Ransom Note May Offer Clues in Slaying

By CHASE SQUIRES
The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 23, 2006; 10:19 PM

BOULDER, Colo. -- It is by far the most intriguing piece of evidence in the death of JonBenet Ramsey: the ransom note, 370 words written with a felt-tip pen and found in the Ramsey home just a few hours before the little girl's strangled body was discovered in the basement.

As prosecutors prepare their case against John Mark Karr in the 1996 slaying, the note is getting fresh scrutiny, and it is ready fodder for television talk shows and dueling experts. But can it be linked to Karr?

Unusually long for a ransom demand, the note raises a host of interesting questions. Does the handwriting point to a member of the Ramsey family? Is it the work of an intruder? What about the specific, relatively small ransom demand, or the lines apparently hijacked from movie thrillers?

And what could the cryptic initials "S.B.T.C." at the end mean?

Authorities have offered no clues, refusing to disclose any evidence in the case against the 41-year-old teacher, who is jailed in Los Angeles awaiting a transfer to Colorado.

The Rocky Mountain News on Tuesday cited a handwriting analyst who was "99.9 percent certain" samples written by Karr matched the note. On Wednesday, the paper reported that the same expert had been disqualified this year as an expert witness by a federal judge.

New York attorney Darnay Hoffman dashed off a letter to the Boulder County district attorney last week claiming his experts had proven Karr could not have written the note, adding "You may be the victim of a hoax."

David Krajicek, a former professor and co-founder of Criminal Justice Journalists, said the Internet has made it easy for reporters to find an expert in any field at a moment's notice. But it's not always clear who is the best qualified to comment.

And when it comes to analyzing handwriting or finding hidden meaning in cryptic passages, there's plenty of room for conjecture.

"You like to think the guy or the woman knows what they're talking about," Krajicek said. "There's no guarantee. This is not a medical science. So much of it is opinion, so much of it is punditry."

Mark McClish, a federal marshal and author of "I Know You Are Lying: Detecting Deception Through Statement Analysis," said reading the note and listening to Karr's statements can reveal clues, but they alone do not make a case.

"It is a valid science, but there are not too many absolutes," he said.

That said, some in the field are having no trouble being absolute.

Gideon Epstein, a forensic document examiner from Rockville, Md., wrote in 2001 that he had "no doubt" it was JonBenet's mother, Patsy Ramsey, who wrote the note. Another examiner, Larry Ziegler of Sterling, Va., agreed.

Hoffman, who said he had been intensely interested in the case, sent reports by both men to Boulder prosecutors.

In an online analysis of the letter, McClish picks at every line, finding inconsistencies throughout: The amount demanded, $118,000, is too small for a kidnapper. And it matches a bonus JonBenet's father, John Ramsey, had been awarded by his company.

The note is too wordy for the real thing, McClish says, and it's unlikely that kidnappers, even if they were from another country, would call themselves a "small foreign faction" or take the time to tell John Ramsey "we respect your business."

What can be learned, he said, is from what he calls subconscious references. The threat of beheading JonBenet in the note, a violent and uncommon threat, indicates a man was involved. Same goes for references some say are straight from Hollywood: The repeated threats that the "girl dies" are from "Dirty Harry," while the phrase "Don't try to grow a brain" is from the film "Speed."

But from what he has seen of Karr, McClish said he's not the same person who wrote the note.

"It does appear he may be living in a fantasy world," he said. "He's portrayed as being very meek and mild, and that doesn't go with the ransom note."

In his early analysis, McClish suggested the initials "S.B.T.C." under the word "Victory!" at the end of the note stood for "Saved By The Cross," a reference to Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Stephen Sauer, assistant professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said "saved by the cross" is a short statement of faith that has its roots in many Christian religions.

It is less common in the Catholic faith, but not an uncommon reference among some Protestants, Sauer said.

After Karr's arrest, others linked the initials to a notation he made signing a classmate's high school yearbook as "Shall be the conqueror."

And Wednesday, the family of an ex-wife said Karr wrote letters to her and signed them "S.B.T.C." They did not produce any examples.

© 2006 The Associated Press