Feature

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

When I first met with Michael Tracey at the bar to talk with him for this story, his girlfriend, Jen, showed me a two-inch-thick stack of business cards; they were from journalists all over the world who wanted to talk with him about his role in the JonBenét Ramsey investigation, specifically, about the story of him and John Mark Karr. Tracey turned them all down and was agreeing to talk with me, he said, because I was an alumnus of the CU journalism program. “Of course I will talk to a former student.”

I was a graduate student at the University of Colorado, working towards a master’s degree in print journalism in 2004, and that August I signed up for a media-studies class, taught by Tracey, whom I’d heard was one of the program’s most charismatic instructors. I arrived at his classroom on that first day expecting guidance on journalistic ethics, figuring Tracey would take us through the moral quandaries and professional responsibilities wrapped up in benchmark works like All the President’s Men and found in cautionary tales such as Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer. From the murkiness of journalism, I expected, Professor Tracey would reach in and extract for us some clarity. Instead, he immediately led us into his JonBenét house of mirrors, launching into a seemingly endless diatribe about the case. No one had paid any attention to that story in more than five years. Yet, that fall marked the release of Tracey’s third documentary—the Gigax “metaphor.” And unbeknownst to any of us seated before him, Tracey had already struck up a conversation with a guy who called himself “Daxis,” the man who would be unveiled to the world as John Mark Karr, another prime suspect.

The first time Tracey saw live footage of Karr was the same moment the rest of America did. It was on television, during that bizarre, impromptu press conference in Thailand where Karr, then in custody after “confessing” to JonBenét’s murder, feigned surprise that he’d been caught—even as his body language screamed that he loved the attention. “I am so very sorry for what happened to JonBenet,” he said sheepishly, as if he himself were a child. “Her death was an accident.” Then he was swept away in the churning sea of reporters and popping camera flashes.

In the days that followed, as Karr was extradited and made the trek from Thailand to Boulder for the DNA test that would clear him of the crime, the media industry thrived on Karr like he was oxygen. Cable news networks and local talk-radio stations filled their 24-hour schedules with handwriting analysts, speculating whether Karr could have written the ransom note found at the crime scene, and psychologists guessing whether Karr’s past could have driven him to this kind of behavior. Journalists on the plane with him from Thailand gave reports on what Karr ordered for dinner and how many times he used the bathroom. Papers across the country, bumped other, “less important” news stories, like President Bush’s wiretapping program or the Israel/Lebanon conflict, to page two, to make room for this breaking news. Newspaper sales and broadcast news ratings soared.

Tracey met Karr via e-mail, back in April 2002. Writing from an undisclosed foreign country and using the name “D” (later “Daxis”), Karr used a handful of peculiar e-mail addresses, including [email protected]. In his early e-mails to Tracey, Daxis wrote that he was interested in the case and admired Tracey’s documentaries. Tracey heard from these whack jobs all the time. But then Daxis hinted he had something to reveal about how JonBenét was killed. Tracey started forwarding the e-mails to Lou Smit, who’d been asked back on the Ramsey case by the new Boulder DA, Mary Lacy.

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