An Investigator Spills on America’s Tabloid-Favorite Unsolved Murder

Book review: Foreign Faction, by A. James Kolar
(Amazon| Book DepositoryPublisher’s site to support the author directly)

Burke Ramsey recently settled his $750 million defamation lawsuit against CBS and producers of the 2016 docuseries The Case of: JonBenet Ramsey, wherein featured experts and investigators announced their conclusion that he allegedly was his sister’s murderer. The series explores and attempts to resolve the ambiguities around the 1996 Christmas night kidnapping (or was it?) and murder of six-year-old JonBenet. As we know, the case ignited a media frenzy that would last for years, dominating tabloid headlines and drawing attention every time it had occasion to make the news again. (Example: just within the past week, an incarcerated pedophile has confessed although it’s unlikely to be true.)

Reading about the undisclosed settlement reminded me that I hadn’t yet read a book that receives some mention in that series, including the author, James Kolar, appearing in the investigator discussion group. Kolar is currently Chief Marshal in Telluride, Colorado. He began working for the Boulder District Attorney’s office in 2004 and from 2005-2006 was its lead investigator, including on the Ramsey case.

Normally I avoid self-published books. But Kolar created a publishing entity in order to write “the truth” about the Ramsey investigation without restrictions from publishing houses. I’m not sure if that’s the whole story, but I’m impressed by the initiative. Fair warning that, as with many self-published books, there are more editorial errors, grammar mistakes, etc., than might appear in a major publisher’s finished product. (But honestly, I’m driven so crazy by typos lately on NPR and The Guardian that I can’t pretend copyediting standards are particularly stringent anywhere anymore.)

The writing is well organized, straightforward, informative, and easy to follow. I was impressed for a self-published work. And although I skimmed a bit, I actually finished it, unlike what’s considered the definitive book on the Ramsey case, Perfect Murder, Perfect Townwhich was a meandering, never-ending, encyclopedic slog that I felt wonderfully free after abandoning.

My final caveat: I was hesitant to review this because, magnetic as it is, there are better things to talk about than this case, which has been debated and screamed about from tabloid covers for decades. But two things make it worthwhile to examine: first, there was a miscarriage of justice, bolstered by multiple parts of the investigation going very wrong, which has allowed someone to get away with murder. Second, it’s just an undeniably compelling mystery.

As Kolar quotes University of Colorado Law Professor Paul Campos regarding a letter from the DA exonerating the Ramseys, “Everyone knows that relative immunity from criminal conviction is something money can buy. Apparently another thing it can buy is an apology for even being suspected of a crime you probably already would have been convicted of committing if you happened to be poor.”

That’s a major reason why I think it’s still worth discussing, because regardless of opinion on guilt, something went wrong here. Even supportive friends of the Ramseys were upset by their behavior throughout the investigation, which was influenced by social, economic, and political factors that never should’ve carried any weight.

And I know there are so many children missing or murdered who don’t get near the stratospheric levels of attention this thing has, but setting aside that JonBenet was a pageant participant and “beautiful” child that we like to lament over (remember, this was pre-Toddlers and Tiaras, and our gawking at JonBenet helped ignite the trainwreck fascination with this side-show horror hobby), the basic facts of this story, regardless of who was responsible, are confounding. It has a locked-room mystery feeling to it, I think part of why it’s endured in public fascination so long.

Kolar opens with an imagining of the “intruder theory”, which is the alternative if you don’t believe someone in the house was responsible. This explains the hilariously named “small foreign faction” of the infamous novel-length ransom note, one of those confounding elements of this story. I largely skimmed this bit because I find the intruder theory hard to buy and wanted to get to the evidence.

Then he explains his involvement in the case, some years after the eye of the storm but no less an ongoing investigation. As expected with the level of obsession the story has always inspired, Kolar discovered that the public had plenty of weirdness to contribute:

The leads that streamed into my office on JonBenét were nothing less than goofy and bizarre:

A woman sent in a child’s craft kit for a small loom that made kitchen hot-pads. No explanation provided.
Lengthy, indecipherable audio tapes were accompanied by dozens of unreadable chicken scratches of handwriting.
What could only be described as “manuscripts” were submitted that outlined intruder theories, identified traders of child sex pornography, and participants engaged in kinky sex rings.

As he sifted through evidence, Kolar perceived a desire to confirm the crime was committed by a stranger when the evidence was telling a different story. If you’ve seen the controversial docuseries, you’re familiar with the big points made for this argument, including: unidentified male DNA on new underwear could’ve come from the manufacturing process; a near-unintelligible bit of audio at the end of the 911 call indicates Burke was present when the call was made despite the Ramseys’ insistence he was asleep; a spiderweb in the downstairs window wasn’t disturbed, making it impossible an intruder could’ve entered and exited the home there as alleged; a flashlight found in the kitchen perfectly fit the indentation on her head; and a piece of toy train track exactly matches marks on her body whereas a stun gun, as previously theorized, doesn’t. It all culminates in a speculative scenario relating to the bowl of pineapple seen in an eerie crime scene video.

It seems that much of the show was based on this book, with the investigators and experts featured (including Jim Clemente and Laura Richards and forensic superstars, Drs. Werner Spitz and Henry Lee) testing out many of the theories described here before coming to the unanimous conclusion about what they believe occurred. The show spells that theory out explicitly, hypothesizing that Burke hit her and the parents covered it up; whereas for legal reasons, Kolar was unwilling to say so directly and instead presents the evidence as he interprets it and invites the reader to reach their own conclusions.

I liked the series and found much of it convincing, though parts were problematic or weird (why did they decorate the walls in the reconstruction of the house? There were vitrines!), so I was already familiar with most of the theories here. He expands on them and covers lots of curious angles and details – it’s nothing if not thorough. It’s obvious how much time he’s spent working and thinking on this case; he has an answer for every question.

My biggest remaining question mark was that if the parents did cover up an accident (allegedly!), why do that instead of immediately calling for help? The idea is that they wanted to protect their son, but he wouldn’t have been prosecuted, and the staging seems far too complicated. Kolar hypothesizes, in part:

…I didn’t think that Patsy would ever be able to live down the “loss of face” if it came to be known that JonBenét had suffered either an accidental, or intentional death, at the hands of a member of her household.

It is speculative in areas where actual evidence is lacking, which isn’t ideal, but it provides an investigator’s outline of a possible narrative. It’s strongest when he’s laying out his interpretations of the evidence, but loses momentum somewhat in passages describing the complicated ordeal around then-DA Alex Hunter’s office and how the investigation was mismanaged.

Interestingly, Kolar dedicates the book to the Boulder police, who he says were unfairly maligned when the real problem was the Ramseys’ stonewalling and outsized influence on the process and in the community.

In our pursuit of truth and justice, not only for this little girl, but for all of the other innocent people wrongly accused by her family, isn’t it our responsibility as criminal investigators and prosecutors to go in search of it?

A detailed, page-turning read that doesn’t have all the answers, but is that even possible in this case? It was years before I ever read anything about the Ramsey case, but reading Foreign Faction, it’s easy to see why this sad story has captivated us for so long. 3.5/5

Foreign Faction: Who Really Kidnapped JonBenet?
by A. James Kolar
published by Ventus Publishing in 2012

Amazon| Book DepositoryPublisher’s site to support the author directly

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20 thoughts on “An Investigator Spills on America’s Tabloid-Favorite Unsolved Murder

  1. I’m in the camp of how law enforcement utterly bungled this case. As a lifetime lover of mysteries and, more recently, police procedurals, it was appalling to see how the scene and evidence weren’t preserved and the police went down the rabbit hole approach of making the suspects fit the evidence. Then, and this is the big one for me, there’s the question of motive. What was done to JonBenet was horrendous and would have been done by someone enraged with her or someone in that family. No one could ever present anything to support this kind of emotion against that child by the parents or her brother.

    Rant over. My apologies as this has stuck in my craw for years.

    I watched a much more credible documentary of this case last year that cast aspersions on everyone involved because it did what a documentary was supposed to do…present an unbiased, objective view of the facts. I watched the CBS performance and was stunned at what they left out that was point of fact. I understand why Burke received a settlement. In the interest of full disclosure, Burke was my suspect for quite some time. I abandoned that theory after learning the specific details of what was done to JonBenet and other evidence (or lack thereof).

    I think I’ll take a pass on this one.

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    1. I agree, the investigation was hopelessly bungled, so much so that I can’t imagine a resolution to this case is possible. What’s the other documentary that you found more unbiased? I haven’t watched or read much beyond what I mentioned here so maybe that’s why the evidence they presented was compelling to me (aside from some that was made so over the top for TV).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s called “The Killing of JonBenét: The Truth Uncovered” and was produced for A&E Network. When you Google “JonBenet documentary,” what comes up is that absurd CBS series. I found a review that pretty much sums up my own feelings. I can’t emphas strongly enough how utterly awful it was in terms of investigating reporting. Here’s the link to the IMDB page with the review:

        https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6087230/

        If you can find this program, you’ll understand my ire:) Thank you so much for allowing me to post my views. I followed this case from the onset, real time, and remember how terrible the case was conducted. JonBenet Ramsey deserves better.

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      2. Of course you can post your views, thanks for sharing! I think we can agree that the investigation was a mess all around. I’ll try to track down that documentary, sounds interesting. I’m not sure I could ever be convinced that what happened was due to any outside involvement but I’m interested in what other evidence says to other investigators.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! It could definitely benefit from a thorough accounting. I’d always heard the other book I mentioned, Perfect Murder Perfect Town, is the definitive one but I thought it was so dull and unfocused and couldn’t finish it. This one is much more interesting but admittedly laser-focused on its thesis without too much alternative perspective.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I was wondering how she’d framed it in that book! I’d googled it after you mentioned it to me and couldn’t find a spoiler explaining where the plot went with it.

      It is such a fascinating but baffling case.

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  2. Excellent review. This is a case that was mangled from the beginning. All of the lies and deceit regarding this case is so ridiculous. It’s a sad case that may not be truly solved even with all the technological advancements we have today.

    Liked by 1 person

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