But while Marilyn’s tragic life ended at 36, JonBenet Ramsey never even saw her 7th birthday. And no one calls her death a suicide.
Early on the morning of December 26th, 1996 Patsy Ramsey says she descended the staircase of her Boulder, Colorado home and found a ransom note, demanding precisely $118,000 for the return of her daughter. A check of her daughter’s bedroom, and yes, the girl had vanished.
Authorities were called to the scene. For hours there was little they could do except ask questions, comfort the Ramseys, and gather limited physical evidence. Then, around mid-day, a detective asked John Ramsey to search all levels of his multi-story, seven-thousand square foot home. From a small, remote room in the basement he returned upstairs, carrying the lifeless form of his daughter in his arms.
She had not been kidnapped, but murdered. Later the cause of death would be determined as asphyxiation, combined with blunt trauma to the cranium. Who would do that to a six-year-old child, in her own home, the morning after Christmas?
The answer to that question rocked Boulder, and the United States. Even foreign correspondents flooded into the country.
The Ramsey family felt not only stunned by grief, but also felt themselves the uncomfortable focus of police questioning. They lawyered up, quickly, with high-powered legal talent. Against law enforcement advice and wishes, they left town to bury JonBenet in Georgia.
Even before they left, their lawyers made it clear the Ramseys were only available for police questions submitted to them in writing. Law enforcement professionals were astonished at the firewall the Ramsey’s were able to build around themselves, with a murder under their roof, when they were the last to see JonBenet before the crime.
As time went by, their lawyers even asked for, and sometimes received, notes on the details of the investigation, from a friendly District Attorney’s Office. It was unprecedented for persons who were “persons of interest,” almost by definition, to receive the inside scoop on unfolding police work.
Numerous possible suspects, many supplied by the Ramseys, were investigated through thousands of hours of police time. An elderly man recovering from surgery, Bill McReynolds, came to feel as persecuted as a witch at an inquisition, because he had dazzled children including JonBenet with his portrayals of Santa Claus. But all leads came up empty—neither McReynolds or anyone else in the police line of sight could have committed the crime. But hundreds were aware of the Ramseys, who threw large parties, and the little girl. The potential suspect list would thus be absolutely huge.
No one has ever been indicted for JonBenet’s murder, and at this late date no one is likely to. Some investigators believe that a violent pedophile, an intruder that night years ago, is out there still. Others in law enforcement, the majority, think the Ramseys got away with murder. Murder in a figurative sense, for walling themselves off from a legitimate investigation, and perhaps in the literal sense as well. After ten years of grief and miserable fame, Patsy Ramsey died of ovarian cancer in 2006. John lives on, perennially and indignantly proclaiming the innocence of his family and the incompetence of Boulder police in not finding the real killer.
Nonetheless, the JonBenét Ramsey murder haunts us, and like a prism reveals the colors of a dozen intriguing questions, each of which splits off into the shades of a dozen more.
MindOverMystery explores this story, the most tragic of stories.
JonBenet’s older brother, Burke, is an adult now. At the time of the tragedy his parents asserted he slept through all events and knew nothing of interest. But did he really? Although we find it garbled and inconclusive, some analyses of the 911 call–morning of the 26th of December–think his voice is heard in the background, that in fact he’d been awake. And both he and his sister had received care from child psychologists for behaviors, such as bed wetting and soiling, that raise the red flags of dysfunctional family life. We will probably never know what if anything Burke knows, any more than the secrets that Patsy Ramsey took to her grave.
We open the File.. Whatever happened to JonBenet Ramsey?
FACT AND FICTION
BASIC, ACCEPTED FACTS OF THE RAMSEY CASE:
- The Ramsey family had been to a Christmas night party, 1996, returned home, and the adults reported getting the kids to bed well before midnight, with early morning travel anticipated, by private family plane.
- The death of JonBenét Ramsey occurred either very late Christmas night, 1996, or in the early AM hours of December 26th. Asphixiation, compounded by skull fracture and cranial bleeding, were listed as the causes of death of the forty-five pound, three-foot-eleven inch tall six-year-old. The autopsy also revealed the strong possibility of vaginal trauma to the child, indicating some type of abuse (presumably before the death of the victim, although much about the autopsy findings and the implications will be eternally disputed).
- The case of the “pineapple” rises as a ‘dog that did not bark in the night,’ a small phenomenon with potentially huge implications. Autopsy results indicated pineapple, but also traces of similar fruit, in JonBenét’s digestive track. It had not been served at the party attended by the family Christmas night. Pineapple was available in a bowl found on the Ramsey kitchen counter, but what of the grapes and other fruit? (We have no information on a refrigerator inventory, if one was done.) The Ramsey’s maintain that JonBenét fell asleep in the car returning from the party and was carried straight up to bed. When autopsy results later suggested fruit consumption, the Ramseys had no explanation. Some think this made the Ramseys look guilty, others think it’s clearly the offering of a “Secret Santa.”
- Other neighbors reported unusual patterns of light in the house in the wee hours, for example, one reported a light on in the kitchen they had never observed before, while another reported the lack of a light burning through the night in the sunroom, as it always did. Another close neighbor represented a literal barking dog scenario: hers barked at any pedestrian activity nearby, she asserted, but was silent on the night of the 25th/26th.
- A neighbor reported hearing a distinct “scream” in the very early hours of the 26th. Later the same witness allowed that she may have been primarily responding to “psychic energy,” rather than an actual and audible scream, but the scream in any event is forever part of the mystery. (Tests later suggested the possibility that the neighbor could have heard a scream not easily audible to the sleeping Ramseys, due to unusual acoustic conditions.)
- Patsy Ramsey called 911 at 5:52 on the morning of the 26th, 1996, hysterically reporting her child as missing, and having encountered a menacing ransom note on the stairwell leading down to the kitchen. Audio of the call is widely available.
- Patsy was reported as fully made-up when answering her front door for Boulder police, and she was wearing the clothes she had worn the day before. She reported first dressing for the day, then descending the stairs to encounter the alarming ransom note. (Critics of Patsy speculate that she was up all night dealing with the death of JonBenét, and therefore not changed to a fresh outfit.)
- The Ramsom Note–the longest one, at nearly three pages, that law enforcement remembers ever seeing–was written on paper procured within the home, using a pen found in the home. It’s become the most studied ransom note in history: copies, widely accessible on the internet, have been reviewed and commented on by thousands. Patsy asserted she only got far enough to realize the kidnapped status of her daughter before bolting to check the bedroom, although she soon quoted parts of the very end of the note to 911 dispatch. John asserts he placed the note on the floor and read it kneeling, for whatever reason.
- The crime scene was badly understaffed and mishandled by Boulder police from the start. Staffing on the morning after Christmas was at low ebb, but more troops should have been mustered early on. A partial excuse, advanced by Chief Tom Koby, was that until the discovery of JonBenét’s body authorities had thought they were managing a kidnapping, not a murder investigation. Nonetheless, even the serious crime of kidnapping should have triggered enough police presence on the scene to adequately manage the crowd of Ramsey friends, and avoid the contamination of evidence. The initial sloppy handling of the crime scene on the 26th meant that the case might be compromised, forever. (See note below on further destruction of the crime scene on the 27th.)
- Detective Linda Arndt lost track of John Ramsey’s whereabouts for a portion of the morning of the 26th. She was attempting to manage, solo, the people and the scene in a four-level (counting basement), fifteen-room home, without the needed backup of several other officers. John later related he had made his first trip to the basement at this time, perhaps around 10am, searching for points of possible intruder entry, but did not look into the room in which he discovered JonBenét’s body a few hours later.
- The ransom note told the Ramsey’s to expect a phone call “tomorrow” by 10am, without clarity of whether tomorrow referred to the 26th or 27th of December–although the 26th is more logical. Law enforcement noted that, contrary to their expectations, the Ramseys paid little attention to the potential deadline of 10 o’clock on the 26th as it came and went with no phone call.
- The ransom note seriously stressed that the Ramseys were absolutely not to involve the police or others–“if we catch you talking to a stray dog, she dies”–yet the Ramseys went beyond calling the police to also summon several close friends to their home.
- At around 1pm, Detective Arndt asked Ramsey and his friend, Fleet White, to “search the house top to bottom” to see if they observed anything out of place, potential clues in the kidnapping case. John Ramsey apparently elected to search bottom to top and walked with White down the steps to the basement. Shortly, he discovered his daughter’s body, picked her up, and ran up the stairs with her body in great distress.
- In the next minutes the child’s body was handled or touched by John Ramsey, Patsy Ramsey, and Linda Arndt, in addition to having a blanket and sweatshirt placed over it. As a result, future fiber evidence and even touch-DNA evidence was rendered nearly worthless, in that the origin of fibers and other substances could never be clearly established.
A window high on the wall in the basement had broken, missing glass and was open when examined by authorities. (Ramsey recalled having broken the glass initially months before when he had locked himself out of his house.) A suitcase was found under the window, perhaps sturdy enough to have been someone’s step ladder. However, given that Ramsey had two unsupervised sessions in the basement before authorities cataloged evidence, one of those sessions with his friend Fleet White also touching and possibly moving things, the value of these facts, as evidence, is highly questionable.
- Less than an hour after he discovered his daughter’s body, John Ramsey phoned his pilot to plan for a flight that day to Atlanta, the Ramsey home of many years. It is not known if John’s mind immediately moved to thoughts of the funeral and burial, home in Georgia, without realizing that the wheels of justice could not possibly turn that fast. Police disabused him of the notion of an immediate exit of Colorado, although the Ramseys were flown to Georgia for the funeral within days.
- After the Ramsey’s were moved to other quarters, the home became a cordoned-off crime scene. Later the night of the 26th a forensic team returned to begin a comprehensive investigation. Extensive forensic evidence was culled and cataloged. Eventually hundreds of exhibits, and thousands of written pages of detective reports, would comprise the case file, more extensive than any he’d ever seen according to D.A. Alex Hunter.
Patsy Ramsey’s sister Pam was permitted, the day
after the murder (27th), to enter the scene in order to recover an extremely limited number of clothing and personal items needed by the Ramseys in coming days. The Ramseys and their advocates maintain this privilege was not abused, while police authorities report the wholesale removal of box after box, an entire car’s worth of potentially critical evidence, including items from JonBenét’s room, ground zero of the investigation.
- It’s generally agreed that the eight-inch plus fracture to JonBenét’s skull was caused either by her head impacted violently against a hard surface, or more likely by a blunt instrument striking her skull with force. A rectangular piece of skull was separated from the rest by the force of the blow.
- A baseball bat was found outside the home, and fibers consistent with the home were found on it. The Ramseys initially doubted the bat belonged to their son, but were not positive.
- The strangulation by garrote, and apparent molestation are thought to be the work of either: 1) a demented pedophile intruder with some knowledge of the Ramsey family, its habits, and home layout, or 2) a member of the Ramsey family engaged in elaborate “staging” of a crime scene, probably pursuant to a tragic accident. Other theories, such as undetected psycho-sexual illness on the part of either John or Patsy leading to the abuse and death of the child, exist but run a distant third to the two main schools of thought. There is nothing in the known background of either Ramsey adult that would lend credence to such theories.
SOME KEY DISPUTED FACTS AND PERSPECTIVES IN THE CASE
- Three law enforcement officers present on the 26th recall John Ramsey stating (in separate conversations) that he was sure doors to the home were locked throughout the night. Ramsey later said he had been misunderstood by officers and was not sure of the status of doors. Some consider this suggestive that Ramsey had been advised by counsel early on to make no statements mitigating against an intruder in the night.
- As noted above, autopsy results suggests that JonBenét consumed fruit cocktail, not pure pineapple, on the night in question. If true, this compromises the various theories that assume she ate the fresh pineapple in the bowl in the kitchen.
- John Ramsey asserts that he was advised almost immediately, on the 26th and the 27th, that he and Patsy should retain defense counsel, given that authorities always look inward in domestic murders and even the innocent need legal advice from day one. Nonetheless the Ramseys say they maintained basic faith in the official process until the Boulder police, over many actions over several weeks, failed to establish any good faith and completely lost the Ramseys’ trust. However, clear testimony establishes a set of private investigators and attorneys, working for the Ramsey team, interviewing numerous players in the tragedy by the 27th. That would undermine the assertion that the Ramseys only established a separate, parallel legal world after finally concluding that the Boulder authorities were fundamentally unjust, or incompetent, or both.
- Before the flight to Georgia and burial of JonBenet at the end of December, the Boulder PD and the Ramsey’s had reportedly clashed over release of JonBenet’s body, with the allegation that she was cruelly “held for ransom” to force more interviews with police. It does appear from numerous accounts that Commander John Eller was initially stubborn in this regard. Interestingly, in a CNN interview on January 1st, 1997, the Ramsey’s spoke positively of the Boulder police, with no hint regarding the ‘monstrous behavior’ they would later allege.
- Police assert that within two days the Ramseys were “unavailable” for interviews, while their lawyers suggested that written questions be tendered, along with the police case file to date. Those are of course inappropriate, almost unprecedented requests, leading to much speculation as to whom to blame. Did it indicate consciousness of guilt on the part of the Ramseys, were their overzealous attorneys responsible, did the D.A.’s office, unprofessionally, “carry water for the defense” early on? No agreement exists between sharply differing camps. In the Ramsey’s book, “The Death of Innocence,” a special multi-page section bears the title “A History of Cooperation. Whether the reader finds these pages convincing or not, they assert that the family received extremely unfair criticism regarding their relations with authorities.In the January 1st nationally televised interview, and many times subsequently, the Ramsey’s pledged full, unqualified cooperation with authorities. “Whatever they want. Whatever anyone wants. We will cooperate.” The Boulder PD claims those words were utterly empty when it came down to actually scheduling interviews, while the Ramsey camp explains they came to regard the police as closed-minded and out to get them at all cost.
- Some investigators are convinced that “enhanced” versions of the 911 call by Patsy Ramsey reveal background voices, such as Burke’s, supposedly asleep at the time. We at M.O.Mystery have never heard a tape of a clarity from which we can draw any hard conclusions, but it does seem quite possible that three separate voices are heard. If a third voice was heard, and the operative word is if, the honesty of the Ramseys stands called into question.
- A large, heavy metal flashlight was found at the scene, substantial enough to have been the skull-fracturing weapon. Many experts consider it the most likely instrument to have delivered the blow. No agreement exists on the provenance of the flashlight.
- JonBenet had suffered a superficial face injury in the summer of 1994 caused by a blow from a golf club swung by her brother, Burke. The official family claim was an accident, but a family friend recalls Patsy conceding that Burke struck out at his sister in anger.
A VISCOUS INTRUDER, OR AN IN-HOUSE TRAGEDY?
From the beginning, that has been the primary dichotomy. From the time that detectives Eller, Wickman, Trujillo, Gosage, Hickman, Thomas, Harmer, Everett, Weinheimer, and others came to believe that facts and logic pointed inward, while some dissenting voices (such as respected lawmen homocide specialist Lou Smit and FBI profiler John Douglas) thought the perpetrator came from the outside, the split has been consistent.
So, a crazy, scarcely believable in-house tragedy, involving devoted parents with no history of abuse, or criminality of any sort, ending in a bizarre cover-up? Or a thoroughly crazy, one-in-a-thousand-chance intruder who produced the irrational, self-contradictory scene that authorities encountered that cold morning the day after Christmas? At the end of the day, those are really the two possibilities. It’s got to be one or the other.
TWO DRAMATIC RESIGNATIONS
Illustrating diametrically opposed positions that would come to characterize the case, two detectives resigned for precisely opposite reasons:
After eighteen months of what he considered obstruction and cowardice by the Boulder District Attorney’s office, Detective Steve Thomas left Boulder in disgust, making his damning resignation letter public. Thomas, and most of the detectives he worked the case with, considered Patsy Ramsey the likely note writer and primary guilty party, but felt a very timid D.A., perhaps wowed and intimidated by “Team Ramsey,” dropped the ball at every turn, perhaps deliberately.
But a more experienced detective, the venerable Lou Smit, working as a special investigator on the case for the D.A., finally resigned when he felt most of the official suspicion continued to be Ramsey-based. He had come to believe in their innocence, and as a devout Christian had prayed with them that the true killer be found. He could not be party in any way to the continued persecution of “innocent people,” he said.
That pair of high-profile resignations, in opposing despair and disgust, highlight as few things could the schizophrenic nature of the case, and the investigation.
TWO SURPRISING DEVELOPMENTS, YEARS LATER
I. Former Boulder police chief Mark Beckner believes that the Boulder County District Attorney’s office would never even have convened a grand jury on the Ramsey case, had it not been for intense, consistent public pressure. Special prosecutor Mike Kane was brought in to handle the grand jury, although ultimate authority to indict or not remained with the elected D.A. After long months of hearing evidence, in October 1999 the grand jury recommended indicting the Ramseys whom, they opined, did “permit a child to be unreasonably placed in a situation which posed a threat of injury to the child’s life or health which resulted in the death of JonBenét Ramsey.” The process essentially concluded that the Ramseys had lied to protect the guilty and thus in effect obstructed the search for justice. The charges were serious although they stopped short of accusing the Ramseys of murder, per se. Secrecy regarding the findings of the jury was maintained for years, until 2013. The majority of the testimony is still under seal. Cautious D.A. Alex Hunter balked at filing a case he might not win in court, and the investigation went relatively dormant, with the assumption that the secret proceeding had not recommended indictment. The first and only chance to compel witnesses to testify, and otherwise use the most powerful legal tools available to investigators, had rendered a judgment which was then ignored, critics say. (However, grand juries are vastly overrated as we will note again later.) Naturally, the opinions regarding the jury’s recommendations and the D.A.’s actions are diverse, and intensely held, at times representing polar opposites. For example controversial Ramsey murder-case scholar and journalist Michael Tracey dubbed the D.A.’s decision not to indict “courageous.” But Hunter’s critics are inclined to consider it cowardly–they’re convinced Hunter did not wish to see his office outclassed, defeated, and embarrassed by elite defense counsel.
II. In 2008 (before the grand jury recommendations from 1999 were known to the public) the new District Attorney for Boulder County, Mary Keenan Lacy, took decisive action on a relatively cold case that could still generate hot emotions and opinions. Based on new findings regarding touch-DNA, from some unknown male, found on the clothing of JonBenét, Lacy took the extraordinary step of “clearing” the Ramseys in the murder of their daughter, and further profusely apologizing to them, on behalf of her official office, for the unfair suspicion that had lingered over them for years. “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,” Lacy wrote. “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.”Opinions on Lacy’s action show the same sharp diversity as with her predecessor’s decision not to pursue the wishes of the grand jury. Some find it refreshing: a pubic official willing to say that we’ve learned from newly refined evidence, and we apologize for the past.
Most law enforcement professionals, however, were surprised, even aghast at an official “clearing” of the Ramseys based on touch-DNA evidence. The contaminated jumble of physical evidence at the scene, for one, renders any firm declaration based on DNA more than surprising. Moreover, the grand jury which had assessed the case implied that even if outside persons were involved with the crime, the Ramseys may have had culpability as well. As of this writing, it remains unclear what logical process D.A. Lacy was following in “clearing” the Ramseys of the 1996 crime.”The entire Ramsey family was cleared of any involvement in the murder of JonBenet back in 2008, thanks to then newly discovered DNA evidence.” This was a typical quote in 2013 from a major on-line article, in the Huffington Post, on the newly revealed indictment recommendations from the grand jury in 1999. For better or worse, it’s usually stated as if it’s simple, historical fact: they’re cleared, no longer suspected of any involvement, leaving only the question of who invaded the home that night and committed the wretched crime.
You have to know the history of the case and cast of players well to know that Mary Lacy was in a very small minority of experts who thought excluding the Ramseys from further suspicion was justified. True, Lacy’s status as D.A. for that jurisdiction at the time makes the sweeping assertion–“cleared”–technically accurate…as long as she remained D.A. Her successor in Boulder, Stan Garnett, opined for the local paper where the District Attorney’s “proper role” begins and ends, noting pointedly that “exoneration” (his quote marks) is rarely an appropriate stance. “(This) can be very confusing to the public and can create false impressions of certainty about uncertain evidence, subject to conflicting inferences, that has never been presented and tested in open court.” It appears to us at M.O.Mystery that D.A. Garnett offered a polite, yet perfectly clear repudiation of his predecessor’s official conclusions regarding the Ramsey murder.
THE FORENSIC EVIDENCE: IT’S OWN COMPLEX STUDY
No one on the M.O. Mystery staff has training as a forensic pathologist, and thus we are as dependent as all other analysts on the experts, and deriving logical inferences from their medical conclusions.
In the Ramsey case as in many others, autopsy reports and other forensic starting points lead some of the experts in different directions, leaving observers in a ticklish situation. We have to feel our way to logical conclusions without letting any prior biases influence what we note or what we ignore. As a young forensic pathologist recently commented about the case, “you can’t just cherry-pick your facts” when looking at forensic science. It’s very hard to weigh all evidence objectively once an individual has begun to form opinions.
Early on, in the first book on the case, Dr. Cyril Wecht, a venerable figure in forensic analysis, was inclined to believe that the garroting came before the blow to the head, citing the relative lack of bleeding inside the cranium among other clues. As well, he was convinced the forensic account of the vaginal area indicated not only vigorous molestation on the night of the murder, but a probable pattern of molestation in prior days or weeks. The timing of the death-blow alone is critical: strangulation prior to the skull-cracking blow would make much less sense for the accidental death-and-coverup scenario. As well the level and especially duration of molestation the child might have suffered has huge implications for piecing the puzzle together. Wecht (who thought the note clearly contrived and the intruder scenario far-fetched) saw the most likely scenario as in-house abuse and ritual strangulation, ending with the vicious blow for whatever reason. He was not alone in that forensic assessment. Other doctors, however, almost immediately disagreed, for example, Dr. Richard Krugman of the University of Colorado, a child abuse expert, saw no clear proof of abuse, per se, and observed that an autopsy cannot tell you who killed a child, from a menu of several possibilities. Remarkably, Utah chief medical examiner, Dr. Todd Grey, thought the blow came first, the strangulation last, but inferred from JonBenet’s neck injuries that she had struggled mightily against the garrote. But how, wondered Wecht, could a child rendered unconscious and near-dead from an absolutely massive concussion struggle against anything?
In sum, the differing autopsy interpretations revealed fissures in possible scenarios from the start.
In the fall of 2016 as the 20th anniversary of JonBenét’s death spurred a resurgence of interest in the case, two giants in the forensics field joined a team of experts to revisit the core realities and reassess the possibilities. Dr. Henry Lee and Dr. Werner Spitz (who had both consulted on the case early on) joined a group consensus that the intruder scenario was generally implausible, and thus the ultimate answer most likely lay within the home. Lee tested underwear fresh out of a package, which showed traces of touch-DNA, on the path to declaring that DNA evidence from JonBenét’s body held “no forensic value.” They agreed as well that the child was not raped or molested in the expected sense, but perhaps in a staged manner. They concluded that the blow to the skull came before the garroting of the child.
Where does all of this leave us?
TWO AREAS IN WHICH M.O.M. PLANS FURTHER, IN-DEPTH RESEARCH
- We will be searching for further, detailed information on the science behind the crime. Perhaps the last chapter in the implications of the autopsy and forensics research has yet to be written. It may be that a book-length discussion of just the autopsy results and hard forensic science, calling on the kind of detail and debate that might have emerged in open court, would help eliminate some possibilities and highlight others. A panel of specifically forensic pathology experts could search for consensus on the issues, and perhaps give students of the case some clearer answers. The present state of forensic assessment in this case often falls into the abyss of “confirmation bias,” where an analyst decides at some point on a theory, and then hones in on science that seems to confirm that theory, while failing to note scientific details that point another direction.
- We plan our own assessment of the Ransom Note, after further study of the fields of handwriting and textual analysis. It may take us months or years, but so ample and unusual a note should reveal its author. Many analysts have offered conclusions already, for example the opinion that the chances of an intruder’s note so closely matching Patsy’s various handwriting habits and numerous peculiarities of expression are “infinitesimal.” We are not disagreeing with this assessment, but declaring the intention to study the issue in depth independently.
THE AREAS WE’D LOVE TO RESEARCH, BUT CAN’T AT THIS TIME
Every analyst fascinated with this case should be clear that even the voluminous case files are closely held, and few people have seen all the documents. Add to that the fact of ultra-secrecy in grand jury proceedings, and a thousand details which might, just possibly might, illuminate a different picture are sealed, unavailable to the average analyst.
There are several areas where relevant information is held beyond reach, often for good reasons but frustrating nonetheless. Among important information missing from the public domain: the psychiatric records of Burke Ramsey and his mother Patsy. For the sake of privacy those records are still confidential, but what might they reveal if we had access?
In mystery as in life, there are the “known unknowns,” as well as the “unknown unknowns.”
CONSIDERATIONS OF EVIDENCE AND LOGIC
THE UNIQUE, UNPRECEDENTED CRIME SCENE
Let’s start with the fact that the case, as a supposed break-in-kidapping-pedophile-murder, presented unusual features not seen before or since. FBI agents observed to local officials that kidnappers of children are either motivated by perversion, or monetary reward, but never in their experience both in the same package. Thus, a crime scene involving a supposed attempt at kidnap-for-ransom (complete with an odd multi-page ransom note written at leisure, in the home!), soon turning into murder by violence and molestation, was strange, almost eerie, right out of the box. Forensic analyst Dr. Cyril Wecht spoke for myriad experts when he observed that “this hybrid of sexual predator and kidnapper was unprecedented, and incredibly unlikely. Those two very divergent sets of characteristics just don’t intersect in the same person.”
Add to that the fact that numerous detectives reacted to the scene they encountered as “staged” and that the ransom note appeared to be written by some sort of insider—a family member or someone intimate with family facts—and suspicion naturally fell inside the home.
It is however not, repeat not accurate that investigators focused such exclusive attention on John and Patsy Ramsey that outsiders–the possible intruder(s) during the night of December 25-26–were ignored. Reliable testimony indeed exists that detectives felt pressured to follow up thin leads regarding scores of possible “intruders,” and spent countless hours excluding them, when they felt the evidence continued to point inward, not outward. A neighbor asked to sign releases for information had to steer the pen with both hands, due to the old man’s palsy, but he was a “suspect” and had to be “cleared.”
One especially foolish article about the murder (and there have been thousands) posited that JonBenét’s remark regarding plans to meet a “secret Santa” had been all but ignored and provided a rich trail to follow. The facts are quite different: the “secret Santa” track was followed for hundreds of hours of detective time and the most likely “Santa,” Bill McReynolds, who had played the role at Ramsey parties, was so thoroughly hounded, while recovering from surgery in his retirement years, that he felt persecuted, if not prosecuted, by police. Authorities ultimately concluded he could not have been the perpetrator that night.
In his second book to set the record straight, “The Other Side of Suffering,” John Ramsey again retreads the family experience in which the horror of living as suspects was piled on top of the brutal loss of their young daughter. Indeed, it must have nightmarish, an agony that has never fully ended. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should not challenge statements in the book as spin when we find them mis-aligned with the truth.
One of the milder false assertions Ramsey makes regards the notion that police subjectively decided upon family guilt based only on family behavior while they were in shock, grieving losses that no one should have to endure. “The entire police case against us was based on their sole conclusion that ‘we didn’t act right.’ ” With all respect for a man who’s surely been subjected to the trials of Job, his statement is critically inaccurate. As Ramsey is well aware but does not discuss in his book, the police became deeply suspicious of the Ramseys because the entire scene-not just the Ramseys-didn’t look right, didn’t pass the basic smell test.
Although Ramsey asserts a few pages later that “the Boulder Police…have tried, from the moment they walked in to our home on December 26, 1996, to convince others that Patsy or I or Burke killed JonBenét,” that’s nonsense. It was not an instantaneous rush to judgment. Officers early on asked about possible note writers, about possible suspects, and by numerous accounts the Ramseys began serving up names immediately (and the leads were followed for hundreds of hours). Police judgment that the Ramseys were the most logical suspects developed and solidified over time, in concert with decades of profiling experience from law enforcement veterans. The Boulder Police themselves were unschooled in handling this type of murder case, but more experienced opinions were readily available, and overwhelmingly the suspicion held among experts that the scene was phony.
For example, agents at the FBI’s CASKU unit (child abduction and serial killers unit) strongly suspected staging of the crime, noting that in their data-base of over 1,700 cases not one fit the profile that was presented by the actions in the Ramsey home that night. There’s truly a first time for everything, but a perpetrator showing the personality traits, and exhibiting the precise behaviors, of the supposed intruder was simply hard for the experts to imagine. Besides a very unusual intruder, the only other possibility was some fatal calamity in the home, with one or both adults then crudely, desperately attempting to stage an alternate reality. The inside-job, cover-up theory may not be correct and apparently isn’t provable in court, but Ramsey was disingenuous in suggesting that police suspicions were as shallow as their superficial impressions. His book offers a number of similar falsehoods, regrettably. All that dishonest spin detracts from the account of a poignant, and probably quite genuine, spiritual journey of a man subjected to more tragedy than any of us should have to endure, even in ten lifetimes.
THE RANSOM NOTE
Listen carefully! We are a group of individuals who represent a small foreign faction. We respect your bussiness (sic) but not the country that it serves. At this time we have your daughter in our posession (sic). She is safe and unharmed and if you want her to see 1997, you must follow our instructions to the letter.
You will withdraw $118,000.00 from your account. $100,000 will be in $100 bills and the remaining $18, 000 in $20 bills. Make sure that you bring an adequate size attaché to the bank. When you get home you will put the money in a brown paper bag. I will call you between 8 and 10 am tomorrow to instruct you on delivery. The delivery will be exhausting so I advise you to be rested. If we monitor you getting the money early, we might call you early to arrange an earlier delivery of the money and hence a earlier pick-up of your daughter.
Any deviations of my instructions will result in the immediate execution of your daughter. You will also be denied her remains for proper burial. The two gentlemen watching over your daughter do not particularly like you so I advise you not to provoke them. Speaking to anyone about your situation, such as Police, FBI, etc., will result in your daughter being beheaded. If we catch you talking to a stray dog, she dies. If you alert bank authorities, she dies. If the money is in any way marked or tampered with, she dies. You will be scanned for electronic devices and if any are found, she dies. You can try to deceive us but be warned that we are familiar with Law enforcement countermeasures and tactics. You stand a 99% chance of killing your daughter if you try to out smart us. Follow our instructions and you stand a 100% chance of getting her back. You and your family are under constant scrutiny as well as the authorities. Don’t try to grow a brain John. You are not the only fat cat around so don’t think that killing will be difficult. Don’t underestimate us John. Use that good southern common sense of yours. It is up to you now John!
S. B. T. C.
Now, there was a lot in this case. A brutal murder scene and the equally brutal realities revealed by the autopsy report.
Enough physical evidence of potential significance to fill a small warehouse. Sufficient written reports to fill many a large filing cabinet. There were hundreds of potential suspects, and a media circus like we’ve rarely seen. A police department, and national police community, who looked at the case one way while the District Attorney’s office pushed it another. There was a lot to it, but the blazing sun in the middle of the case, far outshining everything else, was that astonishing, confounding ransom note.
If there were a Hall of Fame for Ransom Notes, that note would have moved immediately to the top of the chart, and stayed there. It will never be forgotten.
The provenance and meaning of the ransom note are hotly debated by both intruder theorists and Ramsey-guilt theorists. It’s taken so seriously because of it’s remarkable nature, but even more so because of the obvious: whomever wrote that note is responsible for the child’s death, or knows who is. There’s essentially universal agreement on that straightforward proposition.
We’ve seen video tape from years ago where counsel for the Ramseys, during depositions concerning handwriting characteristics, attack the notion of Patsy’s authorship with a vengeance. The only writing experts who believe Patsy wrote the thing are “liars for hire,” the attorney insisted. In those depositions Patsy kept looking at family photographs on which she’d made notations, it appeared, but she did not “recognize” the handwriting, she asserted again and again. Examples of hand printing on those particular pictures show striking similarity to printing in the ransom note, the allegation goes. It was writing from the past, which can’t be fudged and altered, the way a suspect could while giving fresh writing exemplars to authorities.
Predictably, Ramsey counsel treat discussions of the note quite aggressively. True, if Patsy Ramsey had nothing to do with the note, any notion that she had should be chased from the scene each time it emerges.
But can Patsy be excluded as the note’s author? Most handwriting experts think not. And more powerful than penmanship, there’s content: beyond the technicalities of handwriting, analysts can judge the content with their own common sense. To most observers, the note seems as phony as a plastic three-dollar bill. To review a few highlights, even a “small foreign faction,” if such existed, would never describe itself as a small foreign faction. Early on, “bussiness” and “possesion” were deliberately misspelled, it would appear, by an educated writer who found it too tedious to continue that ruse. Phrases like “and hence,” which are in very, very few personal vocabularies, were in Patsy’s record of note writing. There’s the matter of the $118,000 figure for ransom, laughably low for a real extortion and not coincidentally the figure of a recent John Ramsey bonus. A Ramsey business enemy might taunt John with such trivia, but would someone of that cruel bent suggest that the parents “be well rested,” an odd thing to advise sleeping people in any event? Would a business enemy compliment John’s business, along the way to threatening to behead his daughter? “An adequate size attaché?” “Law enforcement counter-measures?” “Don’t try to grow a brain, John.” Seriously?
The longer you study the note, also considering it was written in the home on Patsy’s tablet with her felt-tip pen, considering that a couple of false starts preceded the final version, the harder it becomes to imagine an intruder writing it (taking time to generate different drafts while risking discovery). It becomes easier and easier to envision an agonized Patsy producing all the false smoke. At M.O.Mystery we don’t often quote miscellaneous comments from the internet, but a 2007 post from Topix caught our eye as unusually apt:
“Desperate times call for desperate measures. Take a creative person with a flair for drama like Patsy, place her in a situation where she’s backed up against a wall with prison as a promise, and watch something as ridiculous as the Ramsey ransom note, complete with lines from movies, become the result….What else was she going to say, if she didn’t parrot movie lines? She had no experience with crime, kidnapping, or ransom notes. That’s all she knew, what she’d seen in movies. It’s pretty obvious.”
Most law enforcement observers have found the provenance of the note “pretty obvious,” while of course Ramsey supporters disagree. “The Ransom Note is a Confession” read a placard at a rally for justice for JonBenét. We wouldn’t go that far, but we can understand the detective, intimate with the case, who felt the note was so clearly Patsy’s that it lacked only her signature.
There are, nonetheless, many who concede that the note is phoney baloney from start to finish, but who believe that an intruder might have had reason to concoct the document for his own odd staging of the crime.
THE BROADER LIST OF SUSPECTS
Devotees of the intruder theory maintain, perhaps with some reason, that every hour throughout 1997 that police interviewed family intimates and otherwise tracked the Ramseys was an hour not devoted to the huge list of potential perpetrators from the outside. And that does beg the question, just where should that list of potential suspects begin and end, how should it be comprised? Georgia-based Ramsey attorney Lin Wood, talking to Katie Couric years later about the travesty of sole focus on the Ramseys, asserted that “anyone in Boulder who does not have an alibi, who is capable of committing a brutal, perverted murder of a small child, legitimately still should remain under suspicion and be investigated.” A reasonable sounding assertion, at first blush. But of the tens of thousands of persons who live in, or might have been passing through Boulder at Christmas 1996, just how are we to determine who is capable of “brutal, perverted murder?” What are the criterion for such criminal capability, and how do we assemble a master list? (The most logical specific lists, such as Ramsey business enemies, or known pedophiles who might have met the child, were checked through by detectives early on.)
Do we try to ascertain who may have ever passed through the ballroom during one of JonBenét’s pageants because someone could have developed an instant, unhealthy liking for the child? Those persons, like the pageants, would be spread around the country, so do we track down every person ever in JonBenét’s presence, and require them to prove they were not in Boulder the night of the 25th? Can we begin to estimate how many thousands of detective hours, and ultimately what staggering public cost, would be required to fly investigators everywhere, to track down everyone, who might have had any connection, however tenuous, with the Ramsey family? And don’t forget that Boulder, a bustling medium-size town with a huge, transient college population has thousands of folks move out of town each year. Should every male who decamped from Boulder in the first half of 1997 be tracked and carefully vetted, after all, why did he leave town, what was he running from?
It becomes quickly apparent that the standard being pushed, and apparently thrust at Boulder Police numerous times over the years–that is, anyone who might have been aware of JonBenét and might have been within striking distance of Boulder, December 25 of 1996, must be investigated–rises as utterly unrealistic. It’s a standard never applied to any other case. Imagine watching a movie in which a murdered woman is discovered in downtown L.A., with no truly hard evidence but DNA traces here and there suggesting an unknown male. The DNA does not hit on any database. The police commander bellows to his troops, “Okay guys, there’s no clear perpetrator here, but I want every able-bodied male who lives in greater Los Angeles, and every guy visiting at the time, or traveling through LAX or one of our bus or train stations, thoroughly investigated!” You would be watching less police thriller than police comedy.
But it does illustrate: the list of potential child murderers who might have been in Boulder at the time is truly huge. We’re not pushing the intruder theory per se, but it’s true you could almost never eliminate all the possibilities.
So there are and always will be competing allegations. Ramsey defenders will always claim that legitimate potential suspects were inadequately investigated, and some leads not followed at all. Detectives on the case complain that they followed long lists of very tenuous leads far more aggressively than they would have in any other case, always coming up empty. It’s Ramsey spin and deflection, they claim, to play the card that untracked suspects are out there still. Defense strategists in murder cases have always played that game, they say. It can go on forever–you can always invoke other categories of suspects and ask, Have all these people been thoroughly checked out?
ARGUMENTS AGAINST, AND TOWARD, THE INTRUDER THEORY:
THE CASE (BRIEFLY) FOR AN INTRUDER:
We at M.O.M. believe it should be clearly understood that an intruder could have gained access to the home and the victim and committed the murder, because no absolute physical or even logical impediment precludes that possibility. True, entry through the notorious basement window, still showing its spider webs and debris the morning after, seems unlikely by even an agile soul, but the house had myriad windows, several doors, and the list of those with keys was fairly long. Keys are easily copied. In sum, the house was porous.
It can be hypothesized that the stalker was in the home long enough to have encountered some written reference to the figure of $118,000 as a special work bonus received by Ramsey, or had contacts from Ramsey’s workplace, and turned it into a ransom figure by whatever twist of mind. Other references in the ransom note are harder to explain, that is to say even more dramatically unusual, but by definition an unusual event occurred that night, perpetrated by someone with an abnormal mind. Had normality prevailed, everyone and especially a precious six-year-old would have lived through the night in peace and safety.
There is no reason to believe a stun-gun was used before grabbing the child, and evidence and logic mitigate against it.
Nonetheless, capturing a small, light person perhaps surprised in her sleep should not be impossible for a large, strong adult.
Even a hand firmly over the mouth could keep matters relatively quiet until she could be removed even farther from her sleeping parents, who were on the third floor of a large home. Forensic evidence concerning how much might have transpired in JonBenét’s second floor bedroom before her removal to lower levels is not clear, much less dispositive.
Some interpretations of the autopsy evidence maintain that the garroting of the victim came first, followed by the severe blow to the head. If so, this would be more consistent with a sexual predator-intruder, delivering the coup-de-grace at the end of the abuse for whatever reason, then hiding the body away in a remote room with some staging built into the scene. The ransom note may have been only a sick and sadistic tweak of John Ramsey, accompanied by no intention of ever removing JonBenét from the scene to collect ransom money.
It’s entirely possible the note was written first, perhaps while the intruder waited for the house to go completely quiet, but after the kidnapping went awry and the child ended up clubbed to death, a shaken perpetrator beat a hasty exit. The murderer might have been too rattled to realize that carrying the forty-five pound body along out of the house would both remove forensic evidence of murder, and maintain a bargaining chip for ransom. Of course, someone stealing to a getaway car before dawn, attempting to move quickly and yet look inconspicuous, could rightly feel that carting a body along, even a small one, made the getaway more difficult and uncertain.
Boulder District Attorney Mary Lacy, who succeeded Alex Hunter in 2001, was of the view that there was no “innocent explanation” for the trace DNA of an unknown male on JonBenét’s panties and other places on her clothing. In Lacy’s opinion the forensics pointed away from the Ramseys, whose fingerprints, clothing fibers, and the like were everywhere in the their own home including the crime scene, but quite expectedly so. Lacy noted the lack of touch-DNA on the body and clothing from any of the Ramseys, potentially a significant point.
This is critical: there was nothing in the history of either John or Patsy to suggest perversions that would lead to a murder scene as severe pedophilia: when John said he couldn’t lead you to a porn shop in Denver if his life depended on it you should believe him, not because he said it, but because of no evidence to the contrary. Had he been a patron of such places, surely someone would have related to the tabloids–for a nice payday mind you–how they’d spotted him in the pornography world. It simply never happened. The Ramsey’s were never known to even swat their kids. A sudden night of murder, skull smashing, strangulation and molestation, out of nowhere? That would be essentially unheard of, and certainly didn’t happen here.
And what would Patsy be doing writing a ransom note, anyway? Even if some inexplicable, accidental tragedy had claimed JonBenét’s life that night, and a mortified Patsy was tempted to stage another look to the events, why not put your energies into staging an intruder’s entry, complete with a window or door pried open, perhaps debris from the yard coming in with the “intruder?” Wouldn’t even a stressed, suffering, and irrational Patsy have thought of those basics, and not spent time on a preposterous note? How much presence of mind does it take to see that “ransom note” and “dead body left behind on the property” just don’t go together? Moreover, why make items like the duct tape and nylon cord disappear, but put the pen and paper back in the kitchen? It’s always tempting for law enforcement to claim an inside job, but really, the Ramseys doing this to their child and themselves…for heaven’s sake it just makes no sense, and the more you look at it, the less it makes.
So what are the odds that the Ramseys staged all this? That, in a nutshell, is the case for an intruder as perpetrator.
THE CASE (BRIEFLY) AGAINST AN INTRUDER
The case against intruder-as-perpetrator serves as well as a serious accusation. If no intruder created the crime scene, then the Ramseys lied to authorities, and at least one adult in the family was undoubtedly involved, in one fashion or other, in the tragedy.
The best way to demonstrate the very tall odds against an intruder-as-perpetrator might be the scenario method: offer a reasonable scenario, but see if it’s really plausible at all when considered in light of known facts.
Someone close enough to the Ramsey family to know some fundamentals of their business, and habits, and most of all their four-level home, despised John but also had a pedophile’s drive to harm the child. This person, never identified or questioned by police, slipped into the neighborhood without being noticed or alarming a dog, and slipped into the house either just before or just after the Ramseys came back for the night. They left no trace of outdoor debris on floor or carpet as they entered, in fact across a long evening’s crime they left no forensic memory of themselves with the possible exception of touch DNA traces. While they waited for the house to grow entirely quiet they found paper and a pen in the kitchen and wrote a ransom note to John Ramsey, just to tweak his nerves. If you’re going to play the Devil why not go all out, so the note was full of melodramatic threats and odd turns of phrase. (He worked by penlight in a darkened kitchen, because full illumination seemed risky for obvious reasons.) Our perpetrator even worked hard to make the writing in print form a bit different from his usual strokes, he misspelled a couple of words on purpose, thinking to throw everyone off the scent. It felt slightly diabolical and less like leaving real clues behind. He didn’t realize that his penmanship in part bore an uncanny resemblance to Patsy Ramsey’s, or that he shared several peculiarities of expression with her.
After the note was written and left on the kitchen table (with pen and paper carefully put back where he’d found them) he quickly ascended to JonBenet’s room on the second floor. He was strangely calm yet realized he didn’t have forever before someone might wake and circulate. He knew the house a bit but hadn’t remembered how every step creaked, and thus his nerves were active by the time he slipped into the little girl’s room. A hand over the mouth as the other swept her up and close to his body, the struggle and kicking were instantaneous, but his size and strength allowed him to move back toward the spiral stairs to the kitchen, penlight in mouth, and get her downstairs without falling. He passed through the main floor and went straight to the cold, remote basement–at that time of night and time of year a basement with at least one broken window was a miserable place–but his perversion powered him to all the activities of the next half hour or so. It was half rape and half staging, the better to confound the authorities as to exactly who he was. Fashioning an odd garrote to choke the child from some materials lying around the basement, now that was a masterstroke, he felt for some reason, so he spent another fifteen minutes just on that artistic touch.
When done with the kid, choked to death, he picked up a larger flashlight and smashed her hard on the skull, something he felt oddly driven to do. He then whipped the duct tape he had out of his pocket and placed a piece across the dead child’s mouth. He turned off the light in the basement room where she would lie until discovered, and hopped back upstairs. The flashlight needed to be deposited on the kitchen counter, and the note needed to be moved to the stairs that entered the kitchen from above. It just wouldn’t do to leave it on the counter, for some reason.
He hadn’t panicked for those last hours, but was aware that a creaky old place like this could reveal a prowler at any time, so he left through a door and closed it behind him. In the pre-dawn darkness he noted a bricked walkway and followed it to the street, from the street down to an alley and his car. Not that many dogs were awake at that hour, at least none that barked at him. He drove away apparently unseen, off, gone, safe, never suspected or questioned much less prosecuted.
So, the analyst must ask, what are the odds that someone who knew the family and could navigate the home, took time to write the note as we know it using materials from the house, produced a note of astounding similarity to many Patsy Ramsey writing and phrasing mannerisms, then killed the child without a usual rape, and with a lot of apparent staging? Why the staging at all, by someone who murders and flees? (Why an actual murderer would feel a need, or take the time, to add phony effects of staging to the crime scene has never been adequately explained, to our knowledge, by intruder theorists.) And the chances that there would have been a gratuitous double-kill, that is a choking that would have been unnecessary after such a head-blow, or a head-blow that would have been redundant after asphyxiation? That both a ransom note, and the body of the ramson-ee, would be left behind? That the perpetrator would be there all that time, through all that crime, and not leave significant traces of himself behind, if only leaves dragged in from the yard as he entered? All without being noticed in the neighborhood, suspected, all without ever having been questioned by police? Just how likely is this phantom intruder?
What are the odds? The answer to that question is the case against an Intruder, in a nutshell.
CRITICAL THINKING, AND CRITICAL TO BE THINKING
A RECAP OF BASIC ISSUES AND EVIDENCE–MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES
As we at Mind Over Mystery teach up and coming mystery analysts the value of careful, critical thinking about any case we’re struck by one thing: it’s easier said than done. It’s easier to preach objectivity, and fastidious mental processes to examine each element of a grand mystery than it is to practice it. Confirmation bias–that tendency to view new evidence or perspectives in light of the leanings we already have about an issue-tends to grow back on our minds like a mental weed.
Let’s remember that keeping an open mind remains the eternal challenge of being a conscious human. And it’s especially important, deathly important, if we’re to grapple with the subtlest of mysteries.
With those critical considerations in mind, this section will enumerate a number of key issues in the Ramsey mystery–from differing perspectives. Most have been broached in previous sections, but the emphasis here is on legitimate disagreement, fact by fact. The same “fact,” like a kaleidoscope, can be rotated to offer myriad views. Our list, though not exhaustive, treats the highlights of the case, and demonstrates why there may never be agreement as to what happened that Christmas night to create horror in such a small, beautiful town.
AN INTRUDER IN THE RAMSEY HOME?
The Boulder Police were skeptical that there could have even been an illegal entrance to the property, given the lack of “footprints in the snow,” given the improbability of an acrobatic entrance through a basement window leaving no trace evidence (fibers, outdoor dirt), given that the home had supposedly been locked at all doors, given that no one was heard in a creaky house, given the difficulty of navigating the complex house and stairs in the dark with a victim in arms, given that no watchdogs barked at an intruder coming or going, given that no eyeballs in the neighborhood identified any person or car that would fit the bill, and finally considering an intruder whose many activities left no evidence behind with the possible, debatable exception of trace DNA. If the lighting pattern in the house was different that night as neighbors recounted, well, no intruder would light up rooms and risk exposure but the Ramseys would to cope with unusual events. From the Ramsey critic’s perspective, that’s over half a dozen reasons just off the bat that the “intruder” theory merely represents a fiction, a deflection. They feel sure the reason no intruder was ever identified is infinitely simple–there never was one.
But the intruder theorist presents the matter quite differently. Yes, it might take a certain nerve or prior knowledge of the Ramsey’s home and habits, or both, to pull off what the intruding perpetrator did, but literally hundreds had an introduction to the home through open houses and parties hosted by the family. Yes it might take some nerve and planning to pull off the home invasion, but that’s crime for you. Sneak jewelry thieves, murderers, many criminals have come and gone with great daring like phantoms in the night. The house had myriad possible entrance points, keys floating around the community, a family grown lackadaisical about locking all those doors and windows at night in such a safe-seeming neighborhood. There were brick walkways leading to and from the home which would leave no bootprints. The intruder clearly wore gloves and was careful not to leave a sloppy forensic trail. He (probably a male) moved quietly by flashlight and had four levels, almost seven thousand square feet to operate in. Intruders have often committed crimes, next to sleeping people, in extremely tight spaces–here he had plenty of room to maneuver. He got lucky in that no saw him, he did not alarm any neighborhood dog. At one point he may have flicked on the light in the kitchen area, well away from sleeping adult Ramseys by two floors, but so what? He knew that generated very little extra risk. Yes, of course there was an intruder in the home that night, we know because he left behind a brutally murdered child, and traces of DNA upon her clothing in intimate places. Of course he was there, he just hasn’t been caught, yet.
THE RANSOM NOTE
The intruder theorist believes as does everyone else that to find the author of the legendary note is to find someone that, at the very least, can tell you what happened that night. They believe the police, in their excessive focus on the Ramseys, did a poor job in researching and pursuing the possible authors–persons with some knowledge of the family and home and its layout, especially of John’s business and financial life (as in the $118,000 ransom figure). That’s a limited but not tiny group, given the number of employees of John’s business, the high visibility of the family, the numerous open houses sponsored by the family. Somewhere from that pool of persons emerged the guy who took his fantasies about the child and his resentment of John’s success across normal bounds one night and slipped into the home late, or hid there earlier until the family returned. Possibly only a weird assault on the parents’ peace of mind was intended, as represented by the menace of the note, but one thing led tragically to another. Or an pedophile in full rape mode might have invaded the home, and penned the note as a twisted way to pass the time until the home went quiet, there are several possibilities. But few experts tagged Patsy as the author, John was excluded, and if the Ramsey’s needed to stage anything they would have more logically just staged a home invasion and an assault. When we find the intruder who left touch DNA behind we’ll find the note’s author, and vice-versa.
The inside-job contingent says nonsense, the experts have ever excluded Patsy as the author, and a number have pointed out strong similarities between her handwriting and the note, complicated by the fact that an ambidextrous Patsy had far more ability than the average Jane to change the “font” on her personal printing as she went, at will. In fact her deliberate efforts to monkey with her writing style after the murder reveal consciousness of guilt. But penmanship is not even the half of it, greater weight resides in assessing the text itself. Simply put, what are the odds that this unusual intruder, in addition to defying all other sorts of probabilities, had the same flair for drama Patsy had, used exclamation marks and acronyms with the same alacrity, the same sort of lively expressions and sentence structure she used, including rarely seen phrases like “and hence?” The chances that this intruding author would praise John’s business in almost the same breath as threatening to murder his child? Yes, it’s all possible, but what are the odds against such a multi-coincidence? Absolutely astronomical, no?
THE “STAGING” ARGUMENT
Most local and national law enforcement consultants perceived “staging” in the child’s placement in a remote room in the basement, with props like blankets and tied hands that weren’t really tied, and others. Come on, said the experts, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it’s almost always a duck. For heaven’s sake, the tape over the mouth was applied after the child was dead, according to forensic science. What murderer in an occupied house has ever taken the time to do that, or had a motive to? None, before this. Come on, this was desperately staged by amateurs, and that’s why we eventually (yes eventually, not from moment one) focused on the Ramseys as the only logical responsible party.
Hold your horses, say the believers in an intruder. Lots of misinformation was out there, for example, John Ramsey remembers partially loosening his daughter’s ligature in the first desperate, crazy moments after he discovered her body. That sort of thing can leave a false impression about the appearance of the body as found. There was a blanket down in the basement room, yes, but not a child-tucked-in-to-sleep presentation to the body as it lay. And there was a vicious rape and strangulation, now that wasn’t staged for gosh’s sake, the violence was perpetrated upon the child. It’s you guys that need to get real. Just because lots of murders have been in-house and then the guilty party alters the scene, it doesn’t mean that makes sense here. This was clearly a tragic rape and murder by a pedophile who had fantasies about this child beauty queen.
RAMSEY BEHAVIOR THE DAY OF DECEMBER 26TH
And just how is one supposed to act when the most unexpected, spirit-crushing thing than can befall a parent has landed on you like a ton of bricks? Grief and shock are handled in very personal ways. The Ramseys did their best under circumstances so trying most of us have never faced them, and even took hours trying to satisfy the myriad questions of the police.
We feel their pain, say the police from the other point of view, but it just didn’t add up to us. A ransom note that made the biggest production ever, of any ransom note in history, about not bringing in outside parties to the “kidnapping” and before long the Ramseys have invited half of Boulder over to their house. It was like Grand Central Station in that place. If the outside invader, the note, were all so real to them, why defy the note so openly, going far, far beyond a discreet contact with police? And John Ramsey may have later written that Patsy had to be restrained by friends when her child was brought up from the basement, but our personnel remember it quite differently, and we think they’re more objective. They recall a Patsy who at first didn’t come toward the child at all, as if she knew what to expect.
We know there’s no one way to act in the face of stunning tragedy and pain, but even so, the Ramseys in those early hours and days just didn’t ring true to us.
RAMSEY BEHAVIOR IN COMING WEEKS AND MONTHS
In fact, the Ramseys didn’t ring true as innocent, grieving parents, in a lot of what they did, for months. Okay, we’ll concede that maybe they “lawyered up” on the advice of friend Mike Bynum, and perhaps it’s true that the innocent need representation as quickly as the guilty in circumstances like these. We’ll even cut those lawyers some slack in having their investigators jump on key witnesses immediately and lock them in to their stories, before we could even get to them. A defense lawyer’s job is to consider the police or prosecution the enemy, and to tell their clients not to say a damned word without their counsel’s approval. But, John Ramsey was worldly enough to know that his lawyers Worked for Him. If he’d wanted to sit with the police for hours and days on end, answering the same questions over and over with the hope that suddenly something new, and helpful, might pop into his mind, he could have done that by all means; some fathers in his situation have, such as Polly Klaas’s dad. Instead the Ramseys circled the wagons before being accused of anything at all, although they did make time for investigators known to be leaning early on to the intruder theory.
They were helpful with leads, all right, some of the people they always hugged and kissed and wrote warm notes to were served up as names the police should jump on, silly leads in some cases, old men recovering from surgery and the like. The Ramseys acted classically guilty–we won’t answer hard questions from police, but we’ll tell you who to go and pursue.
No, not really fair at all, says the other side. You damned well better retain counsel if you slept under the same roof where a murder occurred, innocent or guilty, doesn’t matter. The police were given lots of names but didn’t seem to take them seriously, they wanted to stay in the Ramseys’ faces, and would have for weeks and months if their lawyers had not said, Enough Already. You can’t win with these cops when they’ve jumped to a conclusion. They even tried to withhold the daughter for burial as blood ransom for more interviews, cruel as that sounds. Yes, the Ramseys went a different direction, within a couple of days, from dealing with the local police, and in their place you would have, too.
The damned cops and so-called experts were big on their “intuition” from the start. Detective Linda Arndt even claimed to have seen guilt in John Ramsey’s eyes as he knelt, utterly stunned and crushed, over his dead child–she says she counted the bullets in her gun to see if she had enough to handle all the supposed murdering friends lurking about the house! Where do they find these people to honor with the rank of Detective, for the love of God?
But when it comes to real, scientific evidence, DNA and the like, these same experts are awfully quiet. They don’t like to tell you that traces of DNA from a male outside the household were found in all the key places, under the victim’s fingernails, and at several spots on her underclothing. They don’t tell you that DNA from the Ramseys was noticably absent from those same locations. No Patsy Ramsey DNA on the garrote cord, just for example. Let’s be crystal-clear, the evidence based in science all points away from the Ramseys, not toward them. And Mary Keenan Lacy, Boulder’s District Attorney by 2008, realized the science was so strong she deemed it exculpatory. She fully and officially cleared the three Ramseys of any involvement. That makes a lot more sense than counting the bullets in your revolver.
Yes, but hold the phone. Forensic evidence requires as much careful assessment as circumstantial evidence, you can’t just spout “DNA from unknown male! Ramseys cleared!”, shout that from the rooftops, and go home if you respect the subtlety of the evidence. Read a full book by a DNA expert, and the complexity of the matter will melt your brain cells. One thing that’s usually agreed on is that the smaller the sample, the smaller the clear forensic significance. Single-cells can come from anywhere, including all kinds of cross-contamination. They don’t assure an individual was on the scene any more than three molecules of ragweed pollen prove you brushed against a ragweed plant. The forensic evidence overall is voluminous, running to many thousands of pages. Many elements of it seem to cut both ways, or more often to only lead to more questions. The only forensic science which might, just possibly might exculpate the Ramseys is that DNA, and it’s simply not clear how much it means. Dr. Henry Lee, the most respected forensic scientist of them all, says the touch DNA in this case really has “no forensic value” in his opinion.
THE GRAND JURY
There must be a great deal that points straight to Ramsey guilt, however, or a Grand Jury would not have recommended indicting them in 1998 (for lesser charges than murder). The D.A., Alex Hunter, then declined to go along with the recommendation, and the process was sealed. No one knew for years what the jury’s recommendation had been. If the screws had been tightened one step further, by an actual criminal prosecution, who knows what might have come out. Once witnesses finally come forward, once the dominos begin to fall….
Oh, we all know that a determined prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich. (In this instance it was a special prosecutor forced on the case by public opinion.) They choose what to present to a Grand Jury, and they only offered the Boulder police perspective. But Hunter retained the ultimate authority to prosecute or not, and he did the right thing. At the end of the day, what evidence is there, really, of Ramsey family involvement? That they slept under the same roof as the murder that night? Of course they slept in the same domicile as their six-year-old daughter, where else would they sleep? But the chaos and tragedy they awoke to the next morning has no scientific, or logical, connection to them.
THE BOTTOM LINE
- The majority view of law enforcement experts–that the crime came from within the home—has held over the years despite the opposing view of the Boulder DA’s office, and the “clearing” of the Ramseys in 2008. The case springs from some contradictory facts and is stacked with loose ends, but overall we see no reason to disagree with the majority in the law enforcement community. One central suspect in the death of JonBenét, Patsy Ramsey, died of cancer in 2006, and her secrets, if any, rest with her in her gravesite.
- Although significant rewards have been offered, by the Ramsey family especially, no credible evidence of, or identification of, an outside perpetrator has ever surfaced. Even the 2006 “confession” of John Mark Karr proved to be a bogus trail.
- Although the total quantity of public money, private and media attention, and law enforcement man-hours devoted to the case in the end has been staggering, amazingly some of the most basic trails of potential evidence were not followed, in many cases because of the vigorous legal team protecting the Ramseys, and the acquiescence of the Boulder District Attorney’s office. To offer a powerful example, that both Ramsey children wet and soiled their beds—a huge red flag which suggests family dysfunction to child psychiatrists —yet regrettably the psychiatric treatment records for Burke Ramsey were never subpoenaed, honoring the family’s request for an “island of privacy.” Corners of remaining privacy and dignity for the family, in a case that must have made them feel like constant public spectacles, are quite understandable…but—not at the expense of resolution of the case. The relevance of recent family psychiatric history would seem to be so obvious that its exclusion from consideration leaves many observers aghast. More simply, evidence as basic as phone and financial transaction records of the Ramseys in the time surrounding the crime were not procured in a timely fashion, once again by the decision of the District Attorney’s office, to the immense frustration of detectives. Investigators felt that some of the most common and obvious threads of evidence were denied them, even as they labored under great pressure to resolve the case.
We believe the case was never prosecutable and never will be, barring dramatic, unforeseen developments (such as the linking of clear forensic evidence to a perpetrator with a record of similar crimes, or a plausible confession). That is, there was never enough support for any one scenario to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt, especially with blue-ribbon defense attorneys attacking the weaker links of any theory. As the legendary prosecutor Vince Bugliosi commented, the strongest evidence against the Ramseys is the extreme unlikelihood, the implausibility, of anyone else having committed the murder given all the circumstances of the setting. But that unlikelihood does not make for good prosecution of the Ramseys in a courtroom setting, in front of jurors not trained to weigh inferences drawn from circumstantial evidence. We hear Ramsey lawyers in our mind’s ear asking time and again, “Where, exactly and precisely, is the case against our clients? There isn’t one. The prosecution has no case.”
- Although resolution is unlikely, secret evidence from grand jury proceedings may leak out. DNA science may give a more convincing read on the touch DNA found in multiple places on JonBenet’s clothing. The mystery analyst may have more pieces of the giant jigsaw puzzle in the future, in other words. For now, we’ve assessed the probabilities to the best of our ability with the facts as known to us.
How will the JonBenét case be remembered, and what can it teach us as mystery analysts? We predict it will be remembered for decades, in fact for many generations. Our great, great-granddaughters, enrolled some day in a class in forensic studies, may dive into the robust file which is the Ramsey murder and emerge many, many hours later with the question: “Just what the hell happened in that house that night?”
The crime scene left behind was both tragic and confounding. And some evidence, both phyical and circumstantial, points in different directions. In that sense the crime will always be a richly perplexing one, “the perfect mystery,” if you will.
But we have mixed feelings in finding so much fascination in the case–after all, there was a real child victim of murder, and a trail of tortured lives left behind. These shaken lives belonged to real and living people, this was no harmless creation of Hollywood. “My child was murdered in my home on Christmas night,” a sadder, older John Ramsey said 20 years later. “Don’t ever forget that.” Indeed, whether John was honest with authorities about the crime or not, we must respect the pain of a grieving family.
An entire, sleazy tabloid industry fails to recognize anyone’s pain, or privacy. We agree with the Ramseys–they are pure dollar chasers of the most despicable sort. But are we any better, the lovers of mystery who will analyse this case and even find excitement in a “perfect mystery?”
We at least like to think so. We can offer a sober analysis of evidence and context which may not make the mouth water like a tabloid headline, but helps frame good forensic analysis. We can compare what happened that tragic night to a hundred other cases–after all even the strangest history, in the strangest ways, will somehow repeat itself. We can offer the anti-tabloid version of analyzing the crime, trying always to be mindful that real people suffered overwhelming tragedy. And we can broaden the scope, remembering that everyone suggested as a perpetrator, many of whom where grilled at length by police and discussed openly in the media, had their lives forever changed as well.
Each major mystery leaves its legacy, and its lessons. This murder will almost surely never be “solved” in the sense that some courtroom, somewhere, will declare a verdict. It’s been obvious since 1999 that this case would never be prosecuted.
But even in a case that will never go to trial, we have learned compelling lessons about our justice system.
- We must devise a system to compel, when appropriate, timely cooperation of key witnesses or suspects with police in potentially capital cases. The Ramseys left Colorado shortly after the death of their daughter and would not return, or submit to questioning, for some period of time. High-priced lawyers protected them from normal scrutiny.
- We must seek some manner to distance District Attorney’s offices from political influence (although that’s always quite the challenge) and seek means to further distance money, such as the Ramsey wealth, from influence in the criminal justice system.
- We must have better cooperation between law enforcement and prosecutors on sensitive cases, even if independent authorities need to be brought in. Given the enormous importance, notoriety, and cost of this case, the cross-purpose efforts of the Boulder Police Department and the Boulder District Attorney’s office was utterly unacceptable.
As discussed in other sections, “The Ramson Note” will forever be central to speculation on the case, because the author at the very least knew all about the crime. The Ramseys and their Counsel have long disparaged the notion that Patsy could have been the author, the “sloppy” writing was far from hers, they claim, and her concocting the note would have simply made no sense. The oddball intruder, for whatever reason, wrote the equally oddball note and that any similarities to Patsy’s handwriting style and habits of expression are purely coincidental.
Objective observers have always been split on the subject, with much opinion that Patsy was by far the most likely author.
The following, from the Mirror in the UK on September 13, 2016, is an example of ongoing coverage:
“A chilling new docu-series evaluating evidence from JonBenet Ramsey’s murder has presented evidence to suggest that the beauty queen’s mother could be linked to the ransom note found at the murder scene.
The two-and-a-half page ransom note was discovered by Patsy on that tragic morning in 1996 on the bottom of the staircase.
Handwriting expert Cina Wong has evaluated the note and compared it to JonBenet’s parents’ handwriting.
“When I looked at the first page, I noticed that the writing was slow and a little awkward,” Wong explained in Investigation Discovery series JonBenét: An American Murder Mystery.
JonBenet Ramsey was found murdered at her home in Colorado in 1996.
“But as I progressed to the second page and the third page, I saw that the writing was more fluid, written more naturally. It tells me that what we’re dealing with is a disguised writing.”
Wong explained that it was “difficult to hide the natural habits of your handwriting”, stating that quite often you can change your style for up to a paragraph.
While she ruled out JonBenet’s father out of writing the ransom note, Wong did find similarities with her mother Patsy.
Looking at the unique characteristics of handwriting, Wong found over “200 similarities” with the ransom note writer and Patsy.
Meanwhile in the CBS docu-series The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey, retired FBI profiler Jim Clemente suggested that a long time would have been taken to write the ransom note.
“Whoever wrote this managed to commit a murder, find the pad, find the pen, practice a couple of times because they didn’t want to show bad penmanship or something, write it and then put the pad and pen back to where they normally are kept,” he suggested.
John and Patsy Ramsey after completing two days of police interviews regarding the death of their daughter in 2000 (Photo: Reuters)
John and Patsy Ramsey after completing two days of police interviews regarding the death of their daughter in 2000 (Photo: Reuters)
“That is 21-and-a-half minutes they could have been caught.Twenty-one-and-a-half minutes that they stayed in the house longer than they needed to.”
Patsy, who died in 2006 after a battle with ovarian cancer, strongly denied any involvement in her daughter’s death.
“I didn’t do it, John Ramsey didn’t do it, and we didn’t have a clue of anybody who did do it. This child was the most precious thing in my life,” she said at the time.”
The Mirror (UK), 2016
Another website, inquisitor.com, also teed off from the starting point of the observations of profiler Clemente and colleagues on (September 8, 2016):
“Another point the team looked into is how long it took to write the note. The clip shows the team re-creating the note, which took around 21 minutes on average, to complete. Why would someone who committed a murder stay in the home any more time than necessary? The following is according to Clemente.
“That is 21-and-a-half minutes they could have been caught. Twenty-one-and-a-half minutes that they stayed in the house longer than they needed to… I think we can all agree this letter is clearly staged.”
Even more alarming is that whoever wrote the note knew the exact amount of John Ramsey’s Christmas bonus. Aside from his wife, there were very few people that would’ve have that kind of information.
“You will withdraw $118,000.00 from your account. $100,000 will be in $100 bills and the remaining $18,000 in $20 bills. Make sure that you bring an adequate size attaché to the bank. When you get home you will put the money in a brown paper bag. I will call you between 8 and 10 am tomorrow to instruct you on delivery.”
While the general public once placed the blame directly on Patsy’s shoulders, other weren’t so sure it was that simple. Perhaps someone was trying to frame her in the murder of her own daughter, someone who knew that authorities would suspect her if her husband’s bonus amount was listed.
The fact that these debates are still active 20 years downrange illustrates the complex, almost eternal nature of this mystery. It requires infinite patience and humility to continue to look at all the evidence, from all sides.
The 20th anniversary occasioned half a dozen new studies or mini-documentaries. The quality varies enormously.
The two highest-profile programs from Fall, 2016 demonstrate stark contrasts.
Dr. Phil’s three-part special in the end emphasized an exoneration of the Ramseys, and flogged the issue of Boulder Police malfeasance throughout, but centered on Burke Ramseys first ever interviews in the limelight. Phil stretched out his questions with Burke over the three segments, but to what purpose? Obviously if Burke agreed to sit under the lights for questions, we essentially knew his answers beforehand–as in ‘I have no idea who killed my sister.’ At the end of the day, the much bally-hooed “exclusive interviews” were more showmanship than anything that could help serious mystery analysis. And overall, the tenor of the show is badly misleading on many issues, misinformed on others. The Boulder Police did not conduct a model investigation, but trashing their performance, even their motivation as John Ramsey and his attorney are allowed to do on the show is shamefully off the mark.
Critical circumstantial evidence is given only token attention in Dr. Phil’s treatment, while the science behind DNA evidence, apparently, is woefully misunderstood by commentators. The program even commits the cardinal sin of inviting a paid advocate on the show, Ramsey’s Georgia attorney, as if he would have anything to offer apart from spin favorable to his client. We could go on.
We don’t necessarily reject the conclusion of the program, that an intruding pedophile still needs to be brought to justice, but the road to getting there does not follow the principles of good mystery analysis. We all like Dr. Phil, but his staff served him very poorly in preparing this mash-up of superficial content.
The CBS four-hour special fares distinctly better in our view, but we have problems with it as well. Originally scheduled as six hours and pared down by the network, the program would undoubtedly have come across as more thorough, and balanced, had those hours been left in. The shortened version had the committee of experts (and we must say, these were true experts, unlike many guests on other specials) appearing to plunge head-long toward a very particular theory–Burke’s impulsive clobbering of his sister and Patsy’s desperate cover-up, hoping not to lose both children in one horrible night. We don’t necessarily disagree with the logic behind this theory either, in fact we lean toward Patsy’s authorship of the note from our assessment thus far.
But we wouldn’t go as far as this group did in singling out one perpetrator, only a child at the time and a young man now attempting to live his life in peace. The scene where a sample ten-year-old breaks a sample skull with a vigorous blow from a heavy flashlight commits its own excesses of showmanship–although the result is quite interesting.
Although it suffers from the editing done to chop it to size, the CBS treatment gets the idea very right, that is, look at all evidence through the eyes of decades and decades of expert experience. Drs. Henry Lee and Werner Spitz bring as much gravitas as any forensic scientists in North America, and they convincingly debunk the crime scene as anything more than staging, piled on top of more staging. Evidence generally cited as proving the intruder hypothesis is not ignored, in fact Dr. Lee demonstrates on-camera the problems of contamination with microscopic “touch DNA.” In the end, he opines that the much touted DNA evidence of the case really holds “no forensic value.” Agree or disagree with the debate on each element of evidence, or the overall conclusions of the committee, this program offers something all too rare: a very penetrating analysis of subtle evidence, by the best minds in the field.
SELECT BOOKS AND STUDIES
“JonBenét: Inside the Ramsey Murder Investigation,” the first major look behind the scenes of the JonBenét case, was published in 2000. It’s recommended as a gut-real accounting of the investigation from the perspective of a detective who gave thousands of hours, and ultimately his health, to the quest for an answer. Detective Steve Thomas’s opinionated account does not claim objectivity, though to us it rang true and valuable. The litigious John Ramsey sued Thomas (a case settled in 2002) over the book’s conclusion: that the Ramseys failed to cooperate with authorities to hide the fact that Patsy Ramsey had killed her daughter accidentally.
Earlier, in 1999, Lawrence Shiller had published and widely sold “Perfect Murder, Perfect Town.” A respected journalist’s work, it nonetheless lacks the insider feel of some of the other accounts. (It really makes a very interesting sound dull and confusing.)
Even earlier in 1998, Dr. Cyril Wecht, a true crime expert trained in both medicine and law, weighed in with a careful analysis of, especially, autopsy results, in “Who Killed JonBenét Ramsey?” Wecht’s perspectives on high-profile cases are perennially interesting and worth considering.
John Ramsey offered two books from the family’s perspective: that they were persecuted from the start, compounding the intense pain of their loss (“The Death of Innocence,” 2000, and “The Other Side of Suffering,” 2012). Analysts wishing to consider “both sides” of the story may wish to read one or both accounts. We at M.O.M. believe in multiple perspectives on any mystery, and thus review all materials. The Ramsey’s account is especially poignant in regard to the unseemly–at times downright brutal and disgusting–behavior of media outlets in sensationalizing the tragic event. The family must have felt a cruel salt was being rubbed into open wounds. They correct as many sensational media misstatements are they can, but go beyond that in aggressive criticism of almost everyone who ever criticized them.
Interesting books, but we harbor some skepticism– the spin appears as the product of much legal and public relations counseling. Where the Ramsey’s version of the facts conflicts with law enforcement, we generally find the official account of authorities more credible.
“Foreign Faction: Who Really Kidnapped JonBenét?” was the 2012 product of Detective A. James Kolar’s intimate review of the crime, for the Boulder DA’s office, years after the fact. One of the more contemporary treatments of the case, it may be the one to read above all others. The attention to detail impresses–Kolar had access to voluminous files and organizes the presentation well across some 500 pages. In the end, Kolar became as skeptical as the vast majority of lawmen of the “intruder” theory, which he considers a stretch, and hints at various scenarios of what might have happened inside the home that night, now decades ago.
The 2016 anniversary of the child’s death has spawned new books. “Once Upon a December: Inside the Death Investigation of America’s Most Famous Beauty Queen” by David Kennedy, and “We Have Your Daughter: The Unsolved Murder of JonBenét Ramsey Twenty Years Later,” by Paula Woodward who long reigned in local, Denver TV as a star on-screen reporter. We have not at this time been able to review these materials–at our next update of the JonBenét case we will offer a view as to the value of these works.