Denver Post - 08-23-1998 - Case's followers flock to the Web (BAD LINK)

Case's followers flock to the Web

By Karen Auge
Denver Post Staff Writer

Aug. 23 - Michele Johnson wants you to know that she is not an "Internet nut.''

She is a normal, active fortysomething woman born and raised outside Reno, Nev. She's a paralegal and mother of a grown son. And she just happens to know details of the JonBenet Ramsey murder case inside and out.

She can toss into conversation names of principles in the case and minor players alike. She can name Boulder's mayor, its new police chief, district attorney and several of his assistants despite never having set foot in the town.

She just happens to have a computer with an Internet account.

Two weeks ago - on Aug. 6, which she points out would have been JonBene┌t's 8th birthday - Johnson gained her 15 minutes of cyberfame when she posted an "open letter to Fleet White'' on her own Web site. In the letter, she urged the Boulder oilman to "file an action to force Governor Romer or Attorney General Gale Norton to name a Special Prosecutor'' in the case.

In less than a week, her site was visited by more than 600 people - including one woman who said she lives in Portugal - many of whom signed her letter. Twenty months after the 6-yearold beauty queen's death, the flow of press calls to the Boulder police and the DA's office has slowed to a trickle, and packs of trucks with broadcast satellite linkups no longer are a common sight on Boulder streets.

But on the Internet, interest in the case has not faded. New Ramsey-oriented Web sites continue to pop up. Dozens post messages in existing sites daily. And each day that passes without an arrest in the case seems to stir more anger among regular Ramsey Webphiles. "The workday is over in Boulder, and it seems another day has gone by with no word from Mr. Hunter,'' someone named Darla wrote last month, before the district attorney announced he would take the case to a grand jury.

There are sites with handwriting analysis, maps of the Ramseys' Boulder home, reproductions of JonBene┌t's autopsy photos, the autopsy report itself, crime scene photos, and the text of the ransom note Patsy Ramsey reportedly found the morning her daughter's body was discovered. One site has a page devoted just to photos of the young girl - dozens and dozens of them.

The Ramsey family has a Web site, on which they ask anyone with knowledge that might help track the killer to call. There is a "JonBene┌t Ramsey Memorial Site'' and a "JonBene┌t Ramsey Ouija Case File,'' where the Web master purports to post excerpts of his conversations with the dead child's spirit.

There are scathing, at times cruel parodies of police, prosecutors and the Ramseys themselves. One called "Gone with the Spin'' depicts Patsy Ramsey in a Scarlett O'Hara gown conducting tours of the couple's Atlanta home. The site also offers a page of "Ramsey case ChiaPets,'' on which an aspiring humorist has superimposed green, Chia-style wigs on personalities associated with the case, from Patsy and John Ramsey to Geraldo Rivera.

There is even a "Mark Beckner fan club'' site devoted to Boulder's new police chief that invites visitors to order "Mark Beckner Fan Club apparel.''

But the undisputed diva of the Web masters is Mrs. Brady. "Mrs. Brady's URLs'' Web site is updated daily with tips on where her loyal readers can find the latest Ramsey case news, the best bulletin boards and chat rooms. The anonymous Mrs. Brady, who has described herself in one chat room as "a graying Philadelphia hausfrau,'' conducts weekly e-mail polls.

Mrs. Brady started following the case the day JonBene┌t was reported kidnapped, and by New Year's Eve 1996, had discussed it on the Web, she said.

Mrs. Brady, a former administrative assistant and the mother of two, attributes the undying interest in the case - her Web site still averages about 550 hits a day - to its "bizarre'' nature.

"It's like living a soap opera. I can't wait to get up every day and see what the next chapter is,'' Mrs. Brady said in a cellular phone interview from Marietta, Ga. - the Ramseys' former hometown - where she spent last week visiting friends and "conducting research.''

Mrs. Brady, who describes herself as an "analytical gossip'' and estimates she spends four hours a day working on her site, said her family teases her about her consuming interest in the case.

But her loyal "readers'' appreciate her dedication, she said.

Indeed, a core group of Ramsey followers, who use names like "Lurker,'' "Deep Shadow,'' "Thinker,'' "Panico,'' "Tyzano'' and "seal,'' do more than casually browse - they endlessly debate pieces of evidence, rumor, theory, grand jury procedure, and the motives and behavior of not only the Ramsey family, but police and prosecutors as well.

Many of the serious case followers have posted their own theories of who killed the girl. Those theories are explored and debated at length - occasionally with little regard to acknowledged facts about the case. And the theorizers point fingers of suspicion at everyone from total strangers to each member of the Ramsey family.

Sometimes, it does get a little weird, Johnson acknowledged.

"I've seen people obsessed with certain aspects of this case I feel are sick. Sometimes, I feel my interest is too much,'' she said.

Still, Jan Fernback, a Regis University communications professor who has studied Internet communication and interviewed hundreds of bulletin-board participants, doesn't think these groups evolve into true communities.

"While a lot of people pay lip service to being an online community, a lot of them said, "I don't feel the same responsibility to my online community that I do to my physical community.' ''

Fernback said that contrary to pop-culture perception, there is no typical habitual Internet user.

"The portrait that's captured the popular image was more accurate five years ago: young male with money and technological capital. The geek prototype. I don't think that's the case anymore.''

Online sleuthing and debates among would-be criminologists and sociologists probably got a start during the O.J. Simpson murder trial, according to Cecil Greek, a criminal justice professor at Florida State University who has studied the O.J. Internet phenomena.

That trial, like the Ramsey case, attracted avid followers and outright nuts, sparked arguments and brutal parodies - and scores of Web sites.

"Everybody in that case had their own page,'' Greek said. Greek said the Ramsey case may be filling the void left when the O.J. furor died down. JonBene┌t's murder has many of the characteristics that intrigue people - it remains unsolved, "and I think it's a young girl, a girl who was made to participate at too young an age in beauty pageants as if she was an adult,'' Greek said.

For Johnson, the little girl with the blond curls who parades eternally down pageant runways on television news shows has come to symbolize "all the children in this country that die each year in their own homes and who never make the 6 o'clock news,'' as she put it in her letter.

She thinks most Web followers of the Ramsey case feel the same way. "For the most part, people just want to see justice for one child. Maybe that will mean others will get it, too,'' Johnson said.

"She was a beautiful little child,'' she said.