The Truth Behind Our Obsession With True Crime Stories
“The list of suspects narrows. Soon there will be no one on the list but you.” –Alex Hunter, Boulder District Attorney, speaking on Feb. 13, 1997
JonBenét Ramsey would have turned 31 years old this year. But as we all know, she never even made it to 7.
The youngest child of John and Patsy Ramsey was found dead in the basement of their Boulder, Colo., home on the afternoon of Dec. 26, 1996—almost eight hours after Patsy frantically called 911 to report that her 6-year-old daughter had been kidnapped.
She had awakened at around 5:30 a.m. to find a two-and-a-half-page, sloppily printed ransom note at the bottom of the stairs that threatened to “behead” the child if her parents didn’t fork over $118,000 in ransom to some “foreign faction.”
It was John who discovered JonBenét’s body shortly after 1:30 p.m. on his second search of the house, which by then was already full of police and family friends. He carried the child, who was still dressed in the pajamas she wore to bed the night before, up the stairs and laid her down near the Christmas tree in the living room.
JonBenét had been strangled and her skull was fractured from a blow to the head.
The medical examiner would later discover vaginal injuries and there were spots that appeared to be blood on her underwear, though blood smears found on her body weren’t in places that would correspond with the stains.
What was tragic and horrifying in any respect within moments turned into a crime of baffling circumstances: Why the ransom note when JonBenét wasn’t even taken from her house? Or was she? Did someone tamper with that basement window or not? Why weren’t there any footprints in the snow outside the house if an intruder was responsible? How did no one find her during the first search of the house, which included a family friend glancing into the wine cellar she was eventually found in but not turning on the light? How would a proper forensic investigation even be possible with so many people in and out of the Ramseys’ house on that first day, even before John had moved his daughter’s body, seemingly contaminating who-knows-how-much evidence?
There is now a canon of books, news specials and TV movies probing, analyzing and re-dramatizing the investigation. According to the Boulder Police Department, they’ve processed more than 1,500 pieces of evidence, including 1,000 DNA samples, their Major Crimes Unit has reviewed and followed up on 21,016 tips, letters and emails, and detectives have interviewed more than 1,000 people in 19 states.
Yet 25 years later, so many questions remain unanswered, and JonBenét Ramsey’s murder remains unsolved.
No one was ever charged in connection with her death. One man confessed and was arrested, but his confession was bogus. Other names have been floated about through the years, but nothing proved conclusive.
“There’s still a good chance we’ll never know,” Elizabeth Vargas, who hosted A&E’s 2019 special Hunting JonBenét’s Killer: The Untold Story, previously told E! News. “I don’t think it’s possible one person did this. That’s my own opinion, so that means two people, and that means at least two people out there know what happened. It’s incredible to me that those people have kept that secret, that people they probably told in their lives, because that’s a hard secret to keep, that nobody has told. We have all sorts of cold cases that were solved decades later, and I think this could be one of them.”
In a statement released ahead of the 25th anniversary of JonBenet’s death, the Boulder PD said that with the major advancements in DNA testing, they have updated more than 750 samples using the latest technology and still hope to get a match one day.
John Ramsey, 78, who appeared in the January 2021 Discovery+ documentary JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?, told USA Today at the time that despite his participation, it was too hard for him to watch the whole show.
“The death of JonBenét took away my desire to live for a while,” he explained. “The actions of the police took away my ability to live normally and that, to some extent, continued for a long time in the way we were treated and assaulted.”
John and Patsy remained suspects—if not always actively under investigation—for more than a decade. Patsy died of ovarian cancer on June 24, 2006, and was buried next to JonBenét, still under a shroud of suspicion.
“The police drew a conclusion immediately that day, the next day and then tried to find the evidence to prove it,” John told USA Today. “And the evidence they were finding was, unfortunately for them, contradictory to their conclusion. But they never admitted that and struggled with that for years and spent millions of taxpayers’ dollars trying to prove otherwise.”
In December 2003, DNA from the scene was submitted to the FBI database. Then-Boulder County District Attorney Mary Lacy informed John in 2008, in a letter made public, that new “touch DNA” technology had convinced her that neither he, Patsy nor Burke was involved in the killing. Rather, test results pointed to an “unknown male.”
“To the extent that we may have contributed in any way to the public perception that you might have been involved in this crime, I am deeply sorry,” Lacy wrote.
However, eight years later, a joint investigation by Boulder’s Daily Camera and 9 News questioned the validity of Lacy’s decision to officially clear the Ramseys because of that DNA evidence. The outlets reported in October 2016 that there were three distinct genetic markers—Lacy knew of two, this was the first public mention of the third—found on the child’s pajamas, and that the one sample that had been used to clear suspects could actually have been a composite from multiple people’s DNA.
“It’s a rather obvious point, but I mean, if you’re looking for someone that doesn’t exist, because actually it’s several people, it’s a problem,” Troy Eid, a former state’s attorney for Colorado who helped review the case for the governor in 1999, told the paper in 2016.
In an interview with ABC News at the time, Lacy addressed the new findings and the lingering criticism. “I’ve withstood worse than this…and it’s nothing compared to what the Ramsey family has gone through targeted as suspects in their own daughter’s murder,” she said. “I was trying to prevent a horrible travesty of justice,” she continued. “I was scared to death that despite the fact that there was no evidence, no psychopathy and no motive, the case was a train going down the track and the Ramseys were tied to that track.”
Explaining her theory of the crime, she recalled what she saw while touring the Ramsey house a few days after the killing, back when she was a deputy district attorney heading up the office’s Sexual Assault Unit: a “butt print” in the carpet outside JonBenét’s bedroom.
“We all saw it,” Lacy said. “The entire area was undisturbed except for that place in the rug. Whoever did this sat outside of her room and waited until everyone was asleep to kill her.”
Nancy Grace on JonBenet Ramsey’s Murder
In 2016, it almost felt strange calling this a cold case, because the fascination, the morbid curiosity, the quest for answers—the downright obsession with the murder of JonBenét Ramsey—felt as current as ever.
Of course the media and TV in general gave the case the full 20th-anniversary treatment with two new TV documentaries, followed by Lifetime’s Who Killed JonBenét?, 16 years after the miniseries Perfect Murder, Perfect Town: JonBenét and the City of Boulder premiered on CBS. Lawrence Schiller‘s adaptation of his own book about the investigation starred Marg Helgenberger as Patsy and Dyanne Iandoli as JonBenét.
Dr. Phil McGraw also made a splash in September 2016 with his multi-part interview with JonBenét’s older brother, Burke Ramsey—the only other known person in the house when his sister died who had never spoken publicly about the case. He was only 9 at the time and he was never an official suspect—but he hadn’t been clear of suspicion either.
It appeared that Burke sat down with Dr. Phil to get ahead of CBS’ two-part docu-special The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey. The investigators and forensic experts gathered to probe the case, going so far as to build a replica of the Ramsey home in order to recreate the scene exactly as it was when JonBenét was killed, putting the puzzle together in a way that pointed the finger at Burke, even having a 10-year-old boy hit a fake skull with a flashlight, to see the damage wrought.
Burke responded to the CBS show by filing a $150 million defamation lawsuit against Dr. Werner Spitz, calling the forensic investigator (who was memorably a witness for the defense during Phil Spector‘s murder trial) a “publicity seeker” who “once again interjected himself into a high-profile case to make unsupported, false, and sensational statements and accusations.”
A settlement in the suit was announced in January 2019, after the two parties “reached an amicable resolution of their differences.”
“I know people think I did it, that my parents did it,” Burke told Dr. Phil. “I know that we were suspects. I want to honor her memory by doing this interview. I don’t want anyone to forget.”
There is no danger of that happening.
Ironically, no matter how much time John and Patsy spent trying publicly to get the case solved, hiring their own investigators and offering reward money—and no matter how many teams of experts probe the details after the fact—the absolute truth remains covered up. And it might always stay that way.
“I am convinced that people still care about JonBenét Ramsey case because, A, a child was brutally murdered. The scene was staged. And it’s never been solved,” Nancy Grace, whose eponymous show on HLN was usually devoted to the boldest crime headlines of the day, told E! News in 2016. “Justice has never been obtained.”
Nancy Grace Gives Rapid Fire Answers on True Crime Cases
When you think about how easy it was to get all wrapped up—either again or for the first time—in the particulars of the O.J. Simpson trial more than 25 years after he was acquitted of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, then it came as no surprise just how many people were still hungry for more details about the Ramsey case.
It isn’t only that JonBenét’s murder remains unsolved, though conceivably that alone could be enough to prompt the usual group of die-hard armchair investigators and continued interest from true crime fanatics—which, thanks to podcasts and the at times very highbrow aspirations of true-crime-inspired programming, is all of us.
It’s that everything about the case—a case in which the stone-cold, incontrovertible facts were disturbing enough—was just wrong. When you think about the forensic evidence, the hours of interviews, the man power spent on the investigation, you wonder how crimes ever get solved. Because wasn’t there enough to go on to solve this one? Were the police dealing with criminal masterminds? Or does a bold-faced lie just become all the more powerful when there’s an ingrained class system and a hefty sack of funds at the ready to back it up?
Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
This case has also never failed to fascinate because authorities were torn down the middle about that last question. Some were convinced—right away or years later—that the Ramseys were getting away with murder, while others felt that the couple were being unfairly maligned and the real killer was out there, somewhere, getting away.
“Again, I do not think Mr. Ramsey killed his daughter,” Grace added. “But to come in to ‘kidnap the girl,’ go through all the drama of leaving this ransom note and then they go, ‘Oh, you know what? Forget the money, I’m just gonna kill her and leave her body in the basement’…That scenario, I believe, has bothered people, gotten under their skin, since it first happened.”
From day one, this was going to be a crime that made national news. It had all the elements: The victim wasn’t just a child, but an adorable white 6-year-old from a well-to-do family. The setting was the picturesque, inordinately safe city of Boulder—JonBenét’s death was the city’s first official homicide of 1996, five days before the year ended. There was evidence of sexual assault, a morbid tidbit for the press to seize on. Crime and pop culture being forever intertwined, the photogenic victim became the most heartbreaking kind of celebrity and, spurred on by the O.J. case that had concluded just over a year beforehand, the media were operating at a fever pitch.
And the weird details just kept coming.
At two and a half pages, the rambling ransom note was the longest the FBI had ever seen. And $118,000 was an odd amount to ask for. After JonBenét’s body was found, John Ramsey tried to make arrangements to fly the family to Atlanta via private jet that very night, claiming he had urgent matters to attend to. Police put a stop to that, but they were allowed to leave town just three days later.
Inexplicably, John and Patsy Ramsey gave a nearly 40-minute on-camera interview to CNN on Jan. 1, 1997, long before they ever sat down at length with detectives.
“There is a killer on the loose,” Patsy told CNN’s Brian Cabell. “Absolutely,” added John.
Then the pageant footage started circulating.
Mark Fix/ZUMA Press
It’s impossible to separate thoughts of JonBenét from the photos of her that accompanied the headlines in those days, the 6-year-old looking both like a miniature doll and way too grown-up in full hair and makeup, glamour shots taken while she was on the child pageant circuit.
On June 1, 1996, JonBenét competed in the Royal Miss state pageant in Denver, and a month later won Gingerbread Production of America’s Little Miss Colorado, Mini Supreme division. It was around that time Patsy wanted her daughter to have a portfolio and she posed for many of the heavily made-up photos that the whole country would be seeing a few short months later. She was crowned Little Miss Christmas at the All Star Kids Christmas pageant at the Airport Holiday Inn on the outskirts of Denver on Dec. 17. She was at a nearby shopping mall in an appearance sponsored by America’s Royal Miss on Dec. 22.
A week after she was killed, ABC’s Denver affiliate aired video footage of JonBenét at the Christmas pageant. Then Sunburst supplied another TV station with a tape from the summer. This was easily the first that most people had ever heard of beauty pageants for little children.
“That fascinated people,” Grace told E! News. “There were a lot of pictures and video of her that you don’t always have with child victims, so the public got to see her over and over and over again—and thereby, ergo, believe they knew her. They became familiar with her, they think they know JonBenét and they therefore felt her loss even more deeply.”
Twelve years before the controversial Toddlers & Tiaras would premiere on TLC, the argument was already raging over whether it was appropriate for children as young as JonBenét (and much younger) to be competing in what amounted to a beauty pageant, regardless of any talent portion, or whether it was flat-out exploitation, a way for “pageant moms” to relive their own glory days. Patsy Ramsey was Miss West Virginia 1977 and competed for Miss America.
And while the pictures and videos of a poised, precocious and generally beaming JonBenét became the fodder for much debate about what’s appropriate for kids and what isn’t, it also served to turn her parents—particularly her mother—into more suspicious, possibly villainous characters.
What sort of mother would put her child on display like that? Was JonBenet being abused behind closed doors? What were they hiding? Not to mention, did they get away with murder?
“Anyone who ever finds themselves in this situation, as my family has, will go through two tragedies: One the loss of your family member, and secondly, the total demise of the rest of your living family members because of all the persecution that’s laid upon you—unjustly so,” Patsy’s sister Pam Paugh would lament on the Today show in 2010, four years after Patsy’s death.
Though authorities would end up focusing on the couple as people of interest, the early days of the investigation also came under fire. Much to the district attorney’s office’s later dismay, a detective named Linda Arndt, gave the Ramseys’ newly hired criminal attorney a list of the police’s questions for John, Patsy and Burke to answer, hoping they could at least get some details (such as “What time did each of you go to sleep?”) out of the family while they were in Atlanta for JonBenét’s funeral.
Boulder Police and the Boulder District Attorney’s Office were at loggerheads right away, as well, with each having their own views as to how the investigation should be conducted. While their combined objective ultimately became to build a case against the Ramseys, accusations of leaks were flying back and forth and grudges developed.
Neither Patsy nor John sat down for a formal interview with investigators until April 30, 1997, and right afterward they tried to explain to reporters why it had taken so long to sit down with the police.
Will the JonBenet Ramsey Case Ever Be Solved?
“Let me address it very directly: I did not kill my daughter JonBenét,” John said. “There have been innuendos that she had been or was sexually molested. I can tell you that those were the most hurtful innuendos to us as a family. They are totally false. JonBenét and I had a very close relationship. I will miss her dearly the rest of my life.”
Added Patsy, “I’m appalled that anyone would think that John or I would be involved in such a hideous, heinous crime. But let me assure you that I did not kill JonBenét and did not have anything to do with this.”
Toward the end of the press conference, John said into the camera, “We’ll find you. We will find you. I have that as a sole mission for the rest of my life.” “Likewise,” Patsy agreed. “The police and investigators have assured us that this is a case that can be solved. You may be eluding the authorities for a time, but God knows who you are and we will find you.”
Rich Addicks/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP
The investigation continued, however, as the Ramseys’ privilege served to work both for and against them. They were able to afford a top-notch legal team that ultimately succeeded in its task, which was to make sure the family was officially cleared. And yet their wealth and status made them picture-perfect media fodder, as well as gave authorities a reason to dig deeper, no one wanting to be accused of not trying their hardest to nail the rich couple who put their daughter on display in pageants.
Boulder Police presented their case to prosecutors in June 1998. That September, prosecutors started presenting their case to the grand jury. In October 1999, the DA’s office announced there wasn’t enough evidence to charge either John or Patsy Ramsey in connection with JonBenét’s death. (The indictment unsealed in 2013 revealed that prosecutors had accused the parents in 1999 of two counts each of child abuse resulting in death.)
In March 2001, the couple filed an $80 million defamation lawsuit against the Boulder Police Department that was ultimately settled for an undisclosed sum.
The conversation continues to this day as to whether the focus on the Ramseys resulted in investigators ignoring other suspects and, perhaps, missing their chance at bringing the real killer or killers to justice.
Other people who have been linked to the case over the years include:
SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
John Mark Karr, a school teacher in 1996, was brought to the attention of investigators in April 2006 by Michael Tracey, a University of Colorado journalism professor who had produced documentaries about the case. Tracey said Karr had reached out to him in 2002 and slowly a story emerged over correspondence about Karr “accidentally” killing a child he’d been sexually involved with. Authorities traced Karr’s calls to Thailand, where he was arrested and confessed to accidentally killing JonBenét. Karr’s family provided evidence to investigators that he had been with them in Georgia the night JonBenét died, and no charges were ever filed after DNA testing didn’t link him to the crime.
“It’s another bump in the road for us emotionally, but I think we saw Lady Justice put her gavel down today,” Pam Paugh, Patsy Ramsey’s sister, told CNN in October 2006 after Karr was cleared. “I don’t think that this story is over yet, and I think, again, patience is the prudent thing to desire at this point.”
Gary Oliva was named by 48 Hours Investigates in August 2002 as someone who had been investigated after it was learned he may have been near the Ramsey home the night of the killing and was spotted at a candlelight vigil for JonBenét on the one-year anniversary of the crime. The show reported he had called a close friend sometime after her death and sobbed that he had “done something horrible.” In a jailhouse interview included in the show, Oliva denied being involved, saying, “I believe she came to me after she was killed and revealed herself to me. I’d like to see a memorial set up for her. I haven’t seen that, anywhere.”
Oliva was arrested on charges of possessing child pornography in June 2016. Boulder City spokeswoman Sarah Huntley told the Daily Camera, “The police department is certainly very familiar with him, both because of the investigation that was done in the context of the Ramsey case, and because of his criminal history and the fact that he is a registered sex offender.”
She continued, “The police department diligently investigated these current allegations and believes there is probable cause to support the arrest. But we’re currently not comfortable ruling anybody out as a suspect, or ruling anybody in as a suspect, in the Ramsey case.”
Ollie Gray, an investigator hired by the Ramseys who continued to look into the case on his own, became convinced that Michael Helgoth was the killer. Helgoth’s family owned a scrap yard on the outskirts of Boulder at the time. John Kenady, who worked with Helgoth, had told In Touch Weekly in April 2016 that he had heard that a tape existed of Helgoth saying he killed JonBenét. Kenady said he reached out to police about 20 times in the months following the killing to tell them about Helgoth but never got any substantive response.
“You have to look for something in order to find something, and unfortunately for this particular case, you had a totally inexperienced police agency,” Gray said on the Today show in May2016. “There are probably three or four people that should have been investigated earlier and still need to be investigated. The latest development in this particular case as far as I’m concerned is Michael Helgoth. He was basically a hell-raiser.”
MARTY CAIVANO/AFP/Getty Images
Helgoth was found dead Feb. 15, 1997, two days after Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter gave a press conference in which he looked squarely at the camera and said, “Finally, I want to say to you, through you, I want to say something to the person or persons who committed this crime, the person or persons who took this baby from us. The list of suspects narrows. Soon there will be no one on the list but you…You have stripped us of any mercy that we might have had in the beginning of this investigation. We will see that justice is served in this case. And that you pay for what you did. And we have no doubt that that will happen.”
Helgoth’s death by gunshot was ruled a suicide, but Kenady said it looked suspicious and claimed the man was murdered by an accomplice in JonBenét’s killing “to keep his mouth shut.”
Helgoth, however, was posthumously cleared when it turned out his DNA didn’t match traces found at the scene either.
On March 17, 1997, retired Colorado Springs Police Detective Lou Smit, with more than 200 solved cases under his belt, joined the investigation. He had been called in by Hunter’s office to help build the case against the Ramseys but, when he stepped down 18 months later, he concluded in his resignation letter, “The Ramseys did not do it.”
Smit compiled a list of alternate suspects during that time, including Oliva.
“There was not one instance of physical or sexual abuse,” Smit, who was played by Kris Kristofferson in Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, told the Denver Post before he died in August 2010. “You just don’t turn into something overnight. Usually you have some inkling. John would call his kids when he was on the road. His ex-wife said he was a good father.” (Ramsey had two adult children from his previous marriage to Lucinda Pasch. Their eldest daughter, Elizabeth, died in a car crash in 1992.)
Smit stated that detectives had failed to perform certain tests that could have either further implicated or exonerated the Ramseys, and cited a number of procedural issues that occurred in the earliest days of the investigation.
“You only have one shot to do that right,” he said. “The house should have been totally shut. The crime scene was screwed up.” Smith theorized that the killer got into the Ramsey house on the evening of Christmas day and, after killing JonBenét, probably intended to remove her body from the house in a suitcase that was found near a broken basement window. Unlike some, Smit thought there were signs of forced entry by that window. (John Ramsey had said he broke the window before that day.)
JonBenet Investigator Analyzes Burke Ramsey on “Dr. Phil”
Smit told the Post that the killer’s name was probably in the case file somewhere thanks to one of the thousands of tips police received, and that likely the perpetrator was in prison by then for another crime. “But if you’re stuck on one thought of who did it you’re not going to solve it,” he said, rejecting the theory that the murder was staged, as it was expressly to make it look like something it wasn’t (such as the work of a sexual sadist instead of the result of domestic abuse).
“There’s no bad guy here, the police didn’t intentionally bungle [the investigation], it just happened that way,” Nancy Grace, a former prosecutor, told E! News in 2016. “And I don’t believe that case will ever, ever be solved—but I can tell you this,” she added, referring to the renewed examination of the case at the time and what it insinuated, “Burke Ramsey did not kill his sister.”
And yet A. James Kolar, lead investigator on the case for the Boulder District Attorney’s office between 2005 and 2006, resisted the theory that an intruder was responsible.
Referring to the new DNA samples found in JonBenét’s underwear that had led to the Ramseys being cleared, Kolar wrote in his self-published Foreign Faction: Who Really Kidnapped JonBenét?: “I don’t think we should be letting the course of the investigation be run by one single artifact that may or may not necessarily be involved in the actual crime of the kidnap or murder.”
JonBenét: Inside the Ramsey Murder Investigation author Steve Thomas, an investigator on the case until August 1998, insisted in his book that “the little girl was killed by a family member, whom I believe to have been her panicked mother, Patsy Ramsey, and that her father, John Ramsey, opted to protect his wife in the investigation that followed.” He surmised that Patsy lost her temper because the 6-year-old had wet her bed and she slammed her against a hard surface in the bathroom while cleaning her up.
Thomas, who worked the case with Lou Smit for some time, also thought the Ramseys’ behavior during the first stages of the investigation was just plain odd.
“I’m not the lone voice on this,” Thomas told the Denver Post in 2000. “The FBI supported us, the police department supported us, with the exception of [Detective] Linda Arndt. Lou’s the lone voice on this.” (Arndt was one of the first detectives at the Ramsey house the morning of Dec. 26, before JonBenét’s body was found.)
Throughout, the Ramseys vehemently maintained their innocence, including in their own book, 2000’s The Death of Innocence.
At least 10 books had already been published about JonBenét by then.
“It’s frustrating to the police, it’s frustrating to us, frustrating to the public,” John said on Larry King Live in 2000 about the fact that no one had yet been brought to justice for killing JonBenét. “The public needs an answer to this. They cannot bear to think that there is this kind of a monster that’s still loose. I think that’s one of the reasons there’s a rush to judgment. They want an answer to this. This is a horrible thing.”
In 2010, investigators conducted a fresh round of interviews, hoping to shake something, anything loose. “I understand that they met with Burke and gave him a card and said, ‘If you want to talk to us, here’s how you would contact me,'” Ramsey family attorney Lin Wood told Boulder’s Daily Camera newspaper in October 2010. “But the police have not interviewed Burke.”
Wood added, “Whatever the reason for any type of approach with Burke, it would have nothing to do with the case other than with the reality that John and Burke could help the Boulder police as witnesses in the investigation. For all I know, they have gotten some tip and think Burke could give them some information.”
John Ramsey told Barbara Walters in an interview in 2015 that he still predicted either DNA would solve his daughter’s murder “or someone who knows something will become angry or bitter against this person and will tell.”
Looking back on the immediate days following JonBenét’s death, John said, “When something really tragic happens in your life, put your life in park. Give your checkbook to a trusted friend. Avoid making any big decisions. Because you’re just not capable of making good decisions.”
And that can be said for every single person involved with the case. Stan Garnett, the Boulder D.A. who succeeded Mary Lacy, called her exoneration of the Ramseys in 2008 “legally insignificant,” telling the Daily Camera he wasn’t bound by her actions should the case move forward under his watch.
As former state’s attorney Troy Eid also told the paper in October 2016, “It’s incredible the number of cases that get solved later. And also as DNA testing gets better, it sometimes removes doubt and sometimes adds doubt.”
He added, “It’s not too late for justice.
(Originally published Sept. 19, 2016, at 6 a.m. PT)