Pitt and the Pendulum

The JonBenet case, shrink-wrapped by Valley forensic psychiatrist and sleuth Steven Pitt

 Boulder, Colorado

Alex Hunter retreats to his office after one of the biggest press conferences of his life.

It's October 14, 1999, and the Boulder County district attorney has just been grilled about the JonBenet Ramsey murder case in front of a live national audience. The day before, Hunter had told a disappointed nation that a yearlong effort by an investigative grand jury had ended where it began -- no one charged with bludgeoning the 6-year-old.

JonBenet Ramsey
JonBenet Ramsey
Dr. Steven Pitt outside the Boulder Police Department.
Paul Rubin
Dr. Steven Pitt outside the Boulder Police Department.

All things considered, Hunter seems to be feeling pretty good about himself. The 61-year-old is still standing after going toe-to-toe with a horde of reporters, many of whom have been covering the tiny beauty queen's homicide since her body was discovered in the basement of her Boulder home in December 1996.

Hunter's team of prosecutors -- attorneys from his office and on loan from other agencies -- huddle around a television set. It's moments before Colorado's governor will hold his own press conference to announce that he may ask yet another set of prosecutors to review the case.

Hunter chats in a hallway with Steven Pitt, a Phoenix forensic psychiatrist who's served as a key consultant to the D.A. and the Boulder Police Department on the Ramsey case since February 1997.

Pitt's work in this case is finished unless something new breaks. But the shrink is here to observe the media circus.

A few weeks earlier, Pitt gave Hunter a list of 100 questions that he suspected the media might pose after the grand jury retired. Many of his predicted questions were on the money, though, surprisingly, no one asked his more confrontational ones.

Example: How do you justify and/or explain the inordinate amount of time you spent talking with tabloid reporters?

Another example: Do you feel you owe the Ramseys an apology?

"Hey, Alex," Pitt tells Hunter in the hall, "I don't think it was an intruder with that girl you were talking about out there."

"Really?" Hunter replies.

Most of the nation knows the nuts-and-bolts of JonBenet's murder, a case whose grip on the American psyche has been relentless: Her parents always have been the chief suspects. They claim an intruder did it.

But Pitt isn't talking about the Ramsey case.

At the press conference, a reporter had asked Hunter, "You referred to a killer or killers. Three years after this homicide, do you know whether there is one or more suspects, and should Boulder parents be worried about the safety of their children?"

". . . You're asking me to speculate, and I don't think that's appropriate," the prosecutor had replied. "There's a story this morning in the local paper about a break-in in an apartment and an attempted assault -- an assault. I think citizens need to be diligent, protectant of themselves and their children at all times."

A day earlier, as the grand jury ended its frustrating labors, Pitt and two Boulder police detectives in the Ramsey case had found themselves in the middle of another whodunit.


Many observers of the Ramsey case have said the Boulder police have made it unlikely ever to convict JonBenet's killer or killers.

Media accounts have detailed how the local cops had bungled the crucial crime scene investigation, then treated JonBenet's wealthy parents with kid gloves, even after the couple quickly became the primary murder suspects.

As the case became a national obsession, the gulf between the Boulder police and the Boulder County D.A.'s Office widened rapidly. The interagency antipathy dwarfed the natural friction that can occur between cops who want to arrest someone and prosecutors who must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Those problems surely were exacerbated by the relentless media microscope. Leaks to reporters from both camps became commonplace. At first, the media pummeled the Boulder police -- sometimes rightfully, sometimes not -- and the D.A.'s Office was happy to deflect attention from itself.

It was into this kinetic atmosphere that Steve Pitt leaped in February 1997, two months after JonBenet's death, when the Boulder police hired him as a consultant.

The 40-year-old Scottsdale father of two does not comport with the image one might have of a psychiatrist: He's a street-smart, openly ambitious wiseguy who seems most comfortable helping detectives sort out the psychopathology that has led someone -- known or unknown -- to commit a crime.

Pitt had a middle-class upbringing in Michigan. His mother was a homemaker. His father, a school administrator, once played first saxophone for the fabled Artie Shaw big band.

As a youth, he loved to read Hardy Boys mysteries and always would be on his best behavior on nights when crime-solving shows such as Columbo and Ironside aired.

While at medical school (he's an osteopath), Pitt says, he found himself increasingly drawn to the study of the criminal mind. By training and by disposition, he's an intensely astute observer of the human condition -- especially when that condition isn't so healthy. He's a good listener and a good talker.

Consider his description of JonBenet's mother, Patsy, the nation's (and the authorities') No. 1 murder suspect:

"Implicit in what I see in Patsy is the outward presentation. What I hear is the content. So, what I see is someone who is a seasoned performer, someone who is verbally competent, very articulate, seductive, theatrical, and incredibly cunning. What I hear are some marked inconsistencies compared to what I know about the objective and factual data of the case."

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