August 6, 1998|
On June 22, I submitted a letter to Chief Koby, requesting a leave of absence from the Boulder Police Department. In response to persistent speculation as to why I chose to leave the Ramsey investigation, this letter explains more fully those reasons. Although my concerns were well known for some time, I tried to be gracious in my departure, addressing only health concerns. However, after a month of soul searching and reflection, I feel I must now set the record straight.
The primary reason I chose to leave is my belief that the district attorney's office continues to mishandle the Ramsey case. I had been troubled for many months with many aspects of the investigation. Albeit an uphill battle of a case to begin with, it became a nearly impossible investigation because of the political alliances, philosophical differences, and professional egos that blocked progress in more ways, and on more occasions, than I can detail in this memorandum. I and others voiced these concerns repeatedly. In the interest of hoping justice would be served, we tolerated it, except for those closed door sessions when detectives protested in frustration, where fists hit the table, where detectives demanded that the right things be done. The wrong things were done, and made it a manner of simple principle that I could not continue to participate as it stood with the district attorney's office. As an organization, we remained silent, when we should have shouted.
The Boulder Police Department took a handful of detectives days after the murder, and handed us this case. As one of those five primary detectives, we tackled it for a year and a half. We conducted an exhaustive investigation, followed the evidence where it led us, and were faithfully and professionally committed to this case. Although not perfect, cases rarely are. During eighteen months on the Ramsey investigation, my colleagues and I worked the case night and day, and in spite of tied hands. On June 1-2, 1998, we crunched thirty thousand pages of investigation to its essence, and put our cards on the table, delivering the case in a formal presentation to the district attorney's office. We stood confident in our work. Very shortly thereafter, though, the detectives who know this case better than anyone were advised by the district attorney's office that we would not be participating as grand jury advisory witnesses.
The very entity with whom we shared our investigative case file to see justice sought, I felt, was betraying this case. We were never afforded true prosecutorial support. There was never a consolidation of resources. All legal opportunities were not made available. How were we expected to "solve" this case when the district attorney's office was crippling us with their positions? I believe they were, literally, facilitating the escape of justice. During this investigation, consider the following:
During the investigation detectives would discover, collect, and bring evidence to the district attorney's office, only to have it summarily dismissed or rationalized as insignificant. The most elementary of investigative efforts, such as obtaining telephone and credit card records, were met without support, search warrants denied. The significant opinions of national experts were casually dismissed or ignored by the district attorney's office, even the experienced FBI were waved aside.
Those who chose not to cooperate were never compelled before a grand jury early in this case, as detectives suggested only weeks after the murder, while information and memories were fresh.
An informant, for reasons his own, came to detectives about conduct occurring inside the district attorneys office, including allegations of a plan intended only to destroy a man's career. We carefully listened. With that knowledge, the department did nothing. Other than to alert the accused, and in the process burn the two detectives [who captured that exchange on an undercover wire, incidentally] who came forth with this information. One of the results of that internal whistleblowing was witnessing Detective Commander Eller, who also could not tolerate what was occurring, lose his career and reputation undeservedly; scapegoated in a manner which only heightened my concerns. It did not take much inferential reasoning to realize that any dissidents were readily silenced.
In a departure from protocol, police reports, physical evidence, and investigative information was shared with Ramsey defense attorneys, all of this in the district attorney's office "spirit of cooperation". I served a search warrant, only to find later defense attorneys were simply given copies of the evidence it yielded.
An FBI agent, whom I didn't even know, quietly tipped me off about what the DA's office was doing behind our backs, conducting investigation the police department was wholly unaware of.
I was advised not to speak to certain witnesses, and all but dissuaded from pursuing particular investigative efforts. Polygraphs were acceptable for some subjects, but others seemed immune from such requests.
Innocent people were not "cleared", publicly or otherwise, even when it was unmistakably the right thing to do, as reputations and lives were destroyed.
Some in the district attorney's office, to this day, pursue weak, defenseless, and innocent people in shameless tactics that one couldn't believe more bizarre if it were made up.
I was told by one in the district attorney's office about being unable to "break" a particular police officer from his resolute accounts of events he had witnessed. In my opinion, this was not trial preparation, this was an attempt to derail months of hard work.
I was repeatedly reminded by some in the district attorney's office just how powerful and talented and resourceful particular defense attorneys were. How could decisions be made this way?
There is evidence that was critical to the investigation, that to this day has never been collected, because neither search warrants nor other means were supported to do so. Not to mention evidence which still sits today, untested in the laboratory, as differences continue about how to proceed.
While investigative efforts were rebuffed, my search warrant affidavits and attempts to gather evidence in the murder investigation of a six year old child were met with refusals and, instead, the suggestion that we "ask the permission of the Ramseys" before proceeding. And just before conducting the Ramsey interviews, I thought it inconceivable I was being lectured on "building trust".
These are but a few of the many examples of why I chose to leave. Having to convince, to plead at times, to a district attorney's office to assist us in the murder of a little girl, by way of the most basic of investigative requests, was simply absurd.
When my detective partner and I had to literally hand search tens of thousands of receipts, because we didn't have a search warrant to assist us otherwise, we did so. But we lost tremendous opportunities to make progress, to seek justice, and to know the truth. Auspicious timing and strategy could have made a difference. When the might of the criminal justice system should have brought all it had to bear on this investigation, and didn't, we remained silent. We were trying to deliver a murder case with hands tied behind our backs. It was difficult, and our frustrations understandable. It was an assignment without chance of success. Politics seemed to trump justice.
Even "outsiders" quickly assessed the situation, as the FBI politely noted early on: "the government isn't in charge of this investigation." As the nation watched, appropriately anticipating a fitting response to the murder of the most innocent of victims, I stood bothered as to what occurred behind the scenes. Those inside this case knew what was going on. Eighteen months gave us a unique perspective.
We learned to ignore the campaign of misinformation in which we were said to be bumbling along, or else just pursuing one or two suspects in some ruthless vendetta. Much of what appeared in the press was orchestrated by particular sources wishing to discredit the Boulder Police Department. We watched the media spun, while we were prohibited from exercising First Amendment rights. As disappointment and frustration pervaded, detectives would remark to one another, "if it reaches a particular point, I'm walking away."
But we would always tolerate it "just one more time." Last year, when we discovered hidden cameras inside the Ramsey house, only to realize the detectives had been unwittingly videotaped, this should have rocked the police department off its foundation. Instead, we allowed that, too, to pass without challenge.
The detectives' enthusiasm became simply resigned frustration, acquiescing to that which should never have been tolerated. In the media blitz, the pressure of the whole world watching, important decisions seemed to be premised on "how it would play" publicly.
Among at least a few of the detectives, "there's something wrong here" became a catch phrase. I witnessed others having to make decisions which impacted their lives and careers, watched the soul searching that occurred as the ultimate questions were pondered. As it goes, "evils that befall the world are not nearly so often caused by bad men, as they are by good men who are silent when an opinion must be voiced." Although several good men in the police department shouted loudly behind closed doors, the organization stood deafeningly silent at what continued to occur unchallenged.
Last Spring, you, too, seemed at a loss. I was taken aback when I was reminded of what happened to Commander Eller when he stuck his neck out. When reminded how politically powerful the DA was. When reminded of the hundreds of other cases the department had to file with this district attorney's office, and that this was but one case. And finally, when I was asked, "what do you want done? The system burned down?", it struck me dumb. But when you conceded that there were those inside the DA's office we had to simply accept as "defense witnesses", and when we were reduced to simply recording our objections for "documentation purposes" -- I knew I was not going to participate in this much longer.
I believe the district attorney's office is thoroughly compromised. When we were told by one in the district attorney's office, months before we had even completed our investigation, that this case "is not prosecutable," we shook our heads in disbelief. A lot could have been forgiven, the lesser transgressions ignored, for the right things done. Instead, those in the district attorney's office encouraged us to allow them to "work their magic" (which I never fully understood. Did that "magic" include sharing our case file information with the defense attorneys, dragging feet in evidence collection, or believing that two decades of used-car-dealing-style-plea-bargaining was somehow going to solve this case?). Right and wrong is just that. Some of these issues were not shades of gray. Decision should have been made as such. Whether a suspect a penniless indigent with a public defender, or otherwise.
As contrasted by my experiences in Georgia, for example, where my warrant affidavits were met with a sense of support and an obligation to the victim. Having worked with able prosecutors in other jurisdictions, having worked cases where justice was aggressively sought, I have familiarity with these prosecution professionals who hold a strong sense of justice. And then, from Georgia, the Great Lakes, the East Coast, the South, I would return to Boulder, to again be thoroughly demoralized.
We delayed and ignored, for far too long, that which was "right", in deference of maintaining this dysfunctional relationship with the district attorney's office. This wasn't a runaway train that couldn't be stopped. Some of us bit our tongues as the public was told of this "renewed cooperation" between the police department and the district attorney's office -- this at the very time the detectives and those in the district attorney's office weren't even on speaking terms, the same time you had to act as a liaison between the two agencies because the detectives couldn't tolerate it. I was quite frankly surprised, as you remarked on this camaraderie, that there had not yet been a fistfight.
In Boulder, where the politics, policies, and pervasive thought has held for years, a criminal justice system designed to deal with such an event was not in place. Instead, we had an institution that when needed most, buckled. The system was paralyzed, as to this day one continues to get away with murder.
Will there be a real attempt at justice? I may be among the last to find out. The department assigned me some of the most sensitive and critical assignments in the Ramsey case, including search warrants and affidavits, the Atlanta projects, the interviews of the Ramseys, and many other sensitive assignments I won't mention. I criss-crossed the country, conducting interviews and investigation, pursuing pedophiles and drifters, chasing and discarding leads. I submitted over 250 investigative reports for this case alone. I'd have been happy to assist the grand jury. But the detectives, who know this case better than anyone, were told we would not be allowed as grand jury advisory witnesses, as is common place. If a grand jury is convened, the records will be sealed, and we will not witness what goes on inside such a proceeding.
What part of the case gets presented, what doesn't?
District Attorney Hunter's continued reference to a "runaway" grand jury is also puzzling. Is he afraid that he cannot control the outcome? Why would one not simply present evidence to jurors, and let the jury decide?
Perhaps the DA is hoping for a voluntary confession one day. What's needed, though, is an effective district attorney to conduct the inquiry, not a remorseful killer.
The district attorney's office should be the ethical and judicial compass for the community, ensuring that justice is served -- or at least, sought. Instead, our DA has becoming a spinning compass for the media. The perpetuating inference continues that justice is somehow just around the corner. I do not see that occurring, as the two year anniversary of this murder approaches.
It is my belief the district attorney's office has effectively crippled this case. The time for intervention is now. It is difficult to imagine a more compelling situation for the appointment of an entirely independent prosecution team to be introduced into this matter, who would oversee an attempt at righting this case.
* * * * *
Unmistakably and worst of all, we have failed a little girl named Jon Benet. Six years old. Many good people, decent, innocent citizens, are forever bound by the murder of this child. There is a tremendous obligation to them. But an infinitely greater obligation to her, as she rests in a small cemetery far away from this anomaly of a place called Boulder.
A distant second stands the second tragedy -- the failure of the system in Boulder. Ask the mistreated prosecution witnesses in this investigation, who cooperated for months, who now refuse to talk until a special prosecutor is established. Ask former detectives who have quietly tendered their shields in disheartenment. Ask all those innocent people personally affected by this case, who have had their lives upset because of the arbitrary label of "suspect" being attached. Ask the cops who cannot speak out because they still wear a badge. The list is long.
I know that to speak out brings its own issues. But as you also know, there are others who are as disheartened as I am, who are biting their tongues, searching their consciences. I know what may occur -- I may be portrayed as frustrated, disgruntled. Not so.
I have had an exemplary and decorated thirteen year career as a police officer and detective.
I didn't want to challenge the system. In no way do I wish to harm this case or subvert the long and arduous work that has been done. I only wish to speak up and ask for assistance in making a change. I want justice for a child who was killed in her home on Christmas night.
This case has defined many aspects of all our lives, and will continue to do so for all of our days. My colleagues put their hearts and souls into this case, and I will take some satisfaction that it was the detective team who showed tremendous efforts and loyalties to seeking justice for this victim. Many sacrifices were made. Families. Marriages. In the latter months of the investigation, I was diagnosed with a disease which will require a lifetime of medication. Although my health declined, I was resolved to see the case through to a satisfactory closure. I did that on June 1-2. And on June 22, I requested a leave of absence, without mention of what transpired in our department since Christmas 1996.
What I witnessed for two years of my life was so fundamentally flawed, it reduced me to tears. Everything the badge ever meant to me was so foundationally shaken, one should never have to sell one's soul as a prerequisite to wear it. On June 26, after leaving the investigation for the last time, and leaving the city of Boulder, I wept as I drove home, removing my detectives shield and placing it on the seat beside me, later putting it in a desk drawer at home, knowing I could never put it back on.
There is some consolation that a greater justice awaits the person who committed these acts, independent of this system we call "justice." A greater justice awaits. Of that, at least, we can be confident.
As a now infamous author, panicked in the night, once penned, "use that good southern common sense of yours." I will do just that.
Originally from a small southern town where this would never have been tolerated, where respect for law and order and traditions were instilled in me, I will take that murderous author's out-of-context advice. And use my good southern common sense to put this case into the perspective it necessitates -- a precious child was murdered. There needs to be some consequence to that.
Regretfully, I tender this letter, and my police career, a calling which I loved. I do this because I cannot continue to sanction by my silence what has occurred in this case. It was never a fair playing field, the "game" was simply unacceptable anymore. And that's what makes this all so painful. The detectives never had a chance. If ever there were a case, and if ever there were a victim, who truly meant something to the detectives pursuing the truth, this is it. If not this case, what case? Until such time an independent prosecutor is appointed to oversee this case, I will not be a part of this. What went on was simply wrong.
I recalled a favorite passage recently, Atticus Finch speaking to his daughter: "Just remember that one thing does not abide by majority rule, Scout -- it's your conscience."
At thirty-six years old, I thought my life's passion as a police officer was carved in stone. I realize that although I may have to trade my badge for a carpenter's hammer, I will do so with a clear conscience. It is with a heavy heart that I offer my resignation from the Boulder Police Department, in protest of this continuing travesty.
Detective Steve Thomas #638
Boulder Police Department
August 6, 1998