Twenty-six years after JonBenét Ramsey’s murder, her hometown braces for a fresh wave of morbid tourism

Locals in Boulder have accepted that their town will forever be associated with the 1996 murder of six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey. As Colorado authorities re-examine the unsolved case, the community hopes for answers - but expects the wild theories surrounding the case to persist, writes Sheila Flynn

Friday 11 November 2022 14:31 GMT

The cars come every day, at least one or two, inching down the 700 block of 15th Street in Boulder. Some stop so the occupants can get out to take pictures in front of a gated, imposing mansion in the middle of the block, a house that could hold the secrets to one of the most infamous unsolved killings in America.

It was here that six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey was found murdered the day after Christmas in 1996, her father telling police he discovered the body in the family’s basement just hours after he and his wife reported their daughter missing.

What followed was a cascade of bizarre revelations and developments that captivated the world and has continued to do so ever since. The Ramseys were wealthy; Boulder was “safe”, their daughter was a child beauty queen; and, most of all, there was no shortage of suspects or theories.

All of that is about to come rushing to the fore yet again after Boulder police announced this week that they were working with the Colorado Cold Case Review Team for a new investigation into the 26-year-old case.

Neighbours on 15th Street are accustomed to the morbid tourism, though several have affixed “No Solicitation” and similar signs to the front of their homes. There has been a steady stream of voyeurs, reporters and documentarians traipsing down the street for more than a quarter-century.

When the young tenants of the house next door were considering moving in this past summer, nothing stood out to the three college girls about the address. Their parents, however, immediately made the connection.

Grace Sheehan, 22, tells The Independent her mother and father recognised the surnames of the people who own the house they’re now renting.

“My dad and my mom were like, ‘Wait, I feel like I remember they were interviewed in the JonBenét Ramsey case,’” says Ms Sheehan, who is majoring in humanities at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“They were like, ‘Oh my gosh, I wonder if the house is nearby.’ And then they realized it was next door when they looked it up.”

She and her housemates were not even born at the time JonBenét was killed – but they insist that their contemporaries, fueled by the true crime craze and, possibly, their parents’ memories of the case, are all well aware of the crime.

JonBenét Ramsey, a six-year-old beauty queen, was found murdered in her home in 1996 (Sipa/Shutterstock)

“Everybody we talk to [and tell] ‘Oh, we live next to the house,’ they’re like, ‘Really?’ Everyone knows who she is,” Lily Scott, 19, tells The Independent. “Kids our age, they take selfies in front of the house all the time.”

Her mother had also attended CU Boulder around the time of the murder and remains “crazy about the case,” says Ms Scott, adding that, “whenever something happens [involving the story,] she’s on my phone.”

Her mother hadn’t called yet about the relaunched investigation, but news about the probe was trickling very slowly through Boulder one day after cops made the announcement.

A mile and a half away from the former Ramsey home, on Boulder’s pedestrianised Pearl Street, staff were getting ready to close for the evening at jewellery store Classic Facets when they heard – and their heads all whipped around in interest.

Sherry Laurienti’s children were around the same age as the Ramsey kids when the horrific crime occurred, she tells The Independent.

“We knew people who knew people who knew them ... it was close enough that someone’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh, my friend’s their neighbour,” she says. “Everybody was afraid at the time, because we didn’t know what was going on, [thinking] ‘Is this something that’s going to be happening?’ or ‘Is somebody going to be taking our children?’

“Because at first we thought she was just kidnapped. And then when the murder [news] happened, it was even more shocking.”

A police car sits outside the Ramsey home in Boulder in 1997 (AP1997)

As the original investigation trundled along, local fears eased about a predator stalking the community – but JonBenét’s unsolved murder has been a stealthy spectre haunting Boulder for decades, particularly given the fact that it never seems to go away.

The death of Patsy Ramsey, JonBenét’s mother and a beauty queen herself, made headlines in 2006; the following year, her husband sent the rumour mill into overdrive when he was romantically linked to the mother of missing Alabama teenager Natalee Holloway.

In 2016, JonBenét’s older brother, Burke – who was nine at the time of the six-year-old’s murder and became a favourite target of internet theorists – gave a highly-publicized interview to Dr. Phil. And that’s not even taking into consideration the countless books, documentaries, articles, TV specials and other media deep-dives into the enduring mystery.

“Because of the podcasts and things, it’s still brought up,” Ms Laurienti tells The Independent. “It’s still always kind of in the talk” locally.

It’s definitely the talk of tourists, who flock to postcard-perfect Boulder at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, just under 30 miles northwest of Denver.

“People who come into our store, they want to know: ‘How close is it? Where’s the neighbourhood?’” Ms Laurienti says of the Ramsey home.

The incongruity of a child murder in such an enviable town has compounded the fascination with the crime, she believes.

“How can this happen in this neighbourhood, in this town .. that, I think, still kind of intrigues people,” she tells The Independent. “That happens somewhere else. It happens in a larger city. It doesn’t happen in something that’s as picturesque as Boulder.”

While there may always be an undercurrent of interest running through the 150,000-person college town, plenty of locals are either ambivalent or sick of the obsession.

One patron at Bohemian Biergarten on Thursday night, a man who moved to Boulder 10 years before JonBenét’s murder, had seen a story about the new investigation earlier in the day.

“I saw a little thing online ... it wasn’t much of a story,” the 54-year-old tells The Independent, adding that he’s familiar with the case and some of the theories surrounding it though he’s not particularly interested himself.

“If they have a breakthrough, then maybe,” he says.


Ms Laurienti, for her part, says it “would be great” if the case was finally solved, but she’s also keenly aware that the murder has taken on a life of its own in the realm of amateur detectives, conspiracy theorists and, really, the wider public consciousness itself.

“I think there’ll always be speculation, even if they do solve it,” she says.

On 15th Street on Thursday, there was no answer at the former Ramsey home and autumn leaves had been piling up for some time on the sidewalk out front.

The house was purchased by Timothy and Carol Schuller Milner in 2004, then unsuccessfully put up for sale four times, eventually slashing the price in 2014 from $2.3m to $1.95m.

It still didn’t sell, and Ms Milner told Colorado publication Westword in 2019 that she and her husband remained happy living there. They hadn’t even wanted to try selling, she said, but work obligations in California at the time had made maintaining the Colorado property difficult.

Ms Milner said the history of the home had never bothered her family in the 15 years since they’d purchased it. Her children had actually attended the same school as JonBenét, she said.

“We did sit down with them, because we didn’t want them hearing about it from anybody else,” she told Westword of a conversation she and Timothy had with their children before committing to the home. “We always believed in being honest with them.”

“So we said, ‘This happened here. Some really bad things happen in the world. But our faith says God’s bigger than bad things,’” said Ms Milner, the daughter of the late nationally syndicated televangelist Robert Schuller. “’We can let the bad things have the last word or we can believe that restoration can come where bad things have happened. How do you guys feel about this?’

“And they were like, ‘We think we should move in right away.’ They just felt this incredible empathy and compassion for the family and, of course, for JonBenét."

Ms Milner said that, when she’d first visited the home, “the minute we walked across the threshold, there was such a whoosh of peace and anticipation.”

She later added: “This is all speculative, but based on the feelings we got from being there, we never felt the Ramseys were involved.”

The Milners were happy and at peace on 15th Street, she said – and she doesn’t believe “we would have felt that way in the home” if nefarious family activity had gone on there previously.

“I have spaces in the house where I love to go and sit at night and see the full moon and the tops of the Flatirons dusted with snow – and I see a shooting star now and then,” she told Westword.

(Getty Images)

The house is undeniably beautiful, featuring 7,000 square feet and over 100 windows on a quarter-acre just a stone’s throw from the CU Boulder campus. The size of the home is not apparent from the street, further disguised by the gate and tall front yard trees.

When the college girls moved in next door in August, they tell The Independent it felt slightly unsettling at first but now “it’s just a house.”

That being said, however, Ms Scott is resolute.

“I wouldn’t buy it,” she says.

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