JonBenét Patricia Ramsey (/ /; August 6, 1990 – December 25 or 26, 1996) was a six-year-old American child beauty queen who was murdered in her home in Boulder, Colorado, in 1996. Her father, John Ramsey, found her body in the basement of the family home about eight hours after she was reported missing. 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.
Boulder law enforcement agencies initially suspected JonBenét's parents, and her nine year old brother, Burke. However, in 2008, DNA taken from the victim's clothes completely cleared her family. In February 2009, the Boulder Police Department took the case back from the district attorney and reopened the investigation.
Media coverage of the case has often focused on JonBenét's participation in child beauty pageants, her parents' wealth, and the unusual evidence found in the case. Media reports have also questioned the police's handling of the case. Ramsey family members and their friends have filed defamation suits against several media organizations.
JonBenét Ramsey was born in Atlanta, Georgia, the younger of the two children of Patricia Ann "Patsy" and John Bennett Ramsey. She had an older brother, Burke Ramsey (born 1987). Her first name is a portmanteau of her father's first and middle names. At the time of her death, JonBenét was enrolled in kindergarten at High Peaks Elementary School in Boulder, Colorado.
She was interred at St. James Episcopal Cemetery in Marietta, Georgia. Her grave is next to that of her mother, who died of ovarian cancer in 2006, and that of her half-sister Elizabeth Pasch Ramsey, daughter of John Ramsey and his first wife, Lucinda Pasch.
JonBenét's active role in child beauty pageants and Patsy Ramsey's reported "pageant mother" behavior were closely scrutinized by the media after the murder. 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.
John Bennett Ramsey was the president of Access Graphics, a business computer system company which later became a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin.
The family had relocated to Boulder, Colorado in 1991, where Access Graphics' headquarters was located. It was there that Patsy Ramsey began enrolling her daughter in various child beauty pageants in several states.
Patsy Ramsey died of ovarian cancer on June 24, 2006, at the age of 49.
Discovery of the ransom letter
According to the testimony of Patsy Ramsey, given 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. The note suggested that the ransom collection would be monitored and that JonBenét would be returned as soon as the ransom was paid.
John Ramsey made arrangements to pay the ransom, which a friend, John Fernie, picked up that morning from a local bank.
Despite specific instructions in the ransom note that police and friends should not be contacted, Patsy Ramsey telephoned the police (shortly after 5:45 a.m.) and she also called family and friends.
The two police officers who arrived at the Ramsey home conducted a cursory search of the house but did not find any sign of a break-in.
On the afternoon of the same day, December 26, 1996, Boulder Police Detective Linda Arndt asked Fleet White, a friend of the Ramseys, to go with 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 the "train room," they went into a "wine cellar" room, where Ramsey found his daughter's body covered in her special white blanket. There was a nylon cord around her neck; her wrists were tied above her head, and her mouth was covered by duct tape.
The results of the autopsy revealed that JonBenét had been killed by strangulation and a skull fracture. The official cause of death was asphyxiation due to strangulation associated with craniocerebral trauma. There was no evidence of conventional rape, although sexual assault could not be ruled out.
The autopsy also revealed that JonBenét had eaten pineapple only a few hours before the murder. 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. Police reported that they found JonBenét's nine-year-old brother Burke Ramsey's fingerprints on this bowl. However, both Patsy and John Ramsey claimed not to remember putting the bowl on the table or feeding pineapple to JonBenét. The Ramseys have always maintained that Burke slept through the entire episode until he was awakened several hours after the police arrived.
A garrote made from a length of cord and the broken handle of a paintbrush had been used to strangle JonBenét. Experts noted that the construction of the garrote required a special knowledge of knots. Part of the bristle end of the paintbrush was found in a tub containing Patsy Ramsey's art supplies, but the bottom third of it was never found despite extensive searching of the house by the police in subsequent days.
Some observers later claimed that the police made several critical mistakes in the investigation, such as not sealing off the crime scene and allowing friends and family enter and leave the house after a kidnapping had been 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 that the Ramseys had killed her. Some officers holding these suspicions reported them to local media, which began reporting on January 1, 1997, 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.
Experts, media commentators, and the Ramseys have suggested various suspects in the case.
Boulder police initially concentrated almost exclusively upon John and Patsy Ramsey, although their records showed no sign of any prior criminal conduct. For many years, the Boulder police held to the position that Patsy Ramsey had injured JonBenét in a fit of rage after the girl had wet her bed—and that she then killed her either in a rage or to cover up the injury.
The Ramseys' son Burke, who was nine years old at the time of JonBenét's death, was also considered a possible suspect in media reports. Burke was later asked to testify at a grand jury hearing.
Lou Smit, a seasoned detective who came out of retirement to assist Boulder authorities with the case in early 1997, originally suspected the Ramsey parents. After assessing all the evidence that had been collected, Smit concluded that an intruder had committed the crime. 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. While no longer an official investigator on the case, Smit continued to work on it until his death in 2010.
Stephen Singular, an investigative journalist and author of the book Presumed Guilty: An Investigation into the JonBenet Ramsey Case, the Media and the Culture of Pornography, suggested 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.
On October 25, 2013, previously sealed court documents were released, showing that a Colorado grand jury had voted in 1999 to indict the parents, John and Patricia Ramsey, for the girl's murder. The indictment alleged child abuse resulting in death and being accessories to a crime. However, Alex Hunter, who was the district attorney in 1999, refused to sign the indictment, saying that the evidence was insufficient. This left the impression that the grand jury investigation had been inconclusive.
Not long after the murder, the parents left Boulder and 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.
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, mainly from convicted felons. However, the sample did not match any profile in the database.
Later investigation discovered that there had been more than 100 burglaries in the Ramseys' neighborhood in the months before JonBenét's murder. It was also found that 38 registered sex offenders were living within a two-mile (3 km) radius of the Ramseys' home.
In August 2006, a 41-year-old elementary school teacher, John Mark Karr, falsely confessed to murdering JonBenét. At that time, Karr was being held on child pornography charges that originated in Sonoma County, California.
Authorities 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. Karr was arrested in Bangkok, Thailand, on August 15, 2006, and confessed to killing JonBenét. He claimed that he had drugged her and sexually assaulted her but also claimed that her death was an accident. Investigators and legal authorities distrusted Karr's confession, as he provided only basic facts that were publicly known and failed to provide any convincing details. His claim of drugging JonBenét was also distrusted because no drugs were found in her body during the autopsy.
DNA samples taken from Karr did not match DNA found on JonBenét'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 Karr's false confession was described as a media frenzy.
Karr was subsequently released from the child pornography charges.
Letter from the 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 (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 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.
New District Attorney
In January 2009, Stan Garnett, the new Boulder County District Attorney, stated that 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 it. "Some cases never get solved, but some do," Beckner said. "And you can't give up."
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.
John E. Douglas assessment of the case
The Ramseys have consistently maintained 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 case in a chapter of his 2001 book, The Cases That Haunt Us. While he was being retained by the Ramseys, Douglas speculated that the murder was most likely a kidnapping gone wrong and that the Ramseys were not involved in it.
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 unknown person in the 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. Furthermore, it was 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 these is associated with most cases of children killed by their parents.
- (d) The behavior of John and Patsy Ramsey after discovery of the crime was consistent with that of parents of other murdered children, and was inconsistent with that of parents known to have killed their children.
Noting that a large percentage of child homicides are committed by members of the child's family, Douglas did not fault the original investigators for closely scrutinizing the Ramsey family.
He did, however, criticize the investigators for what he described as a deeply flawed investigation (e.g., not securing the crime scene) that was further hampered by political infighting and a refusal to ask for outside help during the critical early stage. At the time, Boulder police normally handled only one or two homicides per year and they had had little experience with anything resembling the Ramsey case. Douglas cited several other cases in which FBI consultancy or hands-on investigation helped local authorities to resolve homicides outside their usual experience. He concluded that it was unlikely that the case would ever be solved.
The most likely scenario based on the evidence, Douglas wrote, 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 or who wanted to extort money from her wealthy family.
Douglas dismissed as implausible the theory that Patsy Ramsey had written the ransom note, arguing that the ransom note had been written before the crime was committed. In Douglas's experience, it would be almost impossible for anyone to remain composed enough to write such a detailed letter in the immediate aftermath of a murder. Also supporting his hypothesis that the note was written before the murder, Douglas argued, was its use of what appeared to be phrases borrowed from movies, such as Ransom (1996) and Speed (1994). He speculated that the movies may have inspired or motivated the perpetrator. He cited the repeated warnings that "she dies" and the admonition "Don't try to grow a brain," which were borrowed from Ransom and Speed respectively.
Case reopening in 2010
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 had found sufficient evidence to indict the parents in 1999 on charges of child abuse resulting in death. However, Alex Hunter, who was the District Attorney in 1999, refused to sign the indictment, saying that the evidence was insufficient. This left the impression that the grand jury investigation had been 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 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.
On October 25, 2013, court documents that had been sealed in 1999 were released to the public. The documents revealed that 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 documents allege both parents intended to prevent or delay the arrest of the killer.
Boulder County DA Stan Garnett offered his perspective in a 2013 Boulder newspaper editorial. Garnett declined to comment on specific details of the Ramsey case, and was reluctant to second guess the decisions of his predecessors in the DA's office. However, Garnett wrote that the grand jury's 1999 indictment was based on the probable-cause standard, while the DA's office didn't believe that they could meet the higher standard of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, which is required for a criminal conviction.
Several defamation lawsuits have ensued since JonBenét's murder. Lin Wood was the plaintiff's lead attorney for John and Patsy Ramsey and their son Burke. He has pursued 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 sued in two separate 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 as suspects by Boulder police. 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 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.