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SITTING IN HIS OFFICE AT THE University of Colorado Law School in Boulder, Prof. H. Patrick Furman looks out on the very neighborhood where 6-year-old JonBenét Ramsey was found murdered in her parents' home the day after Christmas. As winter turns to spring in the Rockies, Fur-man, a respected criminal lawyer, worries that the trail of JonBenét's killer might be the one thing that is getting progressively colder. "Most crimes get solved pretty quickly, or they don't get solved at all," said Furman last month before he joined the legal team hired by JonBenét's family. "There certainly are exceptions, but those are rare—those are the extraordinary ones."

This crime is nothing if not extraordinary. From the moment that her lifeless body was found in the basement of her Boulder home, the mystery surrounding the murder of JonBenét has become a national preoccupation. With precious little evidence and a shadowy list of suspects that seems to expand and contract on a weekly basis, the case has grown ever more tantalizing.

Fueling speculation, and public frustration, is the decision of the Boulder police to reveal almost nothing about the investigation. JonBenét, her brother Burke, 10, and their parents, John and Patsy, were the only people known to have been in the house the night of the murder, and last week the Rocky Mountain News reported that police saw no fresh tracks in snow around the Ramseys' house the morning after the killing. Yet authorities have still never officially named John Ramsey, 53, and Patsy, 40, as suspects.

Instead they continue to issue assurances that progress is being made. "We're going to solve this case," said Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter at a press conference last month. Then, speaking directly to the killer, he vowed, "We will see that justice is served, and that you will pay for what you've done to this beautiful little girl."

Whether that optimism is warranted, however, is very much an open question. To be sure, no one would want investigators to jump to conclusions. As Greg Garrison, who successfully prosecuted boxer Mike Tyson on rape charges in Indiana in 1992, observes, undue haste is a cardinal sin in any criminal inquiry. "When there's no smoking gun you have to start walking backwards and hunt slowly—you've got to be real methodical, take baby steps and keep looking at the ground around you," he says. "If you go too fast, you arrest the right guy but don't have enough to hold him, or you miss facts and don't trip over the right things."

The trouble is that the Ramsey investigation seems to have been plagued by its own sort of clumsiness. Boulder Police Chief Tom Koby and his officers are, after all, relatively inexperienced in such cases. Last year, JonBenét's murder was the only homicide in the city of Boulder (pop. 96,000). Three weeks ago, Assistant Boulder District Attorney Bill Wise admitted at a county commissioners meeting that "there have been some problems [with the investigation]" and added that the DA's office was looking for a seasoned investigator to join their task force. (In recent weeks the DA's office has hired Dr. Henry Lee, the renowned forensic scientist, and asked DNA expert Barry Scheck, so effective for the defense in the O.J. Simpson criminal trial, to be a consultant.)

Wise didn't specify what the "problems" were, but it seems likely he was referring to the inept handling of the crime scene on the day that JonBenét's body was discovered. Police had been summoned to the Ramsey home at 5:52 a.m. on Dec. 26 by Patsy's frantic 911 call reporting that her daughter had been abducted. At the scene officers were shown a hand-printed ransom note demanding $118,000—a sum that turned out to match John Ramsey's recent bonus from the computer company of which he is president—but over the next several hours they apparently did little to secure the house and preserve evidence.

At approximately 2 p.m., police asked Ramsey to search the house. It was, almost all experts agree, a colossal blunder. Without investigators present, John Ramsey, accompanied by a close friend, oil executive Fleet White, found his daughter's body in the basement and carried it upstairs, thus disrupting the crime scene and potentially contaminating the body with such evidence as fibers from his clothing and hair. "Whenever the position of the evidence has been changed, it makes it much more problematic to prove what you need to prove," says Robert Hardaway, a University of Denver law professor and coauthor of the Colorado Evidence manual.

The ransom note may not turn out to be much help either, though not because of police error. Several news sources reported last week that analysis of the 2½-page letter, which was written on a pad of paper from the Ramseys' house, has convinced investigators it was not written by John Ramsey. Meanwhile, police had asked his wife for a third sample of her handwriting, supposedly because medications she has been taking since JonBenét's murder might have affected two earlier samples. For at least a second time, authorities also scoured the Ramsey vacation home in Charlevoix, Mich., for what The Denver Post described as "unrehearsed" examples of her penmanship. But handwriting analysis is a subtle and subjective area of forensics. Defense lawyers often have little trouble casting doubt on such evidence. "It could become a battle of experts," says Hardaway, "and experts," he adds dryly, "have been known to disagree."

The most important bit of potential evidence, therefore, is likely to be DNA. There have been reports that a fluid that might be semen was found on JonBenét's body. But in January, several weeks after the murder, a source with firsthand knowledge of the investigation told PEOPLE that no semen had been recovered. Yet, while refusing to comment on the record, authorities confirm that on Feb. 28 a member of the Boulder police department delivered evidence to Cellmark Diagnostics, a respected laboratory in Maryland, for DNA testing. The question of what those samples are remains unanswered.

The results of the Cellmark tests are due in mid-April. Whatever the findings, the Ramsey case provides a stark illustration of the difficulties of obtaining forensic evidence when a family member or close friend might be a suspect. With the exception of things like semen, it could be perfectly natural to find stray hairs and other bits of matter belonging to such people on the corpse. Furthermore, as veteran investigators know, the bodies of young victims often fail to yield the kinds of clues that might follow a struggle. "When you're 6, you're easily overwhelmed—her little body doesn't tell you much," says Garrison. (Still, NBC News last week reported that traces of skin tissue had been found beneath JonBenét's fingernails; police, as usual, refused to confirm the story.)

So far, authorities have released only a partial autopsy report, raising questions about what the rest of it might contain. Dr. Carole Jenny of Brown University, a leading expert on pediatric forensics who reviewed the edited version for PEOPLE, said she saw no indication of long-term abuse but had no doubt that JonBenét had been sexually assaulted just prior to the murder. "This poor, poor baby," says Jenny. "She was clearly battered and tortured.... It's awful."

In their efforts to find the killer, police have had to chase down a slew of dubious leads, one of which involves 67-year-old Bill McReynolds of Boulder, who played Santa Claus at the Ramsey home two days before JonBenét's murder, and his wife, Janet, 64. It turns out that in 1974—on Dec. 26, to be precise—the McRey-noldses' 9-year-old daughter was abducted with a friend and forced to watch as the friend was sexually molested. The girls were released, but two years later Janet wrote an award-winning play. Hey, Rube, about a young woman who is sexually assaulted, tortured and murdered, and whose body is found in a basement. The eerie parallels prompted Boulder police to collect hair and handwriting samples from Janet McReynolds—her husband had already submitted samples—though privately investigators don't consider the couple likely suspects.

Alarmed at the sometimes raucous press presence in their Rocky Mountain paradise, many Boulder residents have become increasingly antagonistic toward the 50 or so members of the national media who have set up camp in town. At a public meeting last month, Deputy DA Wise described how he had talked to an ABC News staffer and complained that four different ABC correspondents had called him in one day to ask about the case. The staffer was less than contrite. Recalled Wise: "He said, 'Oh, my God, we've got five of us here. You missed one!' " In another incident employees at Access Graphics, the computer company run by John Ramsey, were infuriated to discover a reporter lurking under the stairs at the back of the headquarters, apparently hoping to catch sight of Ramsey on his way to work.

For the Ramseys, the scrutiny has been unrelenting. Ever since the killing the family has moved from one friend's house to another, sometimes staying in Boulder, sometimes outside Atlanta, where they lived before moving to Colorado five years ago. Workmen have moved all the furniture out of their $1 million Boulder home, perhaps in preparation for putting the property up for sale. The Ramseys have rarely been seen in public, which is not to say they have enjoyed much privacy. Last month a swarm of reporters traced them to the home of Jay Elowsky, a local restaurateur and close family friend who had been putting them up. The stakeout became so nerve-racking for Patsy Ramsey that she called the police, and Elowsky was later arrested for brandishing a baseball bat during a confrontation with a journalist. According to Pat Korten, a public relations consultant hired by the Ramseys, the murder of her daughter has taken a severe toll on Patsy. "[Her] emotional stability is of real concern to those around her," he told The Denver Post.

Boulder's protectiveness toward the Ramseys partly reflects the respect and affection they earned in their five years in town. After starting a computer business outside Atlanta in the '70s, John combined his firm with two others to form Access Graphics, which distributes computer software to businesses. He became president in 1991, the year the unit was sold to Lockheed Martin, and over the next five years lifted sales from $150 million to $1 billion. Around the company he was well-regarded as a fair boss whose door was always open to other employees. Away from business he and his wife, widely seen as unfailingly gracious, entertained frequently, often in lavish style. But they had few intimate friends. As one neighbor puts it, "I always assumed the other neighbors must have known the Ramseys better than we did, but since this happened, I've talked to many who say they didn't know them either."

About the only good news the Ramseys have received of late came last week when Boulder police announced that John's two older children by his first marriage—Melinda, 25, and John Andrew, 20, whose whereabouts at the time of the killing had initially been a matter of confusion—were no longer suspects. The family was reportedly upset that it took more than two months to clear Melinda, a nurse, and John Andrew, a sophomore at the University of Colorado in Boulder, who were with their mother in Atlanta for the Christmas holidays. Boulder police say their investigation was hindered by a lawyer, hired by John Ramsey to represent his children, who instructed them not to cooperate with the authorities.

Which raises the issue of the Ramseys' own odd legal strategy. To many observers one of the most puzzling aspects of the case has been their continuing refusal to sit down for a formal, taped interview with police, which, following standard investigative procedure, would require that they be interviewed separately so that, among other things, their stories could be compared for consistency, with no one else present except their lawyers. But the Ramseys have insisted on several preconditions, notably that they will only be interviewed together and with a doctor attending in case Patsy needs medical aid. So the two sides remain stalemated, leading inevitably to speculation about the Ramseys' motives. "If the police want to talk to the Ramseys and the Ramseys want to talk to the police," said lawyer Furman, who has been hired to represent Patsy, "it seems to me the two sides should be able to figure out a way to get that done."

It may now fall to Furman to help broker such a deal. At this point, though, the next key moment in the case is likely to come in a month or so, when the results of the DNA testing are known. If they come up empty, it will be an enormous setback for police. It is at that point that any ordinary investigation would probably start to lose its intensity. The Ramsey case, though, will continue. "The focus will stay on this because of the press, because of the Ramseys and their money and their attorneys," said Furman last month. "At some point investigators let a case die, but the more high profile the case, the longer it takes."

BILL HEWITT
VICKIE BANE and MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Boulder, BARBARA SANDLER in Indianapolis and bureau reports

  • Contributors:
  • Vickie Bane,
  • Michael Haederle,
  • Barbara Sandler.