It's been 12 long years since the brutal murder of then 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey in her Boulder, Colorado home on Christmas night, 1996. The investigation has gone almost full circle since that time with various suspects considered and rejected, to include her own family members and the occasional wacko that would surface and suggest to all who would listen that he alone was the unknown killer. Boulder Police would eventually turn the case over to the local District Attorney, who in 1996 presented the case and the known evidence to a local grand jury that found no reason to indict anyone for the crime. Now, a dozen years later, this at the time that JonBenet would have been 18, the case has been bounced back to the local police who are assembling an extensive group of experts, an investigative and forensic cold case squad to review all known case evidence, the lengthy list of suspects, and to consider where the case should go from here.
Most know the story of the little beauty queen who sustained an eight inch fracture to her skull, a garrote tightened around her neck, and her lifeless body, with what some suggested was evidence of ongoing sexual abuse, left in the dark in a remote basement room of her home with her small arms extended over her head, her body covered with a thin blanket that could not ward off the cold of death. The medical examiner would rule that she died due to ligature strangulation, and that the extensive head wound was likely the result of her head hitting a surface, like the edge of a bathtub. Others, meanwhile, thought this wound was the result of her being struck by an object like the long flashlight found in the Ramsey home the morning police responded to Patsy Ramsey's frantic 911 call.
Why Investigators Considered a Family Member as the Killer
Inside the home was found a handwritten, multi-page ransom note, one of the longest notes ever seen by the FBI in a kidnapping case. The note demanded a strange ransom, $118,000, for the return of the young girl. Police would determine that the victim's father, John Ramsey, received a similar amount as a bonus check, one of many strange coincidences that caused many investigators to point the finger of responsibility at a family member.
One of the key detectives working this case for the Boulder PD was Steve Thomas, who would later write a book concerning this case and his suspicions of how and why JonBenet died and who was responsible for her death. Thomas offered a theory suggesting that JonBenet's mother had accidentally injured the victim in a fit of rage concerning the previous day's events, a frustration allegedly fueled by JonBenet's incidents of repeated bed wetting. Thomas believed that Patsy pushed or struck JonBenet's head against a hard surface causing so serious an injury that she believed her daughter was dead. Everything after that, he suggested, was a cover-up designed to make it appear as though an unknown gang of child kidnappers, a group previously unheard of in that city, that state, or the country was, nevertheless, responsible for the little girl's death.
Some investigators came to believe that Patsy carried the victim's limp body to a basement room in the large 15 room home where she used items from her own art materials to craft the garrote (broken wooden paint brush with attached cord) found tightened around the child's neck. Others, of course, believe she was carried there by an unknown intruder who had somehow managed to enter and leave the home undetected. The victim's body was found by her father some 8 hours after she was first reported missing by her mother.
Duct tape had been placed over the child's mouth, and, according to reports, although it held the impression of the victim's lips, it did not show evidence of a tongue impression, thereby suggesting to investigators that the tape (like suspected in the current case of deceased 3-year-old Caylee Anthony from Florida), had been placed on the victim post-mortem. This would suggest to investigators that the tape, like the cord tied around JonBenet's wrist, could have been a false artifact of the crime, something done to make it appear that her death was other than what investigators suspected.
The Telltale Ransom Note
Then there was the extensive ransom note, one that I originally considered in the early days of the case and one that I believed had been written by a college educated woman in her 40's, someone who knew the home and the family intimately, and someone who had written the note after the death of the child, leaving it as a "red herring" to reinforce the artifacts on the victim's body to all suggest JonBenet had been the victim of an unknown intruder. The note was a treasure chest of evidence, something that could be compared to the writings of any known suspect. This was eventually done with both John and Patsy Ramsey, and although John was eliminated as the writer of the ransom note, one or more linguistic and/or forensic document examiners believed they knew who the writer of the note was: Patsy Ramsey. Recent DNA evidence may, however, cast a shadow of doubt on any theory that could suggest Ramsey family involvement in JonBenet's murder.
What Profilers Thought
During the course of this investigation, Boulder police officers presented case evidence to the FBI's Child Abduction and Serial Killer Unit (know to the media as the Behavioral Science Unit). Here almost two dozen experts reviewed the materials and suggested that this was the only known case in America where so young a victim had been sexually assaulted and strangled to death in her own home with the killer(s) leaving a ransom note behind them. The FBI's experts also believed the crime scene had been staged and was not suggestive of the act of an unknown intruder.
These same investigators agreed that the ransom note was both unusual and highly significant, noting that most demand notes are written well in advance of the crime (if the purpose was a kidnapping, why not write the note beforehand, carry it with you to drop in the victim's home, thus allowing you to enter and leave the home with the victim as quickly as possible?) And why a handwritten note and not a typed one, one that could obviously frustrate the ability of handwriting experts to compare the questioned note with exemplars of possible suspects – something that would be "Crime 101" for most kidnappers. The ransom note suggested a money delivery where the bagman would be "scanned for electronic devices." My experience in investigating kidnappings as an FBI Agent is that kidnappers want an isolated money drop vs. a face-to-face meeting where they would likely be identified and arrested.
Profilers appeared to have the impression that no one intended to kill the victim, i.e., her death was a tragic accident and everything that followed was staging to point investigators away from the true motivation for her death, and the person responsible for inflicting these injuries. Someone who was comfortable inside the Ramsey home, someone who spent a lot of time inside of the house that night, to include time with the victim and the time needed to draft and then write "the ransom note of all ransom notes," all without, perhaps, fear of being detected.
Enter John Mark Karr
In June 2006, Patsy Ramsey died after a long and valiant bout with ovarian cancer, this just two months before John Mark Karr would be identified by then Boulder DA Mary Lacy as a prime suspect in this case. Although there was no evidence to suggest that Karr had ever heard or met JonBenet prior to her death, and no evidence to indicate that Karr had ever traveled to Boulder in his life, DA Lacy evidently believed the Internet rantings between Karr (who said "I loved JonBenet and I was with her when she died") and a local college professor, someone who fervently believed the Ramsey's innocent in this matter and someone who had produced documentaries to support his belief. Karr, who in his younger life married two different teenage girls, one 13 and one 16, was located in Bangkok, Thailand and flown back to America to face justice in this case, even though no physical evidence existed then or now to connect him to the crime. He was later cleared as his DNA did not match that recovered at the crime scene, and as the State of California had lost the evidence needed to convict him of possession of child pornography, he was unceremoniously released back onto the streets of America. What a travesty!
While many continue to question the potential involvement of the victim's parents in her untimely death, the local DA's office issued a letter in June 2008 exonerating the family of any wrongdoing and apologizing for the additional trauma the investigation had put them through. While that may be enough for the DA, it is not binding on police and on any future Cold Case investigation. In cases of child abduction and murder, ones in which the parents are at some point suspect, I have always been challenged by the thought that the only thing that could, perhaps, be even worse than losing a child in such a manner would be to become a suspect in the death of your own child. In this case the Ramsey family has suffered a double loss.
New Cold Case Review and Touch DNA
But let's fast forward to 2009. The case has been returned to the Boulder PD and DNA is their current investigative weapon of choice. Regular DNA is obtained from stains, from hair, and from bodily fluids like semen. This is the type of DNA found, mixed with her blood, on the panties the victim was wearing the night she died. Unidentified male DNA was recovered from this stain; suggesting someone outside of the Ramsey family, outside the pool of known suspects, and outside of the US National DNA Data Base maintained by the FBI that currently has samples from close to 7 million people. While no match has been made to date, Early on in this case, forensic scientist Henry Lee purchased a new pair of similar panties for examination and found that they too had unidentified male DNA. Although different from that found on the victim's underwear, it did suggest the possibility of contamination during the manufacturing or packing process, i.e., the unidentified male DNA might not have anything whatsoever to do with the murder.
Touch DNA, however, reduces DNA down to the cellular level, allowing skin cells vs. liquid or hair to be quantified. In the Ramsey case a DNA lab took a second look at the long johns that JonBenet wore on the night of her death, and considered how an offender would have removed the pants from the victim by pulling them down from the sides of the legs. Unidentified DNA was found on the sides of the legs, DNA that apparently matched that found on the panties, but DNA that was still not identified as to its origin, i.e., whose DNA was it and what, if any, relevance did this DNA have to JonBenet's murder?
While much of the original physical and behavioral evidence gathered and considered in the death of JonBenet Ramsey could appear to implicate Patsy Ramsey and could, perhaps, suggest the knowledge or involvement of at least her husband John; the touch DNA evidence cannot be refuted or denied, and investigators must consider all potential hypotheses in their new attempt to solve this puzzling crime.
The new Cold Case team will review all the available evidence, to include the victim's method of death, the tell tale ransom note, and the new DNA evidence, all of which adds up to a big question mark (but not John "Mark") at this time. Should investigators be able to match the unidentified male DNA to a suspect in the future, it could suggest a solution for this case that has baffled a nation for well over a decade. But should the DNA somehow be explained away, then investigators are back to considering the possibility that a now dead woman, the loving mother of JonBenet may, just may have somehow been the last person with JonBenet when she died. And while the murder of JonBenet Ramsey is still one of the more frustrating, baffling, and according to some, most mishandled criminal cases in history, for many a dark cloud of suspicion still hangs over the Ramsey family and the person responsible for a young child's death, a little girl that will never grow old, still has yet to be unidentified.