Colo. town weary of spotlight's glare, Boulder: The grand jury investigation into JonBenet Ramsey's death is winding up, and with it, residents want the media's presence to end


BOULDER, Colo. -- Everyone, it seemed, was outside yesterday, drawn by the Indian summer sunshine and the golden glow of the city's aspen trees in full autumnal glory -- the college students and the alfresco lunchers, the mommies and the sidewalk masseuses, the hippies and the high-tech millionaires (harder to tell apart than you might think).

It was easy to imagine that the only people indoors were the eight women and four men who met in secrecy at the Justice Center here. They are the grand jury that is expected -- at any moment, or so the buzz has been for nearly a week -- to conclude their investigation of the nearly 3-year-old murder of the child beauty queen, JonBenet Ramsey.

Although the grand jury's meeting ended yesterday with no public announcements, the end remains in sight. The jury's term ends Oct. 20; by that date, it must either indict, issue a report on its findings or disband with no action.

The approaching end of its work has again drawn scores of media to this pretty paradise, where they are about as welcome as a bunch of nails strewn across one of the city's miles of bike paths.

Long wearied of being scrutinized by the tabloids, the Geraldos and the rest of the JonBenet obsessives, most Boulderites seem more interested in when the media will leave than what the grand jury decides.

"I think there is JonBenet fatigue. There is a sense that we need to get this behind us. 'Why doesn't this go away?' " said Michael Tracey, a professor of media studies at the University of Colorado here.

'Kind of unseemly'

The Ramsey killing has punctured the image that Boulder had of itself, Tracey said, of a place that is not just physically beautiful but intellectually superior and politically progressive.

"Boulder's not the kind of place where murders are supposed to happen. It's kind of unseemly. It doesn't go with what Boulder is supposed to be about," said Tracey, who produced a documentary of the media coverage of the Ramsey case that periodically airs on the A&E; cable channel. "It's a precious place, and somewhat self-important as well."

Long dominated by the university, a winding campus of tile roofs and buildings covered with ivy that has turned flaming red with the season, Boulder often tops the best-places-to-live surveys.

Most recently, Money magazine named it a runner-up to its best small town in America (Rochester, Minn.), lauding Boulder's job growth in the high-tech field, its pristine water and air and, for all the attention paid to the JonBenet killing, its enviably low violent-crime rate.

Worldwide attention

When 6-year-old JonBenet was found beaten and strangled in her family's lavish home just west of the university Dec. 26, 1996, she was Boulder's first homicide victim of that year.

It drew immediate, worldwide attention, as details unfolded and telegenic images filled the airwaves: There was the footage from her brief career as a beauty pageant contestant, a lovely blond moppet as heavily made-up as a seductress, prancing in outrageously elaborate costumes. Played in slow motion as many stations did, the vision proved haunting.

Then there was the way her parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, behaved in the wake of their daughter's killing, appearing on CNN on New Year's Day as police claimed they were being less than cooperative with investigators.

The overwhelming attention paid to this single crime has put many Boulder residents on the defensive.

Outsiders, they say, spend much more time turning the case over -- and over and over -- in their minds than locals do.

"I watch a lot of the news shows, and I hear more about the case on them than I do in town," said Howard Illig, 65, a retiree who has lived in Boulder for 20 years.

"If you call anyone somewhere else and say you're from Boulder, that's the first thing they'll ask you -- 'What's going on with the Ramsey case?' " said his wife, Leann, 41.

They point to the church a block from their house and ask if it looks familiar; that's the Ramseys' church, where the media staked out the couple every Sunday after the killing. But they'll also make sure you know what's a block in the other direction: the Victorian house where the old "Mork & Mindy" TV show was set.

Case mishandled

Most of the media, though, are clustered about a mile away, around the Justice Center, where the grand jury has met sporadically for more than a year, since September 1998.

Even locals, though you'll find few of them camped out on the sidewalk with the out-of-town media, will concede the importance of the jury's deliberations: The jurors are largely seen as the last, best hope to get an arrest in a case that many believe was bungled from the start.

The jury was convened after Boulder's Police Department and its district attorney's office failed to agree on whether to charge anyone for the killing of JonBenet.

The case has reportedly cost taxpayers here nearly $2 million.

As numerous press reports and a best-selling book about the case have outlined, the police and district attorney were often at cross-purposes over the course of their investigation.

Police have been accused of badly mishandling the crime scene, allowing John Ramsey, who some say should have been considered a suspect from the start, to search the house and find the body of his daughter.

The district attorney's office, led by Alex Hunter, has come under fire for its perceived tendency to work with suspects toward possible plea bargains, rather than aggressively charging and arresting them.

The Ramseys, who moved here in 1991 and have relocated to the Atlanta area, surrounded themselves with the best lawyers in town, their own investigators and a battery of media representatives.

While they have professed their innocence, and other suspects have been considered, they have been the main focus of much of the police investigation.

The case, and all its twists and turns, have captivated many, much in the way that the killing of Nicole Brown Simpson became much more than simply the killing of the former wife of a former football star. Internet sites track every rumor; TV pundits dissect every legal issue.

Leads go nowhere

And yet so much is unknown: There are dangling threads, leads that go nowhere.

"How are you going to explain that DNA?" said Andrew Cohen, a Denver lawyer who has followed the case closely, referring to DNA found under JonBenet's fingernails that matches no known figure in the case.

"That's the most significant roadblock to why there's no indictment."

Harry Lee, renowned criminologist who also figured in the Simpson case, has been advising prosecutors, most recently during a series of meetings last weekend. He refused to specify the outcome of his meetings or how they may figure in the grand jury's decision -- which brings up the biggest quandary for those avidly following the secret deliberations.

"The people who know what's going on aren't talking," Cohen said, "and the people who are talking don't know what they're talking about."

'Perfect Town'

As the grand jury continues its investigation, residents wish for an end: an end to the satellite trucks, an end to the intrusion, an end to the blot on their once-perfect home.

"Perfect Town, Perfect Murder" is how Lawrence Schiller titled his book, considered the definitive JonBenet tome, which is being turned into a TV miniseries that has brought another round of camera crews here.

"A lot of people are talking about that book, but I know nothing about it. I won't read it. I don't care about it," said Mark Castator, 41, a sculptor who was doing a welding job for the city on the Pearl Street pedestrian mall. "What happened was tragic, but I don't know if anything will come out of all this."

Pub Date: 10/13/99

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