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
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
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
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
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
"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