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

Because Daxis hadn’t given any concrete information on the murder, nor revealed his name or location, the DA’s office couldn’t do anything. Smit told Tracey to hang in there and keep talking to Daxis, just in case something came up. “Personally, [Karr] was not at the top of my [suspect] list,” Smit says, “but when you have a lead you have to follow it…. If you have a man confessing to a murder, you need to get law enforcement in this.”

During the next three years, Daxis’ e-mails came more frequently, and Daxis, as Tracey puts it, became more “needy.” When Daxis hinted that he might show up at the Ramseys’ vacation home in Michigan, Tracey interpreted it as a threat. With the help of the Ramseys’ attorney, in May 2006, he got these e-mails into the hands of Lacy, who then started her investigation. “We believed we had to look into Mr. Karr when he started stating that it was he who committed the murder,” Lacy wrote in a recent e-mail statement.

Over the course of the next three months, Karr and Tracey e-mailed or telephoned on a daily basis, with Boulder investigators monitoring and sometimes coaching on Tracey what to say. They told him to do anything it took to keep Daxis on the phone so he didn’t disappear, so they could find out who he was. They advised him to draw out Daxis with conversation that excited him until he eventually confessed.

Sensing that the graphic exchanges and the mental chess of it all might be taking a toll on Tracey’s mental health, the DA’s office offered to take him off the case and replace him with an agent. Tracey resisted. “I knew [Daxis] would spot that in a second,” he says. “We were so much in each other’s heads.”

The e-mails between the two men would total about 1,400 pages. There were more than 10 hour-long telephone calls, too. Both are full of contradictions and red flags. Tracey’s critics have accused him of “grooming Karr into confession,” not in pursuit of justice but in chasing fame and book deals. One of the most memorable details from JonBenét’s crime scene was the blanket draped over her body, but in the e-mails it appears that Karr didn’t remember it. After Tracey jogged his memory, saying, “You did cover her with a light coloured blanket,” Karr wrote, “Thank God. I couldn’t quite remember that.”

The morning of Aug. 17, 2006, Boulder DA Mary Lacy held a press conference announcing the arrest of John Mark Karr in Thailand. While her words cautioned the media that this was still an ongoing investigation, there was an air of self-congratulatory backslapping among the Boulder authorities, the media, and Tracey. Wearing a sport coat and an enormous grin for his triumphant moment, the journalism professor gladly fielded questions from the swarming media. Then came the DNA test, the science proving Karr did not kill JonBenét, along with the testimony putting Karr with his relatives the night of JonBenét’s murder.

Only 12 days after that first press conference, Lacy held a second, announcing Karr was not the guy. They had been wrong. In other words, Tracey had been wrong. John Ramsey was grateful to Tracey for his efforts. “John is deeply appreciative [of Michael Tracey],” says Ramsey attorney Morgan. “He followed through with a lead and it was hard on him.”

The media, however, were left seething. Because they’d been stuck out in Boulder for a non-story, or because they’d gone on a wild goose chase to Thailand and back— because they’d been exposed as sen­sation­alists. And because the professor who’d self-righteously criticized them for precisely this behavior in the past was the one now responsible for it all. At the second press conference, they would have wanted the professor’s head, and Tracey knew it. He went to teach class instead.

Tracey’s critics, like KHOW’s Boyles, the local weekly newspaper Westword, and online Ramsey sleuths, once again pounced on him, arguing that his endgame wasn’t solving the case; it was satiating his ego.

Months later, I ask Tracey about the backlash. Seated behind his office desk, he practically shouts: “People don’t realize it was an absolute nightmare, to listen to this stuff and deal with this guy, this control freak, telling me how he killed her, and about his relationships with girls. It was a fucking nightmare. This is what infuriates me—when people imply I’m doing it for profit or it was all a game. Bullshit. Total bullshit. Day after day, week after week, having to listen to this stuff and having to pretend it was OK, because that was the only way to keep him talking? It was tiring and an intense mind game.” Regaining his composure, he adds, “But I’d do it again, if I felt there was a lead that needed to be followed,” sounding a lot like he does when explaining away Gigax.

Whispering under his breath, he dramatically pauses, looks out the window, and says, “Oh, Daxis, why?” Which raises that other often asked question: Oh, Tracey, why?

On Oct. 16, 2006, riding out what hopefully was the last of his 15 Minutes, Karr appeared on “Larry King Live.” After being cleared in Boulder, then carted to California for child pornography charges and released due to lack of evidence, he was a free man. In one of the revealing moments of the show, Karr, almost as if offering an explanation for why he confessed to a murder he did not commit, told Larry King: “When I was walking through that pool of reporters, taking all those photos, I thought to myself, ‘Why am I not walking through this pool of reporters because I am a good, wonderful person, to be acknowledged for being a good, wonderful person?’”

A good person. For Karr being good wasn’t enough to get him the attention he desired, and that is perhaps what makes Karr and Tracey more alike than either of them realizes. Tracey was only 4 years old when his father, John Tracey, 31, a member of England’s Royal Air Force, died instantly in a plane crash. Tracey still carries a photo of his father in his wallet. It’s a worn-down picture of a young, uniformed man who died with his full potential unrealized, a man who died anonymously.

Looking at the picture, Tracey gets introspective. “I can be very hot. I’m less so now, but for a long time, looking back, I was very aggressive, about my work, women, alcohol.”