It was March 1997, and my destination was Boulder, Colorado–home of JonBenet Ramsey, the angelic six year-old who had been found sexually molested and murdered three months earlier. The Globe and its fellow tabloids had been covering the case obsessively, convinced that this was the story that would reverse their decline in circulation–especially if they could finger the killer.
Before I left the Globe‘s concrete fortress–guarded by a golden statue of Atlas, secured by glass doors, electronic key cards, and hovering video-cameras–there was one last detail. After leaving the room, Williams returned with a contract which contained a confidentiality agreement prohibiting me from revealing information about their methods of information gathering. If I violated it, the penalty was $20,000 for “each and every violation.” Williams didn’t say anything, but his smile read, We’ve got you.
I arrived in Boulder a few days later, where I met my contact, Craig Lewis. Lewis was a general editor for the Globe and had been the National Enquirer‘s star reporter during the Simpson case in Los Angeles. Immediately, Lewis explained how he planned to use the same methods that had worked for tabloid reporters during the Simpson trial–payoffs to housekeepers and police secretaries, and finding friends of the accused who would betray them. Already, the Globe had been villified for publishing stolen crime-scene photos, including one of JonBenet’s lifeless hand hanging off the coroner’s stretcher.
It didn’t take me long to develop a relationship with Boulder’s District Attorney, Alex Hunter, as well as the Boulder Police Department’s lead detective, Steve Thomas. Occasionally, I discovered a few facts that could be transformed into big headlines with the help of phrases like, “cops probe,” “sources say,” and “investigators’ shocking new scenario.” I soon realized that the tabloids could write virtually any story they wanted to as long as someone with authority would say it was possible. In fact, when real information was scarce, my editors would often ask me to engage Hunter or Thomas in a conversation just to lure them into saying, “Yeah, you never know, anything’s possible, man.” With that, add a pinch and a dash of what Lewis called “Tabloid Magic,” and the investigators were considering a shocking new scenario.
Sometimes it wasn’t so easy. Occasionally, even Hunter and Thomas didn’t want to admit that certain possibilities were within the realm of reality. That’s when Lewis turned to his “sources,” which consisted of a former prosecutor who loved getting his name in the papers and a former Boulder detective who was sour with the department. For a couple of C-notes a week, both of these characters would allow the Globe to use them as “sources.” In other words, the Globe fabricated quotes and scenarios and then got the OK from their “sources,” who would concede they were “possible,” and boom! The next Globe cover story emerged.
I soon became aware of some of the Globe‘s other methods of obtaining stories. My own techniques with law enforcement had been to bring them information, unconditionally, with hopes for an occasional reward. Others, however, had no such patience. “Call every one of these numbers and just ask them if they’re interested in talking to me,” one editor told me as he handed me a list of sheriff’s deputies who worked in the Boulder county jail. He was hoping one of them would be willing to give the Globe a heads up as to when the Ramseys would be arrested. “Why would anyone want to risk their job by talking to a tabloid?” I asked. Because I could buy them a brand new Mercedes, responded the editor. On another occasion two Globe reporters went to the home of a handwriting expert in Evergreen, Colo. with $30,000 in cash, in an effort to get a copy of the ransom note the Ramseys had discovered on the morning of the crime. The expert refused and later called the Jefferson county D.A. with a complaint of “commercial bribery.”
In fact, the Globe has even been accused of creating stories when it can’t find them. In January the National Enquirer published a story alleging that the Globe paid a former flight attendant $250,000 to lure sportscaster Frank Gifford into having sex in a hotel room outfitted with a video camera. The Globe tried to block publication of the story, both denying the charges and arguing that it revealed a “trade secret”: how much it pays sources.
Sometimes the targets of these tactics fought back. Another Globe reporter tried to get an interview from JonBenet’s former physician about allegations from “sources” claiming the doctor had conspired with the Ramseys to conceal a history of sexual abuse in the family. When the physician refused, the reporter wrote the doctor a letter making it clear that without an interview, the Globe would be forced to print the criminal allegation against him. The doctor promptly reported the incident to the Boulder police department.
One day an editor pulled out a stack of papers. “I’m going to send you to these places,” he said. “It’s where John Ramsey used to shop. I want you to interview employees about what he bought and what they know.” I asked him how he knew where Ramsey shopped and he told me the papers in his hand were copies of Ramsey’s private credit card records, which the Globe had obtained from hackers who earned a pretty penny for running such errands. After I discovered nothing unusual, the editor “anonymously” turned the documents over to a police detective whom he was trying to develop as a source, in hopes that the cop would return the favor.
Since the police would need a warrant to obtain such material, I realized that the effect of this maneuver was to violate John Ramsey’s Fourth Amendment right protecting him from illegal search and seizure.
I also began to realize that law enforcement and the media had much to gain from one another. When detectives knocked down a wall in the Ramsey home to find any hidden evidence, I made an offer to the D.A.’s office on behalf of my editors to buy the house, which was on the market for a cool million, and then turn it over to the cops so they could smash it up as much as they wanted. D.A. Hunter considered the offer but then decided his men had finished their work anyway.
The tabloids weren’t alone in their suspicion that John Ramsey had killed his daughter. Early in the investigation, Ramsey’s defensive attitude alienated even one of his close friends, and the early press reports hinted at Ramsey’s guilt. But the mainstream media never attacked Ramsey as fiercely or implicated his family as ruthlessly as the tabloids did. The Globe actually published a cover story fingering JonBenet’s 11 year-old brother as the killer, and another one titled “Daddy Abused JonBenet’s Sister: Ramsey Girl Was Killed Before She Could Tell.”
Why? Part of it had to do with the fact that most British tabloid writers hail from the working class, and have a deep-rooted resentment of the elite. Joe Mullins, a soft-spoken British editor who worked with me on the Ramsey case, was typical in this respect. Joe was a nice guy, but anyone rich or famous–like the Ramseys–was fair game to him. In time, the Globe would begin to remind me of the Banner newspaper in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Like the Banner, the Globe‘s editorial department delusionally believed they were social avengers appeasing the masses by humiliating the aristocracy.
In August 1997, just as the rest of the media began to ease up on Ramsey, the Globe sent me to his hometown of Okemos, Mich., to investigate his background. After looking through his high school yearbook, I was able to reach 20 former classmates, including two former girlfriends. From them, I learned that Ramsey’s taciturn manner–which had made him seem more suspect–was just a harmless character trait that had been with him all along.
Upon returning from my trip and reporting my findings to D.A. Hunter, I asked him: “Do you really think that John Ramsey is all the things the tabloids say he is?” Hunter shook his head. Then I called Detective Steve Thomas and asked him why he had never sent anyone to Okemos. “Because that’s not where we’re looking,” he said. Then he added, “Jeff, you shouldn’t believe what you read in the tabloids.”
When I returned to Boulder in September, I tried telling my editors that John Ramsey was no longer regarded as a key suspect. They told me to shut up. Later, when I began investigating the “intruder theory” by conducting interviews with police suspects other than the Ramseys, I was told that I was compromising the Globe‘s legal future. It became clear to me then that without an indictment against the Ramseys, the Globe could be facing a ruinous libel lawsuit.
It was still possible that JonBenet’s mother Patsy was guilty. (It was Patsy, after all, who enrolled JonBenet in those eerie child beauty pageants.) But that was becoming less and less likely. By September it was clear that D.A. Hunter’s lead investigator, Lou Smit, believed both parents were innocent. Since then, DNA belonging to neither parent has been identified in JonBenet’s underwear, and there is still no clear case against the Ramseys.
The following month the Globe‘s editor, Tony Frost, came to Denver to speak at a panel discussion at the Colorado Press Association Convention. Later, while having a beer with me in the hotel bar, he confessed that Lou Smit’s belief in the Ramseys’ innocence was causing him concern. “This Smit thing worries me,” Frost told me. “You realize if the Ramseys are really innocent, we’re finished.” “Who?” I asked. “All of us!” he exclaimed with a whisper. “Every single last one of us … there must be an indictment.”
In the late spring of 1998, I heard about a journalism professor at the University of Colorado named Michael Tracey who was making a documentary about how the tabloids had corrupted the judicial process in the Ramsey case. Globe editor Joe Mullins forbade me to call Tracey under any circumstances, but I did anyway. When I told Tracey that I felt John Ramsey had been wronged by the tabloids, he started a crusade to bring me out from the dark side and join his fight against the tabs.
One night I made an unusual phone call. “Hello?” the voice asked. “Mr. Ramsey?” I said. He asked me who I was and I told him I was just a guy who wanted to tell him he felt sorry for what he was going through, and that I believed he was innocent. He thanked me. When I told him who I was, and that I felt bad for having been involved with the tabs, he told me it was okay, and not to worry about it. One week later I called him back. “Does it hurt your feelings when the tabloids say the things they say about you?” I asked him. “It hurts whenever anyone … says something that isn’t true,” he responded.
That summer I found myself contemplating Tracey’s offer to help vindicate John Ramsey by working with him on his documentary. But I was plagued by thoughts of the confidentiality agreement I had signed. Still, it didn’t take long for me to make up my mind. Instead of attacking the tabs publicly, I decided I would work undercover, gathering as much information as I could about the Globe‘s methods.
One day Globe editor Joe Mullins told me he had information leading him to believe that now-former Detective Steve Thomas’ mother had killed herself. (Thomas had just retired from the Boulder police department.) “I’m not sure this is even a story for us. But it’s something I thought I might use to get an interview with him, you know?” said Mullins. I was stunned. “How so?” I asked. “Well, I’m sure he wouldn’t want it published, would he?” Two days later, he had an excuse to use it, after Tony Frost berated us all for not being aggressive enough about getting new information. “Maybe we’re not being clever enough about how we get to people,” said Frost in one conversation. “Steve Thomas, maybe we’re not being clever enough there.” Craig Lewis replied: “This thing about Thomas’ family that Joe and I are [sic] talking yesterday … we kinda decided that was the best way to get into him. It’s sort of a situation of backing him into a corner, in a nice way.”
When I told Thomas to watch out for Globe reporters, he was surprised, since he had already declined tabloid offers of as much as $100,000 to give an interview. “They know about your mother,” I told him. Thomas became concerned. “My mother?” he asked, amazed. “Yeah,” I said. “What about my mother?” he asked angrily. “They know that she killed herself,” I told him. “And they’re going to use that to try and force you into talking to them.” Thomas was speechless.
Two days later when Craig Lewis told me he was going forward with his plan, I left a letter on Thomas’ doorstep warning him. The next morning, Thomas received a Federal Express package which included pictures of his dead mother. According to Margaret Miller, Thomas’ lawyer, a Globe staffer told Thomas the paper had information that his mother, who died when he was six years old, had committed suicide–an allegation she calls a lie. “He was devastated,” Miller told The Washington Post.
Within a week both Lewis and I received letters from Thomas’ attorney. To my surprise, she not only accused Lewis of blackmail, she accused me too. When I called her in confusion she said “it was obvious” that I “was working in collusion with Mr. Lewis.” I was stunned and hurt. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been, given that I was still working for the Globe–and I knew as well as anyone how devious it could be.
In late September, I gave a brief interview to Newsweek confessing my belief that John Ramsey was innocent. Frost called me into his office at once. “I didn’t bring you back here to yell at you,” said my editor. “I brought you here to educate you.” Frost explained to me that the world is a dirty place and that in the end no one is really trustworthy. People only use others, and never really help them. Honesty and honor are illusions. Frost grinned as he looked at me across his desk. “You think the Ramseys are your friends?” he asked. He shook his head. “The Ramseys aren’t your friends … no.” As I left his office, Frost added: “All these people, they’ll come to you and tell you how great you are. But they just want to use you.”
Taking on the Tabs
It was time to start fighting back. One morning in October I found myself in the Denver Federal Building, sitting across from three federal agents who listened to my story of the Globe‘s attempt to pressure Steve Thomas. They were intrigued by it, and immediately began discussing whether or not they could convince the U.S. Attorney’s Office to go after a media organization, since such pursuits were often public relations disasters. One of the agents suggested a sting operation to get the blackmail attempt on tape.
“Don’t worry about that,” I told them. “Why?” they asked. I opened my briefcase and pulled out a tape I had made with the telephone recording device Globe had bought me over a year before. “Because I’ve already got it on tape,” I told the agents. “I’ve been taping them for months now.”
To my surprise, days later, I learned that Steve Thomas had rejected the FBI’s offer to investigate the Globe on his behalf. Without a victim, the government was powerless to move forward and the matter was dropped. Thomas’ attorney, Margaret Miller, told The Washington Post that he “was tired of the Ramsey case and wanted to be left alone.”
My guess was that Thomas was frightened of the Globe. The tabs are notoriously vicious to people who cross them. When Liz Taylor sued the Enquirer for $20 million plus punitive damages for falsely accusing her of “drinking up a storm,” they didn’t back off, but instead ran an even harsher story about her on the cover the next week. You’ll notice that certain famous people get savaged in the tabloids all the time. Why? Often it’s because they’ve taken a stand against the tabs, while others have agreed to work with them in exchange for freedom from such humiliations. Some celebrities actually make explicit arrangements, agreeing to fork over information about other celebs in exchange for complete protection from tabloid humiliation. In the trade, these people are known as “untouchables.”
The tabs also have their own investigators, as I discovered while researching earlier efforts to fight them. A journalist named Rod Lurie, who wrote a magazine story on the tabs 10 years ago, suffered an incredible series of threats and intimidation. His phone records were illegally seized and his editors were threatened. In the article, Lurie exposed an Enquirer reporter for falsely reporting a celebrity to Child Protective Services for abuse when they came up dry with their sources. Despite the fact that it was a false allegation, the agency was required by law to respond to the tip with an investigation. When they did, the Enquirer got their story. When the reporter was exposed, he wasn’t fired or forced out of the business. In fact, the reporter was Brian Williams, the Globe executive editor who had initially hired me (not to be confused with Brian Williams of NBC).
Still, I decided that taking on the tabs was worth the risk. In mid-January, I delivered my tapes to CBS’ “48 Hours” via one very pleased Professor Michael Tracey. By the time Frost found out it was too late. “I’m very disappointed in you Jeffrey,” he told me. The feeling was mutual, I told him. Although the story hit the wire after Howard Kurtz wrote about it on the front page of The Washington Post‘s Style section, what really burned Frost was his own words about his personal vendetta against the Ramseys. When the tapes played on “48 Hours” Frost heard himself say the kinds of magic words that make libel suits winnable: “The Globe and Tony Frost in particular, have more reason to go for the Ramseys,” he said, “than the police have!” After two years of Frost’s warnings to me never to say anything that could prove the Globe‘s malicious intent against the Ramseys, it was he who ended up saying it.
Armed with the tapes, I no longer had to worry about the confidentiality agreement I had signed. The Globe was terrified that the tapes would get into court, so the last thing they would want to do was prosecute me for revealing their own illegal methods. But whether the tapes end up in court or not, they may soon be public knowledge–all 75 hours of them.
For the moment, protected behind those electronic key card doors and surveillance cameras in a concrete fortress, Frost still reigns over the Globe. Sometimes I wonder if he’s right about the world being a place where honesty is non-existent, and money the only thing that matters. But I suspect that those words apply to the Globe, not the world. When I think of Frost’s cold blue eyes, I’m reminded of what he told me: “We’re finished … all of us … every single last one of us.”