Evidence man

                    Persistence, keen eye have helped
                    sleuth solve other killings

                    By Todd Hartman, News Staff Writer

                    Retired detective Lou Smit had a
                    different view of the JonBenet Ramsey
                    killing even before he was hired to help
                    with the case.

                    It was March 1997, three months after the slaying, and Boulder
                    District Attorney Alex Hunter was looking to add some
                    investigative muscle. He wanted the longtime Colorado Springs
                    homicide cop on his team. First though, Hunter asked for Smit's
                    take on the now-infamous ransom note found in the Ramsey

                    "I told Alex, 'Look, I don't know if you're going to hire me, but I'll
                    give you a freebie,' " Smit recounted. "Whoever wrote this note
                    did not do it after the murder."

                    That would be the first of many times that Smit's intuition, refined
                    over a career spanning three decades and more than 200
                    homicide cases, ran counter to that of Boulder police.

                    Boulder detectives believed strongly that Patsy Ramsey wrote the
                    note in a panic after the 6-year-old girl was killed, sometime
                    between the night of Dec. 25 and morning of Dec. 26, 1996. Smit
                    believed there was no way that someone could have penned the
                    clearly worded letter in the adrenaline-filled aftermath of a killingf.
                    He also believed that its violent language could not have come
                    from John or Patsy Ramsey.

                    Eighteen months and countless disagreements later, Smit parted
                    ways with Boulder authorities, convinced that their early fixation
                    on JonBenet's parents took the investigation the wrong way from
                    "day one."

                    Evidence pointed to an intruder, not the
                    Ramseys, Smit believed, and Boulder
                    authorities were eliminating some
                    suspects too easily and ignoring others

                    Smit resigned his position at the
                    Boulder District Attorney's office in
                    September 1998 but vowed to continue the search for JonBenet's
                    killer independently.

                    Since then, Smit, 66, has devoted thousands of hours of his own
                    time to finding the killer, and pushing for the Boulder police to shift
                    their focus.

                    In a home office in his small duplex, pictures of the girl hang on
                    the doors of a supply cabinet. Boxes of material related to the
                    case rest on shelves. His computer is filled with Ramsey-related
                    material, including a growing list of information about possible

                    Smit said he works only for JonBenet -- not her parents, as some
                    have claimed. He hasn't taken a nickel from the Ramseys, he said,
                    and has turned away numerous offers to sell his story. "I could
                    have made a fortune," he said.

                    Smit started his law enforcement career at the Colorado Springs
                    police department in 1966. Later he worked for the El Paso
                    County Coroner's Office, the district attorney's office as an
                    investigator and the sheriff's office as captain of detectives.

                    Over the years, Smit gained a reputation as an "evidence man."
                    He solved cases through meticulous organization of case files,
                    keen attention to detail and a willingness to do the tedious work
                    necessary, as well as a talent for building rapport with criminals.

                    Robert Russel, a former district attorney in El Paso County,
                    recently filed a court affidavit on behalf of Smit, describing his
                    work in the region as "near legendary" and calling him "the best
                    police detective I have ever known."

                    Smit's track record includes catching the killer of Karen Grammer --
                    actor Kelsey Grammer's sister -- a 1975 case he cracked, in part,
                    by his habit of driving by the crime scene every morning to sip his
                    coffee, say a little prayer and hope he may notice something he
                    missed before.

                    In this case, the scene was an alley. After two or three weeks of
                    his morning visits, Smit was struck by the idea that the killer,
                    instead of running out of the alley after the crime, went down the
                    dead-end to an apartment complex. That seemingly minor notion
                    led him to solving the case.

                    Reviewing the files of a 1982 case, he noticed a three-year-old
                    note from a Florida police officer who said he had caught a man
                    involved in a shopping-center murder case similar to the one Smit
                    was reviewing in Colorado Springs. According to the letter, the
                    man once lived in Colorado.

                    Smit ran a check, but the man had no Colorado criminal record.
                    Just to be sure, Smit checked traffic offenses and hit pay dirt.
                    Three days before the slaying, the man had received a traffic
                    ticket on the west side of town, placing him near the scene of the

                    After a little more snooping, Smit visited the suspect in Florida,
                    broke the ice with some cigarettes, then bluffed. The man

                    In perhaps Smit's most famous case -- and one with similarities to
                    JonBenet's -- he cracked the 1991 kidnapping and murder of
                    13-year-old Heather Dawn Church simply by taking another look
                    at old evidence.

                    Studying the case three-and-a-half years later, Smit found two
                    things: a crime scene photograph showing a window screen
                    slightly out of alignment and a set of fingerprints taken off the
                    window that had never been identified. Police had tried to match
                    the prints, but Smit wanted to try again.

                    He had them plugged into additional databases. After searches
                    through more than 90 local and state archives, police agencies in
                    California and Louisiana showed matches. The fingerprints
                    belonged to a man living just a half-mile away from the Church

                    Robert Charles Browne confessed that he killed Heather when
                    she surprised him during a burglary. The conviction exonerated
                    the father, Mike Church, who had been under suspicion in the

                    "Luck," Smit calls it.

                    Thorough police work, his colleagues say.

                    "Lou Smit's thinking today is the same as it was 25 years ago,"
                    Russel said. "His thought process is to go get all the little pieces --
                    and he has the patience to do it."

                    It was Smit's habit of driving by the crime scene every day that
                    lead to criticism that he is too close to the Ramseys.

                    On June 6, 1997, three months into his work on the case, Smit did
                    his daily drive to the Ramsey house to sit and think. This time,
                    though, he bumped into the Ramseys themselves, who were
                    staying with nearby neighbors.

                    Smit and the couple waved to one
                    another, and both parties pulled over.
                    After some chatting, John asked Smit if
                    he would pray with them. Smit
                    suggested they do it inside his van.
                    Smit said Ramsey's prayer was to the
                    point: "I pray that someday this
                    nightmare will end and we will find the
                    killer of our daughter." Smit then wrote
                    up a report of the encounter.

                    Several Boulder law enforcement officials and radio talk show
                    critics have derided the prayer episode. They complain that Smit,
                    deeply religious, let his faith cloud his judgment of JonBenet's
                    parents, both devote Christians.

                    Smit laughs it off: "I've put plenty of Christians in jail." In a recent
                    book on the JonBenet killing, Smit is even quoted as telling a
                    colleague he'd follow the evidence "if it led to Jesus Christ."

                    The prayer with the Ramseys was sincere, Smit said, but it was
                    also about opening lines of communication between police and
                    the family. Smit said he was the first investigator on the case to
                    attempt to get close to the Ramseys -- a technique that has
                    worked time and again in Smit's career. Police hostility to suspects
                    is a mistake, he said.

                    Instead, Smit said, you want to learn as much as you can about
                    potential suspects. He is so good at building rapport, some of the
                    criminals he's put away write him letters from prison. Smit shared
                    beers in Hong Kong with a murder suspect and took another out
                    to dinner before the man agreed to show him where he had killed
                    a woman.

                    "I'll hug them, I'll kiss them, whatever it takes," Smit said.

                    Building rapport also can help a cop determine whether he's on
                    the right track, Smit said. After getting to know the Ramseys, he is
                    convinced they could not have killed their daughter. He describes
                    them as loving parents with no history of mistreatment of their
                    children. The brutality suffered by JonBenet came from someone
                    who "thinks and acts like a criminal."

                    Through the course of the investigation, Smit grew increasingly
                    worried that the Boulder police were spending the bulk of their
                    resources building a case for Ramsey guilt.

                    He describes the Boulder detectives as good people but
                    inexperienced in homicide investigations. One of the case's
                    leading detectives,* Steve Thomas, for example, had never before
                    investigated a homicide. He eventually wrote a book accusing
                    Patsy Ramsey of the killing.

                    When Boulder District Attorney Hunter decided to take the case to
                    a grand jury, Smit resigned, saying he could not be part of the
                    "persecution of innocent people."

                    "This case tells me there is substantial, credible evidence of an
                    intruder and lack of evidence that the parents are involved," Smit

                    Later, Smit sought to testify before the grand jury. After
                    prosecutors denied him, Smit took his battle to court, and won,
                    testifying in March of 1999. The grand jury did not indict.

                    Later that month, Smit won a court-ordered stipulation allowing
                    him to keep a copy of a computer Power Point presentation he
                    had prepared detailing his findings.

                    He admits he's "obsessed," calling the case toughest he's ever

                    Though retired, he continues to pursue it.

                    On a typical day now, he's up at 5 a.m. and at the YMCA by 5:30
                    a.m. to play racquetball and lift weights. He returns home to his
                    wife Barbara, reads the paper, does a crossword and takes a

                    After that, he often works the case. He sometimes works with
                    Ollie Gray, a Ramsey-hired investigator who also lives in Colorado
                    Springs. Many times, Smit is up until midnight, sometimes cruising
                    the JonBenet Web sites to read the latest chatter on the case.

                    This isn't the first time Smit has gone public with evidence. In
                    March of 2000, he granted interviews to Newsweek and local
                    newspapers. He discussed the open basement window, a fresh
                    print from a specific brand of boot, the garrote used to choke
                    JonBenet and a handful of other clues.

                    Now, Smit has taken public almost the entire case for an intruder,
                    withholding only some of evidence related to hair and fibers.

                    "I'm going to take a lot of criticism," Smit said. "But sometimes you
                    have to take chances."

                    Besides putting pressure on Boulder police to look harder at the
                    possibility of an intruder, Smit is trying to flush out new
                    information. Maybe, he said, somebody will see something. Maybe
                    someone will notice the knot, or garrote, and know someone who
                    can make one. It's worth a shot, he said.

                    Smit said that in almost every case, he is drawn to the victim's
                    shoes. Thoughts flash through his mind: When were they put on?
                    Did the victim have any idea it would be the last time? That those
                    laces never would be tied again?

                    JonBenet wasn't wearing shoes, but Smit believes that the
                    question, which he implores the police and public to ask, still

                    "Shoes, shoes, the victim's shoes," Smit wrote in his resignation
                    letter to Alex Hunter, "who will stand in the victim's shoes?"

                    On his computer screen, he displays the answer. Along with a
                    picture of JonBenet, the first slide of his intruder presentation
                    bears the message:

                    "Standing in her shoes is 'our' responsibility."

                    Contact Todd Hartman at (303) 892-5048 or

                    May 5, 2001