As the 20th anniversary of JonBenét Ramsey’s murder approaches, a series of true crime television shows, culminating with CBS’s two-part docuseries next week, are re-litigating the conspiracy theories surrounding the murder.
When the six-year-old girl was found murdered in her Boulder home on Christmas 1996, the case generated immense national coverage. A lot of the interest was propelled by JonBenét’s beauty queen competitions and the possible sexual nature of the crime (due to the posing of the body) — both of which turned out to have very little to do with the crime.
When I worked in Colorado, I quickly learned how easy it was to become obsessed with the case. Over the eight years I spent as a journalist in Denver, I met a number of people who’d been involved with the investigation in some capacity. Almost all of them advanced a similar view: One of the parents had killed her, and both had covered up the crime.
This isn’t exactly a contrarian position. It’s worth remembering that in 1999 (uncovered in 2013) a grand jury voted to indict both parents, John and Patsy, in the death of JonBenét. They voted to charge the parents with felony child abuse resulting in death, accessory to first-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death. Boulder’s district attorney Alex Hunter, as he had done many times before, decided not to move forward due to lack of evidence.
There was never compelling real evidence to back up the intruder theories, save a single shoe print outside that could have been left by any passerby. Other than that, no one could see any prints in the snow-covered December ground. The Boulder police had come up with a list of 25 reasons the intruder theory was unlikely.
Without a confession from at least one or the other, we will likely never know exactly what happened. Patsy Ramsey is now dead. But while it might be entertaining to contemplate conspiracies– and there is plenty of forensic evidence to talk about, as well — investigators were always being pulled in one direction for sound reasons.
There Were Never Any Other Suspects
Re-reading Lawrence Schiller’s “Perfect Murder, Perfect Town,” the most comprehensive and reliable book written on the topic, reminded me how well-founded and reasonable it is to suspect the Ramseys. One of the problems police faced was the prospect of figuring out which of two strong suspects they should pursue.
Every detective in the case’s infancy agreed on one thing: the biggest mistake in the weeks after JonBenét’s murder was the failure to arrest Patsy Ramsey and question her. “The detectives were sure that if only Hunter had agreed to jail Patsy—even for a short time—she would have caved in,” writes Schiller.
Cops argued that such an arrest was standard procedure when a child is murdered in the home. Then again, we’re talking about the quixotic folks in peaceful Boulder, Colorado. So nothing happened. The police had already allowed a contamination of the crime scene—permitting the parents and friends to move the body; at one point allowing a group to pray over JonBenét. (We won’t dive too deeply into the bizarre circumstances surrounding the discovery of JonBenét’s body by her father John in the clandestine room in the basement, where a witness claimed John cried out before even turning on the lights to see the body.)
Then there was the Boulder DA’s constant dithering and an activist detective who joined the investigation and became an advocate on the Ramsey’s behalf after bonding with John over religion. The police investigated everyone who had come into contact with the Ramseys. They traveled around the country chasing down leads. They spoke to countless experts. They interviewed all friends and family. They always ended up in the same place.*
The Killer Didn’t Act Like An Intruder
Every item involved in killing JonBenét was found inside the house, including the pad and pen used to write the “ransom note,” the broken paintbrush, duct tape, rope and ligature used to pose the girl (police had evidence that Patsy probably purchased the latter two items from a hardware store earlier that month) and the flashlight (the likely murder weapon).
This was a pivotal fact. The question investigators kept asking was: What kind of sophisticated, highly motivated sexual predator and would-be kidnapper breaks into a house planning an abduction and rape of a young girl without bringing a single tool of the trade with him?
Then again, what kind of highly motivated sexual predator and would-be kidnapper would feel comfortable hanging around a house long enough to write a three-page ransom note after he’d just murdered a screaming child (neighbors told police they heard a scream, but no one in the house did, allegedly)? If the perpetrator had enough time to write a note at the home, he had enough time to move JonBenét’s body somewhere else.
Even more importantly, why would he stick around to write a ransom note when the prospect of deriving any money from the crime had already been lost? The only reasonable conclusion, according to an FBI report—and almost everyone agreed the ransom note was written after the murder; the perpetrator could have brought one along if he had planned a kidnapping—was that the note had been left behind in an attempt to hide the killer’s identity and motive.
The Ransom Note Implicates Patsy
Other aspects of the letter pointed to an insider, as well. Or, I should say one insider.
The FBI concluded that ransom notes almost always have fingerprints or signs of “handling, creasing, or damage.” This one had nothing but evidence of Patsy. She also claimed she’d stepped over the three sheets of paper that were neatly spread across the bottom of a spiral staircase to get to the kitchen. Believing a child left it there, she returned to it later—which worked well for the timeline of her calling 911, etc. When detectives reenacted this scene, however, they found it was impossible. She could not pass without stepping on the papers. Either she forgot or lied.
The FBI’s Child Abduction and Serial Killer Unit had noted that JonBenét’s murderer almost certainly hadn’t commited a murder before. They also concluded separately that the ransom note was written by someone intelligent but criminally unsophisticated.
So it should not be surprising that the ransom letter was a mess of contradictions, composed by someone who had no purpose other than covering up a crime and diverting attention. As one investigator pointed out, many of the phrases—“foreign factions” and other silly terms—were curiously similar to quotes from movies that had recently been shown on TV. The letter begins with “Mr. Ramsey” and ends with “John,” and infamously includes a monetary demand that matched John’s recent bonus check—an obvious way to deflect blame towards his colleagues.
Moreover, lab tests also showed it was Patsy’s Sharpie pen used to write the note. The pen used to write the note—an FBI profiler estimates it took 21 minutes for the author to practice on the pad and then compose it—was found in a cup with other Sharpies right next to the phone in the kitchen where Patsy kept them. It was very conscientious of the murderer to put everything back where he found it.
While handwriting analysis at the time couldn’t definitively prove Patsy had written the note, of all the people police interviewed, she was the only one who could not be eliminated. A forensic document examiner named Gideon Epstein later examined the note and concluded that there was “no doubt” it was Patsy. Most agreed. Donald Foster, an expert who performed comparisons of phraseology and punctuation at the time, concluded that Patsy was likely to have “written and may have composed the note.”
You Need a Map to Get Around This House
There was another question that baffled investigators. How is it that an intruder had such familiarity in a stranger’s house?
For instance, only the family knew that JonBenét’s urine-soaked sheets and blanket—she was still struggling with bedwetting, a fact that fed many theories about Patsy accidentally killing her daughter in anger—were put directly into the washer and dryer so they wouldn’t stink up the house. Somehow the person who posed JonBenét’s body also did. Yet everyone who had access to the Ramsey home and would have known this was interviewed and cleared.
And what kind of sophisticated, highly motivated sexual predator and would-be kidnapper gets into a millionaire’s house without leaving any evidence of a break-in or escape, and no fingerprints? What kind of killer can put duct tape on a girl and leave behind not a thread of evidence? (The Colorado Bureau of Investigations established that fibers found on the duct tape around JonBenét’s mouth were consistent with the jacket Patsy wore on Christmas.)
When experts retraced the steps of the kidnapper in the dark, maze-like basement, they noted someone who did not know the house intimately could not get around—certainly not with a body.
Finding that hidden basement room—the room that people searching for JonBenét had initially missed—was improbable. In the dark? Almost impossible. Yet there was no evidence that any of the lights had been turned on that night.
“Who gives a f**k if every window and every door was open in the house?” Schiller quotes a cop saying at the time. A stranger entering the house for the first time would need a map and a guide, he went on.
The Staging Doesn’t Make Sense
If a stranger had really murdered JonBenet, he wouldn’t have to stage the body to make it look like a stranger had murdered her. Why would a stranger use a ligature to pretend to suffocate JonBenét, when he thought she had died from the head injury? Why would a stranger only loosely tie a cord around JonBenét’s arm—after she was dead—to feign she was constrained when she never was? The FBI called this a “staging within staging.”
The Colorado Bureau of Investigation had determined that the flashlight was the murder weapon and that it (and the batteries inside) had probably been wiped of fingerprints. Why would an intruder wipe the flashlight—and open it to wipe the batteries—rather than taking it with him when he left if it was the murder weapon? It’s more probable that someone from inside the house would have panicked and removed the prints.
According to FBI profilers, all of this and the time spent staging the body pointed to a killer who was trying make the murder look like an intruder’s work. It was someone comfortable in the house.
From “Perfect Murder, Perfect Town,” a damning paragraph about the killer:
The way the cord had been made into a noose—with the stick tied 17 inches from the knot—suggested staging rather than a bona fide attempt to strangle JonBenét. It suggested that the killer was a manipulative person, with the courage to believe that he or she could control the subsequent investigation. In short, everything about the crime indicated an attempt at self-preservation on the part of the killer. On the other hand, the killer cared about the victim and wanted her found. He or she didn’t want JonBenét outside in the dead of winter in the middle of the night. The child had been wrapped in a white blanket, her Barbie nightgown found lying next to her. Such caring and solicitude were not usually associated with a malevolent criminal.
None of it made sense if a stranger had done it.
The Ramseys Acted Guilty
It should not be forgotten that most of the investigators were taken aback by the behavior of the Ramseys from the moment the body of their daughter was found.
They had seemed distant from each other the entire morning, had never tried to comfort each other, and had remained physically separate. Patsy was looking around, peeking through the fingers covering her face, one police report said, while John was off by himself much of the time, out of Arndt’s sight. He had even gone alone into the basement at midmorning, after which time he had become despondent, sitting alone. The Ramseys’ refusal to grant formal interviews until four months after the murder was also highly suspicious, the police said.
John began making arrangements to fly his private jet to Atlanta with his family less than a half an hour after police showed up to remove his daughter’s body. The couple refused to cooperate with the police, soon hiring criminal attorneys. When they did offer interviews with police, the Ramseys made numerous demands that would undermine the veracity of the inquiry. They constantly laid blame on their friends– many of whom found their behavior puzzling. Patsy, one cop noted, had the ability to turn on and off the waterworks or use her Southern charm whenever it suited her. She spoke about herself as a victim and used phrases that were constantly making them suspicious.
Is it possible that someone who knew the family got into the house, pulled JonBenét out of her room upstairs, killed her, walked around the house for a few hours pulling together the many items needed to stage the crime, sat down for almost a half hour to write a ransom note, and then left without waking anyone up? I guess.
There have always been theories floating around about family friends or John’s older son from a previous marriage or JonBenét’s
younger older brother. All of them were cleared by police. It always seemed curious to me that people were prepared to blame the neighbors or John’s friends without a shred of evidence, yet unwilling to accept the predominance of proof pointing to the parents.
Anyway, the couple soon moved away and, like O.J., gave up looking for the mysterious killer. It’s a shame that this murderer was allowed to remain a menace to children of Boulder all these years. Fortunately, this madman, who employed such a distinctive and stylized way of killing a poor little girl, never seemed to resurface. Funny enough, though, few people were surprised.
*I guess that’s not exactly true. In 2008, Mary Lacy, then the extraordinarily incompetent district attorney of Boulder, had made it her mission to exonerate the Ramseys. She wrote a cloying open letter clearing the couple of any wrongdoing and then generated a lot of excitement around the country by arresting John Mark Karr, a weird man who was living in Thailand for conspicuous reasons. Karr had confessed to killing JonBenét. My newspaper—and every other major media outlet—rushed to send reporters to Bangkok to learn more. Macy, and others, used the self-generated story to attack those who had been critical of the Ramseys. Yet all rational people quickly discerned that Karr was unwell, and that he couldn’t have possibly had anything to do with the case. Karr was soon released. [Go back.]