Death of JonBenét Ramsey
JonBenét Patricia Ramsey (/
JonBenét Patricia Ramsey
August 6, 1990
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
|Died||December 25, 1996 (aged 6)|
Boulder, Colorado, U.S.
|Cause of death||Asphyxia by strangulation|
|Resting place||St. James Episcopal Cemetery|
Marietta, Georgia, U.S.
The police initially suspected that the ransom note had been written by JonBenét's mother, and that the note and appearance of the child's body had been staged by her parents in order to cover up the crime. However, in 1998, the District Attorney said that due to a new DNA analysis, none of the immediate family members were under suspicion for the crime. Also in 1998, the police and the DA both said that JonBenét's brother Burke, who was nine years old at the time of her death, was not a suspect. The Ramseys gave several televised interviews but resisted police questioning except on their own terms. In October 2013, unsealed court documents revealed that a 1999 grand jury had recommended filing charges against JonBenét's parents for permitting the child to be in a threatening situation. John and Patsy were also accused of hindering the prosecution of an unidentified person who had "committed ... the crime of murder in the first degree and child abuse resulting in death". However, the DA determined that there was insufficient evidence to pursue a successful indictment.
In 2002, the DA's successor took over investigation of the case from the police and primarily pursued an alternative theory that an intruder had committed the killing. In 2003, trace DNA that was taken from the victim's clothes was found to belong to an unknown male; this discovery induced the DA to send the Ramseys a letter of apology in 2008, declaring the family "completely cleared." In February 2009, the Boulder police took the case back from the DA and reopened the investigation.
Media coverage of the case has focused on JonBenét's brief beauty pageant career, as well as her parents' wealth and the unusual evidence found in the case. Media reports have also questioned how the police handled the case. Ramsey family members and their friends have filed defamation suits against several media organizations.
Life and interment
JonBenét Ramsey was born in 1990 in Atlanta, Georgia, the younger of two children of Patsy (1956–2006) and John Ramsey (1943–). She had an older brother named Burke (1987–). Her first name is a feminized portmanteau of her father's first and middle names. JonBenét was enrolled in kindergarten at High Peaks Elementary School in Boulder, Colorado.
JonBenét was murdered in 1996 in Boulder, and was laid to rest at St. James Episcopal Cemetery in Marietta, Georgia. She was interred next to her much older half-sister Elizabeth Pasch Ramsey, who had died in a car crash four years earlier at age 22.
John Ramsey was a businessman who was the president of Access Graphics, a computer system company that later became a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1978, and his two surviving adult children (a son and a daughter) lived elsewhere. Another daughter, Elizabeth, died in a 1992 car crash. In 1991, John moved his second family to Boulder, where Access Graphics' headquarters was located.
Patricia "Patsy" Ramsey entered her daughter in various child beauty pageants that were held in Boulder. JonBenét had 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. JonBenét's active role in child beauty pageants and Patsy's reported "pageant mother" behavior were broadcast by the media after the murder.
In the summer of 1997—approximately six months after JonBenét's death—the Ramseys left Boulder and their summer home in Charlevoix, Michigan and moved back to Atlanta. Patsy died of ovarian cancer at age 49 in 2006 and was interred next to her daughter.
According to statements that Patsy gave to authorities on December 26, 1996, she realized that her daughter was missing after she found a two-and-a-half-page handwritten ransom note on the kitchen staircase. The note demanded $118,000 for the child's safe return—almost the exact value of a bonus her husband had received earlier that year.
The ransom note was unusually long, and 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 and included an unusual use of exclamation marks and acronyms. 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, they could not definitively prove it.
9-1-1 call and initial search for the child
The only people known to be in the house on the night of JonBenét's death were her immediate family: Burke, Patsy and John Ramsey. The ransom note contained specific instructions that the police and friends should not be contacted, but Patsy telephoned the police at 5:52 a.m. MST. She also called family and friends. Two police officers responded to the 9-1-1 call and arrived at the Ramsey home within three minutes. They conducted a cursory search of the house but did not find any sign of forced entry.[a] Officer Rick French 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 made a critical error when he walked away without opening it. Unknown to him, JonBenét's body was on the other side of the door.
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 8 a.m. MST, with the goal of awaiting the kidnapper(s)' instructions, but there was never an attempt to claim the money.
Discovery of the body
At 1:00 p.m. 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 finally opened the latched door that Officer French had failed to open 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. Ramsey made a critical error when he immediately picked up the child's body and took it upstairs. When JonBenét was moved, the crime scene was contaminated and critical forensic evidence was disturbed for the returning forensics team.[b]
Each of the Ramseys provided handwriting, blood, and hair samples to the police. 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 autopsy revealed that JonBenét had been killed by strangulation and a skull fracture. The official cause of death was "asphyxia by strangulation associated with craniocerebral trauma." 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 and at the time of the autopsy 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, both John and Patsy said they did not remember putting the bowl on the table or feeding pineapple to JonBenét. Police reported that they found JonBenét's nine-year-old brother Burke Ramsey's fingerprints on the bowl. The Ramseys have always maintained that Burke slept through the entire episode until he was awakened several hours after the police arrived.:w186–87
Mixed blood sample
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. The DNA was submitted to the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a database containing more than 1.6 million DNA profiles, but the sample did not match any profile in the database. In October 2016, new forensic analysis revealed that the original DNA actually contained genetic markers from two individuals other than JonBenét.
Experts, media commentators, and the Ramseys have identified potential suspects in the case. Boulder police initially focused almost exclusively upon John and Patsy, but by October 1997 had over 1,600 people in their index of persons of interest for the case.
Errors that were made in the initial investigation complicated the resolution of the investigation and applicable theory. Those errors included loss and contamination of evidence, lack of experienced and technical staff on the investigation, evidence shared with the Ramseys, and delayed informal interviews with the parents.[c]
Lou Smit was a detective who came out of retirement in early 1997 to assist the District Attorney's office with the case. In May 1998, he presented his findings to the Boulder police with other staff members of the DA's Office, concluding that the evidence pointed away from the Ramseys. However, they were unable to successfully challenge the police department's steadfast belief that the Ramseys were guilty. The DA's office sought to take control of the investigation. Due to the animosity between the police and the DA's office, and the pressure to obtain a conviction, Colorado governor Roy Romer interceded and named Michael Kane as special prosecutor to initiate a grand jury. Two of the lead investigators in the case had opposing views. Both of them, Lou Smit and Steve Thomas, ultimately resigned – Smit because he believed that the investigation had incompetently overlooked the intruder hypothesis, and Thomas because the DA's office had interfered with and failed to support the police investigation of the case.
A grand jury was convened beginning September 15, 1998 to consider indicting the Ramseys for charges relating to the case. In 1999, the grand jury returned a true bill to charge the Ramseys with placing the child at risk in a way that led to her death and with obstructing an investigation of murder, based on the probable cause standard applied in such grand jury proceedings, but Boulder County District Attorney Alex Hunter did not prosecute them because he did not believe that he could meet the higher standard of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, which is required for a criminal conviction.
Mary Lacy, the next Boulder County District Attorney, took over the investigation from the police on December 26, 2002. In April 2003, she 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". On February 2, 2009, Boulder police chief Mark Beckner announced that Stan Garnett, the new Boulder County District Attorney, was turning the case over to his agency and that his team would resume investigating it. Garnett found that the statute of limitations for the crimes identified in the 1999 grand jury true bill had expired, and did not pursue review of the case against the Ramseys. In October 2010, the case was reopened. 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. There was no new information gleaned from those interviews, according to ABC News. It was reported in September 2016 that the investigation into JonBenét's death continues to be an active homicide case, per Boulder Police Chief Greg Testa.[d]
Theories and suspects
There are two types of theories about the death of JonBenét. One is the intruder theory that was pursued by the Boulder District Attorney's office,[e][f] with whom the Ramseys developed a relationship.[g] Although the police may have had the Ramseys under an "umbrella of suspicion", they 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 suspects included 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.
Smit assessed the evidence and concluded that an intruder had committed the crime. Smit's theory was that someone broke into the Ramseys' home through the broken basement window. 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.[h] Believing that the Ramseys were innocent, Smit resigned from the investigation on September 20, 1998, five days after the grand jury 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 (3 km) 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 that Smit identified as a suspect under his intruder theory was Gary Howard Oliva, who was arrested for "two counts of attempted sexual exploitation of a child and one count of sexual exploitation of a child" charges in June 2016 according to Boulder's Daily Camera. Oliva, a registered sex offender, was identified as a suspect in an October 2002 episode of 48 Hours Investigates.
The Killing of JonBenét: The Truth Uncovered, broadcast by A&E on September 5, 2016, concluded that an unidentified male was responsible for JonBenét's death, due to DNA analysis. Dr. Lawrence Kobilinsky commented that the documentary showed that an intruder "committed that sexual assault and murdered JonBenet".
Family member theories
The second group of theories is that a family member was involved in her death. Boulder police initially concentrated almost exclusively upon John and Patsy Ramsey. According to Gregg McCrary, a retired profiler with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, "statistically, it is a 12-to-1 probability that it's a family member or a care giver" who is involved in the death of a child. From the police's perspective, they did not see evidence of a forced entry, saw evidence of staging like the ransom note, and did not find the Ramseys cooperative in helping them solve the death of their daughter.[i] The Ramseys had stated 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, according to the Daily Camera.
One theory is that Patsy struck JonBenét in a fit of rage after a bed-wetting episode, and then strangled her to cover up what had happened after mistakenly thinking she was already dead. However, she 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."
Burke, who was nine years old at the time of JonBenét's death, was interviewed by investigators at least three times. The first two interviews did not raise any concerns about Burke. A review by a child psychologist stated that it appeared that the Ramseys had "healthy, caring family relationships". In 1998, Boulder Police Chief Mark Beckner said during an interview with a news reporter that Burke Ramsey was not involved in the killing of his sister. In May 1999, the Boulder County District Attorney's office reiterated that Burke Ramsey was not a suspect. The investigators had never considered him a suspect.
A $100,000 reward was offered by the Ramseys in a newspaper ad on April 27, 1997. Three days later, they submitted to separate formal interviews for the first time at the Boulder County Justice Center.
A Colorado grand jury had voted in 1999 to indict the parents.[j] The indictment cited "two counts each of child abuse" and said the parents "did unlawfully, knowingly, recklessly and feloniously permit a child to be unreasonably placed in a situation that posed a threat of injury to the child's life or health, which resulted in the death of JonBenét Ramsey, a child under the age of sixteen." Among the experts in the case were DNA specialist Barry Scheck and forensic expert Dr. Henry Lee. On October 13, 1999, Alex Hunter, who was the district attorney at the time, refused to sign the indictment, saying that the evidence was insufficient. This left the impression that the grand jury investigation had been inconclusive. In 2002, the statute of limitations on the charges expired. The indictment was not known publicly until October 25, 2013, when previously sealed court documents were released.[k]
On July 9, 2008, the Boulder District Attorney's office announced that, as a result of newly developed DNA sampling and testing techniques (touch DNA analysis), the Ramsey family members were no longer considered suspects in the case.[l] Gordon Coombs, former investigator for the Boulder County District Attorney's office, questioned total absolution of the Ramseys.[m]
The police sought to interview Burke Ramsey again in September 2010, according to L. Lin Wood, a high-profile libel (defamation) attorney whom the Ramsey family hired in 1999. In 2012, Foreign Faction – Who Really Kidnapped JonBenet? by A. James Kolar, a former investigator under Boulder County District Attorney Lacy, was published. The book discounts the intruder theory and proposes scenarios of Ramsey family involvement in JonBenét's death.
The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey, broadcast on CBS on September 18 and 19, 2016, used a group of experts to evaluate the evidence and theorized that Burke hit his sister in the head with a heavy object, perhaps not intending to kill her. It suggested that the ransom letter was an attempt to cover up the circumstances of JonBenet's death. Wood, on behalf of Burke Ramsey, filed defamation lawsuits against CBS, the producers of the program, and several of its participants, based on its conclusion.
John Mark Karr, a 41-year-old elementary school teacher, was arrested in Bangkok, Thailand, on August 15, 2006 when he falsely confessed to murdering JonBenét. He claimed that he had drugged, sexually assaulted, and accidentally killed her. According to CNN, "Authorities also said they did not find any evidence linking [Karr] to the crime scene." He 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.[n]
Lin Wood, the Ramseys' family libel attorney, filed defamation lawsuits against several people and companies that had reported on the case, starting in 1999. Star magazine and its parent company American Media, Inc. were sued on their son's behalf in 1999. Defamation suits have been filed by the Ramseys and their friends against several unnamed media outlets. 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. These suits were brought by two persons named in the book who were said to have been investigated by Boulder police as suspects in the case. The Ramseys were defended in those lawsuits by Lin Wood and three other Atlanta attorneys, James C. Rawls, Eric P. Schroeder, and S. Derek Bauer. They obtained the dismissal of both lawsuits, including an in-depth decision by U.S. District Court Judge Julie Carnes that "abundant evidence" in the murder case pointed to an intruder having committed the crime.
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 6, 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.
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." 
- It was later determined that there had been some unlocked windows and an unlocked door that night. In addition, a basement window was previously broken by John Ramsey when he was locked out of the house. Lou Smit, a proponent of the intruder theory, believed that the intruder entered through this basement window. A suitcase was found on the floor almost directly underneath this window. Smit theorized the attacker(s) planned to use this suitcase to get either JonBenét alive as a kidnap victim or her body out of the house, but this proved impossible.
- Former FBI profiler John E. Douglas, who was brought in to assist the Ramsey's lawyers on case in January 1997 to assess whether the Ramseys were involved, stated that if a family member was involved in a murder, they would generally construe events so that another person found the body. In this case, John found the body and his friend followed him into the basement room. According to Douglas, when a family member is involved in a murder, they are likely to cover their child's body in a protective manner, covering all but their head. In this case, just the torso was covered, which did not denote the kind of act a parent would generally perform. In addition, John removed the duct tape from her mouth and loosened the cord around her, which goes against the theory of "staging" the body. Arndt made an error when she moved JonBenét into the living room.
- A Boulder defense attorney, Lee Hill, commented that: "The public feels that the police have coddled the Ramseys because they are rich and influential in Boulder."
- Boulder Police Chief Greg Testa stated in September 2016 that "To date, the Boulder Police Department has processed more than 1,500 pieces of evidence, including the analysis of over 200 DNA samples. [...] Our major crimes unit has received and reviewed or investigated over 20,000 tips, letters or emails. Our detectives have traveled to over 18 states and interviewed or spoken with more than 1,000 individuals."
- The initial District Attorney, Alex Hunter, pursued an investigation of convicted pedophiles in the Boulder area, yet also said that he would not clear the Ramseys. The District Attorney's office investigating pedophiles indicated to former Denver prosecutor Craig Silverman that the District Attorney's office followed the intruder theory. Silverman also said, "Once you have conceded the possibility of an intruder, I don't see how any Ramsey could ever be successfully prosecuted."
- According to Gordon Coombes, Boulder County district attorney's office investigator from 2008 to 2011, during the time that he worked in the office District Attorney Mary Lacy occasionally held staff lunch sessions to present the theory that JonBenét was killed by an intruder.
- The city's mayor Leslie L Durgin said, "I'm extremely concerned about the relationship between the district attorney's office and the Ramsey attorneys. The perception is that they are closer than we thought." Ann Louise Bardach, Vanity Fair author, wrote that there were weekly breakfast meetings between a Ramsey defense lawyer and Peter Hofstrom, the prosecutor's liaison to the Ramsey family.
- In his book The Cases That Haunt Us, former FBI agent John E. Douglas (hired by the Ramsey family) writes that he quibbled with a few of Smit's interpretations but generally agreed with the Smit's investigation and conclusions. Douglas particularly praised Smit's discovery in autopsy photos of what appeared to be previously-overlooked evidence of a "stun gun" having been used to subdue JonBenét.
- James Brooke of The New York Times said "The Ramseys have consistently maintained their innocence. But for four months after the murder, they declined to talk to the police. Instead, they mounted a defense team that sounds like a defense lawyer's Christmas carol: eight lawyers, four publicists, three private investigators, two handwriting analysts and one retired F.B.I. profiler."
- Burke testified at a 1999 grand jury hearing. Burke Ramsey's attorney, Jim Jenkins, sought to prevent his testifying at the grand jury and to eliminate him as a suspect before the DA's office reported that Burke was not and had never been an suspect.
- In September 2013, Daily Camera reporter Charlie Brennan and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a lawsuit to press DA Stan Garnett to release the grand jury's indictment. In mid-October, the judge ruled that the DA must show why the indictment should remain sealed. The Denver Post (a sister paper of the Daily Camera) published an editorial calling for the indictment to be unsealed.
- In light of the new DNA evidence, Boulder County District Attorney Mary Lacy gave a letter to John Ramsey that same day, in which she officially apologized to the Ramsey family members:
This new scientific evidence convinces us ... to state that we do not consider your immediate family, including you, your wife, Patsy, and your son, Burke, to be under any suspicion in the commission of this crime.... The match of Male DNA on two separate items of clothing worn by the victim at the time of the murder makes it clear to us that an unknown male handled these items. There is no innocent explanation for its incriminating presence at three sites on these two different items of clothing that JonBenét was wearing at the time of her murder....To the extent that we may have contributed in any way to the public perception that you might have been involved in this crime, I am deeply sorry. No innocent person should have to endure such an extensive trial in the court of public opinion, especially when public officials have not had sufficient evidence to initiate a trial in a court of law.... We intend in the future to treat you as the victims of this crime, with the sympathy due you because of the horrific loss you suffered.... I am aware that there will be those who will choose to continue to differ with our conclusion. But DNA is very often the most reliable forensic evidence we can hope to find and we rely on it often to bring to justice those who have committed crimes. I am very comfortable that our conclusion that this evidence has vindicated your family is based firmly on all of the evidence.
- Former investigator for the Boulder County District Attorney's office Gordon Coombs claimed that: "We all shed DNA all the time within our skin cells. It can be deposited anywhere at any time for various reasons, reasons that are benign. [...] To clear somebody just on the premise of touch DNA, especially when you have a situation where the crime scene wasn't secure at the beginning . . . really is a stretch."
- Authorities had tracked Karr down by using the Internet after emails were sent regarding the case to Michael Tracey, a journalism professor at the University of Colorado. After Karr was arrested and brought back to the US, he was released to face extradition for child pornography charges that originated in Sonoma County, California. Karr was subsequently released from the child pornography charges due to lack of evidence. While under investigation, the press coverage of Karr's false confession was described as a media frenzy.
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