A Case Grows Cold Once More

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Just weeks after reviving the public's interest in a case many had long forgotten, investigators now say the trail for JonBenet Ramsey's killer has gone as cold as ever. After years without a serious suspect, the abrupt dismissal of the burgeoning case against admitted pedophile John Mark Karr has made investigators wonder what's next. "There's a very high level of frustration. But we still very much hope it will be solved," said Boulder County District Attorney Mary Lacy, sounding defensive in a hastily convened press conference to explain how the case against Karr disintegrated. But Lacy seemed unsure that JonBenet's killer would be brought to justice on her watch, signaling that she expected the investigation to continue even after her two remaining years as DA are up. That leaves JonBenet's family and friends in the same place they were nearly a decade ago, after the brutal 1996 murder: almost clueless. And it leaves observers mourning the loss of the latest promising lead.

Lacy changed course on Karr when it became clear that his DNA didn't match what was found at the scene of the crime. Her motion to quash the arrest warrant, though, quickly shifted attention away from Karr's delusional confessions toward Lacy's own handling of the investigation. Colorado Governor Bill Owens lambasted the DA for conducting what he called the most most extravagant and expensive DNA test in Colorado history, and Lacy said an evening caller told her she deserved to be tarred and feathered. At the press conference Tuesday Lacy defended her strategy and pledged not to resign.

"We had probable cause to arrest him," Lacy said. "I'm not embarrassed. You do your best with what you have, and what you have changes hour to hour." Both because Karr could have fled authorities and because he was in a position to harm young girls as a teacher in Thailand, Lacy said, she felt an obligation to bring him in for questioning. And he seemed a credible confessor with inside knowledge about JonBenet. He knew, for instance, about the bracelet on JonBenet's arm, although it turned out that it had been mentioned in the autopsy report. And he wrote about her runny nose, although that's common among kids during the winter. Investigators therefore tested his credibility with other details he mentioned in his e-mail messages. He wrote, for example, about his mother trying to burn him. Yes, it happened, and his other stories also held up. "Most of the time you can discount a false confession immediately," Lacy said. "In this case, because he believes it himself, he has emotional impact. During phone calls, the man is sobbing. He has the psychopathy and he has knowledge of the family." JonBenet's father, John Ramsey, read Karr's e-mail messages and told Lacy that Karr's description of Patsy's relatives and the JonBenet-Burke relationship were "dead-on."

Norm Early, former Denver District Attorney and now spokesman for the National District Attorney's Association, says Lacy did nothing wrong. "If the DNA had come back as a match, no one would be questioning the fact that she brought him back and spent the money to do it. Everybody would be saying it was a brilliant move." Critics, however, say that among other things, Lacy grew too close to the Ramseys — she attended Patsy's funeral, they point out — and that she wasn't sufficiently skeptical of a mentally troubled trickster. If Lacy was duped, however, it was by a man perhaps as savvy as he is disturbed. In an extensive exchange of e-mail messages released by the DA upon the dismissal of the case, Karr anticipated doubts about his confession. In communicating with Colorado University Professor Michael Tracey, who eventually passed along Karr's e-mails to authorities, Karr had tried to coach Tracey on convincing the Ramseys that Karr was the true killer.

"Concerning their fear that this might be a hoax," the 41-year-old schoolteacher wrote, "I would appreciate it if you state, 'It is my strong judgment — correction, that I know that this is not a hoax, that the communication should be taken very seriously.'" Karr added that the fact that he had been slow in revealing himself as the killer should be further proof "that I was not seeking overnight notoriety." But in a separate passage, he writes: "I want to discuss the book and our collaboration. There must be some way we can manage it." As it has become clear that Karr's confessions were false, the release of his e-mail correspondence reveals the passions of his deeply troubled soul. "I would give anything to have her with me at six," he wrote, "Alas, she would now be nearing sweet sixteen. Instead she is forever six... Her body is now out of my reach, which kills me."

So what's the next move for Lacy and the DA's office? In addition to having recently added an extra investigator to their team, they're following up on new leads that Lacy's chief investigator, Tom Bennett, says seem to have been triggered by the public's renewed interest in the case. Over the past four years, Boulder investigators have traveled around the country repeatedly to investigate suspects, without alerting the media of their efforts, and they will continue to pursue any material leads that dribble in. As for Karr, Lacy says that having been charged by the state of California for possession of child pornography, he will be convicted, registered, monitored, and treated and that "every parent in the country has seen his picture," so any threat he poses to children will be diminished. He may end up with probation. "He is not mentally well or guilt-free," says Alicia Northam, a friend of Karr's from school, "but he is not a murderer."

—With reporting by Verna Gates/Birmingham, Rita Healy/Boulder and the Associated Press