Something you wouldn’t know about me is that I absolutely love learning about unsolved true crime cases. If you saw my recent post about my favourite podcasts you’ll know that Stuff You Should Know is a great place to hear about almost any topic, and true crime is definitely not excluded. They’ve done some brilliant episodes including one I watched recently called “The Baffling Case of the Body on Somerton Beach.” Alongside that I’ve watched countless youtube videos exploring the events and theories around cold cases with a sort of morbid curiosity. I’m well aware that for some people this sort of thing doesn’t appeal, but I find it fascinating to hear about different cases – with the mysterious evidence and lineup of suspects. One of the most interesting cases I’ve ever heard about is the murder of JonBenét Ramsey, so I thought I’d share it with you. Once again, there is a lot of violence in this post that could be distressing to certain people. If you’re squeamish or sensitive to this sort of thing, I’d recommend you skip this one and check out something else on my blog.
Who was JonBenét Ramsey?
JonBenét Patricia Ramsey was a 6 year-old beauty queen living in Boulder, Colorado with her father John Bennet, mother Patsy and 9 year-old brother Burke. Her father John was a successful businessman, and President of computer company ‘Access Graphics’. In 1992, just 4 years prior to JonBenét’s death, John suffered the death of his daughter Elizabeth, from a previous marriage, due to a car crash. Her mother Patsy was a former beauty queen herself, and the one to enter JonBenét into the pageant world.
The Day of the Murder – December 26th 1996
On the 25th December, the Ramsey family all attended a Christmas party at the house of John’s friend, Fleet White. After leaving late, JonBenét fell asleep in her parent’s car on the journey home, and on reaching the house just before 6am, her parents changed her clothes and carried her into bed. Later that morning, Patsy Ramsey went downstairs and noticed a ransom note sat on the spiral staircase within the house. The note was unusually long for a ransom, contained a number of strange and seemingly irrelevant details, as well as being written using the Ramseys’ own pen and paper. The ransom note is one of the crucial pieces of evidence in this case, so we’ll explore it in more detail a little later. After finding the note, Patsy called 911 and then a number of her friends in a state of panic, asking them to help her look for JonBenét. A number of police officers arrived at the house but due to the ransom note the crime was assumed to be a kidnapping and police did not thoroughly investigate the Ramseys’ house right away. Around 1PM Jon Ramsey and friend Fleet White conducted one final search of the house looking for clues as to JonBenét’s whereabouts. 8 hours after the 911 call, JonBenét was discovered in the basement, dead, duct tape over her mouth and a nylon cord around her wrist and neck. John Bennett picked up the body of his daughter, and carried her into the living room.
Autopsy/Cause of Death
JonBenét’s official cause of death was reported as “ligature strangulation” with craniocerebral injuries (strangulation with a cord and head injuries). It is widely disputed which came first, the head trauma or the strangulation. The injuries to her head damaged her skull yet didn’t break the skin, leading police to conclude that she had been hit with a blunt object – they later ruled that it was a torch. Photos taken at the crime scene showed that there was a large torch sat on the kitchen counter.
There were also a number of marks on JB’s body, as well as some evidence of a sexual component to the crime. Although described as a “ligature”, some have described the device used to strangle JB as a “garrotte” as it was capable of being tightened. Profilers consider this a very important distinction, as this kind of device is widely considered to have sexual connotations, lending support to the idea that the murder was committed either by an abusive family member or a child sex offender.
The Ransom Note
Perhaps the strangest part of this case is the ransom note left on the staircase of the Ramseys’ house. At two and a half pages long, the ransom note was already highly unusual, regardless of the content. Why would a murderer write far more than necessary, potentially giving away incriminatory details about themselves? Alongside this there is the fact that the note was written in Patsy’s notebook, using one of the Ramseys’ own pens. This leaves a very short time frame for an intruder to have broken into the house, written a note, and then murdered JonBenét Ramsey. Additionally, it seems odd for the note to have been written just prior to the murder. Why would the killer suddenly shift from kidnapping to murder in such a short space of time? Analysis of the notebook used even revealed that a ‘practice note’ had been written prior, a fragment of which was later discovered at the crime scene. This further supports the idea that the note was written spontaneously, which would be very strange for a crime requiring as much premeditation as kidnapping someone for ransom. The fact there are so many unanswered questions surrounding the ransom note has led many to believe it was a set-up, part of a larger cover-up by the family.
Within the ransom note there are a few details that seem worth mentioning. One confusing aspect of the note is that words considered relatively easy to spell, such as “possession”, were misspelled yet far more sophisticated language was spelled correctly, including the word “attaché”, accents and all. It has been suggested that these spelling errors were made deliberately, in order to conceal the true identity of the writer and try to suggest that it was written by someone either uneducated or not a native English speaker. Analysts also noticed that the note was bizarrely similar in the language used to ransom notes seen in action movies such as “Ransom” and “Speed”. Rather than being the work of a “foreign faction” (as the note claims), it seems to be the work of an amateur, relying on film clichés. The Ramseys were noted to have an elaborate film collection, which makes it seem probable that they could have watched both of these films. The third noteworthy detail of the ransom note is that the writer asked for a specific amount of $118,000. The Ramseys were widely known to be very wealthy, and could have afforded a far higher ramson. Why would a killer ask for a comparatively ‘reasonable’ amount, if they truly intended to commit this crime for financial reasons? Interestingly, $118,000 is very similar to the amount John Bennet received as a Christmas bonus that year, suggesting that perhaps someone he knew well, who had seen his pay slip, commited the crime against his daughter.
Much handwriting analysis has been done on the ransom note, with all family members being entirely ruled out apart from Patsy, who’s results were inconclusive. Analysts believed that whoever wrote the note deliberately distorted their handwriting as it was erratic and inconsistent. The fact that the note was written in Sharpie caused issues with producing accurate handwriting analysis results as using a large brush pen (rather than something like a biro) masks the finer details of handwriting, making it far less unique and individualised.
The 911 Call
At 5.52 AM Patsy Ramsey called 911 after discovering the ransom note. The key dispute over the 911 call recording is whether or not Burke Ramsey (JonBenét’s older brother) can be heard speaking at the end of the tape. Both parents have stated outright on several occasions that Burke was asleep in his bedroom throughout the whole 911 call, so if his voice can be heard, much suspicion would be cast on Patsy and John Ramsey. As the 911 call was recorded on tape, not digitally, the sound quality makes it hard to distinguish and people have argues that the ‘voices’ at the end of the tape are really just ‘reel-to-reel’ sounds at the end of a tape recording. However, most people do hear Burke speaking at the end of the recording, especially in versions that have had the audio quality enhanced. Burke has been interpreted as asking his parents “What did you find?” and “Please, what do I do?” by many, including Steve Thomas (the key detective on the case) who stated that he had heard a 3rd voice on the 911 tape. Also, before testifying in front of a grand jury, a judge ruled that Burke had a legal right to listen to the tape, which would suggest it contained ‘prior statements’ by him.
Although seemingly insignificant, the presence of pineapple in JonBenét’s small intestine has been seen by many as a key clue in this investigation. Once again, this seems to cast doubt on the reliability of the Ramseys as both of JB’s parents claimed that she was put straight to bed after attending the Christmas party at Fleet’s house, and not fed anything. Experts have suggested that the pineapple must have been eaten at least 1 and a half hours prior to her death, making it highly unlikely that an intruder fed it to her. Forensic experts have also ruled out the possibility of it having been eaten prior to or during Fleet White’s party, as it was not sufficiently digested. Why would an intruder feed pineapple to a little girl that they intended to kidnap/murder? And if not an intruder, then why would JB’s family feed it to her and then lie, if not to cover up some deeper truth?
DNA is often considered the most crucial part of a case, and this one is no exception. Police found DNA samples on JonBenéts pyjamas and underwear, using this evidence to exonerate every member of her family, as well as every other one of their suspects. Running the sample through the FBI database in 2004 also found no matches, making the evidence seemingly a dead end. However, perhaps the DNA is not only useless in finding the killer, but in ruling out the suspects. Dr Henry Lee, a DNA expert who was best known for working as part of the OJ Simpson case studied the DNA evidence associated with JB’s murder. He concluded that the DNA was actually in know was linked to the crime, and was most likely from the manufacturing process of the underwear. To test this, he took an unopened package of the same underwear and found that they too had DNA evidence on them. Lee’s findings are perhaps the most monumental revelation in this case (if they are to be believed). If the DNA is not from the killer, then no-one can be exonerated, and any of the suspects could be guilty including JonBenét’s family members.
John Bennet and Patsy Ramsey
The most popular suspects in these case appear to be John and Patsy Ramsey themselves. Despite a lack of any concrete evidence, or a clear motive, there are a number of strange inconsistencies in both the case and the statements given by JonBenét’s parents that have raised suspicions. In fact, in 1999 a grand jury voted to indict John and Patsy Ramsey on charges of child abuse resulting in death, but the indictment was never signed as the district attorney felt there was not enough evidence to prosecute. Ultimately, both Patsy and John Ramsey were officially cleared by the Boulder Police in 2008.
The first thing that seems to implicate the Ramsey family is the bizarre nature of the ransom note. Written inside the house, using their own writing supplies, it seems impossible that an intruder could have broken in, written the note and killed JB all in such a brief window of time. Additionally, Patsy Ramsey could not be conclusively cleared as the author of the note through handwriting analysis and some linguistic analysts have also suggested that the note seemed to have been written by a woman, with a strong maternal tone. The amount of $118,000 is also strange, being so near to the amount of John’s bonus – suggesting it was written by someone who knew him either personally or through work. The final strange detail noted by investigators as that although the note gave a 10am deadline for the money to be transferred before the captors would “behead” JB, her parents allowed this deadline to come and go with no reaction. Police noted that they seemed to completely ignore the 10am deadline, which some believe suggests they must have known it was a fake.
The primary reason that JonBénet’s father has been viewed this such suspicion is his contamination of evidence. When police instructed John and Fleet to make one final search of the house, John headed straight to the basement – a room totally unused by the family. He then moved his daughter’s body from the room, removed the tape over her mouth,and covered her with a blanket, destroying a wealth of physical evidence that could have crucial to solving the case. Police officers also reported that just hours after finding his daughter’s body, John was on the phone to an airline arranging flights to Atlanta for himself, Patsy and Burke. Of course, this could also be just the panicked actions of a grief-stricken father, rather than indicating any kind of guilt.
One little-known cause of suspicion towards John Bennet is a statement he gave about the window in the basement where JonBenét was found. This bit’s a little confusing so I’m just going to lay it out as a timeline to try and make more sense of it.
- Pre-10 AM: Both one of the investigating police officers and Fleet (separately) went into the basement looking for clues as to JB’s whereabouts. Fleet reported seeing the window closed but not latched. John was not told that anyone had gone into the basement before him.
- Around 10 AM: John Bennett went down into the basement looking for JohnBenét. No-one saw him go into the basement and he did not report doing so to the police until 4 months after the murder. John claims that a number of boxes were blocking the door, which he had to move before being able to enter the room. He also said that he saw the window open, which then closed and latched.
- 1 PM: JB’s body is discovered in the basement.
There are a number of suspicious elements in this. Firstly, why did John wait 4 months before telling the police that he’d discovered such a key piece of evidence? Perhaps he began to feel there was too much suspicion being cast upon him so he tried to further the police’s intruder theory? Secondly, John clearly says that he was unable to enter the basement as the door was blocked, and yet Fleet had not reported any difficulties opening the door. Thirdly, Fleet remembered clearly that the window was closed. He did also note that it was unlatched, so perhaps it could have blown open, but that seems unlikely. Why would John – he claimed he went into the basement to look for a point of entry – find the exact evidence he was looking for and close the window, destroying it, unless it was in fact never open.
Other pieces of ‘evidence’ against JB’s parents include the fact that although there were 2 sets of unidentified footprints by the house, none led into or away from the property. Additionally, why would a killer leave the body in the house, providing lots of evidence for the police? The only explanation I’ve seen suggested is that her parents could not bear to ‘disgrace’ her by disposing of her corpse in a swamp etc. However, aside from an accidental death resulting in a coverup, there are no clear motivations for the parents to kill their daughter. Forensics suggested that JB may have suffered chronic sexual abuse, however the family pediatrician had never noticed this despite performing a number of general check-ups and gynecological exams due to reoccuring yeast infections.
One theory that implicates Patsy as being entirely responsible is that she killed JB accidentally out of frustration after finding that she’d wet the bed. Bedwetting is common in 6 year olds, especially those experiencing the stress of having a very ill mother who they know will likely die. This theory suggests that the stress of Christmas, the few drinks at the party, and Patsy’s strict personality all combined into anger and frustration, causing her to handle JB too roughly and accidentally bang her head on the side of the bath whilst washing her. Patsy was the only member of the family still wearing last night’s clothes when the police arrived, which some have suggested indicated she was up all night – potentially staging a coverup. There has also been suspicion around Patsy as a parent, having pushed JonBenét into the over-sexualised world of pageants and scrubbing doodles off of her skin with diluted nail polish remover prior to a pageant day. However, once again it is hard to explain JonBenét’s death as accidental, as the strangulation occured whilst she was alive so it is impossible that she was killed immediately from an accidental head trauma.
Although only 9 years old at the time, Burke is one of the most popular suspects in JonBenét’s murder, with many saying he killed her accidentally out of frustration. If Burke was the one who killed JB, then Patsy and John’s strange behaviour and contradictory/misleading accounts to the police would make far more sense – a desperate effort to protect their son. John had already lost 2 daughters (Elizabeth and JonBenét) and it seems fair to assume that he and Patsy would go to any lengths necessary to avoid losing another child.
The most common theory that explains Burke as the killer is related to the pineapple found in JB’s autopsy. The bowl of pineapple on the kitchen counter had the prints of both Burke and Patsy, but none from JonBénet. Pineapple was a favourite snack of the little girl and many believe that when they got in from the party, Burke began to eat the pineapple on the counter. JB decided she also wanted a snack before being put to bed, and reached her hand into the bowl to take a piece. Many have reported that Burke was often aggressive towards his sister, and that they did not get on well – past the point of usual sibling bickering. Perhaps Burke was frustrated with his sister and picked up the flashlight sat near to him on the counter, hitting her in the head with it. What was intended to be just a warning was a little too hard, knocking her unconscious. Burke picks up his toy train and pokes his sister with it to try and get her to move, causing the ‘stun gun’ marks on her neck. In a panic, Patsy Ramsey sees JB on the floor and assumes her to be dead. Unwilling to lose both of her children on the same night, she ushers Burke into bed and calls John into the kitchen. She frantically writes a ransom note and they stage a murder before calling the police. During the 911 call a confused 9 year-old Burke comes back downstairs and starts asking questions, not fully understanding what’s happened to his sister. Later in a police interview, when asked to describe what happened to his sister he implies that it was an accident, saying “Whoops” as he makes a lunging motion. He also suggests that she died not from strangulation, but by being hit in the head with “something like a hammer”. Years later in a 2016 interview about his sister’s death on Dr Phil, his body language has been considered by many to be incredibly suspicious, smiling throughout the interview and looking down and to the right (and indicator of lying) when he states that he did “absolutely not” kill his sister.
This is one of the theories I find most compelling out of all of the suspects. A parent’s love for their children is one of the most powerful driving forces, and I think it would explain perfectly why the Ramseys appeared to be involved in some sort of coverup. It also provides and explanation for both the pineapple in JB’s stomach, and Burke’s voice in the 911 call – which none of the other theories/suspects provide an explanation for. Of course, the evidence of this is all entirely circumstantial and – like everyone else – Burke was exonerated by the DNA evidence. There are also a few clear issues with this story. If the murder was an accident, why did there appear to be a sexual component to the crime? The strangulation occured whilst JB was still alive, so either her mother killed her knowing she was only unconscious (eliminating the need for a coverup) or somehow managed to believe that her child was already dead?
Friends of the Ramseys
Despite a lack of specific evidence against him, Fleet White’s role in JonBenét’s death has often been called into question. John Bennet was known to brag often about his wealth and lifestyle, which many have theorised could have caused Fleet to be resentful and jealous towards him. At a party hosted by the Ramsey’s on the 23rd December, an ‘accidental’ call was made to 911 which Fleet then hung up before speaking to a dispatcher. Police arrived anyway and another friend of the Ramsey’s – Susan Stine – turned the police away. Stine was so protective of Patsy that she was nicknamed “Patsy’s bulldog”, and some have considered her to be just a little too defensive, perhaps to hide her own role in the crime. However, none of this really really compelled me, as there seems to be little to no evidence and no real explanation for the ‘strange’ behaviour exhibited by either Fleet or Susan. The only explanation I could find for the 911 call is that it was made by JonBenét to report the sexual abuse from her family members and that Fleet caught her and hung up, but this really seems like a stretch to me. There is no proof of this, and a 6 year old would surely be more likely to tell someone at the party about the abuse, rather than thinking to phone emergency services.
John Mark Carr
In this case, there are 3 separate suspects whose motive can be explained as a desire to sexually exploit children. The first of these is John Mark Carr, who had previously been arrested on numerous charges including possession of child pornography. Carr was an elementary school teacher who did not become a suspect in the JonBenét case until 2006. Journalism professor Michael Tracy exchanged emails with Carr for over 4 years, building trust until Carr ‘confessed’ to the murder. Carr initially claimed that he was in the house the night of the murder and saw the killer but would not reveal who it was. Later, he wrote that he was deeply in love with JB and confessed to bludgeoning her to death with a flashlight. Tracy called his emails with Carr the “worst experience of my life so far” because the things he wrote were so deeply horrifying. Analysis of the emails showed similar language patterns to the ransom note and Carr knew strangely intimate details about the family, referring to Patsy’s mother by her family nickname “Neddie”. Carr fled to Bangkok but was later arrested and returned to America (I couldn’t figure out whether this was for charges to do with the JB cases, or unrelated crimes). However, when he was questioned the police decided he could not have been the killer as his ‘confession’ didn’t match the evidence from the crime scene and his DNA evidence was also not a match. They later discovered photo evidence that he had been in Georgia at the time of the killing, but they continued to investigate him. He maintained that he had committed the crime and that he did not work alone.
Bill McReynolds – Ramseys’ Party Santa
The second suspect who seems to have had a strange interest in JonBenét is Bill McReynolds. McReynolds was hired by the Ramsey family to dress up at Santa for their Christmas party, as he had been the year prior. JB gave a small vial of gold glitter to McReynolds as Santa, and he noted that she was the only child who had ever given him a gift rather than just receiving one themselves. This all seems innocent enough until McReynolds requested that he bring the vial of glitter with him into heart surgery, and that should he die his wife should mix it with his ashes. McReynolds had himself had a daughter kidnapped 22 years ago, who saw her friend sexually assaulted but was later returned. One perhaps unrelated, but creepily co-incidental note is that has Wife had written a play about a child being molested then murdered in a basement, very similarly to the circumstances of JB’s murder. However, McReynolds was also not a DNA match (but is the DNA evidence even valid?) and he could have been no more than a kindly old man deeply upset by the death of an innocent young girl.
The final sexually motivated suspect is Gary Oliva, who lived a few blocks away from the Ramsey family. A few years prior Oliva had been arrested on child pornography charges. In 2000 he was arrested on unrelated drug charges and police were shocked to find a photo of JonBénet Ramsey in his backpack, which he claimed was just part of a “shrine” to mourn her passing. Oliva’s high school friend Michale Vail gave an interview in which he claims Oliva called him the day after the murder and told him “I hurt a little girl, I hurt a little girl” in “Boulder, Colorado”. Interestingly, when police checked, they found that no other girl had been reported to have been harmed in that area on that night. Oliva had also attempted to strangle his mother with a telephone cord in the same way JB was asphyxiated. Also in his possession on his arrest was a stun gun, which may believe was the cause of strange marks on JB’s neck. The marks were not present in photos from Christmas morning but can be clearly seen in crime scene photos, suggesting they took place at the time of the murder. However, the autopsy at no point suggested that these marks were burns, nevermind confirming they were from a stun gun, referring to them only as “abrasions”. Oliva also did not match the DNA samples found on JB’s clothing, and was subsequently exonerated in JB’s murder.
Michael Helgolth – Local Electrician and “Hellraiser”
One little known suspect in this case is Michael Helgolth, a local electrician who was reportedly involved in a property dispute with the Ramsey family. There is little evidence linking Helgloth to the crime, other than a boot print found in the house that was a possible match for a pair of shoes he owned. The main reason people question his involvement is that Helgolth committed suicide just 2 days after police announced in a press conference that they had a new suspect, which many have seen as being borne out fear of being caught.
Linda Hoffman-Pugh – The Ramseys’ Housekeeper
Another seemingly unlikely suspect is Linda Hoffman-Pugh, the family’s longtime housekeeper. Although Hoffman-Pugh doesn’t match the police’s profile of a white male, she would have been known to JonBenét as well as having a key to access the house. She apparently asked the Ramsey family for a loan of a few thousand dollars but was refused, and was often arguing with Patsy over minor issues and later accusing her of JB’s murder. She had no alibi and working in the house, she could easily have seen John’s payslip lying around and known the amount of his bonus – explaining the oddly specific ransom amount. However, Hoffman-Pugh seemed to harbour no resentment towards JonBenét and it seems highly unlikely she would murder an innocent little girl just to make some money.
So that ended up spiralling a lot more than I thought it would! This post may now be the longest one on my blog, and definitely the most time-consuming. Hope you didn’t get bored to death reading this but there were just so many details that are crucial to understanding the case. There’s much much more to this case, and people have spent hours poring over it on websleuths down to every minute detail. Based on the research I did on this case, my gut instinct would be that Burke Ramsey or Gary Oliva are the most likely suspects, with either one or both of JonBenét’s parents being involved in a cover-up. However, with John’s contamination of the evidence and the unreliability of the DNA evidence, it is highly likely that we will never know who committed this horrendous murder. I hope that one day new evidence will be discovered, and JonBénet’s killer with finally face justice.
Have a hot bath, drink lots of water, and remember to take your meds. Until next time, take care of yourself x
LilyWhispers – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6HAXTkKcSGQ
Buzzfeed Unsolved – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SiQ4t2EuhKU
Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_JonBen%C3%A9t_Ramsey
Rolling Stone – https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/lists/who-killed-jonbenet-ramsey-8-possible-suspects-w443881
Autopsy Report – http://hosted.ap.org/specials/interactives/_national/jonbenet_ramsey/jonbenet_ramsey_autopsy.pdf
JonBenét Ramsey Case Encyclopedia – http://jonbenetramsey.pbworks.com/w/page/11682477/FrontPage