It ain't gospel

The decision by the country's most prestigious religious publisher to produce John and Patsy Ramsey's book is an insult to people of faith.

Published February 17, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

As the co-author of Donald Trump's latest book, and a hack writer who takes pride in offering literary services to a diverse clientele (in exchange for cash, preferably upfront), I sometimes find myself wondering where I'd draw the line. A book for Hillary Rodham Clinton? I'm not of her political stripe, but she seems a decent enough person. Besides, maybe she'd dish a few hot tamales on Bill. Augusto Pinochet? Hmmm. He is a somewhat important historical figure, and I somehow doubt all those people he killed were really commies, hell-bent on turning Chile into another North Korea. Still, how much dough would he be willing to part with?

Yet I can say with absolute certainty that I'd reject any proposal from John and Patsy Ramsey. Like many Americans, I'm under the strong impression that the Ramseys murdered their 6-year-old daughter JonBenet, just as surely as O.J. Simpson murdered his ex-wife Nicole and her visitor Ronald Goldman. That makes it strange indeed that the country's most prestigious religious publishing house is bringing out the Ramseys' book of recollections and recriminations. Thomas Nelson Publishers' announcement of an April release for their book, "The Death of Innocence:
The Untold Story of JonBenet's Murder and the Investigation That Failed Us
All," has been met with near-universal silence in the business, yet it raises a huge question: How did Thomas Nelson establish the Ramseys' innocence?

Before getting to Nelson's response, it's worth recalling that the Ramseys remain very much under suspicion, even if a Boulder, Colo., grand jury chose not to indict them for the Christmas 1996 murder of their daughter. In an extraordinary series of statements, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens (who has personally reviewed all the evidence in the case) made obvious that he thinks the Ramseys are guilty, even though the grand jury couldn't issue an indictment in the case.

Owens began an Oct. 27, 1999, press conference by saying, "For the past 34 months, the killers of JonBenet Ramsey have escaped justice." The plural "killers" cropped up several more times. "The killers in this case made some serious mistakes, but they are also very smart. They have stonewalled effectively and covered their tracks well."

Owens concluded with this statement: "Finally, to the killers of JonBenet Ramsey, let me say this: You only think you have gotten away with murder. There is strong evidence to suggest who you are. I believe that the investigators are moving closer to proving their case. They will keep pursuing you. And I am confident that each day brings us closer to the day when you will reap what you have sown."

In case the Ramseys missed this pointed message, Owens asked the Ramseys directly to "quit hiding" behind their lawyers and press agents and help him find the killers -- "no matter where that trail may lead." When the Ramseys responded that John Ramsey had hoped to speak to the governor, Owens responded with his most incriminating statement yet: "Mr. Ramsey is considered to be a prime suspect. It would be very inappropriate to meet with him."

So the question for Thomas Nelson is, what does the publishing house know that Gov. Owens doesn't? TN's publisher, Rolf Zettersten, has stated publicly that he believes the Ramseys have been falsely accused. "We think this is a faith story in the sense that their faith in God has certainly sustained them through the grieving process over losing their daughter in a terrible tragedy and through the ensuing years of false accusations and misleading statements about them and who they are," he told the Denver Rocky Mountain News.

In a press release from Thomas Nelson, the Ramseys maintained, "We have remained silent while baseless and slanderous accusations about our family were made by the frenzied media."

Zettersten did not answer my telephone or e-mail requests for an interview with Salon. (An assistant explained that no response would be forthcoming.) That left me looking into another recent decision by the religious publisher, in my attempt to understand what Nelson's motivations might be in the Ramsey case.

That other book is Misty Bernall's "She Said Yes," about the murder of her daughter Cassie Bernall in the Columbine High School tragedy last year. The early press reports of Cassie Bernall's death -- that she was asked by shooter Dylan Klebold if she believed in God, and when she said yes, he shot her through the temple -- were in fact disputed by a primary witness and police investigators soon after the events occurred.

Nelson's publicity materials for the Bernall book, however, make no mention of the controversy, and the publisher continues to sell the book capitalizing on the "she said yes" scenario. In its Internet advertising campaign for the book, the publisher quotes Newsweek ("Cassie Bernall said yes when asked if she believed in God -- and instantly became an evangelical saint"), as well as an earlier Rocky Mountain News story: "Bernall entered the Columbine High School library during lunch. She left a martyr."

Nelson's own blurb for the book begins: "On April 20, 1999, Cassie Bernall, a 17-year-old junior at Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado, was a typical teenager having a typical day. With the single word she said on that Tuesday, the life of Cassie Bernall and her courage in the face of death gripped the heart of an entire nation."

The Nelson division distributing the book, Word Publishing, strikes a similar note in its advertisements. "In She Said Yes, the mother of slain Littleton, Colorado student, Cassie Bernall -- whose last words were an affirmation of her belief in God -- shares in dramatic detail her daughter's journey from adolescent turmoil to finding faith in an age of doubt. Drawing on her own reminiscences of her daughter, as well as those of others impacted by Cassie's life and tragic death, Bernall has created a loving, but unflinchingly honest portrait of a young woman who paid the ultimate price for her faith."

After reading these claims, I sent Word Publishing an interview request: "As you know, police investigators, as well as some witnesses, have asserted that the original story -- that Cassie was asked if she believed in God, and was killed when she answered in the affirmative -- is most likely not accurate. In your promotion material, no mention is made of these developments. Instead, the original scenario is maintained. Could this omission possibly mislead customers?"

Word Publishing responded that it would grant no interview, though the company added, "The true story of the book is Cassie's miraculous transformation, not simply her death. However, when writing her book, Misty Bernall heard that there were differing accounts of the day's events. She went back to all sources in her book who reported on what they saw and heard that tragic day in the library and all wished their accounts to remain unchanged: they stuck by their stories."

As a hack writer, I fully understand that in our era, controversial figures require literary and public relations representation as much as they might need legal representation. I am fully in favor of legislation requiring such representation, to be paid from public funds if necessary. To be named a court-appointed hack would be a step up for the likes of me.

Yet as a regular churchgoer, it's my belief that because Cassie's story has been used as an evangelical rallying point for young people, a very high standard of accuracy should be demanded. Otherwise, a crisis of faith might well follow the discovery that the story that had brought one to belief, or inspired strong devotion, was bogus. The story of another student, Valeen Schnurr, does not appear to be in dispute and is equally heroic, though it did not end with her martyrdom. She did say yes when she had every reason to believe it would cost her her life, and she lived. I'd much rather have an evangelist tell that story to my children than one of questionable validity.

As for JonBenet, her sad story inspired an anonymous writer to paint these words on her tombstone in the St. James Episcopal Church graveyard in Marietta, Ga.: "No Justice in U.S.A."

Now, those are not the words of a hack, but of a prophet. And, as to the religious publisher's motives in publishing a book by JonBenet's probable killers, I suspect there is some good old-fashioned mammon worship going on here.

By Dave Shiflett

Dave Shiflett is a freelance writer living in Midlothian, Va.

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