Murder of JonBenét Ramsey
|Born||JonBenét Patricia Ramsey
August 6, 1990
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
|Died||December 25, 1996
Boulder, Colorado, U.S.
|Cause of death||Asphyxiation due to strangulation, craniocerebral trauma|
|Resting place||St. James Episcopal Cemetery
Marietta, Georgia, U.S.
|Education||High Peaks Elementary School|
|Parent(s)||Patsy and John Ramsey|
|Relatives||Burke Ramsey (brother)|
JonBenét Patricia Ramsey / /; (August 6, 1990 – December 25, 1996) was an American girl who was murdered in her home in Boulder, Colorado in 1996. The six-year-old's body was found about eight hours after she was reported missing, in the basement of the family home, during a police search of the house. She had been struck on the head and strangled. The case remains unsolved, even after several grand jury hearings, and continues to generate public and media interest.
Colorado law enforcement agencies initially suspected Ramsey's parents and her older brother Burke. However, the family was partially exonerated in 2003 when DNA taken from the victim's clothes suggested they were not involved. Her parents were not completely cleared until July 2008. In February 2009, the Boulder Police Department took the case back from the district attorney to reopen the investigation.
Media coverage of the case has often focused on Ramsey's participation in child beauty pageants, her parents' affluence, and the unusual evidence in the case. Reports have also questioned the police's overall handling of the case. Several defamation suits have been filed against several media organizations by Ramsey family members and their friends over reporting of the murder.
On October 25, 2013, previously sealed court documents were released, showing that a Colorado grand jury had voted in 1999 to indict John and Patricia Ramsey with the murder of six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey on charges of child abuse resulting in death and being accessories to a crime. However, then-District Attorney Alex Hunter decided not to sign the indictment, saying the evidence was insufficient.
Ramsey was born in Atlanta, Georgia, the younger of two children of Patricia Ann "Patsy" (née Paugh) and John Ramsey. She had an older brother, Burke (born 1987). Her first name is a portmanteau of her father's first and middle names, John Bennett; her middle name was the first name of her mother, Patricia "Patsy" Ramsey. Ramsey's father John was the president of Access Graphics, a business computer system company which later became a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin. In 1991, the family relocated to Boulder, Colorado where Access Graphics' headquarters were located. It was there that Patsy Ramsey began enrolling her daughter in a variety of different beauty pageants in several states. JonBenét Ramsey went on to win 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 pageants as well as Patsy Ramsey's reported "pageant mother" behavior was highly scrutinized by media following the murder. At the time of her death, Ramsey was enrolled in kindergarten at High Peaks Elementary School in Boulder, Colorado.
She is buried at St. James Episcopal Cemetery in Marietta, Georgia, next to her mother, who died of ovarian cancer in 2006, and her half-sister Elizabeth Pasch Ramsey (daughter of her father John and his first wife, Lucinda Pasch), who died in a 1992 car accident at the age of 22 with her boyfriend Matthew Derrington.
According to the testimony of Patsy Ramsey, on December 26, 1996, she discovered her daughter was missing after finding on the kitchen staircase a two-and-a-half-page ransom letter demanding $118,000 for her safe return—almost the exact value of a bonus her husband had received earlier that year. Despite specific instructions in the ransom note that police and friends should not be contacted, she telephoned the police and called family and friends. The two officers who arrived at the Ramsey home conducted a cursory search of the house, but did not find any obvious signs of a break-in or forced entry. The note suggested that the ransom collection would be monitored and JonBenét would be returned as soon as the money was obtained. John Ramsey made arrangements for the availability of the ransom, which a friend, John Fernie, picked up that morning from a local bank.
In the afternoon of the same day, Boulder Police Detective Linda Arndt asked Fleet White, a friend of the Ramseys, to take John Ramsey and search the house for "anything unusual". John Ramsey and two of his friends started their search in the basement. After first searching the bathroom and "train room", the three of them went to a "wine cellar" room where Ramsey found his daughter's body covered in her special white blanket. She was also found with a nylon cord around her neck, her wrists tied above her head, and duct tape covering her mouth.
The police were later claimed by observers to have made several critical mistakes in the investigation, such as not sealing off the crime scene and allowing friends and family in and out of the house once a kidnapping was reported.
Critics of the investigation have since claimed that officers also did not sufficiently attempt to gather forensic evidence before or after JonBenét's body was found, possibly because they immediately suspected the Ramseys in the killing. Some officers holding these suspicions reported them to local media, who began reporting on January 1 that the assistant district attorney thought "it's not adding up"; the fact that the body of the girl was found in her own home was considered highly suspicious by the investigating officers. The results of the autopsy revealed that JonBenét was killed by strangulation and a skull fracture. A garrote made from a length of tweed cord and the broken handle of a paintbrush had been used to strangle her; her skull had suffered severe blunt trauma; there was no evidence of conventional rape, although sexual assault could not be ruled out. The official cause of death was asphyxiation due to strangulation associated with craniocerebral trauma.
The bristle end of the paintbrush was found in a tub of Patsy Ramsey's art supplies, but the bottom third was never located despite extensive searching of the house by law enforcement in subsequent days. Experts noted that the construction of the garrote required a special knowledge of knots. Autopsy also revealed that JonBenét had eaten pineapple only a few hours before the murder. Photographs of the home, taken the day JonBenét's body was found, show a bowl of pineapple on the kitchen table with a spoon in it, and police reported finding JonBenét's nine-year-old brother Burke Ramsey's fingerprints on it. However, both Patsy and John Ramsey claim not to remember putting this bowl on the table or feeding pineapple to JonBenét. The Ramseys had always maintained that Burke had slept through the entire episode, until awakened several hours after the police arrived.
In December 2003, forensic investigators extracted enough material from a mixed blood sample found on JonBenét's underwear to establish a DNA profile. The DNA belongs to an unknown male. The DNA was submitted to the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a database containing more than 1.6 million DNA profiles, mainly from convicted felons. The sample failed to find a match in the database. Later investigations also discovered that there were more than 100 burglaries in the Ramseys' neighborhood in the months before JonBenét's murder, and that 38 registered sex offenders were living within a two-mile (3 km) radius of the Ramseys' home—an area that encompasses half the population of the city of Boulder—but that none of the sex offenders had any involvement in the murder.
In August 2006, a 41-year-old elementary school teacher, John Mark Karr, falsely confessed to Ramsey's murder while being held on child pornography charges from Sonoma County, California. Authorities reportedly tracked Karr down using the Internet after e-mails were sent regarding the case to Michael Tracey, a journalism professor at the University of Colorado. Karr was apprehended in Bangkok, Thailand on August 15 and confessed to killing JonBenét. Karr claimed that he drugged Ramsey and sexually assaulted her, but claimed her death was an accident. Investigators and legal authorities were immediately suspicious of Karr's confession as he only provided basic facts that were publicly known and failed to provide any real detail about the killing. His claim of drugging Ramsey was also called into question as no drugs were found in her body during autopsy. DNA samples taken from Karr also did not match DNA found on Ramsey's body. Later that month prosecutors announced that no charges would be filed against Karr for the murder. According to CNN, "Authorities also said they did not find any evidence linking [Karr] to the crime scene." The press coverage of the false confession later was described as a media frenzy. Karr was subsequently released from all charges related to child pornography as well.
Letter from District Attorney
On July 9, 2008, the Boulder District Attorney's office announced that as a result of newly developed DNA sampling and testing techniques known as Touch DNA analysis, the Ramsey family members were no longer considered suspects in the case. In light of the new DNA evidence, Boulder County District Attorney Mary Lacy gave a letter to John Ramsey the same day, officially apologizing to the Ramsey family:
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.
New District Attorney
In January 2009, Stan Garnett, the new Boulder County District Attorney, stated he planned to take a fresh look at the case. On February 2, 2009, Boulder police Chief Mark Beckner announced that Garnett was turning the case over to his agency, and that his team would resume investigating the homicide. "Some cases never get solved, but some do," Beckner said. "And you can't give up."
Case speculation by experts, media and the parents has supported various hypotheses. For many years, the local police supported the hypothesis that her mother Patsy Ramsey injured her child in a fit of rage after the girl had wet her bed on the same night, and then proceeded to kill her either in rage or to cover up the original injury. In November 1997, several handwriting experts determined that Patsy Ramsey more than likely wrote the ransom note. According to a Colorado Bureau of Investigation report, "There are indications that the author of the ransom note is Patricia Ramsey," but they could not definitively prove this assertion.
The Ramseys' son Burke, who was nine at the time of JonBenét's death, was also the target of speculation, and asked to testify at the grand jury hearing. In 1999, the Governor of Colorado, Bill Owens, told the parents of JonBenét Ramsey to "quit hiding behind their attorneys, quit hiding behind their PR firm." Police suspicions were initially concentrated almost exclusively on the Ramseys although the girl's parents had no prior signs of aggression in the public record.
The Ramseys have consistently held that the crime was committed by an intruder. They hired John E. Douglas, former head of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit, to examine the case. Douglas detailed his assessment of the Ramsey case in a chapter of his 2001 book, The Cases That Haunt Us. While retained by the Ramsey family, he concluded that the crime was most probably a kidnapping gone wrong, and that Ramseys were not involved in the murder. Douglas's argument focused on the following points:
- (a) There was no physical evidence linking the Ramseys to the homicide, and physical evidence found near JonBenét's body suggested the presence of an unidentified person in the Ramsey home.
- (b) There was no plausible motive for the Ramseys to kill their daughter. Douglas regarded the bed-wetting hypothesis as so unprecedented as to verge on absurdity and furthermore inconsistent with Patsy's established behavior.
- (c) There was no evidence of physical abuse, neglect, sexual molestation, or serious personality disorders in the Ramsey household prior to the murder, some combination of which are associated with most cases of children killed by parents.
- (d) The behavior of John and Patsy Ramsey after the crime was consistent with the parents of other murdered children, and was inconsistent with known cases of parents who killed their children.
Noting that a large percentage of child homicides are committed by parents and family of the victim, Douglas did not fault the original investigators for closely scrutinizing the Ramsey family. Douglas did, however, criticize authorities in Boulder for what he described as a deeply flawed investigation (e.g., not securing the crime scene) that was further hampered by political infighting and refusal to ask for outside help during the critical early stage of the investigation. At the time, Boulder police normally handled one or two homicides per year, and had little experience with anything resembling the Ramsey case. He cites several other cases in which FBI consultancy or hands on investigation helped local authorities resolve puzzling homicides outside their usual experience. Douglas also concluded that it was unlikely that anyone would resolve the case. The most likely scenario based on the evidence, Douglas speculated, was that JonBenét was killed by a young, inexperienced criminal (e.g., the possible digital penetration of the girl's vagina was consistent with other young sex offenders motivated by a naive curiosity about female anatomy) who was sexually obsessed with the child and/or who wanted to extort money from her wealthy family. Douglas dismissed as implausible suggestions that Patsy wrote the ransom note, further arguing that the ransom note was written before the crime. In Douglas' experience, it would be practically impossible for anyone to remain composed enough to write such a detailed letter in the immediate aftermath of a murder. Additionally supporting his hypothesis that the note was written before the murder, Douglas argued, was its being peppered with what appeared to be phrases borrowed from motion pictures like Ransom (1996) and Speed (1994) which, he speculated, inspired the perpetrator (the repeated warnings that "she dies" and the "Don't try to grow a brain" admonition were borrowed from Ransom and Speed, respectively).
Lou Smit, a seasoned detective who came out of retirement to assist Boulder authorities with the case in early 1997, originally suspected the parents, but after assessing all the evidence that had been collected, also concluded that an intruder had committed the crime. In his book The Cases That Haunt Us, Douglas writes that he quibbled with a few of Smit's interpretations but agreed with the general thrust of 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. While no longer an official investigator on the case, Smit continued to work on it until his death in 2010.
Stephen Singular, investigative journalist and author of the book Presumed Guilty: An Investigation into the JonBenet Ramsey Case, the Media and the Culture of Pornography, suggests the existence of a connection of the murder to the industry of child pornography. He refers to consultations with cyber-crime specialists who believe that JonBenét, due to her beauty pageant experience, was the perfect kind of child who could be dragged into the world of child pornography and was a natural candidate to attract attention and pedophiles.
With such contradictory evidence, a grand jury failed to indict the Ramseys or anyone else in the murder of JonBenét. Not long after the murder, the parents moved to a new home in Atlanta. Two of the lead investigators in the case resigned, one because he believed that the investigation had incompetently overlooked the intruder hypothesis, and the other because he believed that the investigation had failed to successfully prosecute the Ramseys. Even so, remaining investigators are still trying to identify a possible suspect. Patricia "Patsy" Ramsey died of ovarian cancer on June 24, 2006, at the age of 49.
Several defamation lawsuits have ensued since JonBenét's murder. L. Lin Wood was the plaintiff's lead attorney for John and Patsy Ramsey and their son Burke, and has prosecuted defamation claims on their behalf against St. Martin's Press, Time Inc., The Fox News Channel, American Media, Inc., Star, The Globe, Court TV and The New York Post. John and Patsy Ramsey were also sued in two separate defamation lawsuits arising from the publication of their book, The Death of Innocence, brought by two individuals named in the book as having been investigated by Boulder police as suspects in JonBenét's murder. 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, who obtained 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 JonBenét Ramsey's father, filed a defamation suit against Keith Greer, who posted a message on an Internet forum using the pseudonym "undertheradar". Greer had accused Westmoreland of participating in the kidnapping and murder. Greer has defended his statement.
In October 2010, the case was reopened. New interviews were conducted following a fresh inquiry by a committee which included state and federal investigators. Police were expected to use the latest DNA technology in their investigation.
It was announced on January 27, 2013, that a grand jury found sufficient evidence to indict the parents in 1999 on charges of child abuse resulting in death, but the District Attorney refused to sign the indictment, leaving the impression that the grand jury investigation was inconclusive.
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 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. On October 25, 2013, court documents sealed in 1999 were released that revealed a 1999 grand jury had indicted John and Patsy Ramsey for child abuse resulting in death and being an accessory to a crime, including murder. The papers allege both parents intended to prevent or delay the arrest of the alleged killer. However, the indictments released did not say who killed JonBenét. Boulder County DA Stan Garnett offered his perspective in a Boulder newspaper editorial.
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