point: The Ramseys were entitled to the presumption of innocence. The problems for Tracey, and for that matter, for law enforcement, for the media, and for society in general, began when Tracey no longer had a point to make, yet kept talking—when he began concocting stories and coaching “suspects.”

It’s last October, and John “Steve” Gigax puts me on hold; the timer on his kiln has just gone off and he needs to remove all the Nazi-themed rings from the heat. Jewelry making used to be 52-year-old Gigax’s hobby, but because of Tracey, Gigax has had to quit his printing factory job in Indiana; the jewelry gig’s the only career he has left.

After Tracey made that first documentary, the professor became obsessed with the JonBenét case. “I got this sense,” Tracey says, “that the investigation was dying, that it was going away. So David and I thought we didn’t want it to go away. Last time we checked, no one had been charged with killing her.” The two men collaborated on a second documentary, “Who Killed the Pageant Queen?” Now they had set out to prove someone other than John and Patsy, someone from the outside, broke into the house and killed JonBenét.

The program was based on the research of Detective Lou Smit, a seasoned Colorado Springs crime investigator who had worked with the Boulder DA’s office on the JonBenét case. For Tracey to cast 71-year-old Smit as the star of the documentary made perfect sense: Smit had quit the DA’s team in September 1998, with a much-publicized resignation letter that read, “I find that I cannot in good conscience be a part of the persecution of innocent people.”