Overview of JonBenét Ramsey
For much of the world, Christmas embodies the spirit of hope, typically evoking feelings of peace, joy, faith, and love of family and friends.
But for one Colorado family living in the idyllic town of Boulder in 1996, Christmas night ushered in unspeakable tragedy and incomprehensible loss when a ransom note was discovered in the early hours of the following morning, stating that their little girl had been kidnapped. The subsequent discovery of her body in the basement of the family home that same day ultimately unleashed a global media storm - the likes of which has not been seen before or since - and the death of this young child has created repercussions that are still being felt today.
Through all the backlash, accusations, suspicions, salacious details, conspiracy theories, twists and turns this case has endured over more than a quarter of a century since her murder, we cannot lose sight of the fundamental truth that an innocent little girl tragically had her life taken and is still awaiting justice.
JonBenét Patricia Ramsey remains forever frozen in time at 6 years of age in the minds and hearts of the world. Living in Boulder with her parents - John Bennett Ramsey, CEO and President of Access Graphics, and Patricia “Patsy” Ramsey, former Miss West Virginia, along with 9 year old brother Burke - she also had several adult half-siblings living elsewhere from her parents’ prior marriages, including a half-sister who tragically died in an accident in 1992. The angelic-looking child beauty queen with the wide green eyes and flaxen ringlets is instantly recognizable by almost everyone, especially by those who lived through the late 20th century.
Her image - typically done up in full pageant dress consisting of tiara, hair, makeup, sparkly clothing, and heels - graced the cover of every tabloid newspaper in the late 1990s and well into the 21st century, the better to signal outrage over the exploitation of a child pageant queen. Growing up in what can only be described as a Tudor mansion in the affluent Chautauqua neighborhood of Boulder with wealthy parents who encouraged her participation in such competitions, it is natural to assume that JonBenét led a somewhat rarified existence - and indeed, in some ways she did. Much has been made of the multiple “Little Miss” titles she held by winning pageants and competitions, but that was only one small aspect of her life. In fact, one source indicated that when asked about her multiple trophies, JonBenét shrugged and replied “those are really my Mom’s trophies”, implying she only competed because it pleased Patsy. When looking beyond the glitter and the rouge, one can see that JonBenét was just a typical little girl growing up in the late 1990s who loved her family, her friends, and Santa Claus. She was a spunky child who enjoyed being outside with her brother, digging in the dirt in the backyard and joyfully jumping into leaf piles with her little dog Jacques. And while she was indeed a natural performer who loved the stage, she also was a whiz at math and adored reading and drawing. An innately kind, gentle, and big-hearted child, JonBenét was often called upon to comfort her schoolmates when they were sick or frightened. She tackled life with an inherent zest and spirit of adventure, be it skiing, sledding, and making snowmen in the winter, or roller skating, hula-hooping, and searching for fairies in the backyard in the summer.
Her parents were quick to recall her as not only a natural beauty but also a little tomboy - one who could perform gymnastics, climb trees and keep up with any boy in the neighborhood. Her mother marveled at how easily and skillfully she could stand on her head and recalled with fondness her daughter’s love of kittens, blue jeans, and pigtails. Her father proudly recalled a memory every father is familiar with, but sadly, occurred on the very last day of his daughter’s life. They’d given JonBenét a new bike for Christmas, and although she was unfamiliar with riding a two-wheeler, her tenacious spirit and resolute determination allowed her to inch forward slowly and make slight progress, despite faltering. At the tender age of 6, that ability to push forward to meet any challenge was who JonBenét was at her very core.
The date of JonBenét’s tragic and untimely death varies by source as either December 25 (as indicated on her headstone) or December 26 (as indicated on the autopsy report), but for purposes of this narrative, we will refer to the date of her death as December 25, 1996, since that is how her family recorded it. Following her kidnapping and the subsequent discovery of her body, the ensuing media circus is proof that we didn’t always need the existence of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok to go viral. And while many media sources reported ethically on the murder of the child, the images that tend to stay with us are the ones we saw at checkout counters across the nation, as well as internationally. Tabloids and gossip rags like the National Enquirer and The Globe splashed JonBenét’s image - always in full pageant mode - across their covers with sensationalized headlines, accusations, and wild theories of who might have killed her for many years to come.
On December 25, 1996, after attending Christmas dinner at family friends Fleet and Priscilla White’s house, the Ramseys returned home to sleep.
The family had a vacation scheduled, and they had planned on leaving the next day. Both Burke and JonBenét fell asleep in the car on the ride home, and Patsy confirmed putting her daughter to bed, last seeing JonBenét at approximately 10:00 pm in her bedroom. The following morning, Patsy rose early at approximately 5:30 am to make coffee and get the family ready for their upcoming trip to their vacation home in Charlevoix, MI. Dressed in the same clothes from the day before, she descended the staircase at 5:45 am, only to find a handwritten note near the bottom step of the spiral staircase. She read the two-and-one-half page note - which declared that JonBenét had been kidnapped and was being held for ransom - and screamed for her husband while bounding back up the stairs to check JonBenét’s room, which was empty.
The full text of the ransom note can be found here. The note - written with a Sharpie on lined legal paper - both later found to be from the Ramsey home - was an unprecedented 374 words long and was addressed only to "Mr. Ramsey" (although later a “practice” note would be discovered by police that was addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. I”, as if the author had started to write the first stroke of a capital “R"). The author stated that he or she was part of a group of individuals that "represent a small foreign faction", and demanded John withdraw a precise $118,000 - the exact amount of John's Christmas bonus from Access Graphics that year - in specific denominations, or his daughter would be executed. The note warned against contacting authorities, or JonBenét would be beheaded, and advised John to await further delivery instructions via a phone call between 8:00 and 10:00 am that morning. The mysterious signature read "Victory! SBTC", which became the subject of many theories.
Officers from the Boulder Police Department responded to Patsy’s frantic 911 call within mere minutes, as did family friends, including Fleet and Priscilla White and John and Barbara Fernie, who Patsy had called. Before long, the Ramsey home was swarming with authorities, friends, victim advocates - all moving freely about the home, which had not been secured as a crime scene. When Linda Arndt, the first detective on the scene, arrived at 8:10 am, she also failed to seal the home and even allowed well-meaning friends and advocates to move items and clean the kitchen with disinfectant spray, potentially destroying evidence.
Officers from BPD had been instructed by their chief to treat the Ramseys as victims, not potential suspects, due to their influential position in town. Remarkably, when the supposed time period for the kidnappers to call with ransom delivery instructions had ended, no one - including the family - seemed to take note. Photos taken at the scene that morning showed that there was a bowl of pineapple chunks - with both Burke’s and Patsy’s fingerprints on it - and a heavy-duty Maglite flashlight on the kitchen counter. Later, Patsy would deny feeding either Burke or JonBenét a snack before bed, but undigested pineapple would be found in her digestive tract during autopsy, leading to much speculation and a theory that Burke may have struck his sister with the flashlight after she had some of his pineapple.
As if leaving the crime scene unsecured weren’t enough of an error, at around 1:00 pm that afternoon Detective Arndt suggested that John and Fleet White search the house "from top to bottom" to ensure nothing was out of place - a recommendation that would later be criticized harshly. They decided to conduct the search from the opposite direction, proceeding directly to the basement to search various rooms, noting the damaged window in the playroom, which John said he’d broken months earlier.
When the window was later inspected by authorities, undisturbed cobwebs and dust appeared to be present in the window well, seemingly refuting the idea that an intruder entered the basement.
There in the basement, just behind the door to the wine cellar, John Ramsey discovered what no father should ever have to witness. JonBenét's lifeless body was found under a light-colored blanket, dressed in long underwear and a white knit shirt with a sequined star on the front. Her hands were tied over her head, her mouth was covered in black duct tape, and there was a white nylon cord around her neck, cutting into her flesh and entangled in a broken paintbrush, which had been used as a garrote and was later determined as having come from Patsy's art hobby set. Circular marks on her face and neck could indicate that a stun gun had been used to subdue the child, and there was a boot print and partial palm print next to her body. John, in understandable anguish, cried out and instinctively ripped the tape off his daughter’s mouth and attempted to untie her hands, while Fleet ran up the stairs screaming for someone to call an ambulance. John carried his daughter upstairs, placing her in the hallway, but Detective Arndt moved her near the Christmas tree. Patsy, frozen in shock, was carried over to where her daughter’s body lay, sobbing and throwing herself upon her child’s inert form in horror and agony. Meanwhile, Fleet returned to the basement and began collecting evidence, further contaminating the scene.
After JonBenét’s body was discovered, the house was finally secured as a crime scene.
Detective Arndt called for backup, and shortly after finding his daughter's lifeless body, John was overheard on the phone with his private pilot attempting to make arrangements to fly to Atlanta that night. He claimed to have a business trip he could not miss, but authorities instructed the family not to leave Boulder. Instead, they went to the Fernies’ home, while authorities examined the scene. Search warrants were subsequently executed, one of which uncovered the existence of the “practice ransom note” that was apparently started and then discarded. Blood, hair, and handwriting samples were collected from the Ramseys and others close to the household. When the results of JonBenét’s autopsy were released, her death was ruled a homicide and her cause of death was listed as "asphyxia by strangulation associated with craniocerebral trauma." Although further details were not released at the time of the autopsy, it was later reported that in addition to strangulation, the Medical Examiner also found a large gash in her head, indicating she was struck by a heavy object, which could be consistent with a heavy-duty flashlight. Also present was evidence of vaginal trauma, and there was a small amount of blood in her underwear. There was also DNA evidence present, which would years later be determined to be of unknown male origin in 2003. Undigested fruit - consistent with pineapple - was found in her digestive tract.
On New Year’s Eve, JonBenét was laid to rest in Marietta, GA, where she was buried next to her half-sister who had preceded her in death.
The following day a New York Times article broke the case nationally, reporting that the little girl had died by “an asphyxiation by strangulation”. The same evening, John and Patsy broke their silence in an interview with CNN, declaring they thought a stranger kidnapped and murdered their daughter. Patsy warned Boulder parents to “keep your babies close by – there’s someone out there,” and insisted they were cooperating with the police while acknowledging they had hired legal counsel. These two events combined to spark a media storm of untold proportions.
It is virtually impossible to discount the impact that the media had on the JonBenét Ramsey murder case.
Paula Woodward, a former investigative reporter for 9News who later authored a book about the case, said that the “...media landscape - and 24/7 cable TV in particular - helped fuel the appetite for sensationalized coverage.” She was onto something; based on the cable television news cycle in the decade of the 1990s, viewers had grown hungry for information - the more salacious, the better. Recent scandals such as the O.J. Simpson trial for the murder of his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman, the shooting of Long Island homemaker Mary Jo Buttafuoco by her husband Joey’s teenage lover Amy Fisher, and the Tonya Harding conspiracy guilty plea against an attack on fellow skating rival Nancy Kerrigan, all pointed to the public’s appetite for sensationalism.
Then there was the pageant aspect - few viewers around the country, with perhaps the exception of residents in some small pockets of the South, had ever been exposed to the multimillion-dollar world of child beauty pageants. Tiny beauty queens strutting on stage in full makeup, sprayed and teased hair, heels, glittery tiaras, and sparkly outfits could understandably be perceived as an attempt to overtly sexualize children and, in some viewers' eyes, could be almost guaranteed to attract pedophiles. The public was outraged, judgmental, and vocal about the parenting deficiencies of John and Patsy Ramsey, and - coupled with law enforcement’s April 1997 announcement identifying them as the main suspects in the case - gave rise to many theories as to the means and motives they would have to kill their daughter.
Some felt John was the killer, due to the fact he immediately started his search in the basement, thus going directly to the crime scene. His attempt to arrange to leave town shortly after the discovery of her body also put him squarely in the crosshairs. Others were certain Patsy was the culprit; they theorized that she had struck JonBenét in a fit of rage after a bed-wetting incident and accidentally killed her, then covered it up by staging it as a kidnapping. Or perhaps Burke was the guilty party, striking his sister for stealing some of his pineapple and accidentally hitting her so hard that she perished. Patsy would again be accused in this scenario, this time for covering for her son. Those supporting the Patsy theory also cited the fact that, unlike others in the household, she couldn’t be ruled out as the writer of the ransom note because her submissions “set off alarm bells” with authorities. She would be forced to submit at least 5 handwriting samples before police admitted to having no conclusive evidence that she had written the note.
But it wasn’t until more than 4 months after JonBenét's murder that authorities formally questioned John and Patsy for the first time. They were interrogated separately; Patsy was questioned for over 6 hours and John for 2 hours. The couple also granted an interview to local reporters, strenuously denying any involvement in their daughter’s death.
For the next decade, the Ramseys remained the focal point of the investigation.
District Attorney Alex Hunter’s office took over the main responsibility for the case, creating a task force whose personnel fluctuated throughout the course of the investigation. In the years following the murder, numerous BPD investigators ultimately resigned from the investigation, citing corruption, inappropriate sharing of evidence with the Ramsey defense team, coverups, mishandling of evidence, and egregious breach of trust for purposes of political gain. Detective Lou Smit, a retired homicide investigator from Colorado Springs who had joined the investigation in 1997, resigned in September of 1998, firmly holding on to the belief that John and Patsy Ramsey did not kill their child. Instead, he supported the theory that an intruder killed the child while attempting to sexually assault her.
He spent the rest of his life continuing to search for her killer.
Also in September of that year, a Grand Jury began investigating the case. Upon completion of their investigation in October, DA Hunter announced that he had declined to file charges against the Ramseys based on a lack of "sufficient evidence to warrant filing of charges".
In June of 2006, Patsy Ramsey passed away without ever learning the name of her daughter’s killer, after battling ovarian cancer for over a decade. A few months later, an elementary school teacher was arrested in Thailand after confessing to killing JonBenét while attempting to sexually assault her. This individual, however, was later ruled out based on DNA. Then on July 9, 2008, based on irrefutable DNA evidence indicating JonBenét's killer was an unknown male, then-Boulder District Attorney Mary Lacy wrote a letter to the Ramsey family, formally exonerating them - including Patsy - of any involvement in the case. She apologized and assured them that they would be treated as victims moving forward, as she felt they should have been all along. Other theories that were explored were the involvement of Linda Hoffman-Pugh, the Ramsey family housekeeper, and Bill McReynolds, a family friend who played Santa Claus at neighborhood parties and events.
However, both of these persons of interest were ultimately ruled out by DNA evidence as well.
In January 2013, the Boulder Daily Camera released the results of the 1999 Grand Jury investigation to the public. These documents showed that the grand jury had secretly voted to indict the Ramseys of two counts each of child abuse resulting in the death of their daughter, including accessory to a crime. According to the court documents, both parents sought to "hinder, delay and prevent the discovery, detention, apprehension, prosecution, conviction and punishment" of an unidentified person. However, then-DA Hunter refused to sign the indictment, believing he could not prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
A judge unsealed the documents, and the details - along with graphic crime scene photos - were made available to the public.
In 2016, there was further movement in the case. Convicted pedophile Gary Oliva confessed to and was investigated in connection with JonBenét’s murder, but in 2020, BPD released a statement refuting his confession. Another “intruder theory” surfaced when a former private investigator for the Ramsey family identified Michael Helgoth as a person of interest. Helgoth, an electrician and Boulder auto salvage yard worker who occasionally did work for the Ramseys, died by suicide two months after the murder. The investigator claimed to have learned of the existence of a recording in which Helgoth reportedly told someone a few weeks before the murder that he and a partner would soon be making a deal that would net them $50-$60k each. He also made strange comments about cracking a human skull.
After his death, Helgoth was found to possess similar Hi-Tec boots as the boot print found next to JonBenét's body, as well as a stun gun. In September 2016, Kimberly Archuleta, the 911 operator who took Patsy’s frantic call, sat down for an interview with Dateline, and for the first time discussed the contents of the 911 call. The dispatcher remembered that after Patsy had hung up, the phone was placed in the cradle but did not disconnect. For a few seconds, Archuleta heard muffled, indistinct voices that sounded to her like John, Patsy, and a third voice, likely that of a child. That same month, JonBenét’s brother Burke appeared on the “Dr. Phil” show, speaking publicly about her murder for the first time and adamantly denying any involvement in her death. Additionally, at the end of 2016 the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, who by now had joined the investigative team, announced their intent to re-test several key pieces of DNA evidence.
Where the case stands today.
In December 2021, the Boulder Police Department announced that they have processed over 1500 pieces of evidence and analyzed nearly 1000 DNA samples related to the case to date. They stated their intention to actively “use new technology to enhance the investigation” and regularly check for DNA matches to solve the murder. However, John Ramsey remained frustrated with the glacial pace of the investigation and - now in his late 70s - feared running out of time. In May of the following year, he petitioned Colorado Governor Jared Polis, requesting that he intervene in letting an outside agency take over the DNA testing initiative.
Citing advances in DNA testing by private labs and the use of genetic genealogy in solving decades-long cold cases, he pleaded with the governor to transfer testing responsibility to an outside agency. A Change.org petition was filed in an attempt to persuade the governor. Receiving no response, John sent a second letter to the governor in January of 2023, requesting an in-person interview. This time, the governor responded that he would review the request. Then in early February of this year, a bombshell announcement was made that Ramsey investigator Lou Smit - who had passed away in 2010 - had assembled a "treasure trove" of previously unreleased documents that his heirs had shared with current investigators. Within the case file was an unredacted 1997 report showing that the DNA evidence recovered from under JonBenét’s fingernails and from her clothing was not a match for members of the family and others close to the household, just weeks after the crime. This indicated that Boulder police had been actively pursuing the Ramseys as suspects, despite knowing they could not have killed JonBenét.
At the end of February, a new book about the case is scheduled to be released, based on Smit’s investigation and documentation. Lou and JonBenét: A Legendary Lawman’s Quest to Solve a Child Beauty Queen’s Murder was written by Smit’s close friend and former El Paso County sheriff John Wesley Anderson, detailing his friend's tireless mission to solve the murder of the little girl.
The book argues that if BPD hadn’t purposely ignored the DNA evidence that exonerated the Ramseys and could be used to identify her killer, perhaps the murder of an innocent little girl would have been solved decades ago. This renewed interest in the case, coupled with the possibility of moving DNA testing responsibility to an outside agency, gives hope to all of us who want justice to be served in the murder of JonBenét Ramsey.