Child murder mystery haunts the US psyche

Two weeks after six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was found strangled and bludgeoned to death in the cellar of her house, residents of this quiet Colorado university town waited to hear the first statement from their police chief on what is rapidly becoming the United States' latest celebrity murder.

Tom Koby was due to meet five local reporters for a discussion to be broadcast on Boulder's municipal cable network last night. His police department, which has released virtually no information on its investigation, has pointed to no suspects or even tangible leads in the death of the child beauty queen.

Home videos of JonBenet - pronounced "Shaunbernay" - sauntering down catwalks, precociously belting out patriotic songs - have seared the image of the dead child into the public mind.

Early on Boxing Day morning, Boulder police were called to the home of John Ramsey, founder of a billion-dollar high technology company. His wife, Patsy, a former Miss West Virginia, told of finding a neatly written three-page ransom note that said "We have your daughter" and demanding the strange sum of $118,000. For eight hours, it is now reported, police waited for the kidnappers to call while a bank provided the cash.

In a highly unusual procedure, they then asked Mr Ramsey to search his house for anything odd. He found his daughter's body in the wine cellar, her mouth sealed with duct tape, a cord around her neck, her skull fractured, and reportedly sexually assaulted. Since then, the police department has responded to an invasion by the national press with silence.

Dribs and drabs of information, however, have pointed suspicion at the family. Only the couple and their nine-year-old son were said to be in the house that night, although Mr Ramsey's two grown children from a previous marriage had visited on Christmas Day. There was no sign of a forced entry.

The bizarre circumstances of her death have brought comparisons to the case of Susan Smith, the South Carolina mother who confessed to drowning her two picture perfect children - also captured on family videos - after claiming they were kidnapped by a carjacker.

Mr and Mrs Ramsey have both hired lawyers and a media adviser. They made a single tearful appearance on CNN, but have not so far agreed to be formally interviewed by police. When Mrs Ramsey warned of a "killer on the loose", city officials went out of their way to say there was no danger to the public.

The ransom note - and part of a "practice" note - were matched to a pad found in the house, according to newspaper reports.

But family friends have noted that with the Ramseys having spent a reported half a million dollars extending the house, numerous workmen had access. Others have suggested that a disgruntled employee of Mr Ramsey might have been behind a kidnap attempt.