By: Allan Wolper
Michael Tracey will be forever known as the scholar who collared John Mark Karr, the 41-year-old elementary school teacher in Bangkok, Thailand, who convinced himself and prosecutors that he killed JonBenet Ramsey on Christmas night 1996, in Boulder, Colo.
Karr, as the whole world now knows, had escaped to Thailand to avoid facing misdemeanor child pornography charges in Sonoma, Calif., and had nothing to do with the murder of JonBenet, a 6-year-old beauty pageant queen. Her murder remains an unsolved crime in which the little girl’s parents, John and Patsy Ramsey (the latter of whom recently died of cancer), were originally prime suspects.
It is Tracey’s passion to find evidence that will finally clear the Ramseys, who are still seen as defendants in several courts of public opinion. “I’ve read all the evidence,” he said during an interview after the Karr case fell apart, via phone from his Rocky Mountain home. “They did not do it.”
So Tracey was quick to respond to a Karr e-mail four years ago that promised to bring closure to the Ramsey family. Karr had seen one of the three documentaries that Tracey had produced in Britain for ITV on the JonBenet case.
Now the 58-year-old media studies professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Colorado at Boulder is being forced to explain why he agreed to take part in what was essentially a sting operation by the district attorney’s office — something most journalists thought was wrong.
“I am a scholar who writes about journalism and sometimes practices it,” Tracey told me. “As a scholar, I don’t have to concern myself with how a journalist conducts himself.
“And all this talk about ethics. Ethics in journalism in f—ing America? Are you kidding me? For Christ’s sake, reporters and the cops were in bed together as soon as this story broke. It was consensual sex.”
Tracey said his e-mail exchanges, and later telephone conversations, with Karr convinced him he had to go to the district attorney’s office. “The things he was saying were pretty rough stuff,” Tracey said. “I have two daughters. I’d like to meet the journalist with a 4- or 5-year-old child or grandchild who wouldn’t have done the same thing.”
Tom Hartman, a reporter for Denver’s Rocky Mountain News who has covered the JonBenet case, believes that Tracey is suspended in an area that is neither journalistic nor scholarly. “It’s a little too easy to armchair this case, since every person who is a journalist would respond in a different way to this situation,” he said. “The world is gray.”
Perhaps, but Tracey is trying to have it both ways. A scholar, like a reporter, is supposed to conduct his research by distancing himself from the issues he is exploring, something Tracey did not do. He compromised his role as an independent researcher when he agreed to record his conversations with Karr for Boulder District Attorney Mary Lacy.
But Paul Voakes, dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Colorado — and a strong supporter of Tracey’s work — insisted that Tracey did not break any scholarly rules.
“He was simply trying to get at the truth in a particular criminal case, and he had information that indicated that John Mark Karr was the killer of that little girl,” said Voakes. “It’s all about [Tracey’s] conviction that the Ramsey family was unjustly suspected all these years.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say Tracey was part of a sting,” Voakes added. “But it is highly unusual for a scholar or a journalist to engage in this degree of cooperation with law enforcement. But if the overriding objective of the story is to get at the truth and bring someone to justice, I don’t think it matters as much as we think it does.”
Voakes said that Tracey was an admirer of the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University run by Prof. David Protess that has won national prominence for its ability to free men wrongly convicted of crimes.
“What Professor Tracey is doing is not dissimilar to what we try to do here,” Protess said. “There is nothing wrong with either a scholar or a journalist sharing information with law enforcement when they find evidence of criminal misconduct.”
But Protess believes Tracey went a step too far when he started taping his telephone calls for the prosecutors: “When you do that, you become an arm of the prosecution.”
Meanwhile, Colorado academics and journalists debate whether Tracey’s role in the Jon Benet case will influence the students in his University of Colorado journalism classes.
“Michael Tracey did what I hope any good citizen would do,” said Barrie Hartman, a spokesperson for the Boulder school and the former editor of The Daily Camera, a local newspaper. “He is a fine example for the students here. Here is a guy who has never given up [in his campaign to clear the Ramsey family]. Someone who picked up the ball and ran with it.”
But Bronson Hilliard, the current managing editor of the Colorado Daily, felt that Tracey fumbled that ball — and is sending the wrong message to his students about how journalists should interact with cops. “Tracey teaches in the journalism school and he should act like one,” Hilliard said. “Personally I was uncomfortable about someone who teaches in a journalism school doing what he did.”
Meanwhile, Tracey is taking a break from media exposure to write a book on The Jon Benet case that will be based, in part, on his e-mail and telephone conversations with John Mark Karr. At one point Tracey plans to ask Karr why he lied to him about his alleged role in the Jon Benet murder.
And reporters will ask again why Tracey didn’t check out Karr’s story more thoroughly before going to the DA’s office.