On December 26, 1996, six year old JonBenét Ramsey was found brutally slain in the cellar of her parent’s lavish home. For many the case is infamous and has become synonymous with unsolved crimes, in particular because JonBenét’s murder had enough salacious detail to hold mainstream interest in a post-OJ America that lusted for a new scandal. The images of a young, pretty, white, blonde girl dolled up in frilly dresses and makeup were destined for the tabloids, with her family being alleged of creating a paedophile’s dream in their daughter. Twenty years later, the question of who killed her remains polarizing. For me my interest comes from reading true crime tales online; though I’m loathe to admit it, I am an avid reader of Reddit’s r/UnresolvedMysteries/ and often find myself lost in a late night black hole of Wikipedia pages. Along with my morbid fascination comes a strange sense of familiarity with JonBenét: we were a similar age and both grew up in the 90s, we both enjoyed singing and crafts, we both were young when we felt pressure to be who we were not, and we both endured horrible things. But I survived and JonBenét didn’t, and now I feel an obligation to her story.
JonBenét Ramsey was a vibrant and happy girl and those who knew her would say she was always making others smile. Born August 6, 1990, she lived with her family in the quiet town of Boulder, Colorado. JonBenét’s father, John Ramsey, owned a successful computing company that had just made its first million. Her mother, Patricia ‘Patsy’ Ramsey, was a former beauty queen from West Virginia and she hoped to pass on her love of pageants to JonBenét, who at the age of six had already won several child pageants. JonBenét’s older brother, Burke, was a diligent boy scout and fascinated with planes. From the outside the Ramseys were the perfect family: wealthy, well-liked, and successful. They had many friends and it was rare to hear a bad word about them, except perhaps from those jealous of what they assumed to be the Ramsey’s perfect suburban lives—that was until JonBenét was murdered and the decades-long story of intrigue and public fascination in the hunt for her killer began.
The official story for the night of December 26, 1996, is as follows: Patsy woke up shortly before 6am as the family had plans to fly out later that day to visit John’s older children. Descending the stairs she noticed three pieces of paper at the bottom of the stair case. Skimming the first and reading that her daughter had been taken she flew into a panic. Screaming, Patsy ran back up the stairs into JonBenét’s bedroom and found it empty. Her wails grew louder as she ran to Burke’s room, though the boy was sleeping safe in his bed, and at this point John woke up and his hysterical wife directed him towards the ransom note. Despite explicit instruction on the note not to involve police at the risk of JonBenét’s life, Patsy called 911. “We have a kidnapping […] There’s a note left and our daughter is gone.” After hanging up she called several of the Ramsey’s close friends to come over immediately, even the pastor from her church, and they arrived along with Boulder county police—a thoroughfare of people treading through what was a fresh crime scene. After an extremely brief search through the Ramsey’s expansive home, the group gathered to await a promised phone call from the kidnappers at 10am. When the call never arrived, John and his friend were instructed to look through the house again. Moments later a scream was heard through the house as John ran up the stairs carrying his daughter’s body wrapped in a white sheet having found her on the floor of the wine cellar. He placed her on the floor as Patsy ran over and threw herself over JonBenét’s body, pleading with Jesus to bring her back to life. Autopsy results concluded JonBenét died from strangulation via a “garotte” fashioned from string and a broken paintbrush, however a blow to her head that happened up to two hours prior to this was fatal and would have killed her had the strangulation not come first. There were also signs of sexual assault with the same paintbrush, and further indications of ongoing sexual abuse.
The Ramsey’s behavior after JonBenét’s death was definitely strange. In the case of a child’s disappearance, or murder, suspicion always falls on family members and it is considered routine to investigate them to eliminate them as suspects. By all accounts the Ramsey’s actions after calling 911 ensured that the crime scene was compromised and, from the beginning, the Ramseys were non-compliant with law enforcement and wouldn’t agree to be interviewed until three months after JonBenét’s murder. While they refused to co-operate with police they did a round of highly publicized television interviews, including a public appeal on CNN on January 1, 1997. John chided those who believed they were guilty of the crime while a heavily medicated Patsy begged viewers to “keep their babies close.” The Boulder Police Department began to strongly suspect that someone in the Ramsey family had murdered JonBenét and staged a faux-kidnapping scene; the court of public opinion seemed to agree. Little focus was placed on Burke, age nine, as under Colorado law a person under the age of ten can not be tried for murder. It was theorized that Patsy had killed JonBenét in a rage after she had wet the bed one too many times, or perhaps that John had been sexually assaulting his daughter and the abuse escalated to murder. A closer look at the three-page ransom note, bizarre in both language and length, showed many similarities to Patsy’s handwriting and contained phrases she was known to use. The paper and pen used to write the note were both found in the Ramsey home and had been returned to their original placements. John seemed unemotional and was caught booking flights out of Boulder for his family shortly after finding his daughter’s body. The Ramseys have always insisted on their innocence and after Patsy died of ovarian cancer in 2006 neither John nor Burke changed their story.
- SPONSORED -
Homicide detective Lou Smit is a proponent of the “Intruder Theory” and speculates that someone broke into the Ramsey house through a window in the basement and then went upstairs to JonBenét’s bedroom, either incapacitating her there to kidnap her or luring her back downstairs. Next the ransom note was written and the killer took her down to the basement intending to smuggle her inside a suitcase off the property, but when this proved too hard or time ran out she was strangled and her body abandoned while the intruder escaped back out the basement window, ransom note forgotten. While the window was broken, during questioning John claimed to have broken the glass himself months earlier after he had locked himself out of the house. In photos a scuff is seen on the wall under the window that could potentially be from someone climbing in, but around the window sill there were undisturbed cobwebs though the window was too small for these not to have been damaged while entering. Smit also theorizes that marks found on JonBenét’s body were left by a taser gun, but there is no further evidence to support this and the marks were also found to match points on a toy train belonging to Burke.
In 2006 police took 41-year-old elementary school teacher John Mark Karr into custody after he confessed to the killing of JonBenét. Karr had been living in Thailand and was facing child pornography charges at the time of his arrest. He claimed to have been in Boulder on Christmas Eve, 1996, and that he drugged and sexually assaulted JonBenét, but maintained her death had been accidental. Karr was obsessed with JonBenét and had long professed his love for her online under the username “Daxis” in early net forums devoted to the case. Upon his confession many users asserted they did not believe Karr had committed the murder and he simply wanted to involve himself in the case out of narcissism, and when I read through threads he had posted in he was erratic and clearly delusional. His confession caused a spectacle but there were many inaccuracies in his story, including no drugs being found in JonBenét’s system during autopsy. Karr was dismissed as a suspect after it was concluded he was not in Colorado at the time of the murder and it was speculated his confession was an excuse for extradition from Thailand to escape imprisonment there on his previous charges. Other suspects have included Chris Wolfe, a local who was turned in by his girlfriend after she saw him react strangely to a news story about the murder, and Michael Helgoth, a loner who had committed suicide the day of a televised press conference stating that law enforcement were close to closing in on the killer. Both were cleared, as all other potential leads have been.
From the days, nights, weeks, and months I have poured into this case, what follows is my personal theory on what truly happened to JonBenét and, to me, is the most logical sequence of events given what I know:
The Ramsey’s left their friends’ Christmas party around 8pm, stopping on the way to drop off presents at other houses while the children were in the car. John says he carried JonBenét out of the car and put her to bed, after which Patsy put her into her bed clothes. John went downstairs to the basement and helped Burke set up a gift he had received earlier. Patsy claims she stayed up a little longer than usual packing clothes for the family’s trip the next day, but I believe she was slightly tipsy from the Christmas party and fell asleep early. John went to bed soon after and if Burke went to his room, he did not go to sleep. Bored, he woke up his sister to see if she wanted to play and tempted her with a snack—one of her favourites, pineapple. During autopsy pineapple was found in JonBenét’s digestive tract indicating she had eaten it one to two hours before her death. In the Ramsey’s kitchen a bowl of pineapple and milk, along with a glass with a teabag in it, was found (an attempt at making ice tea). While fruit and milk (or cream) would make a good snack, pineapple curdles milk and, along with an oversized spoon in the bowl, I believe this indicates the meal was prepared by a child. Both Burke and JonBenét tried the pineapple but left it largely uneaten when they didn’t enjoy the taste. Burke’s prints were found on both the bowl and glass (Patsy’s were also found, but I believe they would be from stacking dishes). It has long been maintained that nobody in the Ramsey house left their rooms after Burke was put to bed but the pineapple places JonBenét and Burke in the kitchen at this time.
The siblings go down to the basement to play, where they find some wrapped presents that Patsy had organized for their ‘second’ Christmas in Atlanta. Burke decides to unwrap these gifts and JonBenét is upset with him and says she will tell their parents. Angry, Burke grabs a nearby flashlight and strikes her over the head. JonBenét is instantly knocked unconscious and her breathing and pulse all but stop. Burke tries to wake her but she remains still. He then prods her with a part of his train and is still unsuccessful in waking her. Finding himself alone and curious—books found within the house indicate that Burke was having behavioral issues—he perhaps begins to examine his sister’s body, even inserting a paintbrush into her vagina. He then constructs a “leash” out of rope and a broken piece of the aforementioned paintbrush, ties it around her neck, and drags her body around the room (JonBenet enjoyed playing ‘kitty’ and this could be seen as a twisted incarnation). The rope pulls taut and the strangulation kills JonBenét.
A neighbour of the Ramsey’s reported hearing a scream from the property between midnight and two in the morning. There is no doubt that if someone screamed within the Ramsey house the family members would have heard it. While many propose the scream to be that of JonBenét, I think it’s more likely to have been Patsy. Upon waking up after falling asleep early she goes to check on her children and discovers they are not in their beds. Knowing that Burke enjoyed playing in the basement, she heads down to see if they were there and finds an unconscious JonBenét accompanied by an unfazed Burke, and lets out a scream. Piecing together what has happened and seeing the rope around JonBenét’s neck and possibly the broken paintbrush from her molestation, Patsy sends Burke to bed and wakes up John, and they try figure out what to do—their son has murdered their daughter and they are faced with losing their now only child. What follows is a frantic attempt at a cover up. After wiping her body and the weapon down—the flashlight believed to have been used in the blow to JonBenét’s head was found completely wiped clean, including the batteries inside—they began to write the ransom note. It took a few tries to get it right—several ‘practice’ notes were later discovered—as the Ramsey’s came up with a story of kidnapping subconsciously inspired by thriller movies, with several lines from the note being taken indirectly from film scripts. Patsy calls the police at a time that would fit in with the day’s plans and then the chaos begins. I think John and Patsy intended to remove JonBenét’s body from the property but, when time ran out, she was simply hidden to be found later—stashed in the dark and windowless wine cellar.
I believe the events of the night of JonBenét’s murder were a series of tragic accidents, where a jealous sibling acted out and when faced with the scene two parents united to protect their only child. If John or Patsy were involved in their daughter’s death I don’t think either would hesitate to turn the other into police; the Ramseys did not seem close at the time and they each hired separate lawyers before talking to police. It would be necessary that they keep Burke away from questioning until they could properly coach him on what to say, while also reiterating to him that he had not done anything wrong and he would be okay. In an interview with a child psychologist thirteen days after JonBenét’s murder Burke is asked if he knows how his sister died, he responds with “I know what happened to her” and mimics the motion of striking someone hard on the head from above—but at this point the results of JonBenét’s autopsy had not been determined and the blow to her head showed no external signs of trauma. While such an extreme act by a child would often indicate further violence later in life, it’s possible Burke’s rage disappeared after he eliminated the source of it: JonBenét. By all accounts he has lived a normal albeit secluded life, graduating from college in 2010 and working as a programmer in Atlanta. I’ve tried to find more about Burke’s life online and found only vague mention of him being “friendly” and having girlfriends, interspersed with Vimeo and YouTube accounts of remote-controlled airplane test drives.
With the 20th anniversary of JonBenét’s death approaching this Christmas, there has been a slew of documentaries bringing unseen evidence to the public, sparking a public re-interest in the case. While a lone CBS series was announced in April this year, it arrived in September amidst a flood of sudden specials by Dateline NBC, A&E, Investigation Discovery Network, and a three-part interview with Burke Ramsey on Dr Phil—his first ever media interview. The A&E special was firmly behind the Intruder Theory (and made with heavy involvement from John Ramsey), while Dateline and ID tried to present a broader view of the case (though the latter entertained a crass interview with John Mark Karr). The CBS special gathered a team of forensic experts to reexamine all available evidence and constructed recreations of key rooms in the Ramsey household, unanimously concluding that Burke killed JonBenét. I was most excited for the Dr Phil episodes, with teasers that seemed to promise a no-holds-barred interview and when the full episodes aired they were an armchair detective’s dream. Burke stiffly smiled and laughed his way through details of his sister’s brutal murder. In a huge slip he even admitted to being downstairs after everyone had gone to bed, something that seems damning given the prior insistence that this never occurred. However it was not long until I learned the Ramseys and Dr Phil share the same lawyer, Lin Wood, and in a last-minute additional episode Dr Phil was quick to put Burke’s behavior down to awkwardness. A Lifetime channel adaptation, Who Killed JonBenét?, is set to air early November and is eerily narrated by the ghost of JonBenét à la The Lovely Bones.
If she was still alive today JonBenét would be twenty-six years old. What would she be like? Who would she have become? We will never get to know and her story will not end until her killer is found, and having spent so much time on her case I get the feeling too much has been kept quiet for that to ever happen. I know I will continue to speculate, and my version of events could change if we are finally told more about what happened that night, but all I can really do is hope that one day justice will be served. Unfortunately justice for JonBenét seems just as unlikely now as it did back in ‘96, when police and the public alike found themselves baffled by the horrific murder of a six year old girl on Christmas night.