BOULDER, Colo. -- A mysterious Santa Claus teddy bear unexpectedly emerged Thursday as a possible clue in the JonBenet Ramsey murder.
Boulder County District Attorney Alex Hunter released a one-page statement and a photograph of the toy, saying he needed help in determining where the stuffed animal came from.
The white bear dressed in a Santa suit puzzles authorities. Its whereabouts apparently are a mystery, adding a twist to the tangled 2-year-old case.
Family members say the bear did not belong to JonBenet, the 6-year-old beauty princess found murdered in her family's basement the afternoon of Dec. 26, 1996.
"It wasn't hers," said the child's aunt, Pam Paugh. "I believe it was on the other (twin) bed in JonBenet's room."
"It's an example of something left in the house that didn't belong there and wasn't owned by any member of the family. And, that's pretty significant, in my book."
Or it could be something more innocent.
Two nights before JonBenet's murder, her parents hosted a Christmas party for family members, neighbors and friends. A guest might have given JonBenet the bear without her parents' noticing.
Hunter's plea for help came two days after a visit to his office by detectives Tom Haney and Lou Smit, who served as consultants in the case. Smit resigned Sept. 20, saying that not enough attention was being paid to "substantial, credible evidence of an intruder."
The color photograph, apparently from the dozens of rolls of pictures shot by crime-scene technicians, depicts a fuzzy white bear, about a foot long, lounging in a red, long-sleeved bolero jacket. The bear is sporting a black belt with a small pouch for presents dangling from it.
In the picture, the bear appears to be on the comforter of a bed.
Hunter's statement included nothing about where the bear was found, what efforts have been made to explain its presence in the home, or why it could be important in the case.
The bear is not listed among the hundreds of items seized from the Ramseys' upscale Boulder home during the 10-day search that followed discovery of the child's body. That and Hunter's unusual public appeal indicate it's not in the possession of authorities.
"I make this public request for assistance knowing that it will give rise to considerable speculation about the status of the Ramsey case," Hunter said.
"I intend to let this speculation take whatever course it will, since to confirm or deny theories about what this all means would most certainly damage the ongoing investigation."
A dozen tips poured in within hours of Hunter's announcement. Hunter, whose staff has been presenting the case to a grand jury since Sept. 15, is hoping anyone who recognizes the bear or has the same kind of bear can identify: the manufacturer; the retail outlet that might have sold it; the time period in which the bear might have been available for purchase.
Longtime Denver prosecutor Craig Silverman, now in private practice, was surprised the bear is not among items seized as evidence.
"The general rule at a crime scene of this type ... is to take more, rather than less," said Silverman, "because, you don't know for sure what's going to be of importance -- as proved by this teddy bear."
Silverman said investigators possibly want to know more about it, for the purpose of identifying fibers found at the crime scene.
Fort Lupton resident Linda Hoffmann-Pugh, the Ramseys' housekeeper at the time of the murder, was unsure whether she had seen the bear during any of her visits to the Ramseys' 15-room residence.
"I don't think I have," said Hoffmann-Pugh. "It may have been on the other bed. I just don't remember for sure if it was or not."
One of the immediate responses to Hunter's plea for help came from a man in Elk Grove, Calif. He e-mailed Assistant District Attorney Bill Wise that he had down-loaded the picture, enhanced its colors and eliminated a yellow tone that he felt detracted from its usefulness as evidence. He e-mailed an improved version of the photograph to Wise.
"And it is, it's just a better picture," Wise said. "His response to me was, 'Glad I could help."'
(Charlie Brennan writes for the Denver Rocky Mountain News in Colorado. Staff writer Lisa Levitt Ryckman contributed to this report.)
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