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JonBenét Ramsey

DNA, a ransom note and missing motive: Five key unanswered questions in the JonBenét Ramsey case

JonBenét Ramsey was found beaten and strangled in the basement of her Boulder home the day after Christmas in 1996. More than 25 years later, Sheila Flynn explains fundamental questions still unanswered in the sensational case

Thursday 16 February 2023 19:33 GMT
JonBenet was murdered on 25 December 1996
JonBenet was murdered on 25 December 1996 (Getty)

Conspiracies and theories have swirled incessantly in the more than 25 years since the sensational murder of JonBenét Ramsey in Boulder, Colorado.

There’s been no shortage of suspects, books or documentaries, but very little progress or new evidence has materialised since the day after Christmas in 1996, when the six-year-old beauty queen was found beaten and strangled in the basement of her family’s tony home.

Despite the intervening decades, very fundamental questions remain unanswered.

On the day of the murder, JonBenét’s mother, Patsy Ramsey, called 911 just before 6am to report her daughter missing. Patsy, a former pageant queen herself, told authorities she’d found a handwritten ransom note on the stairs demanding $118,000, the exact amount of her husband’s bonus.

Despite an initial search of the house, JonBenét’s body was not found until after 1pm by her father, John Ramsey, after police asked him to sweep the home again.

As the crime scene was initially treated as a kidnapping and not a murder, multiple people were traipsing in and out of the house and the preservation — or destruction — of evidence has been called into question for 26 years.

The Ramsey family faced years of suspicion by police and the public, repeatedly sparring with investigators as they demanded justice for JonBenét.

The Ramsey family (John Ramsey)

The investigation captured renewed attention last fall, when the police department and district attorney in Boulder announced they would partner with the Colorado Cold Case Review Team. The move signalled a fresh push to solve a case that has remained open but with few substantial developments for more than a quarter-century.

Here, The Independent examines five key questions in the case.

Was there forced entry?

It was initially reported that there were no real signs of forced entry at the Ramsey family home where JonBenét had been reported missing before being found dead in the basement around seven hours later.

No footprints had been found in the snow, but a boot mark was later discovered and not all ground surrounding the house had been completely covered by snow.

It also emerged that a broken window in the basement had been an open, which was intially dismissed as an entrypoint, but an investigator later proved a person could squeeze through.

Separately, an initial sweep of the house did not reveal JonBenét’s body; only later, when her father returned to the basement in another search at police direction, that the child was discovered behind a door.

Was the murder planned, last-minute or accidental?

JonBenét was strangled, beaten and sexually assaulted, but her family reported finding a two-and-a-half page handwritten ransom letter hours before the discovery of her body.

The letter included personal family details and demanded $118,000, the exact amount of John Ramsey’s bonus. Much speculation has focused on the handwriting, with JonBenét’s mother, Patsy, coming in for particular scrutiny over the past 26 years.

One theory has posited that the entire crime was a botched kidnapping. John Wesley Anderson, who has written a new book about the murder and is among a private team investigating it, told The Independent he believed “the killer went into that house with a kidnap kit. He brought duct tape, he brought parachute cords, he brought a stun gun to immobilize the victim. So this was very calculated. It was a very methodically executed kidnap attempt that went wrong and ended up in murder.”

A police car sits outside the Ramsey home (AP1997)

Was there a motive?

Whether murder or kidnap, many have posited that JonBenét’s could have been a pawn in a plot to target her parents or family.

The Ramseys’ work, financial and personal affairs and connections have all been explored, and every area of the Ramseys’ lives have been dissected by journalists, authorities and the public.

Proponents of the Ramseys’ guilt theorise that, whether a member of the family killed JonBenét intentionally or accidentally, the rest of the family may have helped cover it up.

While Patsy Ramsey died in 2006, John Ramsey and his children have continued to endure public scrutiny and suspicion, despite Boulder authorities clearing them in 2008 through DNA evidence and sending a letter of apology.

Is there enough DNA to test?

The Ramsey family has been pushing for advanced and additional DNA testing, and the Boulder police department and district attorney in November announced in November that its detectives would be working with the Colorado Cold Case Review team in 2023. The release added that Boulder agencies were also working with the FBI, CBI, Colorado’s Department of Public Safety and “several private laboratories across the country.”

“The amount of DNA evidence available for analysis is extremely small and complex. The sample could, in whole or in part, be consumed by DNA testing,” the release continued. “In collaboration with the CBI and the FBI, there have been several discussions with private DNA labs about the viability of continued testing of DNA recovered from the crime scene and genetic geneaology analysis ... Whenever there is a proven technology that can reliably test forensic samples consistent with the samples available in this case, additional analysis will be conducted.”

But Mr Anderson points out that DNA technology is improving and broadening rapidly. These cold cases all across the country ... they’re being solved by people, detectives, crime lab people looking at the same evidence that’s been there for 20, 25, 30 years, and just using new technology,” he told The Independent.

Is the killer still out there?

Despite the long, long list of suspect names — official or otherwise — since the murder of JonBenét, not a single lead has panned out.

One suspect shot himself soon after the crime; another confessed, but evidence proved he could not have done it.

The crime has never been successfully linked to any other. Mr Anderson points out that “there’s always the possibility, after 26 years, the person’s been incarcerated, they’ve died or whatever.”

He and the team of investigators pursuing the case in their own time — at the dying request of legendary detective Lou Smit, who’d dedicated his life to solving the case — do, however, worry about “that violent of an evil killer out there.”

“We can’t sleep until that person has been identified and apprehended and this case is solved. So it’s not just justice for JonBenét ... it’s public safety. This is one of the worst, most evil people imaginable.”

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