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10.03.10

New Questions in JonBenet's Murder

As Colorado investigators launch a new round of interviews into the unsolved murder—including questioning JonBenet's brother, Burke—it’s raising hopes in Boulder that the 15-year-old crime might finally be solved.

The house sits on a quaint street in Boulder, Colorado. It is still empty, despite repeated attempts to sell it.

Every day, tourists drive up to photograph the abandoned home. Otherwise, the house, where JonBenet Ramsey was killed almost 15 years ago, appears lifeless behind the gated walls.

There are those who say the sprawling Tudor home is cursed.

“The fact that they haven’t caught the killer has added another dimension,” says Ashley Alsup, who lives on the street. “It’s almost come to be haunted in people’s minds.”

Gallery: Haunted Homes

For almost 15 years, the case of JonBenet Ramsey has certainly haunted this community—and the people involved in the case. Recent news that police have begun a new round of interviews— approaching JonBenet’s brother Burke, now 23—once again stirred up interest in the case, making people here wonder if the long-dormant case might finally be solved.

“There are still missing pieces to the puzzle,” says Steven Pitt, a Phoenix forensic psychiatrist who has served as a consultant to the Boulder Police Department and district attorney’s office since 1997.

The Ramsey family maintains an intruder killed their daughter, who was found murdered in the basement of the house on Dec. 26, 1996, strangled by a crude garrote, fashioned out of a bit of rope and a broken paintbrush. The 6-year-old had also suffered a severe blow to the head.

At least one detective, Steve Thomas, believed the family was somehow involved. On Larry King Live, the Boulder investigator charged that Patsy Ramsey, JonBenet’s mother, had killed her daughter in an “explosive encounter” over a bed-wetting incident.

In an interview at his office last week, the Boulder district attorney, Stan Garnett, refused to talk about any possible leads or suspects. But he acknowledged that investigators had bungled the case from the get-go.

“There are plenty of mistakes to go around, dating back 14 years ago,” Garnett said. “Mistakes by the police and D.A., which made it difficult to solve” the case, he said, adding that the crime scene was possibly “contaminated.”

Garnett is one of the reasons why the case is now being looked at closer once more. When Garnett took office last year, one of his first acts as district attorney was to convene a task force to go over the Ramsey case again.

Seated at his office in Boulder, Garnett was unsparing in his criticism of how the case had been handled by his predecessor, Mary Lacy. Once in office last year, the new D.A. immediately handed the investigation back to the police department, which hadn’t taken a lead in the case since 2002.

Currently running for Colorado attorney general, Garnett says the drawn-out case has exacted its toll.

“The community is really tired of this case,” he says, adding that no one “wants to hear from me about the Ramsey case until the case is solved or if we have a suspect.”

Mitch Morrissey, the district attorney in Denver and a national DNA and forensics expert, agrees the case ran into trouble from the start. Among other things, the crime scene was contaminated and the coroner used the same clipper to clip the fingernails of several corpses, including JonBenet and someone else, rendering the fingernail clippings useless as evidence. “They didn’t know about DNA,” says Morrissey.

Furthermore, the Ramsey family and their friends were allowed to wander around the house. And JonBenet’s father, John Ramsey, disturbed the crime scene even more by carrying his daughter upstairs from the basement where she was found.

Morrissey still gets calls from people claiming to know who killed the child, some of them speaking in tongues. “The nut factor,” he says, is “the biggest I have seen in 27 years in my career.“ Morrissey said that Burke Ramsey's DNA doesn't match the DNA found on JonBenet. Nor, he added, does any of "the 200 or so suspects, witnesses etc."

All told, the police interviewed more than 600 people, consulted with over 64 experts, and investigated hundreds of possible suspects. The cops received approximately 3,400 letters and 700 phone tips, and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars investigating the case.

“The nut factor,” he says, is “the biggest I have seen in 27 years in my career.“

Investigators say they believed that they had caught a big break in 2008 when DNA discovered on JonBenet’s clothing matched genetic material from an unknown male that had previously been recovered from blood in JonBenet’s underpants.

Schoolteacher John Mark Karr, who claimed to have killed JonBenet, was flown from Thailand to Colorado for a DNA test, but there was no match. However, as a result of the new DNA evidence, Lacy exonerated the Ramseys in a letter, stating that the DNA evidence “has vindicated your family.”

Pitt, the forensic psychiatrist, criticized that decision. “Let’s be real accurate—Miss Lacy had her own agenda and that was borne out time and again,” he says. “Miss Lacy isn’t the one who does the exonerating. It is an ongoing case. She clearly had her own agenda.”

“This case has caused a lot of fractured relationships between the district attorney and police,” adds Pitt.

One Boulder police officer, who didn’t want to speak for attribution, was also critical of how the investigation was handled. “Things were getting leaked. It was a huge media spectacle. The D.A.’s office leaked information. People digging in dumpsters were trying to find information. A lot of people lost their jobs.”

Lacy says her office took over the case from the Boulder cops by “mutual agreement” and allows herself this dig at the current D.A.: “The new district attorney has no knowledge of the case at all,” she says. “At least the [police] over there would have been familiar with the case. Stan has enough on his plate.”

But among those who once worked the case—or were somehow involved—there are only a few left.

Patsy Ramsey, JonBenet’s mother, died of ovarian cancer in 2006; Lou Smit, the legendary Colorado Springs homicide detective, who assisted with the case, died this year from prostate cancer. Detective Tom Wickman, one of the main investigators, left Boulder to become chief of police in Frisco, Colorado, and Lacy herself has gone into private practice.

Tricia Griffith, the founder of forumforjustice.org, a website forum about the Ramsey investigation, has followed the case from the inception. She says Garnett, who is running for the job as state attorney general, has turned his attention to the murder for political reasons.

“I know they are getting a lot of publicity,” she says. “They could have interviewed Burke two years ago. I hate to be that cynical, but my cynical heart says there is not much to it.”

The Boulder police chief, Mark Beckner, is keeping his cards close to his vest.

“We continue to work the Ramsey case,” he said in a statement. “This has included additional contacts and interviews with those who may have information pertinent to the case. In adhering to our earlier position, we are not going to publicly reveal details about the investigation unless doing so would further the needs of the investigation.”

Meanwhile, the house is still empty—even though the lights are often on.

The 7,240-square-foot Tudor stands apart from the quaint cottage-like homes on the picturesque street in University Hill, an affluent neighborhood near the foot of the Rockies.

Bought in 2004 by Tim Milner and his wife Carol, daughter of televangelist Robert H. Schuller, the house went on the market last year, with a tag close to $2 million. Unable to get their asking price, the Milners took it off the market in January this year.

The notoriety of the house attracts its share of crazies, and the street has become a sort of morbid lover’s lane, with young couples parked in front of the house, kissing.

“It definitely has an aura,” says Alsup, the neighbor, adding that people are drawn to the house because the crime is still unsolved. “People don’t have closure. Once you know what… happened,” she says, “you can move on.”

Christine Pelisek is staff reporter for The Daily Beast, covering crime. She previously was a reporter at the LA Weekly, where she covered crime for the last five years. In 2008, she won three Los Angeles Press Club awards, one for her investigative story on the Grim Sleeper.