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The Intruder Theory

Alex Hunter, embattled and frustrated, had hit his limit. In March 1997, three months after the brutal murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey, the Boulder, Colo., district attorney decided to get help in solving the crime. He turned to Lou Smit, a seasoned Colorado Springs homicide detective who'd recently retired. Smit had a reputation as a no-nonsense "evidence man"--a dogged investigator who often solved complex murders after others had given up.

Smit's job was to examine the police theory that one or both of JonBenet's parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, were involved in the crime. As Smit began reviewing the evidence, he instead became convinced that someone had broken into the house and murdered JonBenet while her family slept. At odds with the police, who continued to pursue the parents, Smit was kept to the sidelines, and resigned in protest in September 1998. (Boulder police declined to comment for this story.)

Loyal to the cop's code never to talk about an ongoing investigation, Smit refused to publicly share the evidence that led him to his "intruder theory." But now Smit is breaking his silence. In an extensive interview with NEWSWEEK, the 64-year-old investigator laid out his theory, which raises questions about the police's handling of the case--and points away from the parents. Even so, Smit's theory doesn't solve the case. He still can't answer the key question: who killed JonBenet? And his theory can't disprove the police case against the Ramseys, who officially remain under an "umbrella of suspicion." The Ramseys--who have always denied involvement in the murder--will come out with their own book, "The Death of Innocence," this week and appear in television interviews. Smit says he has no relationship with the Ramseys, but it's probably no coincidence that his revelations are timed to take full advantage of the latest publicity blitz. Smit wants to put pressure on the police to take his evidence seriously. "There's a vicious killer out there," he says. "And nobody is looking for him."

When Smit first began looking into the murder, the prevailing police theory was that one of the parents had bludgeoned their daughter in a fit of rage--perhaps because she had wet the bed--and then one or both of them covered up the crime by staging a strangulation and penning a phony ransom note. Smit, too, thought the parents were the likely culprits. But as he examined the evidence, including police crime-scene photos and video, he began to have doubts.

A basement window was open, and the window well outside showed signs of fresh disturbance. But the police inexplicably rejected an officer's request to bring in police dogs to find a possible scent trail. Smit noticed leaves and debris, including foam packing peanuts, outside the house in the window well. Inside the basement, he saw similar leaves and foam peanuts, including one 60 feet away in the room where JonBenet was found--a possible sign an intruder coming through the window had tracked the debris through the basement. "The wind sure didn't blow those in there," Smit says. Smit also saw a fresh print from a Hi-Tec shoe, a brand no one in the family owned.

Examining autopsy photos, Smit noticed unusual sets of abrasions on JonBenet's back and face. Smit wondered if they had been made by a stun gun--an unlikely weapon for a parent to use on a child. Smit measured the marks and discovered they matched a brand of stun gun called the Air Taser. He began to believe the killer may have used the stun gun on JonBenet as she slept, then carried her to the basement. The Boulder police were skeptical of Smit's stun-gun theory, and showed some of the autopsy pictures to Arapahoe County coroner Dr. Michael Doberson, who had researched stun-gun wounds. Doberson said he didn't think the marks were from a stun gun. But recently, NEWSWEEK asked Doberson to review Smit's stun-gun evidence. Doberson says the police never showed him Smit's pictures comparing the size and orientation of the marks with the electrical contacts on the Air Taser. He now calls Smit's stun-gun theory "compelling."

Another key part of the police case--that JonBenet had been struck on the head, then strangled to throw off police--also didn't add up in Smit's view. The autopsy showed signs she struggled while being strangled, something she couldn't have done if she'd been dealt a skull-crushing blow. The massive skull fracture barely bled, a sign that she was already near death from strangulation at the time she was struck. What's more, the garrote used to strangle JonBenet, made of rope and the broken end of one of Patsy Ramsey's paintbrushes, was an elaborate instrument of death--an unlikely tool for the Ramseys to have fashioned in the panicked minutes after allegedly striking her. Smit discovered a wood splinter, apparently from the brush handle, on the carpet just outside the room where she was found. Police found fibers from the same carpet on a baseball bat in the bushes outside the house, leading Smit to believe the killer used it to bludgeon JonBenet. DNA found under JonBenet's fingernails and in her underpants was male, but did not match John Ramsey's.

Smit believes the police were right to focus on the family at first. But he's dismayed at their reluctance to investigate alternatives. Smit thinks the killer spent time inside the house before the murder, getting familiar with the layout. He may have broken in while the family was out earlier that night, giving him time to write the ransom note on Patsy Ramsey's stationery. (State officials cleared John Ramsey of writing the note, and a Secret Service examiner concluded there was "no evidence" that Patsy had written it.) Now retired, Smit says he continues to pursue a list of more than a dozen possible suspects. An appealing pro-Ramsey theory, but neither Smit nor anyone else has come forward with credible candidates to fill the role of intruder. "This old detective hasn't given up yet," he says. He may be the last one who hasn't. Last week Hunter announced he won't seek another term this year--the latest life shaken by the death of a little girl.