Who killed this girl? The mysterious murder that still haunts America
One of the country’s most respected commentators on Russia, the EU and the US, Mary Dejevsky has worked as a foreign correspondent all over the world, including Washington, Paris and Moscow. She is now the chief editorial writer and a columnist at The Independent and regularly appears on radio and television. She is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham.
Saturday 27 December 1997
It was one year ago yesterday that a millionaire company director by the name of John Ramsey discovered the small, limp body of his daughter in the basement of the family house in Boulder, Colorado. She had been beaten, tied and garroted with the stick of a paintbrush.
Eight hours before, the bubbly-haired blonde child had been thought kidnapped. Her mother, Patsy, had reported finding a ransom note on the back staircase, demanding the very specific sum of $118,000, equivalent to John Ramsey's Christmas bonus. Kidnap cases tend to be kept under wraps, at least in the early stages, and this was no different. Given the family's affluence and JonBenet's worth as a diminutive star on the Colorado child beauty queen circuit, kidnapping seemed plausible.
It was not until evening that police asked John Ramsey to search the house - again. He found her body, barely hidden in bedding, and carried her up to her room.
Before the murder, the name JonBenet Ramsey would have meant little to anyone outside her immediate family and the cliquey child-pageant circuit in Colorado where she performed so successfully. Now, it would be hard to find an American who does not know who she was and, what is more, does not have a view about her death.
Almost immediately, the weight of suspicion fell on her parents. The popular view, derived with cold logic from contemplation of the obvious - "it stands to reason, doesn't it?" - is that one or other parent must have "done it". The case fascinated in a peculiarly American way.
The family has money. Their vast house was in a wealthy suburb of Boulder, itself one of the most sought-after places to live in America. The family also had celebrity, of a minor kind. Patsy Ramsey is a one-time contestant for the Miss America title. Her daughter, whom she appeared to be grooming to follow in her footsteps, had won the title "Little Miss Colorado". There was video-film of JonBenet's beauty contest appearances that revealed to America a world that many never knew existed: a world of high-pressure rivalry between parents and children barely out of toddlerdom, of costumes, cosmetics and contracts as hard-edged as any in the adult world.
JonBenet herself came across from the videos as a Nineties Judy Garland, shorn of even the pretence of innocence, with manners and make-up suggestive far beyond her years. Friends and teachers, however, described her as unspoilt, reflective rather than showy, and normal for her age. But it was the videos that the rest of America saw, and the combination of fact and circumstance surrounding her death seemed compelling. The house bore no traces of forced entry and there were said to be no footprints in the snow around the house. Who would have had access to the house but the parents? Who would have known the sum of John Ramsey's bonus? And if an outsider was suspected, why did the police mount no manhunt for a dangerous killer?
Experts told television shows that the overwhelming majority of child murders are committed by someone in the family. Motives were easily imputed to each parent. Was Patsy perhaps jealous of JonBenet's youth and success? Had John a perverted sexual motive? Suspicions were fuelled by the parents' subsequent conduct: they hired separate lawyers, their own medical and forensic experts, then refused for four months to be questioned separately by police. They moved out of state, to Atlanta, Georgia, where they have family.
While public opinion focused on the parents, the media concentrated on the police. "A bungled operation" is the general verdict. The house was not sealed after the kidnap was reported, and relatives reportedly came and went. The body was moved - when John Ramsey took it upstairs - before the police saw it. Neighbours were reportedly not questioned until recently.
Month by month, new facts have trickled out: the text of the two-and- a-half-page ransom note, purporting to be from "a small foreign faction" and warning against going to the police; the position of the body, trussed around the stick; in the past week, evidence that a stun-gun might have been used to knock the child out before she was killed.
But questions of substance have not been answered. A post-mortem examination supposedly did not prove that JonBenet had or had not been sexually assaulted. A DNA test was inconclusive. Four handwriting tests on Patsy Ramsey have left open whether she wrote the ransom note, but established that the paper came from a notepad in the house. JonBenet's 11-year-old brother, Burke, was interviewed briefly early on and excluded from the investigation, except as a possible witness. Police say they would like to talk to him again, and to Mr and Mrs Ramsey, but they are not apparently forcing the issue.
Some of those who blame police incompetence attribute it to inexperience: murder investigations are rare in Boulder. Others contend that the investigators were no less competent than many others - just unlucky in the way a supposed kidnapping turned into a murder. If a murder is not solved in the first two days, they note, it is many times more difficult to solve it at all.
Two weeks ago, in anticipation of an anniversary that the people of Boulder - but not of America - understandably want to forget, there were reports that the Boulder District Attorney was on the verge of bringing preliminary charges. The Ramsey parents, it was said, were to be brought before a grand jury so that the case against them could be weighed.
But nothing happened. It may be the season of goodwill, but in the case of JonBenet Ramsey, everyone is still free to believe the worst of everyone else - and does.
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