Shortly after 5:00 AM on December 26, 1996, Patsy Ramsey woke up in her Boulder, Colorado home to find a ransom note. The note, addressed to her husband John, stated that their six-year-old daughter JonBenét had been kidnapped. In order for her safe return, the kidnappers demanded a ransom of $118,000 – almost exactly the same amount as the bonus that John had recently received. When Patsy went to JonBenét’s room and discovered that she was not there, the police were called by 5:25 AM, despite the ransom note’s threat that JonBenét would be killed if the police were notified.
According to the note, the kidnappers would call John Ramsey to give him instructions to deliver the money, which he and Patsy were already working on gathering when the police arrived to their home. That call never came.
Police quickly began to suspect that John and Patsy may be somehow involved in their daughter’s disappearance. However, from this point on police made a number of critical errors that seriously corrupted the crime scene which contributed to the case going cold.
First, they did not do a full search of the property. Second, the investigators did not seal off the area, which allowed friends and family to come and go and jeopardized evidence. Third, one of the detectives assigned to the case asked John and a family friend, Fleet White, to search the house on their own that afternoon. John and Fleet began their search in the basement, and it ended there at approximately 1:00 PM when they found JonBenét’s body, eight hours after she was reported missing.
JonBenét’s body was covered in her white blanket. Under the blanket, she had a nylon cord wrapped around her neck, her wrists were tied up above her head, and she had duct tape covering her mouth. An autopsy was performed, which determined that she had died of strangulation and a fractured skull. She was strangled using a garrote made from a tweed cord and a broken paintbrush handle. The garrote showed an advanced knowledge of knots. The autopsy also found that while there was no evidence of rape, there was the possibility of sexual assault.
JonBenét’s body had entered advanced rigor mortis, which led investigators to conclude that the time of death was between 10:00 PM on December 25 and 6:00 AM on December 26; however because her remains had already begun to exhibit signs of decomposition by the time they were found, investigators believe that she died closer to 10:00 PM Christmas Day.
Investigators found several other key pieces of evidence at the surrounding crime scene. First, the initial police report stated that there were several open windows and at least one open door in the house that night, making it easier for a potential intruder to gain entry. There was also a broken window in the basement that could not be properly closed. This is considered one of the most likely entry points to what would become the crime scene. However, knowledge of this broken window was not made available until a year after the murder, possibly due to the public consensus that the Ramseys were the perpetrators and didn’t need to gain entry into their own home.
In addition, much of the Ramsey house was covered in thick carpeting, which could have allowed an intruder to quietly enter the home and leave without waking up the rest of the household. Police also found a bowl of cut up pineapple on the kitchen table with the Ramsey’s son Burke’s fingerprints on it. The autopsy results revealed that JonBenét did have pineapple in her digestive system at the time of her death. However, the Ramseys claimed that they never put pineapple on the table, and that Burke was sleeping during the entire events of the crime. This means there is a significant break between the story that the Ramseys provided and the physical evidence, and cast doubts on their innocence. It gave rise to the persistent theory that the Ramseys had killed JonBenét themselves or that the kidnapping was a cover-up staged by the parents after discovering their daughter had been killed by Burke. Police also found a broken paintbrush in the basement’s boiler room – the other piece of the paintbrush that was used to create the garrote. There were pieces of broken glass and scuff marks around the broken window in the basement, though there were no signs of disturbance on the windowsill. There are fingerprints, handprints, and a boot print that have still not been identified as a match to the Ramseys or anyone of over 400 people that have been investigated.
Lead investigators have stated that they believe JonBenét knew her killer and therefore trusted them enough to leave her bedroom (possibly lured out with the promise of pineapple). Because the Ramseys enjoyed entertaining, and the murder occurred during a time with a great deal of holiday parties, there were numerous friends and family members that had been invited to the Ramsay home and had close contact with JonBenét. The killer could have potentially been any one of them. However, despite the large pool of suspects, the media immediately focused on JonBenét’s parents. Both John and Patsy spent years under the harsh limelight of the public eye. Even so, neither of JonBenét’s parents was ever officially named as a suspect in the murder. All three members of the immediate family were questioned by investigators, in addition to submitting handwriting samples to compare to the ransom letter. Both John and Burke were cleared of any suspicion of writing the note, but Patsy could not be cleared.
In the months and years following the murder, the case began to go cold. John and Patsy made numerous media appearances in an effort to clear their names. There were several Grand Jury hearings held, but none led to an indictment. In 2013, court documents were opened which revealed that a 1999 Grand Jury had voted to indict JonBenét’s parents for child abuse resulting in death, but the district attorney refused to sign the indictment, claiming a lack of sufficient evidence. As the case grew colder, files were moved into storage and investigators were assigned to new cases. The District Attorney’s office then announced that they had run out of the $500,000 they were allotted to solve the case, and they would not apply for additional funding to continue.
In 2003, investigators extracted a DNA sample from blood on JonBenét’s underwear. Tests determined that this DNA belongs to an unknown male. The DNA was submitted to the FBI’s CODIS system, which contains DNA from convicted felons and sex offenders. The sample has yet to be matched. On June 24, 2006, nearly 10 years after JonBenét’s death, Patsy Ramsey died after a long battle with ovarian cancer. She is buried next to JonBenét, in Atlanta, Georgia, where the family lived before moving to Colorado.
In 2008, the Boulder District Attorney’s office announced that due to recent developments in DNA technology, the Ramsey family is no longer considered to be involved in the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. The District Attorney wrote an open letter to John Ramsey, apologizing for the public ordeal that the Ramsey family had undergone in the aftermath of JonBenét’s death.
In October of 2016 the DNA sample from JonBenét’s underwear was tested again and this time revealed markers from not one, but two unidentified assailants, complicating the investigation even further.
The case remains open and unsolved.
For further information on crimes against children, visit our page for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children here.