By Libby Smith
DENVER (CBS4) – Colorado journalists have been covering JonBenet Ramsey’s murder and the investigation that followed for nearly 20 years now. From the shock of the initial crime through the years of twists and turns that followed, it’s been a trying case for police, the public and journalists alike.
“It’s one of the great American mysteries,” said Raj Chohan, a former reporter for CBS4.
JonBenet Ramsey was reported missing in the early morning hours of Dec. 26, 1996. By that afternoon, the 6-year-old’s body had been discovered and it turned into a murder investigation.
“This case took on a life of its own,” said CBS4’s Shaun Boyd.
Media descended on Boulder and didn’t leave. The investigation went on for months, ultimately leading to a grand jury proceeding.
“What was it like, the pressure on a reporter to come up with something to talk about every night?” CBS4’s Jim Benemann asked Chohan.
“It was really difficult, because you had national and local media … intense pressure to break new stories on that case. And you had what seemed like a very important process going on at the time, this grand jury investigation, but it was all done in secret,” Chohan replied.
Chohan started at CBS4 in 1998. This was the first story he was assigned to.
“Having been on it for several years really honed my investigative skills, my ability to draw out some key witnesses, to develop sources, to really work a case in a meaningful way,” Chohan remembered.
Chohan covered the story when the focus was on the month-long grand jury proceeding. A gag order from the court kept most of the key players in the case from speaking to the media.
“You had tabloid journalism in play, doing checkbook journalism, competing with mainstream journalists, and every local journalist trying to break the next story,” Chohan said.
Chohan worked with then-photographer Logan Smith. Together they spent days at the courthouse waiting for lawyers and witnesses to enter or leave the grand jury proceedings.
“The day after day, after day, after day, after day of sitting and standing and kicking rocks outside the courthouse, waiting for something to happen, waiting for someone to drive by that looked like they may have something to do with the Ramsey case,” Smith remembered.
He said creatively the story was very limiting, but the desire for information in the case was insatiable.
“Everyone wanted some resolution and we still don’t have it, and that’s an appetite that has yet to be met, and may not be,” Smith said.
While the nation wanted more details in the case, the citizens of Boulder were ready to move on. Smith recalled the negative feelings toward the press and even his news truck being hit with eggs.
“You were working in a community that didn’t, by and large, didn’t want to talk about this, got tired of talking about it, got tired of thinking about it, got tired of seeing it on the television and you were supposed to talk to people and find out more about what was going on. That presented some real challenges,” Smith said.
“We were probably one of the few stations who had a bureau up in Boulder, a news bureau. And they went immediately into coverage of that and I don’t think they covered anything else for several weeks,” said John Montgomery, the assignment manager at the time.
Montgomery remembered the intense national and international coverage of the story, and the jockeying for position and resources among all the news outlets.
“Something always leaked. Somebody had a source and something would always leak or one of the non-traditional television or media outlets would get something, and then everybody was charged with the task of trying to prove or disprove that,” Montgomery said.
As the grand jury proceeding wore on, the newsroom prepared for the inevitable final decision. A comprehensive coverage plan was put together, which included different scenarios for how the verdict might come down, and where crews and resources should be positioned.
“Sending crews to the jail, to the justice center, to the police department, to the Ramsey home, and then to the Pearl Street Mall,” newscast producer, Raetta Holdman, read from the plan.
While covering the story requires a certain amount of emotional distance, even journalists felt a personal connection to the case. Holdman’s daughter was the same age as JonBenet.
“It’s really been over the years, when there have been times like, ‘Wow, she would be the same age of my daughter. She should be doing all the these same things,’” Holdman said.
The nearly 20-year duration of the case has created many lessons for journalists.
“There’s this whole fight over this little girl’s image and who owns her image. And I think that was one of the first times you ever had that happen. It’s much more common now, but for us then, that was sort of a wake-up call , just because someone gives you a picture doesn’t mean you can use it,” Holdman explained.
Over the years, the case took many twists and turns, and the media was on-hand to cover them all. In 2006, out of nowhere, a man named John Mark Karr confessed to killing JonBenet, causing an international sensation.
“It was crazy. Here’s this guy comes out of the blue,” said Shaun Boyd, who was reporting in CBS4’s Boulder bureau at the time.
Boyd remembers that journalists were surprised that investigators were taking Karr’s confession so seriously.
“There had been other confessions. He’s not the only one who has confessed to this crime. As reporters, we thought there must be some sort of smoking gun,” Boyd explained.
DNA quickly cleared Karr, and the media storm subsided once again. Public criticism of the police investigation was intense and continual from the start of the case. At one point, Boulder Police Chief Mark Beckner sought to set the record straight and invited Boyd exclusively into the evidence room dedicated to the Ramsey murder case.
“In this room, it was mind boggling. You really got a sense of the massive scope of this investigation,” Boyd recalled.
She described floor to ceiling shelves full of binders. The binders were fill of logs of every phone call, letter, and interview in the case. The department has spent millions of dollars on this one case over the years.
“Beckner said to me at the time, ‘We made mistakes in this case’, but one mistake they didn’t make was to focus only on the family,” Boyd said.
The JonBenet Ramsey murder remains one of the nation’s biggest mysteries. It’s got all the elements of a fictional story: a beautiful child murdered in her own home on Christmas night, prominent parents, a pageant contestant, a ransom note, DNA evidence. Just like police and the public, journalists will always be seeking answers in this case.
“We, the media, might be a little skeptical about it. But I will tell you, if we got something across the table tomorrow that said, ‘Big Break in the JonBenet Ramsey Case’, we’d be back in Boulder tomorrow chasing down that lead again,” Montgomery said.
“I think that any reporter that covered this case … this is one that still haunts you. You think about what JonBenet would have been like today. And you think about the fact that there is a killer out there,” Boyd said.
Libby Smith is a Special Projects Producer at CBS4. If you have a story you’d like to tell CBS4 about, call 303-863-TIPS (8477) or visit the News Tips section.