Pitt and the Pendulum
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.
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.
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."
(Because the murder case remains "open," Pitt won't say who he believes killed JonBenet. However, his statements about the case strongly suggest he suspects that Patsy Ramsey is the killer.)
Before he moved to the Valley in 1992, Pitt worked as a forensic psychiatrist in Colorado. There, he earned a solid reputation among law enforcement types as a straight talker.
Pitt's involvement in the Ramsey case increased dramatically as time passed. He got to know the Boulder Police Department's lead detectives on the case, and came to the conclusion that, contrary to popular belief, they were "as professional and competent as any agency could ask for. These people were getting battered on all fronts, but they continued to do their jobs, and I thought they were doing them well despite the impossible circumstances."
Pitt found a kindred spirit in Ramsey chief case agent Sergeant Tom Wickman. An eclectic, cerebral 46-year-old who earned a master's degree in psychology, Wickman picked Pitt's brain about the case for hours on end.
"His terminology and world [are] different than mine," he says of the psychiatrist, "but we are both logical thinkers who come at problems from our particular backgrounds. He called me about those cats that were being eviscerated down in Phoenix [Ahwatukee], and he told me, 'I'd do this and this and this,' and I'd do the same thing [to try to find the perpetrator], but would say it in different terms.
"He studies me, but I study him, too, and I don't think he's got a leg up on me in that department. Pitt is the kind of guy who does the right thing, and I don't think he has an agenda."
Pitt says he watched as dozens of "experts" -- who were peripherally involved in the Ramsey case, if they were involved at all -- were quoted extensively in the media.
"I've had the unique perspective of seeing this case from the inside out, in that I know the facts of the case, and the players in this case," he says. "It's really troubled me to see this mass of media feeding on this rampant speculation from other allied health professionals -- pathologists, forensic psychiatrists, psychologists on the outside looking in, you name it -- knowing they're really not running on all cylinders."
To Pitt, the divisive relationship between the police and prosecutors became almost as intriguing and challenging professionally as the murder case itself. That's not to diminish, he says, the facts that surround the tragedy of JonBenet:
"You have a young girl found dead in the cellar of the very home she grew up in. You have a three-and-a-half-page ransom note. You have two parents who are absolutely denying any involvement whatsoever. You have physical evidence which points against an intruder, which goes against the parents' protestations of absolute innocence.
"You have the nation's media and international media just transfixed. You have the principal suspects in this case having just about more money than God. You have it taking place in a relatively small college town, where there are only a few homicides, if that, each year. And the biggest one is, of all the murders in which a child's body has been found in a house, there's only either zero or one case on record in which a parent [or guardian] hasn't been responsible."
In the spring of 1998, Boulder police turned the captaincy of the seemingly stalled case over to the D.A.'s Office. The move opened the door for the long-delayed in-depth interviews by authorities of John and Patsy Ramsey.
Boulder detectives had spoken to the couple in April 1997 -- Patsy first, then John -- trying to pin down the couple to their actions and whereabouts around the time of their daughter's murder. Pitt says he and the cops wanted to videotape those sessions, over the Ramseys' objections.
"But the prosecutors were saying, 'Let's make nicey-nice, this is the beginning of a dialogue,'" he recalls. "The cops and I were saying, 'Bullshit. This is our bite of the apple. Let's go for it.' But we didn't win that fight. The day after the interviews, John and Patsy hold this press conference with hand-picked reporters, and nail the police. It was a frustrating situation."
Though the police hadn't named suspects in the little girl's murder, it wasn't a mystery that the Ramseys were the prime -- some would say exclusive -- focus. (The most anyone officially involved has said publicly is Boulder police chief Mark Beckner's comment that the couple remains under "an umbrella of suspicion.")
Months passed, and that "dialogue" prosecutors had longed for hadn't materialized. But the Ramseys smelled an opening after Alex Hunter's office took control of the case, because John and Patsy knew they had allies there.
As Hunter's people prepared for the pivotal interviews, the D.A. put Pitt on his payroll.
"When I talked to different people about him," says Hunter, "he came with really high marks. He gave us insights in terms of 'profiling' people that we were looking at that I thought were beyond all of our expertise, important, helpful stuff. He's tough and tenacious, and he isn't just a book kind of guy. He was particularly valuable in giving us suggestions about the order and timing and nature of the questions we'd be asking the Ramseys. He always has had extremely strong feelings about the case, which, to put it mildly, he wasn't afraid to share."
But Pitt says Hunter's staff ignored all but one of his suggestions, and that was to videotape the sessions:
"Even if the Boulder [police] guys weren't going to be able to interview those people, I wanted them on site so they could watch in real time, and could make suggestions to the interviewers during breaks, etc. I wanted them to put a time code on the videotapes to make it easier to track afterward. And I wanted the interviews to go as long as possible, with a bunch of questions that I wanted them to ask -- they never touched them."
What actually happened seems absurd in the retelling. Pitt sat with one team of detectives at the Boulder station, miles from a police station in a neighboring town where the Ramseys were being interviewed simultaneously, but in different rooms.
The interviews continued for hours on end, someone would rush a just-completed videotape to the Boulder station, where the detectives and Pitt would watch it, in an unprecedented exercise of investigative futility. (The cops asked Pitt to focus on Patsy Ramsey, befitting her position as the unofficial lead suspect. A second team of detectives concentrated on John Ramsey.)
The interviews, while fascinating and occasionally enlightening to Pitt, didn't seem to move the case closer to resolution.
Later in the summer of 1998, Alex Hunter convened the investigative grand jury that finally concluded last week.
"Timing is everything," Pitt says, "and it's not just the timing, it's the spin -- putting on the pressure of what you're trying to achieve with a subject or subjects. . . . Two or three months without anything happening sends a signal to the other parties. . . . I think if Alex is being honest, he'd tell you his biggest regret was losing the momentum after the interviews, even if they didn't go as well as they could have, and not going forward with the grand jury then -- or even before then."
"Did Steve say that?" Hunter asks New Times in a separate interview.
"That's Steve. He can be pretty difficult once in a while. But he can be pretty damned savvy, too."
It's Wednesday morning, October 13, 1999, which will turn out to be D-Day -- more precisely, non-D-Day -- in the JonBenet Ramsey case.
Hundreds of journalists are sitting on their hands across the street from the Boulder County Justice Center, wondering when, if and how the grand jury's decision will be announced. No one in the know is talking, at least publicly, so reporters have taken to interviewing each other. Geraldo Rivera has flown into town, but he hasn't made an appearance. Instead, he's sunning himself at a bed-and-breakfast just west of town.
A few miles east, Boulder police sergeant Tom Wickman and detective Tom Trujillo -- both of whom have been assigned to the Ramsey case since day one -- are investigating another violent crime.
A 22-year-old woman has been stabbed as she lay in her bed in the early morning hours. By now, just before noon, she's undergoing surgery, and already has had her gallbladder removed.
Her story to police at the scene: She and two female roommates live on the second-floor apartment near the University of Colorado campus. She was sleeping alone in the wee hours on a mattress on the floor of the one-bedroom unit. A person she never saw stabbed her in the right side with a steak knife he'd gotten (assuming it was a he) from the kitchen. Her assailant then had fled.
The woman said she'd pulled out the knife, closed the bedroom door and waited for about 15 minutes before phoning a male friend from a phone that sat a few feet from her in the bedroom. In turn, the friend had called 911.
The account doesn't smell right to the detectives, but they're aware of another recent incident across the hall, in which a man allegedly threatened another woman with a knife.
The detectives have asked Steve Pitt to join them at the crime scene. He makes a pronouncement after poking around the apartment for a time.
"This girl may have done herself," Pitt tells the cops.
He reads a forlorn letter that the victim -- is she a victim? -- had recently written to an ex-boyfriend. On a living-room shelf, he finds two cards from her mother -- who lives in Massachusetts. The missives express hope that the young woman's money situation is clearing up.
Pitt studies the photos on the walls and on the refrigerator that depict a thin, pretty girl who looks younger than 22.
"Maybe she knew she was dealing with the Boulder PD," Pitt jokes darkly about the strange sequence of events after the stabbing -- the 15-minute delay, then calling a friend, and not the cops.
Pitt's reference is to the Ramsey case, specifically to ex-Boulder detective Linda Arndt, who was the first to respond to the crime scene. Arndt recently complained on national television that her superiors had failed to assist her fast enough at the Ramseys'.
Pitt gets away with his gallows humor because the detectives like him, and know he respects their work.
"The guy doesn't miss a heck of a lot," says Wickman, who doesn't seem to miss much himself. He and Trujillo are meticulous, thorough and patient as they process the scene.
"Listen," Pitt tells the detectives. "Someone gets in through the second-story sliding door, finds a knife, kneels down, stabs this girl in the side, leaves. She doesn't knock over that full glass of water by her bed, then waits all that time to call for help, though she's had a knife stuck in her.
"Now, think of all these stressors she has in her life: Dumped by a boyfriend, low self-esteem, financial problems, away from her family and her friends for a short period of time. I'll bet she has a mental-health history. I'll bet you a dessert."
Tom Wickman takes the bet, just for kicks.
About 2 p.m., the detectives leave the crime scene and stop at a familiar haunt for a bite to eat. Trujillo is just about to dig into his breakfast when his pager goes off. Wickman's sounds, too.
The pair leave immediately, game faces on. They don't say where they're going, but those left behind suspect this is it.
Two hours later, outside the Justice Center, Alex Hunter makes his short announcement:
No charges against anyone in the Ramsey case.
The next morning at the Boulder PD, with Wickman sitting in, Steve Pitt briefs the detective who's been assigned to lead the case. He tells her why he suspects the wound to be self-inflicted, and carefully walks her through the investigative steps she should take to get the young woman to come clean.
"This is a very interesting case," the shrink says, clearly in his element. "Very, very interesting."
"Just another day," replies Wickman. "Just another day."
By the way, he owes Steve Pitt a dessert.
Contact Paul Rubin at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.