This case needs no intro. It has it all. From family and beauty pageants, to mystery and murder. This is the story of JonBenet Ramsey.
It’s a little hard to believe that JonBenet Ramsey would be thirty years old today (the day I write this blog)- August 6th. I think it’s hard to picture her as an adult because, well… all we’ve known her as, is of a gorgeous blonde six year old little girl who competed in pageants. In fact, she was born almost a year after me… and I think that’s why this case always seems to hit me right in the feels.
Let’s start off with the history of the beauty pageant. Margaret Gorman, Miss District of Columbia, was declared “The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America” in 1921 at the age of 16 and was recognized as the first “Miss America” when she returned to compete the next year. During 1928 through 1932 there were no public national pageants held. In 1945, Bess Myerson became the first Jewish-American and the first Miss New York to win the Miss America pageant. Over the course of history, beauty pageants became a dime a dozen. Nowadays, you’ll find Miss America, Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss International, Miss Teen USA, and Miss Earth. And, let’s not forget all of the smaller-scale pageants thrown in counties and states across the US. Beauty pageants catch a lot of flack, but they (more often than not) allow contestants to go to school by giving them scholarships. They give these women opportunities to advance in life, and to spread the causes that are close to their heart.
My mom, sister and I would camp out in the living room every time the Miss America pageant would air. In fact, one year, my sister and I made crowns and attempted to dress up. I always rooted for Miss NY because well… I reside in NY. We did this every year, for a long time.
The reason why beauty pageants take a pivotal role in this case is because of Patricia “Patsy” Ramsey. Before she became JonBenet’s mother, Patsy was a beauty pageant winner who won Miss West Virginia at the age of 20 in 1977. (She would eventually go on and introduce JonBenet to the pageant world- no doubt to recreate her own beauty pageant success.)
Before meeting and eventually marrying Patricia, John married his first wife- Lucinda in 1966 and had three children. Unfortunately, the marriage didn’t work out and they divorced in 1978. John and Patsy were married in 1980 and had two more children. Burke was born in 1987, and in 1990- JonBenet was born.
JonBenet was born on August 6th 1990 in Atlanta, Georgia. Her first name combines her father’s first and middle names, and her mother’s first name was used as her middle name. JonBenét was enrolled in kindergarten at High Peaks Elementary School in Boulder, Colorado. (The Ramey’s relocated to Colorado when John Ramsey’s job moved headquarters.) While in Boulder, Patsy enrolled her very young daughter into child beauty pageants. JonBenét won the titles of America’s Royale Miss, Little Miss Charlevoix, Little Miss Colorado, Colorado State All-Star Kids Cover Girl, and National Tiny Miss Beauty.
Christmas day in 1996 was like any. Presents, most notably- a bike for JonBenét under the tree, and dinner at a close family friend’s house…all ending with an exhausted little JonBenet being put to bed. The next day was supposed to be the day the whole family set out for a Disney Cruise, but it turned into a nightmare instead. At 5:30am MST, Patsy begins to descend down a set of stairs so she can make a pot of coffee. It was then that she discovered a two and a half page handwritten ransom note. “You will withdraw $118,000.00 from your account.” (Equivalent to $192,360 in 2019) “$100,000 will be in $100 bills and the remaining $18,000 in $20 bills,” the note demanded. Oddly, that was the exact amount of John’s Christmas bonus. The note also said to not call the police. But Patsy calls 911, and also phones other family members and friends. The ransom note was unusually long. The FBI told the police that it was very unusual for such a note to be written at the crime scene. The police believed that the note was staged, because it did not have any fingerprints except for Patsy’s and authorities who had handled it, and because it included an unusual use of exclamation marks and initialisms. The note and a practice draft were written with a pen and pad of paper from the Ramsey home. According to a Colorado Bureau of Investigation report, “There are indications that the author of the ransom note is Patricia Ramsey.” However, the evidence fell short of a definitive conclusion. Michael Baden, a board-certified forensic pathologist, who had consulted with both sides of the case, said he had never seen a note like it in his 60-year experience, and that he did not think it was written by an outside stranger. A federal court ruled it highly unlikely that Patsy wrote the note, citing six certified handwriting experts.
Before 6am MST, Police officer Rick French arrives at the home and does a search. He went to the basement and came to a door that was secured by a wooden latch. He paused for a moment in front of the door, but walked away without opening it. French later explained that he was looking for a possible exit route the kidnapper may have used; which the closed inside peg ruled out. JonBenét’s body was later found behind the door.
With JonBenét still missing, John made arrangements to pay the ransom. A forensics team was dispatched to the house. The team initially believed that the child had been kidnapped, and JonBenét’s bedroom was the only room in the house that was cordoned off to prevent contamination of evidence. No precautions were taken to prevent contamination of evidence in the rest of the house. Meanwhile, friends, and the family’s minister arrived at the home to support the Ramseys. Victim advocates also arrived at the scene. Visitors picked up and cleaned surfaces in the kitchen, possibly destroying evidence. Boulder detective Linda Arndt arrived at about 8am MST, with the goal of awaiting the kidnapper(s)’ instructions, but there was never an attempt by anyone to claim the money.
At 1:00pm MST, Detective Arndt asked John Ramsey and Fleet White, a family friend, to search the house to see if “anything seemed amiss.” They started their search in the basement. John opened the latched door which Officer French had previously overlooked, and found his daughter’s body in one of the rooms. JonBenét’s mouth was covered with duct tape, a nylon cord was found around her wrists and neck, and her torso was covered by a white blanket. John Ramsey picked up his daughter’s body and took her upstairs. When JonBenét was moved, the crime scene was further contaminated, and critical forensic evidence was disturbed for the returning forensics team. It wasn’t until 10:45 MST that the Boulder County coroner’s team removed JonBenet’s body from the house.
A few days later, the Ramsey family went to the police station and willingly provided handwriting, blood and hair samples. John and Patsy participated in a preliminary interview for more than two hours, and Burke was also interviewed within the first couple of weeks following JonBenét’s death. The police later stated that John’s grown children, John and Melinda, were out of town when the murder occurred, so were never suspected. (John’s other daughter- Elizabeth had died in a car crash in 1992)
An autopsy revealed that JonBenét had been killed by strangulation and had suffered a skull fracture. There was no evidence of conventional rape, although sexual assault could not be ruled out. Although no semen was found, there was evidence that there had been a vaginal injury. At the time of the autopsy, the pathologist recorded that it appeared her vaginal area had been wiped with a cloth. Her death was ruled a homicide. A garrote that was made from a length of nylon cord and the broken handle of a paintbrush was tied around JonBenét’s neck and had apparently been used to strangle her. Part of the bristle end of the paintbrush was found in a tub containing Patsy’s art supplies, but the bottom third of it was never found despite extensive searching of the house by the police in subsequent days. The autopsy also revealed a “vegetable or fruit material which may represent pineapple,” which JonBenét had eaten a few hours before her death. Photographs of the home taken on the day when JonBenét’s body was found show a bowl of pineapple on the kitchen table with a spoon in it. However, neither John nor Patsy said they remembered putting the bowl on the table or feeding pineapple to JonBenét. Police reported that they found JonBenét’s nine year old brother Burke’s fingerprints on the bowl. The Ramseys have always said that Burke slept through the entire night until he was awakened several hours after the police arrived.
On December 29th 1996, the Ramsey family flew to Atlanta, Georgia. On December 31st, 1996, JonBenet was laid to rest in Marietta, Georgia next to Elizabeth. About 200 friends and family attended the ceremony. On January 1st 1997, JonBenét’s parents gave a “very difficult” 45-minute long interview to CNN from Atlanta, where they were now staying with family. While the Boulder police had been reassuring the community there wasn’t a murderer on the run, Patsy said on television, “There is a killer on the loose… if I were a resident of Boulder, I would tell my friends to keep — keep your babies close to you, there’s someone out there.” She added, “America is suffering because we have lost faith in the American family,” citing the example of the mystery of what had really happened with O.J. Simpson. “We are a Christian, God-fearing family. We love our children. We would do anything for our children.” (I can’t help but to think to myself as I write down her quotes, that they seem odd-sounding. It’s no wonder people would go to suspect her, but as a mother, I can totally understand that maybe… her sentences and words probably didn’t make sense because she couldn’t possibly make sense of the situation as a whole.)
The family wasn’t alone long after being in Georgia. On January 2nd 1997, investigators from Boulder flew out to Atlanta. Investigators were shocked to learn the Ramseys granted the TV interview since they had claimed to be too emotional to talk to the police back in Boulder. On January 3rd 1997, detectives announced that the ransom note was written on a pad of paper from inside the house, meaning that it was very likely that whoever wrote it, committed the murder. That same day, John and Patsy return to Boulder. Boulder police also decided to make a trip up to Charlevoix, Michigan to search a summer home that the family owned. At that point in time, the general public thought that John and Patsy definitely had something to do with their own daughter’s murder.
On February 27th 1997, JonBenet’s older half-brother who was initially believed to have been on a trip was brought in for an interview. His alibi, for whatever reason, was being questioned. On March 7th 1997, a handwriting analysis of the ransom note eliminated John, but not Patsy. The next day, police headed back up to Michigan to again search the family’s lake house. They reportedly were looking for “unhearsed” writing samples. About a month later, on April 3rd 1997, a second round of DNA testing was done. A few weeks later, on April 19th 1997, John and Patsy Ramsey officially became the case’s prime suspects. Boulder’s D.A. Alex Hunter went on to say, “Obviously, the focus is on these people.” Just over a week later, on April 30th 1997, Patsy was given a six hour “formal interview” while John was given a two hour interview. These new statements replaced the initial ones that were taken right after the murder. On May 2nd 1997, the Ramsey’s met with, and talked to Colorado media. During an interview, John stumbled over JonBenet’s name, and as a couple, addressed the rumors that were circulating about JonBenet being sexually molested. Patsy went on to say, “I’m appalled that anyone would think that John or I would be involved with such a hideous and heinous crime, but let me assure you I didn’t kill JonBenét.”
On July 14th 1997, the previously sealed autopsy reports were revealed. In them, it’s confirmed that there was a deep ligature wound around JonBenet’s neck and another around her right wrist — evidence she was bound and strangled. The reports also go on to say that blood and abrasions were found in her private area — and that she was struck on the head violently enough to cause bleeding and an 8.5-inch fracture to her skull.
A little over six months later, the Ramsey’s ask to review evidence before giving more interviews to the police. Their request is rejected, so John and Patsy refuse to give any more interviews. Two months after the police requested for the clothes that John and Patsy were wearing the night/day of the crime; John and Patsy submit their clothing on January 29th 1998.
Since it’s been 15 months since the crime occurred, on March 12th 1998, investigators call for a grand jury investigation. But it wasn’t until September 15th 1998 that the grand jury actually convened. JonBenet’s older brother, who was nine at the time of the crime, was interviewed. Originally, the Ramseys had said Burke was asleep the morning his sister was discovered missing — and didn’t wake up until the police arrived. However, in the 911 tape that had since been enhanced, Burke’s voice is reportedly heard in the background. It wasn’t until May 19th 1999 that Burke Ramsey was officially declared no longer a suspect. At this point, he was twelve.
The grand jury voted to indict John and Patsy Ramsey on charges of child abuse resulting in her death, but District Attorney Alex Hunter did not sign the indictment. On October 13th 1999, Alex Hunter said that there’s no “sufficient evidence” to charge anyone for JonBenet’s murder. At around the same time, Lou Smit (a homicide detective) was brought in to help solve the case. He came to the conclusion that the Ramsey’s had been unfairly targeted, and that an intruder was likely responsible for JonBenet’s murder, and staging.
Five months later, on March 17th 2000, John and Patsy Ramsey published a book titled, ‘The Death of Innocence’. One week later, on March 24th 2000, The Ramsey’s held a press conference to announce that the lie detector tests they took confirm that they are innocent. However, the tests weren’t run by the FBI and not acceptable to investigators.
Mary Lacy, the next Boulder County District Attorney, took over the investigation from the police on December 26, 2002. In December 2003, forensic investigators extracted enough material from a mixed blood sample found on JonBenét’s underwear to establish a DNA profile. That DNA belonged to an unknown male person, and excluded the DNA of each of the Ramseys. The DNA was submitted to CODIS, but the sample did not match any profile in the database. In April 2003, Mary Lacy agreed with a federal judge who sat on a 2002 libel case that evidence in the suit is “more consistent with a theory that an intruder murdered JonBenét than it was with a theory that Mrs. Ramsey did”.
With no answers in sight, and after being targeted by the police and press for years, on June 24th 2006, Patsy Ramsey died from ovarian cancer at the age of 49. And on June 29th 2006, she was buried next to JonBenet.
On July 9th 2008, (12 years after JonBenet’s murder, and 2 years after Patsy’s death) the Boulder District Attorney’s office announced that, as a result of newly developed DNA sampling and testing techniques, the Ramsey family members were excluded as suspects in the case. Mary Lacy publicly exonerated the Ramseys. (But guess what guys and gals! The official exoneration wasn’t done right and thus, the Boulder police still never cleared them!) Touch DNA suggested that a male of Hispanic origin’s DNA was found on two separate pieces of clothing- panties and leggings. This DNA evidence was in such minute quantities however, that the Colorado Bureau of Investigation believed that the DNA could have possibly come from the clothing’s manufacturing process.
In October 2010, the Boulder police reopened the cold case. New interviews were conducted following a fresh inquiry by a committee that included state and federal investigators. Police were expected to use the latest DNA technology in their investigation, but no new information gleaned from those interviews.
***Okay, lemme step back here for a second. I’ve basically laid out a highlight reel of the important details from the moment JonBenet was found missing, to 2010. I kind of feel like I’m rambling on, obviously in written form- and that I’m not really making any sense. Let me try and simplify what I’ve been trying to say…
There are two theories as to who could have murdered JonBenet.
Theory number one: a family member. Boulder police initially concentrated almost exclusively upon the parents. According to Gregg McCrary, a retired profiler with the FBI, “statistically, it is a 12-to-1 probability that it’s a family member or a caregiver” who is involved in the homicide of a child. The police saw no evidence of a forced entry, but they did see evidence of staging of the scene, such as the ransom note. They did not find the Ramseys cooperative in helping them solve the death of their daughter. The Ramseys had said that their reluctance was due to their fear that there would not be a full investigation for intruders and that they would be hastily selected as the key suspects in the case. Some believe that Patsy struck JonBenét in a fit of rage after a bedwetting episode, and strangled her to cover up what had happened, after mistakenly thinking she was already dead. But Patsy did not have a known history of uncontrolled anger. JonBenét’s brother later said, “We didn’t get spanked, nothing of the sort, nothing close, nothing near laying a finger on us, let alone killing your child.” The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey, a show broadcast on CBS on September 18th and 19th 2016, said that they used a group of experts to evaluate the evidence. The group theorized that Burke hit his sister in the head with a heavy object, perhaps not intending to kill her. They suggested that the ransom letter was an attempt to cover up the circumstances of JonBenet’s death.
Theory number two: an intruder. The police and the prosecutors followed leads for intruders partly due to the unidentified boot mark left in the basement room where JonBenét’s body was found. Early persons of interest includeded neighbor Bill McReynolds, who played Santa Claus; former family housekeeper Linda Hoffmann-Pugh, and a man named Michael Helgoth, who died in an apparent suicide shortly after JonBenét’s death. Hundreds of DNA tests were performed to find a match to the DNA recovered during her autopsy. Lou Smit (private investigator) deduced that on the night JonBenét was killed, there had been two windows that were left slightly open to allow for electrical cords for the outside Christmas lights to pass through- a broken basement window, and one unlocked door. Smit’s theory was that someone entered the Ramsey home through the broken basement window. This has been criticized because there was an intact cobweb in the basement window. The steel grate that covered the window also had undisturbed cobwebs, and the foliage around the grate had been undisturbed. There were also cobwebs in the tracks of various windows, and dust and debris were on some sills. Smit believed that the intruder subdued JonBenét using a stun gun and took her down to the basement. JonBenét was killed and a ransom note was left. Smit’s theory was supported by former FBI agent John E. Douglas, who had been hired by the Ramsey family. Believing that the Ramseys were innocent, Smit resigned from the investigation on September 20th 1998, five days after the grand jury was convened against the Ramseys. While no longer an official investigator on the case, Smit continued to work on it until his death in 2010. Stephen Singular, author of the book ‘Presumed Guilty: An Investigation into the JonBenét Ramsey Case, the Media and the Culture of Pornography’, refers to consultations with cyber-crime specialists who believe that JonBenét, due to her beauty pageant experience, could have attracted the attention of child pornographers and pedophiles. It was determined that there had been more than 100 burglaries in the Ramseys’ neighborhood in the months before JonBenét’s murder. There were 38 registered sex offenders living within a two-mile radius of the Ramseys’ home. In 2001, former Boulder County prosecutor Trip DeMuth and Boulder County Sheriff’s Detective Steve Ainsworth stated that there should be a more aggressive investigation of the intruder theory. One of the individuals whom Smit identified as a suspect was Gary Howard Oliva, who was later arrested in an unrelated case on two counts of attempted sexual exploitation of a child and one count of sexual exploitation of a child. In October of 2002, Oliva, now a registered sex offender, was publicly identified as a suspect in an episode of 48 Hours Investigates. ‘The Killing of JonBenét: The Truth Uncovered’, broadcast by A&E on September 5th 2016, concluded that an unidentified male was responsible for JonBenét’s death, based on forensic DNA analysis of evidence. The District Attorney’s office investigating pedophiles indicated to former Denver prosecutor Craig Silverman that the District Attorney’s office followed the intruder theory. The Ramsey’s developed a relationship with District Attorney Mary Lacy and her office, which was criticized by authorities such as the city’s mayor, Leslie L Durgin. Silverman said, “Once you have conceded the possibility of an intruder, I don’t see how any Ramsey could ever be successfully prosecuted.” Gordon Coombes joined the office as an investigator under Lacy when they were testing JonBenét’s clothing for touch DNA. He also said that Lacy strongly supported the intruder theory and talked about it with the staff. Although he was not directly involved with the case, he said he was told not to voice opposition to the theory because he might lose his job. “It just seemed weird the whole premise of … this attempt to influence the entire agency,” he stated.
John Mark Karr, a 41-year-old elementary school teacher, was arrested in Bangkok, Thailand, on August 15th 2006 when he falsely confessed to murdering JonBenét. He claimed that he had drugged, sexually assaulted, and accidentally killed her. In his confession, Karr had provided only basic facts that were publicly known and failed to provide any convincing details. His claim that he had drugged JonBenét was doubted because the autopsy indicated that no drugs were found in her body. DNA samples that were taken from Karr did not match DNA found on JonBenét’s body.
JonBenet’s murder has been overshadowed by defamation lawsuits. Lin Wood, the Ramseys’ family libel attorney, filed defamation lawsuits against several people and companies that had reported on the case, starting in 1999. They sued Star magazine and its parent company American Media, Inc. on their son’s behalf in 1999. A defamation suit was filed in 2001 against the authors and publisher of ‘JonBenét: Inside the Ramsey Murder Investigation’. The suit against Don Davis, Steven Thomas, and St. Martin’s Press was settled out of court the following year. John and Patsy Ramsey were sued in two defamation lawsuits arising from the publication of their book, ‘The Death of Innocence’. In November 2006, Rod Westmoreland, a friend of John Ramsey, filed a defamation suit against an anonymous web surfer who had posted two messages on Internet forums using the pseudonym “undertheradar” implicating Westmoreland in the murder. During a September 2016 interview with CBS Detroit and in ‘The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey’ documentary television program, forensic pathologist Dr. Werner Spitz accused Burke Ramsey of killing his sister. On October 6th, 2016, Burke filed a defamation lawsuit against Spitz. Burke and his attorneys, who include Lin Wood, sought a total of $150 million in punitive and compensatory damages. Wood said he would also file a suit against CBS at the end of October 2016. On December 28, 2016, Burke Ramsey’s lawyers filed an additional civil lawsuit that accused CBS, the production company Critical Content LLC, and seven experts and consultants of defamation of character. They sought $250 million in compensatory damages and $500 million in punitive damages. In January 2018, a judge denied the CBS motion to dismiss, and the suit was allowed to proceed. In January 2019, Wood announced that the lawsuit had been settled “to the satisfaction of all parties.”
That’s where we are now. Lawsuit after lawsuit because feelings get hurt, but no end in sight when it comes to solving JonBenet’s murder. Where is the justice for her? Christmas day of 2020 will mark 25 years of life without JonBenet Ramsey. One can only wonder, who would she be if she was still alive? Would she have gone on to become a true beauty queen? Or would she have given that kind of life up to do something else? What college would she have chosen or what profession would she have wanted to get into? Would she be married with children of her own? All questions with no answers. A life cut too short. A beauty queen that couldn’t be saved.