A crowd of amateur cyber-sleuths has gathered around the virtual corpse of JonBenet Ramsey, the 6-year-old beauty pageant winner found murdered in her Boulder, Colo., basement Dec. 26.
They pore over autopsy reports. They ponder the etymology of her name. They analyze what might be a scratch on her father's face in a tabloid photograph and call her parents unprintable things.
They do it all anonymously, or pseudonym-ously, on computer bulletin boards like alt.true-crime and those linked with Court TV, Time magazine and the Boulder News.
It's a hi-tech whodunit, free from rules, decorum or any knowledge of the facts, and fueled by a 4-month-long police investigation that appears headed nowhere.
Robert N. Williams, who created a Web page of pictures of JonBenet, compares the case to a soap opera. "Everyone keeps tuning in for the next big discovery," he says via e-mail.
The information superhighway abhors a vacuum. Like potholes, the gaps in the story get filled in with whatever low-grade gravel is available. Everyone, it seems, has a theory to peddle.
A few minutes of surfing online reveals heated discussions of how the guy in the Santa suit did it. Or how JonBenet's mother, Patsy, sacrificed her while hearing voices. Or how the little blonde died of natural causes, and her murder was faked.
Some say John Ramsey killed his daughter. Martha Sprowles, for one, believes JonBenet's 10-year-old brother, Burke, may have done her in.
"The cops keep saying that everyone who was in the house the night of the murder is a suspect. It seems to me very odd that no one adds, `except, of course, Burke.' " Sprowles writes. (The police have not officially named any suspects, though they acknowledge that JonBenet's parents are the focus of their investigation.)
And there's a string of messages under "Why Patsy did it!"
"Patsy wakes up, John is not in bed, she goes looking, discovers a sex act in progress, goes berserk, and kills JonBenet," writes someone who goes by "jwalt111." "Would explain her silence, the couple's unwillingness to be interviewed or interviewed separately, etc. The only thing is, how can both of them be sociopaths?"
These detectives are the kind of people who pack the funerals of people they don't know. They're the ones who have to be escorted, shouting, from town council meetings. The ones who slow down on the highway to gawk at wrecks.
They are, depending on what thread of which bulletin board you follow, vultures, compassionate parents, living proof that logic and critical thinking are lost arts, child advocates, child molesters, earnest detectives, prurient egotists or grandmothers. They have formed a strange, open circle for anyone with a modem and a fascination with beauty or evil or sex or goodness or death.
They are all of us.
They sit at computer terminals around the world, typing theories and libels and poems and insights. They speak authoritatively, if not accurately, about what stage ovarian cancer Patsy Ramsey had, and possible motives of former spouses of possible suspects.
Paula Clements, a homemaker in Hunt Valley, found the discussions mesmerizing.
"I would sit down for maybe 30 minutes, that's what my intentions were, and maybe two to four hours later, I'd make myself leave it," she says. Finally, "I got disgusted with it, so I stopped."
A backward version
Using the Internet, people fascinated by the case can treat the Ramseys' interview on CNN like a Beatles album, playing it backward. The results allegedly show John Ramsey saying: "Molest. You're a bad person." When he says, "We want to thank those people that care about us " some people hear "Our rape hurt" on the reversed tape.
The Laboratory for Scientific Interrogation out of Phoenix, which offers a $600 course on scientific content analysis, took on the CNN interview too, analyzing John Ramsey's statement: "When I opened the door, there were no windows in that room and I turned the light on and I that was her."
The company's analysis on its Web page (http: //gn5.getnet.com/lsiscan/ramsey.html) reads: "Please note that when the subject mentions `turning the lights on' in an open statement, it has been found in the past to be associated with a sexual motive for the crime.
At Ken Polzin Jr.'s JonBenet Ramsey HomicideWeb Sites Page (http: //www.execpc.com/kopolzin/ jbramsey.html), Web surfers can see videos of the little girl's beauty pageant talent shows, hear press conferences, see the edited version of the autopsy report and read statements from the family's public relations firm. There are links to pictures of "JonBenet's lifeless hand bound with cord."
Polzin, a Wisconsin sheriff's detective, says he set up his page because he was interested in the case. But he doesn't expect anything posted on the Internet to help police solve the murder. "We the public know such a small fraction of what the police know," he says.