Case still far from solved

No one has ever been charged in the killing of JonBenét, and that’s un­likely to change

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Kirk Mitchell

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.

Sus­pects cleared

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.

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