Case still far from solved
No one has ever been charged in the killing of JonBenét, and that’s unlikely to change
JonBenét Ramsey’s murder case is so knotted by tainted evidence, faulty police work and conflicting suspect theories that the Boulder County district attorney recently warned it would be difficult to solve even if an upcoming third round of DNA testing does generate a match in the FBI’s national offender database.
“I suppose it’s possible, but it’s not very likely,” DA Stan Garnett said Thursday. “The problems in the Ramsey case are unlimited.”
Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the killing of the 6-year-old pageant queen, whose death in her Boulder home captivated the country and prompted countless theories by experts and amateurs alike. Although her parents were initially placed under an “umbrella of suspicion,” they were later cleared by the district attorney.
No one has ever been charged in the case.
The case began early on the morning of Dec. 26, 1996, when JonBenét’s mother, Patsy Ramsey, called police saying she had found a ransom note on her stairs. The handwritten, 2K-page note was addressed to JonBenét’s father, John, the wealthy CEO of Access Graphics, and began, “Listen carefully … we have your daughter,” and demanded a $118,000 payment to members of a “small foreign faction.”
A succession of neighbors, friends and police officers freely walked through the family’s sprawling Chautauqua neighborhood home until that afternoon, when John Ramsey discovered JonBenét’s body covered by a blanket on the concrete floor of a basement room. She had been hit in the head, strangled and sexually assaulted. Ramsey tore off a piece of black duct tape covering his daughter’s mouth, scooped her up in his arms and dashed upstairs, where police and others were gathered.
Only then did officers secure the house. But the damage to evidence and the crime scene had already been done.
The mishandled Ramsey investigation may mean that the case might never recover, Garnett acknowledged. But part of the case’s legacy is that his prosecutors and Boulder police learned from their mistakes, and in doing so successfully prosecuted of nearly two dozen cold cases just since he took office in 2009, he said. With or without a criminal trial, longtime Ramsey attorney Lin Wood vows that the case will have its day in court. But that may only be in civil slander trials.
Before any charges could be filed, police and prosecutors would first have to explain away two decades of heavy damage done to the case by widespread misconceptions caused by faulty police leaks, seemingly contradictory evidence and investigative blunders made shortly after JonBenét’s murder, Garnett said.
Most of the investigative mistakes made in the case are already well known. Inexperienced Boulder police officers initially failed to treat the Ramsey home as a crime scene, and officers first interviewed her parents together, Garnett said. There have been a host of other misfires, including the 2006 arrest in Thailand of John Mark Karr after his bogus confession.
The case is all the more complicated because of divergent theories about whether an intruder or a family member killed JonBenét. Some legal experts say the theories have been propagated largely by dueling celebrity forensic experts quoted on national TV programs, in newspaper articles, on talk radio shows and publications including Rolling Stone magazine.
On one hand, a large body of evidence, including tiny scratches near the garrote that was tautly bound around JonBenét’s neck, prove that an intruder intentionally strangled the girl to death, Wood said. The “fingernail marks” demonstrate that she was alive — fighting for her life — when she was strangled, making it unlikely her family would use complicated knots typically associated with torture to kill the child as an elaborate coverup, Wood argues.
On the other hand, five people that John and Patsy Ramsey identified in their book, “The Death of Inno- cence,” as primary suspects in JonBenét’s death have all been cleared by authorities. Those cleared include Bill McReynolds, a retired University of Colorado professor who played Santa Claus and held JonBenét days before her death; Michael Helgoth, an electrician who killed himself shortly after the girl’s murder; and Gary Oliva, a homeless sex offender with a bizarre fixation on JonBenét, authorities say.
“There are a number of people who have been mentioned (as suspects) that police are confident are not involved in this case,” Garnett said.
Colorado Bureau of Investigation officials recently agreed to run new DNA tests on evidence from unsolved cold case homicides, including the JonBenét case. Garnett said that additional testing might provide helpful information.
“However, I don’t expect that DNA test results alone will definitively solve or prove the case,” he said.
Wood said he thinks new DNA testing was a good decision.
“I think this is a DNA case and it’s the only hope of it being solved,” he said.
Spotlight on Burke
As the 20th anniversary of JonBenét’s death approached, a slew of TV and radio programs and newspaper profiles rehashed evidence in the case. Wood said some went too far, including those that focused on JonBenét’s older brother, Burke, who was 9 at the time of the murder. He promised severe repercussions.
“For 17 years nobody has been stupid enough to accuse Burke of killing his sister,” Wood said, referring to a CBS miniseries in late September that largely identified Burke as the killer.
Wood called the miniseries allegations foolhardy. He had already won settlements for Burke against two media organizations for making the same claim. He recently sued one forensic expert who appeared on the show for $150 million and vows to file a civil lawsuit as soon as Tuesday against CBS for a much higher sum.
“I’m confident CBS will go down for what they did,” Wood said in a phone interview. CBS did not respond to Denver Post requests for comment, but has previously said it stands behind the report.
During a segment of the “Dr. Phil” show in September, Burke spoke about how he learned that his sister had been killed.
“My dad came and told me, ‘JonBenét is in heaven now,’ and he started crying. Then I started crying,” Burke told TV host Phillip C. McGraw.
The bright glare of attention focused on JonBenét’s murder made it even more difficult for police and prosecutors to properly investigate the case, some experts say.
Retired prosecutor Rockne Harmon said he learned firsthand the damage that can be done when a case becomes an international obsession. He handled high-profile cases in Los Angeles for 23 years and was one of a team of prosecutors in the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson. Simpson was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald L. Goldman. A civil jury later found Simpson responsible for the deaths.
“It hinders the investigation because you get all the celebrity experts hovering around the case,” Harmon said.
“Like fruit flies”
So many media experts arise in a national media case that it’s difficult to get a clear picture of what did or didn’t happen and what the same piece of evidence means, he said. Celebrity experts armed with a fraction of the evidence collected in the case seem to cancel each other out, depending on the theory their client is promoting, he said.
During the Simpson trial, experts called him frequently, hoping to be hired in the case, he said. When false theories presented in news articles were debunked in court, news organizations would not fix the mistakes, he added.
Even though the Ramsey case has never gone to trial, it hasn’t stopped forensic experts from stepping into camera lights and weighing in, some actually identifying people they believe killed JonBenét, Harmon said.
“They’re like fruit flies,” he said. “When something is rotting they feed in the lights of the cameras, causing them to multiply.”
National TV programs have made hundreds of millions of dollars on the JonBenét story, Wood said, “exploiting this family’s tragedy. It still makes them money.”
On Oct. 6, Wood filed a $150 million lawsuit in the 3rd Circuit Court in Michigan against forensic pathologist and CBS media expert Werner U. Spitz. The lawsuit cited statements Spitz made in a Sept. 19 CBS Detroit radio program that also were used in the CBS TV miniseries. During the interview, Spitz accused Burke Ramsey of bludgeoning JonBenét to death, the lawsuit says.
“If you really, really use your free time to think about this case, you cannot come to a different conclusion. … It’s the boy who did it, whether he was jealous, or mentally unfit or something. … I don’t know the why. I’m not a psychiatrist, but what I am sure about is what I know about him, that is what happened here,” the lawsuit quotes Spitz as saying during the radio program.
Spitz theorized during the CBS TV show, “The Case Of: JonBenét Ramsey,” that Burke struck his sister with a heavy flashlight that was found on the kitchen countertop, killing her.
Wood said Spitz’s theories were laced with significant errors.
“Spitz discounted and ignored clear and convincing evidence that establishes that JonBenét was sexually assaulted, tortured, beaten and died from asphyxiation by strangulation with a garrote,” the lawsuit says.
The autopsy report indicates that the cause of JonBenét’s death was also a massive blow to her head, fracturing the right side of her skull.
Twenty years after her murder, JonBenét is buried in a Marietta, Ga., cemetery, next to her mother, Patsy, a former Miss West Virginia who died of cancer in 2006. John Ramsey has since remarried.
An image made from a family video shows JonBenét Ramsey performing during a beauty pageant. Courtesy of Ramsey family
In 1997, John and Patsy Ramsey offered $100,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the murderer of their 6-year-old daughter, JonBenét.