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Burden of Proof

Former Boulder Detective Steve Thomas 'Inside the Ramsey Murder Investigation'

Aired April 18, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET



ALEX HUNTER, BOULDER COUNTY DISTRICT ATTY.: If Linda Arndt had handled it differently, if there had been more support for her, the body may -- probably would not have been moved. But I'm not so sure, looking at it now, with 1,000 days behind me, that it would have altered the case in terms of its evidence.

The bottom line is, we do not have sufficient evidence to charge anybody that has been investigated yet.


GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: The JonBenet Ramsey murder investigation, this time from the investigator's eyes. Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: former Boulder Detective Steve Thomas, who is author of a controversial book about the murder.

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Greta Van Susteren and Roger Cossack.

VAN SUSTEREN: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. Roger is off today.

Before being assigned to the investigation of JonBenet Ramsey's death, Detective Steve Thomas had never worked a homicide case in his 13 years on the force. But murders were rare in Boulder. Just days after JonBenet's killing, city officials claimed the murder had been the only homicide in all of 1996. Less than two years after taking on the investigation, Steve Thomas resigned from the Boulder Police Department, claiming, quote, "We have failed a little girl named JonBenet." Now Thomas has written a book on the case, "JonBenet: Inside the Ramsey Murder Investigation."

former Boulder Detective Steve Thomas joins us today from New York.

Steve, the book is "JonBenet: Inside the Ramsey Murder Investigation." I want you to take me inside, but, first, the murder occurred on December 26, 1996, at what point did you get involved in the investigation?

STEVE THOMAS, AUTHOR, "JONBENET: INSIDE THE RAMSEY MURDER INVESTIGATION": Well, I was on vacation enjoying Christmas and the criminal justice system in boulder called me in from days off, where I was working an undercover narcotics assignment, to assist with this case.

VAN SUSTEREN: At what point, though, how soon after the homicide, which occurred in the early morning hours of December 26?

THOMAS: The 28th of December is when I was brought aboard.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. In your book, you discuss the investigation in the home when the police arrive. What were the mistakes that the investigators made in those first few hours at the Ramsey home?

THOMAS: Well, even the Boulder Police Department now concedes that tremendous mistakes were made that first day hopefully mistakes that everyone in law enforcement can learn from. But some basic police academy 101-type stuff, the integrity of that crime scene was so compromised by it not being declared a crime scene, and all the people being cleared out, one. But secondly, in hindsight again, 101- type stuff is separating and interviewing subjects, witnesses and potential suspects immediately.

VAN SUSTEREN: What about the fact that the body was moved? Did that make it virtually impossible to get clues from the body?

THOMAS: Well, let me give you an example, and that's an excellent point. As you know, on the adhesive side of the duct tape, which was removed from the victim's mouth, there were four fibers that were later determined to be microscopically and chemically consistent with four fibers from a piece of clothing that Patsy Ramsey was wearing, and had that piece of tape been removed at autopsy, and the integrity of it maintained, that would have made, I feel, a very compelling argument. But because that tape was removed, and dropped on the floor, a transference argument could certainly be potentially made by any defense in this case, and that's just one example of how a compromised crime scene may, if not irreparably, have damage the subsequent investigation.

VAN SUSTEREN: Which now brings me to a little bigger question is, in your new book, you were quite critical of the Boulder County District Attorney's Office. If the crime scene was so severely compromised by the police, not by you, by other members of the police, how can you now claim that it is the district attorney that has made this crime unable to be solved?

THOMAS: Well, certainly, there's plenty of blame to go around in this case, the Boulder Police Department, of which I was a part. Let's face it, the government, the criminal justice system in Boulder, failed this case miserably. The police department made its initial share of mistakes, but once the D.A.'s office got a hold of this thing, I believe it was forever lost.

This district attorney, I don't hide that I have just utter contempt, he is in my opinion a disgrace to professional prosecutors around the country. And early in this case, when we had opportunities, when auspicious timing and tremendous advantages could have been taken advantage of, for example, the polygraph, the tremendous power of the grand jury, and its subpoena power and ability to compel reluctant witnesses to give testimony, this thing floundered, and there was this shuffling incompetence. And quite frankly, I felt Hunter was intimidated by it, and finally, after two years, when the grand jury finally got a hold of this thing, it was far too late.

So, in those early stages, when this was red hot, that D.A.'s office sat squarely on their thumbs.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, Alex Hunter was a guest on BURDEN OF PROOF yesterday, and I asked him whether or not he had thought that you were fair towards the Ramseys' investigation. And let's listen to what he had to say.


HUNTER: Well, I think he is very unfair to the Ramseys because I don't think a detective, in our kind of democracy, with our kind of criminal justice system, should be out when you have an ongoing and I believe viable case theorizing and pointing fingers, particularly when he uses linguistics not admissible, when he uses, you know, the approach to, circumstantial evidence of an inference that does not blunt the other reasonable inferences that could be drawn, say from the open dictionary. I mean, I don't think it is fair to do that kind of a book, it is bad practice, bad precedent, it is a very bad lesson out of this case.


VAN SUSTEREN: Steve, do you think that you are unfair to the Ramseys in reaching a conclusion that Patsy Ramsey, that's what your book suggests, is the possible perpetrator of an accidental death followed by a cover-up, are you unfair?

THOMAS: I don't think so. I listened to this district attorney on his soapbox preaching morality, this same district attorney who was in bed with the tabloids, and it just is sickening to me. But he knows what he did, and he has to live with that. But I have also heard him say that this should have been tried -- or should be tried in a courtroom. I agree with him on that point, but when he sits there and tries to suggest that this is a viable and ongoing case, he's continuing to commit what I describe as this fraud on the American public because he knows better than anybody and his own advisers said on Friday this is a cold case.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let me ask you this, in terms of an investigation, every good detective goes into a case not knowing what happened until he arrives and looks at the evidence. You obviously pointed out evidence in your book that you believe points in the direction of Patsy Ramsey. In investigating the case, what pointed you -- what evidence pointed you in the direction of something other than Patsy?

THOMAS: You made a good point. I've been accused, and I heard Hunter say, that I made up my mind right away, and that it was black and white, but he's the same guy who told former Chief Kobe that he knew from day one that Patsy did it. Quite frankly, in fact, I kept an open mind as long as I could.

VAN SUSTEREN: But what evidence points away from her? In looking at the case, what would you say would show that she didn't commit the crime? What would be powerful evidence?

THOMAS: Well, the exculpatory evidence that Lou Schmidt raises for example, the high-tech boot print, to which I think there may be a very simple explanation, the palm print on the cellar door, again, this was a house that had several thousand people through it in the years preceding this tragedy.

But I think, when one steps back and takes a macro perspective of a 30,000-plus page case file, along with all the experts that were consulted in the evidence in this case, one can draw, as I did, a compelling conclusion.

But to those bits of what are deemed "exculpatory evidence," I think there are slivers and splinters that are pulled from this huge case file that do not, to me, equate to an intruder, they equate to reasonable doubt possibly.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, we are going to take a break. Up next, after more than three years, will lie detector tests of John and Patsy Ramsey change the course of this investigation? Stay with us.


Attorney Clarence Darrow was born on this day in 1857. Darrow argued against William Jennings Bryan and the teaching of religious creationism in schools in the 1925 Scopes trial.



VAN SUSTEREN: Good news for our Internet-savvy viewers: You can now watch BURDEN OF PROOF live on the World Wide Web. Just log-on to

We now provide a live video feed, Monday through Friday, at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time. If you miss that live show, the program is available on the site at any time via video-on-demand. You can also interact with our show and even join our chat room.

John and Patsy Ramsey have also written a book about the investigation of their daughter's death. In a recent interview on CNN, they said they would be willing to submit to a lie detector test.


JOHN RAMSEY: We have -- we were asked, has we been asked to take a lie-detector test? We said "No." We were asked, "Would we?" We said, "Certainly, we would." We would expect it to be fair, and we would expect the results to be public. LARRY KING, HOST: Well, by fair, what's the determination of that, Patsy?

PATSY RAMSEY: Well, I think it has to be someone of...

KING: National Repute.

P. RAMSEY: ... national repute...

KING: FBI man?

P. RAMSEY: ... independent, you know, a professional polygrapher.

J. RAMSEY: We've been told that this is a dangerous thing to take a lie detector test because they are a subjective science. They're not allowed in court as evidence.


VAN SUSTEREN: Steve, there's this big battle about whether they will, they won't, whether you asked them or didn't ask them. But let's assuming that all the details can be worked out, that the Ramseys do submit to a lie detector test. What would be the point, in light of the fact that it is not admissible in Colorado? What would be the advantage or disadvantage?

THOMAS: Well, I think an argument can be made both ways, but I think it is almost a moot point when we -- when this investigation was red hot in those days and weeks after the killing that was the time to use a polygraph.

Greta, as you know, a polygraph is an instrument that law enforcement uses that's not just the box, but it is a terribly effective interrogation tool. And in this case, once again, the government of which I was a part, we failed to take advantage of that tremendous opportunity, and four years later now, with all these stipulations and conditions that I read attached to this polygraph offer, I think that's dangerous territory. And I don't think any professional law enforcement organization in this country would agree to some of those stipulations.

VAN SUSTEREN: Steve, we always talk, when we investigate cases, whether from a detective's perspective or a defense lawyer, prosecutor's, what if, let's talk hypothetically: Suppose that they do take the lie detector test, and suppose Patsy, who is the person you have identified as the accidental killer in this case, suppose she passes the examination. What would you think then?

THOMAS: Well, at that point, certainly that's a boost to public appeal, but what does that mean to a detective in a criminal investigation at this point? Not much. I mean, should she fail it, not much at this point. It's inadmissible in court, so is this -- is the government using it as strategy, or a PR ploy? are the Ramseys? I don't know, but what downside do the Ramseys have to taking one at this point? Not much. VAN SUSTEREN: In your book, you also talk about the ransom note. That's a key piece of evidence too, is it not?

THOMAS: Absolutely. And everybody, I think even Hunter will concede that that is the linchpin piece of evidence in this case.

VAN SUSTEREN: And as you mentioned Hunter, when I spoke -- Alex Hunter spoke yesterday to me a little bit about it, but also Lin Wood appeared on "LARRY KING" last week, and he talked about your view of using psycho-linguistics versus his view.

Let's listen to what he told Larry.


LIN WOOD, RAMSEYS' CIVIL ATTORNEY: I have a letter, Larry, that this fellow, Don Foster, wrote to Patsy Ramsey in June of 1997. And he said to her, "I know that you are innocent, know it, absolutely and unequivocally I would stake my professional reputation on it, indeed my faith in humanity."

Mr. Foster, the expert linguist, was so discredited by this letter when it was exposed that he was not even allowed to testify before the grand jury. That's Mr. Thomas' expert handwriting analysis.


VAN SUSTEREN: Steve, can you clear this up for me? Is Lin Wood, the civil attorney for the Ramseys, correct about the linguistics experts? or does this note link to Patsy Ramsey? They say no in their book. You say yes. Lin Wood says, the linguistics expert has been discredited. Where are we on this?

THOMAS: Well, there is so much more to that ransom note than just the linguistics. Let's remember, and we may have an opportunity to speak about in a moment about the questioned document, the handwriting examiners, but a different discipline all together, as this textual analysis, what they call this forensic linguistics. And Alex Hunter brought into this case this tremendous expert from Vassar College who has quite a reputation, so much so that he continues to be used and consulted by the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

VAN SUSTEREN: So is Patsy in or out with this expert, as the author of the note?

THOMAS: Absolutely in, definitively in his opinion, as the author of the note.

VAN SUSTEREN: And is that someone different from Don Foster, who Lin Wood speaks about?

THOMAS: No, this the same person, but -- and let me make a point which nobody has bothered to make at this point. When we brought this expert into the case, when Alex Hunter did, he disclosed this letter and this communication with the Ramseys, and Hunter was fine with it and, quite frankly, it showed that this expert coming into the case had no anti-Ramsey bias whatsoever. In fact, he afforded them the greatest presumption of innocence.

It was only after he saw the evidence in this case that he reached this conclusion and, quite frankly, it seemed the D.A. lost interest in him after he identified Patsy as the author.

VAN SUSTEREN: We are going to take a break. Up next, did disputes between Boulder police and prosecutors compromise the investigation? or are these common confrontations in a murder probe? Stay with us.


Q: How many people were arrested in Washington, D.C. during the recent days of protest against the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization?

A: 1,300



VAN SUSTEREN: Struggles between police eager to make an arrest and prosecutors cautionary about the law are common. But did the disputes between Boulder investigators and the district attorney have an effect on the JonBenet Ramsey investigation?

Steve, anybody who's in the house where a murder is committed certainly are under the umbrella of suspicion. In this case, though, here's what the prosecution's faced with. There were burglaries in the areas prior to the murder, there's a broken window, there was a foot print that can't be identified, a palm print that can't be unidentified, unidentified pubic hair on the body, a very compromised murder scene and no history of child abuse. Any defense lawyer could drive a Mack truck through that case. Why do you think that this case should proceed forward in light of that fact?

THOMAS: I'm not saying that at all. I agree that, at this point, a criminal prosecution and a beyond-a-reasonable-doubt threshold is unattainable. Early in this case, as I said, when pressure should have been brought to bear by the government that was charged to do the right thing, we, being part of that government at the time, failed to do so. I think there were these opportunities -- were we able to get in a room and interview the Ramseys early in this thing, who knows what we might have learned. We'll never...

VAN SUSTEREN: But I got to tell you, Steve. If I were their lawyers, in light of the fact that they were under this umbrella of suspicion from day one -- you even have Detective Arndt who says that she can somehow look into the eyes of John Ramsey and see guilt. I mean, you've got -- the police had focused on them. I would have bound and gagged them before I would have let them speak to you. Why do you hold that against them? They had lawyers and lawyers would do that. THOMAS: Well, certainly I can't hold it against them because the Ramseys took advantage of many of the opportunities that our Constitution affords all people in this country. But on the other hand -- let me speak in hypotheticals -- if an intruder committed this crime and they put up this wall of attorneys and got PR people and so forth and did not speak to the police and did not come in for four months and finally generously allow me for one day to ask them questions, they did a great disservice in this case if, in fact, there was this intruder out there at large in this community.

So were they suspects initially? Certainly they were, as were a number of people. But when we were unable to ask them some of the most basic and elementary of investigative questions to move this thing forward for four months, they have to shoulder some of the responsibility as to why this thing became the disaster that it became.

VAN SUSTEREN: Now, one of your colleagues, Lou Schmidt, believes -- another detective -- that there was an intruder, the Ramseys had no involvement in the case. He also believes there was a stun gun involved in that. Do you think -- see anything wrong with his sort of theory other than ultimate -- you disagree with the ultimate conclusion he reaches? But has he done anything wrong in this investigation?

THOMAS: I have a great deal of respect for Lou Schmidt. I like Lou and I still consider us friends. We're both passionate about this case and we're at opposite ends of the spectrum. Lou absolutely believes what he believes, but let me make this point clear. And I'm speaking only for myself today. I can't speak for the Boulder Police Department. But the investigators in this case, the special prosecutors that finally took this case in front of a grand jury, federal law enforcement that advised us were unanimous in opinion, I believe, that this was not an intruder. Lou Schmidt, with great credentials, was the lone voice in this crying intruder.

And about the stun gun marks you ask about, what was so typical in this case, we went to one of the world's most respected forensic pathologists, Dr. Werner Spitz in Michigan, who came out recently and publicly and declared this was not a stun gun.

VAN SUSTEREN: In the 20 seconds we have left, I think you raise a very interesting question in your book. You say, "I wondered how I could distinguish between a genuinely grieving parent and one whose grief might be masking some possible involvement in a crime." Is it possible that we just so draw our own inferences that we sort of lose sight of the facts?

THOMAS: I don't know. Maybe Lou Schmidt and I are looking at it from different perspectives, but I think the case file, when you look at it, I think I've drawn a very reasonable inference and conclusion here.

VAN SUSTEREN: And a very sad thing because we don't have anyone on trial for a horrible murder. But that's all the time we have for today. In the next few weeks, we expect John and Patsy Ramsey to be joining us to discuss the ongoing investigation of their daughter's death, as well as their own book on the case.

Stay tuned to CNN for the latest in the Elian Gonzalez case. And we'll be back tomorrow with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.



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