NEW YORK – Police detective Steve Thomas was working as an undercover narcotics officer when JonBenét Ramsey was found dead in the basement of her Boulder, Colo., home on Dec. 26, 1996.
Just days later Thomas was called in to join the team handling the case. "With that one phone call my life was forever altered," he writes in his new best-selling book JonBenét: Inside the Ramsey Murder Investigation (St. Martin's Press, $24.95, 352 pages).
The case dragged on for nearly two years, but it wasn't until Aug. 6, 1998, that Thomas assumed a public role in the saga. He resigned from the police department with a scathing letter blasting District Attorney Alex Hunter for "crippling" the case, among other accusations.
A 13-month grand jury investigation into the Ramsey case ended last October without any indictments being made.
From his vantage point at the center of the media frenzy, Thomas tells the story of a bungled investigation, of feuds between the police and the prosecutor's office, and of public obsession over the bludgeoning and strangulation of a 6-year-old beauty queen in the waning hours of Christmas Day.
Fox Bookmark spoke with Thomas about one of the most famous unsolved murders of the decade.
Fox Bookmark: Assuming the readers haven't read the book yet, who killed JonBenét Ramsey?
Steve Thomas: Well it's my belief that the child's mother, Patsy, was involved in the death of her daughter. I'm not the sole voice or opinion that believes that, [but] I'm the first one from the government's position — this government that failed this case so miserably of which I was a part, that wouldn't even call her [Patsy Ramsey] a suspect ...
In a nutshell ... I'm not a conspiracy theorist, [but] absent some great conspiracy, whoever wrote the note killed the child, and I am convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that [Patsy] wrote that [ransom] note.
FB: What tips you off to her having written the note?
ST: I think the most compelling evidence is the pen from within the home that was used to write the note — Patsy's pad from which the note came ... and then the handwriting analysis and the forensic linguistics.
And one of what we call QD guys — questions, document examiners — the one with the state lab, we took to him the handwriting of 73 potential suspects in this case and after his analysis of all that, out of those 73 there was only one person whose handwriting showed evidence to suggest authorship of that ransom note, and that same person we could put in the house at the time of the killing, and that same person can't be eliminated as the author even by the defense-paid experts. And that person is Patsy Ramsey.
Beyond that ... Vassar professor Don Foster, who the FBI used as an expert to help identify Ted Kaczynski as the Unabomber and who the FBI continues to use as an expert consultant to the Federal Bureau, is absolutely convinced and wrote a report to this effect that [Patsy Ramsey] was the sole author of the ransom note.
FB: You also talk about how she even changed her handwriting in post-murder handwriting samples.
ST: Which I think is telling. I mean, according to Don Foster, out of all the writings and suspects from whom we obtained exemplars, she was the only one, post-homicide, that Foster felt and could clearly show either disguised or altered ... handwriting preferences. And it did not seem that I could get our District Attorney's office to grasp that concept. ... An innocent person, in my humble opinion Pat, has no reason to alter handwriting preferences when police are looking at an innocent person.
FB: Do you believe some of the theories as to why the DA's office perhaps didn't give it their best shot? Political pressures and so forth?
ST: Yeah, I do. What I don't buy into is [that there was] a payoff or something dirty or underhanded. I think it's a lot more simple than that. There was this incredible governmental incompetence of which I was a part — I don't hide that at all — that failed this case miserably.
FB: They refused to consider that as evidence?
ST: It was government at its worst, and the case was manipulated to death by attorneys. We had a DA's office, a DA in particular who has been described as the most timid in Colorado. ... I'm much more bold in my contempt for this guy. I call him a disgrace to professional prosecutors across the country. ... He was just terribly underzealous and afraid of Team Ramsey.
In fact, the FBI at one point was concerned, because their comment was the government was not in charge of this investigation. And I tended to agree with them. I felt Team Ramsey was manipulating this thing to death behind the scenes with the DA's office on puppet strings.
FB: Perhaps he was just trying to be cautious, and there were too many unanswered questions to really come to a definite conclusion?
ST: ... We had a known named suspect for whom probable cause existed: Patsy Ramsey. It was the only case in 13 years as a police officer and as a detective that I can recall being involved in which not only was an arrest not made but I kept getting what I call "the big picture" speech from some in the police administration and from those in the DA's office that, "Steve you don't understand" what they called "the big picture." And I said, "Yeah you're right, maybe I don't understand this."
What am I missing? If this was a working-stiff carpenter or a welder or you and I, our tail would be upside down in the county jail. Is there a different set of laws that we're using above and beyond all the preferential treatment that these wealthy people are getting that I'm unaware of? "Steve, Steve, Steve, you just don't understand the big picture." And ultimately it led to my resignation.
But to answer your question, was [the DA] being prudent? Let me cite a statistic I use in the book. In the five years before [the Ramsey case], 23 murder cases went through ... the DA's office. Every one was plea-bargained. Some were just air-tight, rock solid cases in which the government did not have to offer these lenient pleas.
And, as I say in the book, in any other state the only decision would have been which arm to put the lethal injection in. In Boulder, the fact that murderers can get away with murder like they do is just appalling. And it was just a culture in Boulder that even with the most rock-solid cases they weren't going to take those to trial. This circumstantial case against Team Ramsey: This was never headed for a courtroom.
FB: What's the impression of law enforcement officials and district attorneys around the country as to how this case has been handled?
ST: Friends and acquaintances and people I don't even know in law enforcement and prosecutors who've read the book are appalled. And they just say, and I say in the book, 'I just can't imagine this happening anywhere else in America.'
You know that show Law and Order? Think polar opposite. That's what was occurring in Boulder. You had cops and prosecutors who wouldn't talk to each other — who hated each other so much that there were almost fist fights — who were charged with this high profile case, and it was going nowhere fast. Cops and prosecutors in other jurisdictions, thank God, know how to work together with a common goal, to catch the bad guy and prosecute him or her for his atrocious crimes.
FB: Have you read the Ramseys' book [The Death of Innocence]?
ST: Every word.
FB: They say the killer is probably a psychopathic young man who murdered JonBenét during a botched kidnap attempt. That police missed and destroyed vital clues that could have led to the arrest of this person. You also talk about the botched police work. So could they be on to something? Is there any percent chance that an intruder did break in and do this?
ST: If I learned nothing more from this case in the CASCO unit in Quantico, Va., they taught us that pedophile kidnappers kidnap for molestation of the victim, for sexual motive. Ransom kidnappers kidnap solely for profit. They are intent on monetary-driven means. But pedophile kidnappers and ransom kidnappers are two different animals. Never the two shall meet, so to speak. And so this pedophile kidnapper, this pedophile-ransomer-kidnapper-turned-murderer would have been unique in the annals of crime. Such a bird does not exist.
But the Ramseys and I do agree ... that that first day should be held up as a training model in the police academy about how not to handle a crime scene.
Did it irreparably damage the case as the Ramseys suggest? Maybe. But there's plenty of blame to go around here. The police department shoulders [its] share — the DA's office certainly as soon as they got involved and in the months that followed — but the Ramseys as well.
Let's remember that these are people who chose to exercise constitutional rights which, you know, no one can fault them for that, but they placed their personal legal rights above what I consider their moral obligation, that if in fact an intruder did this, they [the Ramseys] waited four months to come in and even answer the most elementary police questions and cooperate with investigators while they claimed an intruder was out there at large, a risk to other children and citizens in the community.
FB: Part of the Ramsey's case hinges on the unidentified DNA found in JonBenét's underwear. Can you rule it out that she was sexually abused in some way?
ST: The DNA in which intruder theorists have suggested quite simply, "it doesn't match the Ramseys." It's just that, an oversimplification. The DNA issues are so complex and involved ... There were issues about contamination, degradation, control samples, technical artifacts that even to the point the DNA advisors in this case told us, this is not a DNA case. So when they say the DNA didn't match John and Patsy, well guess what, it doesn't match anybody else either. This isn't a case where an intruder's going to be found, they'll take his DNA and voila, a match to what's been characterized as this unidentified DNA.
FB: Now, the Ramseys responded to your book by calling you an "inexperienced moron" — at least that's what John Ramsey said. He said it's so insane that it would be laughable if it weren't so tragic, your theory that Patsy killed JonBenét and that he helped her cover it up. What's your reaction to that?
ST: Well, certainly they've resorted to name calling, but I find their behavior as hypocritical as it gets and, like I said, let's remember throughout this case they used every legal protection afforded them under our Constitution and then a month ago, they use their First Amendment and they write a book and they name three people as suspects in the murder of their daughter.
Yet when I turn around and put my thoughts to paper, and try to use that same First Amendment, you know, here comes Team Ramsey threatening to take legal action, and they're going to sue me and take everything I own. The name-calling, I just find it hypocrisy at its worst.
But let me put it this way: people have this inherent belief that a parent couldn't do this, that a parent couldn't kill a child. But I cite Department of Justice statistics in the last 20 years. They note 11,000 cases in which a parent has done just that and killed a child.
So when people say to me a parent couldn't have done it, I say that's the most singularly unconvincing line of argument I've heard. Look at those 11,000 other cases and show which one of those parents had a set of horns. People want to think it's got to be this three-eyed bogeyman that came through while parents slept and did this.
And let me just reduce it to a nutshell for you: To believe an intruder, one has to believe this incredible, what I call remarkable, spectacular series of events that happened in the house during the wee hours that morning that included, by an intruder, the stealth entry, finding Patsy's pad and pen, writing a ransom note, ... confronting, killing and sexually assaulting the child, duct tape cord, paint brush, relatching pegs, wrapping the child, disposing of her in this little-used cellar room, feeding her pineapple, sneaking through the house, committing all these acts, supposedly while parents are asleep upstairs and coincidentally having handwriting so remarkably similar to the sleeping mother. ...
On the other hand, it takes a very simple explanation that I believe is consistent with the evidence to explain Patsy Ramsey [committed the murder].
FB: Have the Ramseys filed suit against you yet?
ST: Nothing's been filed but they've declared through their attorney on national television that's their intent.
FB: And do you think that will have a chance in court?
ST: Well, certainly they'll do what they feel they need to do, but as I've said before at this point, money's not the issue. I've got a modest house in Colorado and I drive a pick-up truck, and if they want to try to take that from me, fine.
But on the other hand, you can bet if they file a suit that I'll go all the way with it and we'll put these facts before a civil jury in which the threshold of evidence is not beyond a reasonable doubt, it is a preponderance of the evidence. In other words, is it more likely than not that Patsy Ramsey was involved in this? And I think the facts and the truth would support me in that.
FB: You left the police department in 1998. Do you regret not staying and putting your efforts into the case — would it have been different today if you had pushed on?
ST: No. At the time, as you've heard me say, I had just reached my tolerance level, and it was finally exhausted, for the doublespeak or the lack of action for what I call this fraud that was being perpetrated on America when the politicos in Boulder were saying everything's under control, this is moving forward. In fact it wasn't.
I'm the most John Wayne, flag-waving American you'll ever meet. I think cops are great people. I loved being a cop, I miss the hell out of it. But this was a case where government was trying to cover their ass on something in a big way, and I just was not going to be a part of it any longer. So it was the right decision at the time and I still have to stand by that decision.
FB: When did you decide to write a book about it?
ST: Interesting question. ... I don't know if you read this resignation letter that I wrote, but it was fairly scathing. And at that point I was content. I had the opportunity through a resignation letter that became quite public to offer some thoughts and grievances and I was content to let it go at that.
But the DA, Alex Hunter, and his top guy ... and some other people started this campaign of retribution. And by this time I'm now working as a carpenter, and they were just not content to let it die. And it went far beyond just calling me a liar. It went to the point that they were doing some very ugly, nasty things. Telling reporters off the record and not for attribution just absolute lies about my personal life, or suggesting that I was mentally unstable or that I was on medication. And finally after so many months of that and some things that happened with the Globe tabloid that you may have read in the book, finally I said there's two sides to this story. If they want to keep it up, I'll tell my version of events. So that's why I chose to write the book.
FB: So can we expect a resolution?
ST: My opinion is that, well, the DA certainly is not going to do anything with the case and at this point, absent a confession by a remorseful killer, I don't see it moving forward under this current administration. But let's remember, there's a district attorney's race under way. Alex Hunter is going to be out of office in seven months and who knows what an outside district attorney might do with the case.
FB: Mark Fuhrman has recently talked about taking a stab at the case. What's your reaction to that?
ST: Oh is that right? This is the first I've heard of it. ... Good for him. Let's not let the thing die and fade away. A child was killed. Any attention that can continue to be put upon it that might force the killer to crack and maybe one day confess, more power to him.
FB: So does that mean you're going to stick with the case or does that mean, is it case closed for you now?
ST: Well, no certainly, I offered my thoughts and you know my book is out there, and I'll let readers draw their own conclusions from the facts. But certainly it's something that will live with everybody that was involved in it for the rest of their lives. It's not something that anybody just washes their hands of it and says "today I'm done with it." It's a constant thought and a daily reminder and one day I hope it can be resolved.