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The unsolved murder of JonBenét Ramsey

JonBenét Ramsey
Image: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

How does the unsolved murder of a child beauty queen continue to divide opinion nearly 30 years later? Find out about the killing of JonBenét Ramsey below.

A ransom note

Patsy Ramsey only realised her daughter, JonBenét, was missing when she discovered a two-and-a-half-page ransom note at the family's Colorado home on 26th December 1996.

The note demanded $118,000, a sum that her husband, John Ramsey, pointed out was nearly identical to his Christmas bonus the previous year. The ransom note also raised eyebrows due to its unusual length, appearing to have been written at the scene, and its apparent borrowing of dialogue from several films.

Experts had never seen a note like it and did not believe it was written by a stranger. However, a court ruled it unlikely that Patsy Ramsey had written the note, based on the analysis of handwriting experts.

The arrival of house guests

Finding no signs of forced entry, officers searched the basement. They came to a door secured with a latch but chose not to open it, reasoning that it wasn’t a viable exit route for a kidnapper.

A forensics team was dispatched to the house and JonBenét's bedroom was cordoned off to protect evidence, though no other areas of the house were initially isolated. Meanwhile, friends and family gathered at the Ramsey home to offer support. These visitors were in the kitchen, potentially compromising evidence.

What was behind the locked door?

At the suggestion of detectives, John Ramsey searched the house for anything unusual, beginning in the basement. He opened the latched door that officers had previously ignored and discovered his daughter's body.

JonBenét's mouth was covered with duct tape, a cord was tied around her wrists and neck, and her torso was wrapped in a white blanket.

How did JonBenét die?

JonBenét died from strangulation combined with a skull fracture. Although there was no evidence of rape, sexual assault couldn't be entirely ruled out.

The garrotte around her neck was partly crafted from a broken paintbrush handle. A section of the bristle end of the paintbrush was found among Patsy's art supplies, but the rest was never located.

Traces of fruit were discovered in JonBenét's stomach, suggesting she had consumed something a few hours before her death. Photos taken at the Ramsey home on the day her body was found showed a bowl of pineapple on the table.

However, neither John nor Patsy Ramsey recalled putting the bowl on the table or serving JonBenét pineapple. Police reported finding fingerprints from JonBenét's nine-year-old brother, Burke, on the bowl. However, the Ramseys maintained that Burke had slept through the entire night and was only woken after police had arrived.

John Ramsey holds up a picture of his daughter, JonBenét, during a press conference
Image: John Ramsey holds up a picture of his daughter, JonBenét, at a press conference in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, on the 24th May 2000 | Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

Keeping it in the family

Initially, the police focused almost entirely on John and Patsy. They felt that the Ramseys weren't cooperative in the investigation. The Ramseys, on the other hand, stated that their hesitation in cooperating with police was due to concerns about a possible rush to judgement.

In 1999, a jury voted to indict John and Patsy Ramsey on two counts of child abuse, accusing them of unlawfully permitting a child to be placed in a dangerous situation and providing an environment that led to her death. However, the District Attorney declined, citing insufficient evidence.

A television programme broadcast in 2016 proposed that Burke Ramsey might have accidentally killed his sister following a disagreement. It suggested that the ransom note was written to cover up this accidental death.

This led to defamation lawsuits against the programme’s producers and several participants, filed by Burke Ramsey's legal team.

Could it have been somebody else?

The theory that an intruder might have been responsible gained traction. This was due to the presence of an unidentified boot mark in the room where JonBenét's body was found.

Persons of interest included:

  • A neighbour who had played Santa Claus at holiday events.
  • A local reporter whose girlfriend had named him as a potential suspect.
  • The family’s housekeeper.
  • A man who died in what appeared to be a suicide shortly after JonBenét's murder.

Proponents of the intruder theory point to two open windows, a broken basement window and an unlocked door on the night of the murder as possible entry points. However, critics note cobwebs and other signs of disuse around these suspected areas, suggesting that they hadn't been disturbed.

Other theories propose that JonBenét's involvement in child beauty pageants might have inadvertently drawn the attention of paedophiles or child pornographers.

It was later revealed that the Ramseys' neighbourhood had experienced more than 100 burglaries in the months leading up to JonBenét's death. Additionally, there were 38 registered sex offenders within a two-mile radius of their home.

A difference of opinion

Despite this ongoing debate, authorities felt it was unlikely that any family member would be successfully prosecuted once the possibility of an intruder had been acknowledged. This led to tension within law enforcement and raised questions about the direction of the investigation.

In 2006, John Mark Karr was arrested for the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. However, his detailed confession was refuted by investigators when his DNA did not match that recovered from the victim’s underwear.

Additionally, advanced DNA testing in 2008 led to JonBenét’s immediate family members being cleared. This isn’t the first time DNA advancements have been used for historical cases.

For example, DNA profiling was used to link Robert Napper to the murder of Rachel Nickell, over 20 years after she died.