The Slate Gist

The Murder of JonBenet Ramsey

It’s been months since the last revelations about the unsolved murder of beauty-pageant champion JonBenet Ramsey, yet the 6-year-old’s death continues to provide grist for the tabloids, op-ed columnists, TV talk shows, and the 30-some Web sites that follow the case. Because information about the investigation comes in dribs and drabs, it is all too easy to lose track of where things stand.

Initial press reports dwelt on JonBenet’s career on the beauty-pageant circuit. As a contestant, the Boulder, Colo., child dressed as an adult (wearing lipstick and high heels) and performed suggestive dances. JonBenet’s 40-year-old mother, Patricia (Patsy) Ramsey, a former Miss America contestant, considered her young daughter her confidante and “best friend.” Patsy had undergone chemotherapy, and various press accounts accuse her of fulfilling her own beauty-pageant fantasies through JonBenet. John Ramsey, the child’s 53-year-old father, heads a software-distribution company. The family lived in a 15-room home in Boulder’s posh historic district.

On the morning of Dec. 26, 1996, Patsy phoned the Boulder police in a panic about a ransom note she says she found on a staircase leading to the kitchen. The note demanded $118,000 for the return of JonBenet. Police arrived at the Ramsey home to monitor incoming phone calls, left a few hours later, and returned with a warrant to search the house for evidence of a break-in. During the police’s absence, John Ramsey and a family friend searched the house themselves, and John found JonBenet’s corpse in a basement storage room. According to the coroner’s report, the cause of death was strangulation. JonBenet’s skull was fractured, and she had been sexually assaulted (though no semen was found).

The Boulder district attorney, who calls JonBenet’s parents “the focus” of his murder investigation, has cleared John Ramsey’s children by a previous marriage of suspicion. Police found no evidence of forced entry into the house; nor was the new-fallen snow outside disturbed by footprints. The only people known to have been inside the house at the time of the murder were JonBenet’s parents and her 9-year-old brother.

Investigators call the ransom note a fake, citing its “intentional” misspellings. Searching the Ramsey home, police found a legal pad on which they believe the note was written. They also found a rough draft of the note on the same pad.

Details from the note leaked to the press indicate an intimate knowledge of the Ramsey family. The amount demanded matched John Ramsey’s 1996 bonus–and the note ended with “Victory SBTC,” which police say refers to the Subic Bay Training Center, the defunct U.S. Navy base in the Philippines where John Ramsey was stationed in the 1960s.

The Ramseys hired criminal-defense lawyers to represent them four days after the murder, even though they had not been named as suspects. These lawyers advised them not to submit to formal, videotaped police interviews until the police agreed to show the Ramseys copies of the statement they had made to police the day of the murder. The police agreed to the terms, and the couple was interviewed on May 1. There was an hourlong break between John’s and Patsy’s interviews, which may have given them time to coordinate their stories.

What motive would the Ramseys have to kill their daughter? The supermarket tabloids have run riot with speculation, but family friends call the Ramseys gentle and devoted parents. The Ramseys themselves have theorized in interviews that one of John’s disgruntled employees might have killed JonBenet. In an ad the Ramseys published in the Boulder Sunday Camera, they accused a convicted child molester of the crime. Police acknowledge that at least 15 people (caterers, housekeepers, and contractors) had keys to the house.

While aggressively spinning the case to the press, the police have also withheld important pieces of evidence from public view, saying that full disclosure would jeopardize the investigation. The complete autopsy report remains sealed, and the results of DNA tests performed on JonBenet’s bloodstained nightgown, her hair, and the blood found underneath her fingernails also remain confidential. Police have taken five handwriting samples from Patsy Ramsey and compared them against the 2½ page ransom note, the complete contents of which have not been made public. Police say Patsy’s handwriting samples are inconclusive because her manual dexterity has been hampered by sedatives she has taken since JonBenet’s death. They say that John Ramsey’s samples did not match the ransom note.

The district attorney’s office, which says it is moving cautiously and waiting to amass more evidence, has established a task force that includes two veterans of the O.J. Simpson defense: law professor Barry Scheck and forensic expert Henry Lee. The district attorney predicts that an arrest will be made in the next two months. Critics say the district attorney’s office has bungled the case because it has little experience with homicides: JonBenet was the college town’s only murder victim in 1996. They say that the police mishandled the crime scene, allowing John Ramsey to search the house, and point out that the police let the couple leave town for several weeks prior to questioning them. (The Ramseys buried their daughter in Atlanta, then vacationed in Sea Island, Ga.) This absence, some speculate, gave the Ramseys time to work out a story to explain their innocence.