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American Tabloid

PERFECT MURDER, PERFECT TOWN;\o7 By Lawrence Schiller; (HarperCollins: 622 pp., $26)\f7

May 02, 1999|ANN LOUISE BARDACH | Ann Louise Bardach is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair. She wrote about the Ramsey case and was the first to publish, in Vanity Fair's October 1997 issue, the text of the ransom note

The unsolved Christmas 1996 murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey, whose bludgeoned and strangled body was found in a basement room of her family's Colorado home, is a national obsession. Every week, we are treated to photographs of this cupid-faced child on the cover of the supermarket tabloids and ceaseless television viewings of videotape loops of JonBenet, ghoulishly made up and costumed seductively posing like a seasoned chorus girl. This child, whose family had paved the way for her future as a Miss America, has been inducted into that pantheon of popular culture, which includes Princess Di, Elvis and Marilyn.

Americans, of course, have always mythologized the murders of the rich or famous: the Leopold and Loeb victim, the Lindbergh baby, Michael Rockefeller. JonBenet's death is all the more intriguing because of her family's peculiar behavior and unique pedigrees--Mom a Southern belle and a Miss America contestant and Dad a self-made tycoon. Set against their daughter's grisly homicide, they put into motion an incendiary media frenzy.

Yet for all the reporting, the mystery remains: Why does the murder of this child, not the thousands of other American children who are killed each year, so relentlessly fascinate the country? Perhaps JonBenet, a beauty pageant contestant for a third of her brief life, with her dyed platinum blond locks, her doleful mascara-lidded eyes, is the perfect victim in the psyche of the American imagination. In the words of one serial child molester and murderer who was captured with a cache of photographs of JonBenet: "This little girl. She's the ideal. She's what I am looking for. She's perfect." How did America's obsession end up being the same as that of a psychopath's?

Into this volatile mix, comes one Lawrence Schiller. During the Simpson trial and saga, Schiller co-wrote two books: the first, "I Want to Tell You," written with the murder defendant, told us that Simpson was innocent. A second, "American Tragedy," written with James Willwerth, as much as came out and said the football star was guilty. Somehow, Schiller had it both ways and made a bundle to boot. Now he's done it again. His current offering, an encyclopedic treatment of the Ramsey case, compiled with Charles Brennan, serves up a condensation of all previous reporting and all manner of data and minutiae. When you close the book after some 600 pages, however, you are no closer to knowing who murdered JonBenet than you were before. Schiller has no theory, no suspects, no bombshell revelations and very little evidence that we haven't heard or read before. For those inclined to believe in the parents' guilt in the murder of their child, there is plenty here to deepen their belief. But like a host fearful of offending any guests, Schiller has something for everyone and dangles just enough suggestive hints to satisfy devotees of the "intruder school"--those hard-core believers who cannot countenance that such good Christian, affluent folks, like the Ramseys, could be involved in such a murder.

Although early on John and Patsy Ramsey were described by police as being "under the umbrella of suspicion," they have yet to be indicted. Because of breathtaking police and prosecutorial incompetence and rivalry, coupled with an aggressive pre-defense by the Ramseys' retinue of lawyers and publicists, the case remains murky. The Ramseys (who have sold their Boulder and summer homes and private plane) recently met with their attorneys for six days at their Atlanta home and are said to be prepared for an indictment. But some legal eagles speculate that although indictments are likely once the Boulder Grand Jury (which convened nearly a year ago and is still deliberating) concludes its work, the chances of conviction are dim.

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