Highlights

  • JonBenet Ramsey's murder one of the most high-profile unsolved crimes in USA
  • 6-year-old was found dead in the basement of her own home
  • Despite multiple suspects, police failed to even identify the murderer

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Unsolved Crimes | Family at home, 6-yr-old killed in basement; killer still unknown: JonBenet Ramsey case

It was the day after Christmas in 1996, when 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey went missing in Boulder, Colorado, in USA. Her body was later found in the basement, but the killer has not been identified in over two decades.

A little girl found dead in her own home, killed even as her family was present in the house. The needle of suspicion swings from the parents to strangers. There's even a confession, which turns out to be fake. And over two decades later, the killer is still at large.

This is the unsolved case of JonBenet Ramsey.

It was the day after Christmas in 1996, when 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey went missing in Boulder, Colorado, in USA. Her mother Patsy called the police, saying she had found a ransom note. Cops arrived at the house, but no ransom call came.

Then, a policewoman asked JonBenet's father and a neighbour to search the house for anything unusual. JonBenet's lifeless body was finally found by her father in the house's basement, around 8 hours after her mother noticed the ransom note.

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JonBenet's body was found in a nightmarish state. Her hands were tied above her head, and her mouth was bound with tape, according to her father John. There was synthetic cord wrapped around her neck, and another cord tied loosely around her right wrist. Her body had reportedly been covered with a blanket and a sweatshirt.

The autopsy report said that JonBenet's skull had been fractured by a blow to her head. The killer had caused an 8.5-inch fracture on the side of her head. She had also been possibly sexually assaulted, and strangled. Blood, bruising, and abrasions were discovered in her private parts. There were bruises on her shoulders and legs as well.

Was the case doomed from the beginning due to mistakes by the police?

Critics say that the police's biggest lapse was not searching the house as soon as the missing persons' complaint was received. After that, police told untrained civilians, i.e. JonBenet's father and neighbour, to search the house. On top of this, friends and neighbours of the Ramseys were allowed to enter and exit the house unhindered. The family was even allowed to clean the kitchen, which could have ruined important evidence.

Despite these failures, some pieces of evidence were recovered.

These reportedly included a spot of blood on JonBenet's undergarments. Some DNA material was also found underneath the young victim's fingernails. A shoe-print from a Hi-Tec brand boot - which no one in the Ramsey family wore - was also noticed. Possible footprints on a suitcase, and on the wall near a window were also found.

An investigator noticed leaves and foam packing material in the basement which a murdering intruder may have tracked in. Also, a baseball bat was found outside the house with fibres matching a carpet in the basement. Finally, there was the 3-page long ransom note found by JonBenet's mother.

Based on the analysis of the evidence, police reportedly profiled the suspect as a white male, who was an ex-convict, and aged between 25 and 30 years.

The needle of suspicion swung between many individuals as the probe progressed.

One of the biggest breakthroughs was considered to be a development in 2006, when a former school teacher confessed to JonBenet's murder. John Mark Karr wrote an email with the confession to a documentary film-maker who was working on JonBenet's story. Karr, who was in Thailand's Bangkok at the time, was arrested and brought back to the USA. But he was let off after his DNA did not match the evidence found at the crime scene. Karr was considered a disturbed paedophile who was seeking fame through the case.

Another suspect was known sex offender Gary Oliva. He had been detained on different charges when police found JonBenet's photograph from a magazine in his backpack. Subsequently, a friend of Oliva claimed that he had confessed to having "hurt a little girl". Oliva also had a stun gun which was a part of police theory of how JonBenet was hurt. But Gary Oliva was also cleared through DNA tests.

As the murder took place inside their house, JonBenet's parents were also under suspicion. The garrote used to strangle the young girl was reportedly made with a paintbrush taken from mother Patsy's paint kit. Also, the ransom note was written on Patsy's stationary. However, handwriting analysis was inconclusive. Patsy was finally cleared in 2008 through fresh DNA analysis.

JonBenet's father John was also under police radar as he had found the body and also disturbed the crime scene despite being told not to touch anything while searching the house. He had removed the tape on JonBenet's face, and taken her body upstairs, thus possibly ruining forensic evidence. Coincidentally, the ransom note had demanded $118,000 which was the exact amount that John had received as a Christmas bonus that year. He was also cleared in 2008 after DNA tests.

JonBenet's brother Burke was the focus of a CBS documentary which examined the evidence. The suspicions of experts featured on the show leaned towards Burke who was 9 years old at the time of the murder. The experts said that JonBenet may have been hit with a flashlight, and the wounds on her back could have been made by a toy train. Burke filed a defamation case which was ultimately settled. He was also cleared by DNA analysis in 2008.

Another suspect was an electrician who worked at nearby auto salvage yard. Michael Helgoth had reportedly had a property dispute with the Ramseys. He allegedly committed suicide in 1997. His DNA didn't match the traces found at the crime scene.

Then there was the housekeeper - Linda Hoffman-Pugh. JonBenet's mother had reportedly told police that Linda had been facing money troubles and had asked for a loan for thousands of dollars, which Patsy had rejected. In turn, Linda accused Patsy of having mental disorders, and frequently fighting with JonBenet. However, Linda did not fit the suspect profile of a male ex-convict, and she was never formally accused.

A friend of the Ramseys - Bill McReynolds - was also considered by police. He had played Santa Claus at a Christmas gathering hosted by Patsy Ramsey. McReynolds had reportedly promised JonBenet a "special gift" that Christmas. McReynolds was investigated but cleared as his DNA didn't match the evidence as well.

In 1998 - two years after the murder - a grand jury began its investigation. In America, a grand jury is a group of people who decide whether to charge a suspect with a crime and begin criminal prosecution. A year later, the district attorney announced that the grand jury had concluded its probe, and the DA's team thought there was not "sufficient evidence" to warrant filing of charges.

But when the grand jury's indictment papers were released in 2013, they painted JonBenet's parents in bad light. The papers showed that the grand jury had wanted to indict JonBenet's parents on charges of child abuse resulting in death, and more significantly, being accessories to a crime. This was before the DNA analysis cleared the family.

With no breakthrough in the case, a serial killer theory was floated by a retired police investigator on an A&E show. James Benish linked the JonBenet case to 2 other murders - those of Tracy Neef, and Aleisea Ruff.

7-yr-old Tracy Marie Neef was killed in March 1984 after being kidnapped from school, and sexually assaulted. Hairs found on Tracy's body were either lost, or contaminated by investigators. No one was convicted for the shocking murder of Tracy.

The second case involved 4-yr-old Aleisea Woolsey Ruff who went missing in July 1993, from Anini Beach, Hawaii. Her body was found underwater by Aleisea's father. Coroners said Aleisea had been sexually assaulted, before being drowned. A person named Aaron Schonlau was reportedly convicted, jailed for the crime.

James Benish believes a member of the Schonlau family may have killed JonBenet. A 2019 news report said that DNA testing was underway to check the theory.

JonBenet's mother Patsy died of ovarian cancer in 2006, two years before she was cleared of suspicion. Now, John Ramsey is continuing the fight for justice. In a recent appeal, JonBenet's father claimed that there is some DNA evidence which hasn't been tested, and it should be handed over to private agencies for analysis by latest technologies.

One of those agencies is Parabon Nanolabs which claims to have helped solve over 200 cases, including an unsolved stabbing case dating to 1975, and identifying a body found in 1981. The firm uses a technique called investigative genetic genealogy.

A request to hand over the evidence to such a company is reportedly pending with the Governor of Colorado.

Defending their investigation, Boulder police have claimed that 1,500 pieces of evidence have been analysed, more than 200 DNA samples tested, over 20,000 tips followed-up, and more than 1,000 people have been interviewed in the case so far.

JonBenet was a young pageant queen - winning titles like Little Miss Colorado, and America's Royale Miss. Her father was a wealthy software executive. Her mother had herself been a pageant queen-turned-suburban socialite. The Ramseys appeared to be a happy family.

Now, JonBenet lies in a grave in Marietta, Georgia, next to her mother, and her half-sister, who died in a car crash in 1992. Justice, even if it comes, is already too late.

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