December 14, 1998 12:00 PM

At their Georgian mansion in a swank Atlanta neighborhood, the Ramseys have settled into what could pass for suburban bliss. John, 55, is busy starting a new software business and on Nov. 14 attended the wedding of his daughter Melinda, 27, at the First Presbyterian Church in Marietta. His wife, Patsy, 41, remains the consummate homemaker. Son Burke, 11, plays sports and is a well-liked sixth grader at the private Lovett School. To be sure, there are occasional signs of tension. “Yes, Patsy probably pounds the pillow at night,” says her longtime friend Linda McLean. But by and large, visitors to the house find very little out of the ordinary. “Burke’s playing Nintendo and John’s on the phone, and the laundry’s being done,” says McLean. “It all seems normal. Except, of course, it isn’t.”

Indeed, as the Ramseys know only too well, their fate is currently in the balance. Some 1,300 miles away, in Boulder, Colo.—and almost exactly two years after the dreadful fact—a county grand jury is looking into the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. Authorities hope that the search for the killer or killers of 6-year-old JonBenét, who was found bludgeoned, strangled and perhaps sexually assaulted in her home in the early morning after Christmas 1996, has come to a critical juncture—one that will lead to an indictment and finally a trial. In recent months there has been a welter of startling developments as well as freshly leaked evidence, much of which casts further suspicion on the Ramseys. But it is no clearer now, even with the grand jury, that anyone will ever be held accountable for a murder that continues to transfix and trouble the nation. “In this case everything’s oblique,” says Scott Robinson, a prominent criminal defense lawyer in Denver who has followed the case closely. “It’s all reflection—mirrors and smoke.”

Adding to the fog has been the public relations blitz launched by the Ramseys and their supporters. In July, British television aired a documentary, made with the cooperation of John and Patsy, that depicted the couple in a distinctly sympathetic light. Among other things, the producers made little effort to challenge the Ramseys’ scenario that an intruder had killed their daughter. In addition, McLean, one of Patsy’s closest friends, has published a testimonial-type book designed to argue her innocence. In an interview with her hometown newspaper in West Virginia, The Parkersburg Sentinel, Patsy acknowledged that friends and family had been “given the green light” to speak out on the couple’s behalf. Even so, the Ramsey camp strenuously deny that their strategy is to influence the four men and eight women of the grand jury, who are permitted to read and watch news accounts of the case. “She was just tired of being bashed by people who had never known her,” says her sister Pam Paugh, 39, who won the Miss West Virginia title three years after Patsy. “We’ve never had to deal with this press stuff before.”

But from the Ramseys’ point of view, probably the most welcome support has come from Lou Smit, a retired homicide detective from Colorado Springs who had been brought in on the case 19 months ago as a special investigator for the district attorney’s office. In a letter of resignation on Sept. 20, Smit, 63, bitterly complained that the Boulder police were trying to railroad the Ramseys. “The Ramseys did not do it,” Smit said. “There is substantial, credible evidence of an intruder and lack of evidence that the parents are involved.” The Ramseys wasted no time in trumpeting Smit’s letter as proof of their innocence. In his own broadside faxed to the media on Sept. 25, John Ramsey blasted the cops as “unskilled and unknowing” and “little more than a lynch mob hiding behind the authority of police badges.” And he didn’t stop there. “You have wasted almost two years trying to prove your original theory,” he wrote. “Meanwhile, my family knows a vicious child killer still walks the streets.”

Smit’s letter was merely the latest sign of the deep mistrust between the district attorney’s office and the Boulder police that has hobbled the investigation since the beginning. In August, Det. Steve Thomas quit the force over what he believed was blatant mishandling of the case. From the start, Thomas maintained, D.A. Alex Hunter and others had all but joined forces with the Ramseys to undermine the case by routinely sharing sensitive information with the Ramsey attorneys, steering cops off potentially important witnesses and dragging their feet when it came to issuing search warrants. “We were trying to deliver a murder case,” said Thomas in his resignation letter, “with our hands tied behind our backs.”

Whether Smit’s allegations should be taken more seriously than Thomas’s is an open question. Smit is a highly respected investigator with 32 years of experience. But according to some who know him, his readiness to exonerate the Ramseys may have been influenced by the deep Christian beliefs he shares with Patsy. It’s long been known, says attorney Robinson, that Smit is an admirer of Patsy’s.

All the same, the police handling of the case, particularly in its very earliest stages under ex-chief Tom Koby (who has since been replaced by Mark Beckner), continues to mystify many law enforcement professionals. The first and most fundamental error Boulder investigators made was not securing the crime scene, which may have led to the loss or contamination of key evidence. “When police get involved in a case that involves wealthy, prominent people, they tend to panic,” says author Joseph Wambaugh, for 14 years an L.A. police officer. “They get intimidated and forget their training.” But even that, says Wambaugh, can hardly explain the failure of Boulder police to separate John and Patsy and question them individually when they first reached the Ramsey home, a lapse that may have given the couple a chance to get their stories in sync. “It’s police-school basics 101,” says Wambaugh. The problem is that in police work, mistakes can be very difficult to reverse. “What you lose at the very outset of these cases is gone forever,” says crime author Edna Buchanan, a former police reporter for the Miami Herald. “You never get it back.”

As a result, the Boulder grand jury, which is expected to take as much as six months to consider the Ramsey case, will face an especially difficult task. So far, what is known of the prosecution’s case comes from a series of leaks to various news media, which means there may be other facts and findings that have not been made public. But based on those leaks, it appears that investigators have several key pieces of physical evidence. Potentially one of the most compelling, which has only come to light in recent months, are four fibers that were reportedly found on the inside of the duct tape that was used to gag JonBenét. According to police sources, the fibers are consistent with clothing Patsy is believed to have worn the night of the killing. Authorities have also apparently recovered some DNA samples from the crime scene. (The Ramseys have provided police with their own DNA samples, but the results of any comparisons have not been disclosed. John and Patsy have also said that if called before the grand jury they would testify.)

Certainly no piece of evidence has provoked more speculation than the three-page ransom note, and the discarded practice fragment, that were found at the scene. After extensive analysis, experts retained by investigators have reportedly concluded that while John and Burke can be ruled out as the author, Patsy, the only other person known to have been in the house, cannot. What’s more, authorities have brought in Donald Foster, an English professor at Vassar College, to analyze the content and style of the ransom note. It was Foster who identified political writer Joe Klein as the author of the anonymous bestseller Primary Colors—a conclusion based on close scrutiny of language in the book and in Klein’s published writings. According to ABC’s 20/20, Foster told police that the ransom note bears Patsy’s rhetorical stamp.

Finally, investigators have managed to enhance the recording of Patsy’s frantic phone call to 911 that she said she made after finding the ransom note on a kitchen staircase. All along, the Ramseys have insisted that son Burke was asleep that morning until police arrived. On the enhanced tape, however, Burke can be heard asking his parents what they have found, at which point his father tells him to go back to bed.

For prosecutors, the main problem with the evidence is that no single piece appears especially convincing on its own. In the case of the fibers, there is the question of whether they were properly retrieved. “That could be quite significant,” says attorney Robinson, “depending on how the duct tape was discovered, where it was, whether it was facedown on the floor or faceup.” And since Patsy lived in the house, the Ramseys may have any number of plausible explanations as to how the fibers got on the tape. As for the ransom note, prosecutors may have a hard time getting much mileage out of it. Outside defense lawyers say that the science of handwriting analysis is just iffy enough that the Ramseys would probably have little difficulty finding their own expert to refute any damaging testimony.

All along, the Ramseys have argued that the police have failed to pursue evidence that an intruder, perhaps a pedophile, was responsible for JonBenét’s murder. “They weren’t looking anywhere else,” John told the British interviewer. “We were too easy an answer.” Still, it is unclear what evidence might support the intruder theory. For instance, the documentary attacks early police statements that no footprints were found in snow around their home, which would suggest the killer was in the house all along. The Ramseys claim they have proof there was little snow on the ground on Dec. 26, so an intruder need not have left footprints. But a police source says privately there was snow earlier in the day that may have melted.

Police also maintain that they vigorously investigated 122 other people as potential suspects. Four people have been officially cleared: John’s children by his first marriage, John Andrew, 22, and Melinda (whose November wedding was the “first happy event” the family has had in two years, according to one confidant), and businessman Fleet White Jr., once one of John’s best friends, and his wife, Priscilla, who were in the house the morning JonBenét’s body was found. White caused a stir when he broke publicly with the Ramseys and voiced his suspicions of them. As White wrote in an open letter this past August, John and Patsy’s refusal “to cooperate fully and genuinely with detectives was the first cause of the investigation’s failure.” Ultimately, the strongest argument against the Ramseys may be that no scenario seems as plausible as the one that implicates one or both parents. Police investigators are convinced no outsider could have broken in, murdered JonBenét, written the ransom note, arranged the body and escaped without waking the family.

From the start, the Ramsey case has exercised a powerful hold on the American public—probably because of JonBenét’s involvement in the gothic world of child beauty pageants. There have been scores of Web sites devoted to the case and, as a curious side note, the number of entrants in the All-Star Kids pageant in Colorado has jumped from 15 in 1996, the year JonBenét won it, to between 40 and 50 in each of the past two years. But for the detectives whose involvement in the case has been anything but vicarious, the emotional toll has been devastating. “They are internalizing it all,” says one Boulder-area resident who is close to several detectives. “I was at a party with a bunch of them and I’ve never seen such a spooky-looking bunch of guys.”

Although the pressure on the Ramseys has been even greater, the Atlanta area—where they moved a year ago—has been hospitable, allowing them to go about their lives largely unnoticed. Linda McLean says that Patsy, who goes for periodic checkups at the National Institutes of Health, has shown no recurrence of the ovarian cancer she was treated for in 1993. One former student at the Lovett School, where tuition is $10,000 a year, describes Burke as “just the sweetest boy,” adding that he is “kind of quiet, and kind of shy even.” Despite the family’s legal bills, which are estimated in the hundreds of thousands of dollars already, the Ramseys appear to have no money problems, thanks to the millions of dollars John made when he sold his software business to Lockheed-Martin seven years ago. (The Ramseys’ lawyer Hal Haddon says, however, that they “took a bath financially” when they sold their Boulder home to a relocation company a year ago.)

The betting among some legal experts in Colorado is that when all is said and done, the grand jury—which only needs probable cause—could vote for an indictment, most likely of Patsy. But few lawyers who have followed the case believe there is enough known evidence to win a conviction. “D.A.’s don’t file unless they can convict, which requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” says Craig Silverman, a defense lawyer and former Denver prosecutor. “For people who say ‘The Ramseys did it,’ the follow-up question has to be, ‘Which one?’ ”

D.A. Hunter has said in the past that he would not proceed with an indictment that had little chance of success, on the grounds that if he prosecutes someone and loses, that defendant (or defendants) could never be tried for the crime again—even if new evidence should later emerge. So it is possible that Hunter will set aside any indictment and hope for a break in the case down the road. That, of course, could occur at any time. But the risk is that nothing will happen, that no one will be brought to justice, and that soon the trail of the killer will grow colder than a winter’s night in Colorado.

With additional reporting by Gail Cameron Wescott and Amy Laughinghouse in Atlanta

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