The Sorry Saga of J.T. Colfax
Practicing the art of incarceration
by Richard Fleming
"I, J.T. Colfax, do solemnly swear that not only did I start a small fire in the Ramsey house on June 18, I also peed in their bushes."
Artist-provocateur J.T. Colfax pled guilty to attempted arson, criminal trespass and theft last month and was sentenced to two years in Boulder County Jail, where he's been locked up since last June. Looking back on his past year of perverse art stunts and arrests, Colfax says, "This wouldn't have happened in New York."
Though he's unhappy in jail, Colfax, whose real name is James Thompson, says last June he attempted to set fire to the University Hill house where JonBenet Ramsey was murdered because he wanted to get arrested. "I probably wouldn't be alive today if I hadn't been arrested," says Colfax, who suffers from depression.
Colfax's troubles with the law began last April when he was arrested for walking out of a grocery store in the Five Points section of Denver with a packet of photos he hadn't paid for. Police found the subject matter of the pictures disturbing: dead people posed with hand-lettered signs saying such things as "Getting fired isn't the end of the world" and "Yee Haw." One dead woman had a party favor in her mouth.
Still facing seven counts of corpse abuse, Colfax defends his camera work as a "light-hearted" joke. "It was just zany stuff," he says. "Not necrophilia, not murder like the cops wanted it to be. I explained it to them and I thought if I took the mystery out of it, it would go away. But it just got worse and worse and worse." Cops from every corner of the metro area converged on the alcoholic shock artist, trying to sweat out confessions to whatever unsolved murders they had cluttering up their files. Even when he was released after three days behind bars, Colfax found himself an unwilling host to a variety of drop-in visits from police. "They'd barge in and say, 'Got any body parts around here?'" Colfax recalls. Littleton detectives were particularly annoying. "One guy would yank letters I was writing out of my typewriter and take them."
Employed as a cadaver transporter by a Denver company, Colfax had snapped the photos in coroner's refrigerators, mortuaries and corpse storage rooms at the airport.
"I'd been doing it for years" in a variety of cities, says the Westminster native, who has drifted around the country and back again to the Denver area. "Sometimes in New York I'd show them at parties," he says of his cadaver photos. "People thought they were funny."
Now 33, Colfax has worked off and on for mortuaries and cadaver transport services since he was 19. During a hitch in the U.S. Army in the mid-1980s he served as a grave register clerk. "I've seen thousands and thousands of dead bodies," he says. "And a lot of severed heads. Sometimes (dealing with medical school specimens) I'd have to scoop heads off the table to clear a space to work."
When he was not working in the death industry, Colfax showed a penchant for bizarre art projects. His most ambitious was "The Clarksburg Project," an experiment that lasted a year and consisted of writing nearly every one of the 18,000 residents in Clarksburg, W.Va. about his daily activities, including graphic accounts of his sex life and drinking bouts. "I write things like, 'I'm sick and drunk and hungover and I just puked on the bedspread,'" he recounts. "I wanted people to be confronted with new thoughts and ideas which were totally foreign to them," Colfax told a German publication, Deutsche Presse-Argentur, one of a number of papers that did stories on his work.
Not all recipients of his confessional missives were grateful. "The guy belongs in the nut house," Hattie Clovis told The Washington Post.
"I'm not sick, I'm world-class jaded."
After his roust for the cadaver shots, Colfax again came to authorities' attention a month later, when some morgue log pages he had removed from the Boulder coroner's office were given to police by a Denver newspaper reporter, who'd received them from Colfax's roommate. One page contained an entry on JonBenet Ramsey, the 6-year-old beauty queen whose Dec. 26, 1996 murder remains unsolved. Instantly, the alcoholic prankster artist became the prime murder suspect. "They said I was obsessed with the Ramsey case, but if you go into a store and steal a Hershey bar, it doesn't mean you're obsessed with Hershey bars," he says
Held on a theft charge, Colfax phoned talk show host Jay Marvin of 630 KHOW-AM. Outraged that Boulder police were trying to hang the Ramsey murder on a destitute, unemployed patsy, Marvin bailed Colfax out.
However, the increasingly depressed Colfax had trouble enjoying his freedom, as police stepped up their surveillance campaign. "I was at a payphone on Logan and Colfax, and I got upset because I couldn't hear a message from this guy," he recalls. Colfax angrily beat the receiver against the phone and was at once surrounded by seven police officers, who jailed him for destruction of property
Released three days later on June 16, Colfax collected his duffel bag of belongings from a room he'd been renting at the Denver YMCA since he lost his body transport job and his apartment. He was killing time at the bus plaza at Colfax and Broadway when the idea came to him. "That's when I thought of attacking the Ramsey house" to get back at the police, he says.
He caught a bus to Boulder, drank some beer and made his way to 15th Street, where he was stopped by two New Jersey women who were looking for the house. "They got out of the car and took pictures of each other in front of the house. I told them what had happened to me and they took my picture," he says.
After smoking cigarettes on the Ramsey's patio for several hours, Colfax decided to go ahead with his plan. "I was drunk and exhausted and depressed. I wanted to change the channel. So I did a temporary Cobain." Colfax grabbed some clippings on the murder from his duffel bag, tore some pages from the Anne Rice novel Interview with the Vampire, lit them and shoved them through the mail slot in the front of the house. Nothing happened. "I knew the place wouldn't burn," he says now. After a time he took out some news clippings about himself, burned them around the edges and pushed them through the slot.
That night he slept at Mustard's Last Stand on Broadway. The next day he decided to call Boulder homicide detective on the Ramsey case and tell him what he'd done. Police found a burn mark on the baseboard of the home. Estimated damage was $500. Colfax was arrested and bail set at $50,000. He's been in jail ever since. "I probably would be dead now if I hadn't got arrested," he says. "(Jail) was a warm place to hide." On Jan. 17, Colfax agreed to a plea deal, getting two years. "I could have got 16 to 32 years," he says.
Jay Marvin believes there are better ways of dealing with him. "Jailing a guy like that is a useless endeavor," he says. "He needs a lot of therapy and that takes a lot of money and he's not going to get help in jail. He's just another guy screwed over by the system because he can't help himself."
While he's not looking forward to spending the next year and a half (at least) in jail, Colfax says incarceration has in some ways been good for his mental health. "I definitely feel better than that night," he says.