Catherine Winters and JonBenet Ramsey were once national news—only one still is

JonBenet Ramsey's name appeared in headlines again today. The Denver Post revealed that while Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter did not bring charges against her parents in 1999, the grand jury in the case had called for just that. 

It's a surprising new detail in an old case—but not so surprising if you're familiar with the saga of Catherine Winters. And not, comparatively, so old. 

Because a century ago, another prosecutor shocked his community by refusing to pursue another set of guilty-looking parents in another unsolved child murder—assuming Catherine Winters was murdered, which most did. Walter Myers dropped the charges against the missing girl's father and stepmother the very day their murder trial was set to begin. He too said he didn't have enough evidence to win the case, but most suspected Byzantine small-town politics was at play. The couple never again were brought to the courthouse. But they never were exactly free, either. 

That was in spring 1914. The previous year a grand jury had convened, collected the testimony of more than 100 people, then been abruptly disbanded by Judge Edward Jackson—later, as a KKK bribe-taker, the most notorious governor in Indiana history. Again it seems complicated maneuvering for position and party, petty jealousies among elected officials, came before solving the mystery of the lost 9-year-old. The judge forbade the grand jury from reaching a conclusion—which, it would be darkly hinted, condemned the parents—and barred any of their evidence from being made public. They too were sworn to secrecy.

Two photogenic, lost little girls. Two families whose private idiosyncrasies fueled the press and fascinated the public. Two sets of parents who attempted to use mass media for their own purposes but were ultimately used themselves. Two unsolved cases that revealed the limits of politicians and police, of human nature itself.

And there's one more similarity—both Catherine Winters and JonBenet Ramsey were once national news stories. Only one still is. Only time will tell how long.

Posted on January 28, 2013 .