JonBenét was born in 1990 in Atlanta, Georgia, the youngest of two children of Patsy and John Ramsey. Her older brother, Burke, was three years older. Her first name is a feminized portmanteau of her father's first and middle names. At the time of her death, JonBenét was enrolled in kindergarten at High Peaks Elementary School in Boulder, Colorado.
Following her death in Boulder, JonBenét was interred at St. James Episcopal Cemetery in Marietta, Georgia. Her grave is next to that of her mother (who died of ovarian cancer in 2006) and that of her much older half-sister Elizabeth Pasch Ramsey (who had died in a car crash in 1992 at age 22), daughter of John Ramsey and his first wife, Lucinda Pasch.
John Ramsey was the president of Access Graphics, a business computer system company that later became a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin. The family moved to Boulder, Colorado in 1991, where Access Graphics' headquarters was located. John Ramsey had also been previously married, and had two surviving adult children from that marriage who lived elsewhere – a son and a daughter (another daughter, Elizabeth, had died in 1992).
It was in Boulder that Patsy Ramsey entered her daughter in various child beauty pageants. JonBenét had won the titles of America's Royale Miss, Little Miss Charlevoix, Little Miss Colorado, Colorado State All-Star Kids Cover Girl, and National Tiny Miss Beauty. JonBenét's active role in child beauty pageants and Patsy Ramsey's reported "pageant mother" behavior were reported on by the media after the murder.
In the summer of 1997—approximately six months after JonBenét's death—the Ramseys left Boulder and their summer home in Charlevoix, Michigan and moved back to Atlanta, Georgia. Patsy Ramsey died of ovarian cancer at age 49 in 2006 and was interred next to her daughter.
According to statements that Patsy Ramsey gave to authorities on December 26, 1996, she realized that her daughter was missing after she found a two-and-a-half-page ransom letter on the kitchen staircase. The ransom note demanded $118,000 for the child's safe return—almost the exact value of a bonus her husband had received earlier that year.
The ransom note was unusually long and the police were told by the FBI that it was also very unusual for a ransom note to be written at the crime scene. It was considered by the police to be staged and included an unusual use of exclamation marks and acronyms and did not have any fingerprints.
The ransom note and a practice draft were written with a pen and pad of paper from the Ramsey home.
According to a Colorado Bureau of Investigation report, "There are indications that the author of the ransom note is Patricia Ramsey." However, they could not definitively prove it.
A handwriting expert, Cina Wong, after a three-week analysis of the ransom note, believes it was written by the child's mother Patsy, as the author of the note used four different variations of the letter 'A', and that JonBenét's mother uses the same four types of 'A'.
The only people known to be in the house on the night of JonBenét's death were the victim and her immediate family: Burke, Patsy and John Ramsey. Despite specific instructions in the ransom note that police and friends should not be contacted, Patsy Ramsey telephoned the police at 5:52 a.m. MST. Patsy also called family and friends.
Two police officers responded to the 911 call and arrived at the Ramsey home within three minutes. They conducted a cursory search of the house but did not find any sign of a break-in or forced entry. John Ramsey made arrangements to pay the ransom. A forensics team was dispatched to the house. Believing that the case was a kidnapping, only JonBenét's bedroom was cordoned off to prevent contamination of evidence. There was no process taken to prevent contamination of evidence in the rest of the house.
Friends and the family's minister arrived at the home to support the Ramsey family. Victim advocates also arrived at the scene. Friends and advocates picked up and cleaned surfaces in the kitchen, possibly destroying evidence. Boulder Police Detective Linda Arndt arrived at about 8 a.m. MST, with the goal of awaiting the kidnapper(s) instructions, but there was never an attempt to claim the money.
At 1 p.m. MST, Arndt asked Fleet White (a friend of the Ramseys) and John Ramsey to search the house to see if they could find if "anything seemed amiss". Ramsey and White started their search in the basement, and John found his daughter's body in one of the rooms of the basement. duct tape covered JonBenét's mouth, a nylon cord was found around her wrists and neck, and her torso was covered by a white blanket. Ramsey immediately picked the body up and took it upstairs. Arndt then moved her into the living room. Each time that she was moved potential evidence was contaminated or disturbed for the returning forensics team. Patsy stated that JonBenét was not wearing the clothing that she was wearing when she put her daughter to bed, as she was now dressed in white leggings and a shirt.
John, Patsy, and Burke Ramsey provided handwriting, blood, and hair samples to the police. John and Patsy participated in a preliminary interview for more than two hours and Burke Ramsey was also interviewed within the first couple of weeks following JonBenét's death.
The results of the autopsy revealed that JonBenét had been killed by strangulation and a skull fracture. The official cause of death was "asphyxia by strangulation associated with craniocerebral trauma". There was no evidence of conventional rape, although sexual assault could not be ruled out. Although no semen was found, there was evidence that there had been a vaginal injury and at the time of the autopsy it appeared her vaginal area had been wiped with a cloth. Her death was ruled a homicide.
A garrote (made from a length of nylon cord and the broken handle of a paintbrush) was tied around JonBenét's neck and had apparently been used to strangle her. Part of the bristle end of the paintbrush was found in a tub containing Patsy Ramsey's art supplies, but the bottom third of it was never found despite extensive searching of the house by the police in subsequent days.
The autopsy also revealed "vegetable or fruit material which may represent pineapple" which JonBenét had eaten a few hours before her death. Photographs of the home taken on the day when JonBenét's body was found show a bowl of pineapple on the kitchen table with a spoon in it. However, both Patsy and John Ramsey said they did not remember putting the bowl on the table or feeding pineapple to JonBenét. Police reported that they found JonBenét's nine-year-old brother Burke Ramsey's fingerprints on the bowl. The Ramseys have always maintained that Burke slept through the entire episode until he was awakened several hours after the police arrived.
In December 2003, forensic investigators extracted enough material from a mixed blood sample found on JonBenét's underwear to establish a DNA profile. That DNA belonged to an unknown male person. The DNA was submitted to the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a database containing more than 1.6 million DNA profiles, but the sample did not match any profile in the database.
In October 2016, new forensic analysis uncovered that the original DNA actually contains genetic markers from two individuals other than the victim, JonBenét.
Experts, media commentators, and the Ramseys have identified potential suspects in the case. Boulder police initially focused almost exclusively upon John and Patsy Ramsey, but by October 1997 had over 1,600 people in their index of the case.
Complicating the resolution of the investigation [and applicable theory], errors were made in the initial investigation, including loss and contamination of evidence, lack of experienced and technical staff on the investigation, shared evidence with the Ramseys, and delay in formal interviews with the parents.
Lou Smit, a detective who came out of retirement to assist the District Attorney's office with the case in early 1997, presented the case to the Boulder police in May 1998 together with other staff of the District Attorney's Office. They presented 437 items of evidence, and concluded that the evidence pointed away from the Ramseys. However, they were unable to successfully challenge the police department's steadfast belief that the Ramseys were guilty. The District Attorney's office sought to take control of the investigation. Due to the animosity between the police department and the DA's office and the pressure to obtain a conviction, Roy Romer, the governor of Colorado, interceded and named Michael Kane as special prosecutor to initiate a grand jury. Two of the lead investigators in the case who had opposing views, Lou Smit and Steve Thomas, resigned. Smit, who had worked for the DA's office, resigned because he believed that the investigation had incompetently overlooked the intruder hypothesis. Thomas, a police detective who later wrote a book about the case, initially cited health concerns when resigning, but later said he had done so because the DA's office had interfered with and failed to support the police investigation of the case.
A grand jury was convened beginning September 15, 1998 to consider indicting the Ramseys for charges relating to the case. In 1999, the grand jury returned a true bill to charge the Ramseys with placing the child at risk in a way that led to her death and with obstructing an investigation of murder, based on the probable-cause standard applied in such grand jury proceedings, but Boulder County District Attorney Alex Hunter did not prosecute them because he did not believe that he could meet the higher standard of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, which is required for a criminal conviction.
Mary Lacy, the next Boulder County District Attorney, took over the investigation from the police on December 26, 2002. In April 2003, she agreed with a federal judge who sat on a 2002 libel lawsuit case that evidence in the suit is "more consistent with a theory that an intruder murdered JonBenet than it was with a theory that Mrs. Ramsey did". On February 2, 2009, Boulder police Chief Mark Beckner announced that Stan Garnett, the new Boulder County District Attorney, was turning the case over to his agency and that his team would resume investigating it. Garnett found that the statute of limitations for the crimes identified in the 1999 grand jury true bill had expired, and did not pursue review of the case against the Ramseys.
In October 2010, the case was reopened. New interviews were conducted following a fresh inquiry by a committee that included state and federal investigators. Police were expected to use the latest DNA technology in their investigation. There was no new information gleaned from those interviews, according to ABC News.
It was reported in September 2016 that the investigation into JonBenet's death continues to be an active homicide case, per Boulder Police Chief Greg Testa.
There are two types of theories about the death of JonBenét. One is the intruder theory that was pursued by the Boulder District Attorney's office, with whom the Ramseys developed a relationship. Although the police may have had the Ramseys under an "umbrella of suspicion", they and the prosecutors followed leads for intruders partly due to the unidentified boot mark left in the basement room where JonBenét's body was found.
Early suspects included neighbor Bill McReynolds who played Santa Claus, former family housekeeper Linda Hoffmann-Pugh, and a man named Michael Helgoth who died in an apparent suicide shortly after JonBenét's death. Hundreds of DNA tests were performed to find a match to the DNA recovered during her autopsy.
Smit assessed the evidence and concluded that an intruder had committed the crime. Smit's theory was that someone broke into the Ramseys' home through the broken basement window. The intruder subdued JonBenét using a stun gun and took her down to the basement. JonBenét was killed and a ransom note was left. Smit's theory was supported by former FBI agent John E. Douglas, who had been hired by the Ramsey family. Believing that the Ramseys were innocent, Smit resigned from the investigation on September 20, 1998, five days after the grand jury convened against the Ramseys. While no longer an official investigator on the case, Smit continued to work on it until his death in 2010.
Stephen Singular, author of the book Presumed Guilty: An Investigation into the JonBenét Ramsey Case, the Media and the Culture of Pornography, refers to consultations with cyber-crime specialists who believe that JonBenét, due to her beauty pageant experience, could have attracted the attention of child pornographers and pedophiles.
It was determined that there had been more than 100 burglaries in the Ramseys' neighborhood in the months before JonBenét's murder. There were 38 registered sex offenders living within a two-mile (3 km) radius of the Ramseys' home. In 2001, former Boulder County prosecutor Trip DeMuth and Boulder County sheriff's Detective Steve Ainsworth stated that there should be a more aggressive investigation of the intruder theory.
One of the individuals that Smit identified as a suspect under his intruder theory was Gary Howard Oliva, who was arrested for "two counts of attempted sexual exploitation of a child and one count of sexual exploitation of a child" charges in June 2016 according to Boulder's Daily Camera. Oliva, a registered sex offender, was identified as a suspect in an October 2002 episode of 48 Hours Investigates.
The Killing of JonBenét: The Truth Uncovered, broadcast by A&E on September 5, 2016, concluded that an unidentified male was responsible for JonBenét's death, due to DNA analysis. Dr. Lawrence Kobilinsky commented that the documentary showed that an intruder "committed that sexual assault and murdered JonBenet".
The second group of theories is that a family member was involved in her death. Boulder police initially concentrated almost exclusively upon John and Patsy Ramsey. According to Gregg McCrary, a retired profiler with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, "statistically, it is a 12-to-1 probability that it's a family member or a care giver" who is involved in the death of a child. From the police's perspective, they did not see evidence of a forced entry, saw evidence of staging, such as the ransom note, and did not find the Ramseys cooperative in helping them solve the death of their daughter. The Ramseys had stated that their reluctance was due to their fear that there would not be a full investigation for intruders and that they would be hastily selected as the key suspects in the case, according to Daily Camera.
One theory is that Patsy struck JonBenét in a fit of rage after a bed-wetting episode, and then strangled her to cover up what had happened after mistakenly thinking she was already dead. However, she did not have a known history of uncontrolled anger. JonBenét's brother later said "We didn't get spanked, nothing of the sort, nothing close, nothing near laying a finger on us, let alone killing your child."
Theoretically, the strangulation could have been a "red-herring" aspect to conceal what had actually happened.
Burke, who was nine years old at the time of JonBenét's death, was interviewed by investigators at least three times. The first two interviews did not raise any concerns about Burke. A review by a child psychologist stated that it appeared that the Ramseys had "healthy, caring family relationships". In 1998, Boulder Police Chief Mark Beckner said during an interview with a news reporter that Burke Ramsey was not involved in the killing of his sister. In May 1999, the Boulder County District Attorney's office reiterated that Burke Ramsey was not a suspect. The investigators had never considered him a suspect.
A $100,000 reward was offered by the Ramseys in a newspaper ad on April 27, 1997. Three days later, they submitted to separate formal interviews for the first time at the Boulder County Justice Center.
In 1999, Colorado governor Bill Owens told the parents of JonBenét Ramsey to "quit hiding behind their attorneys, quit hiding behind their PR firm".
A Colorado grand jury had voted in 1999 to indict the parents, John and Patricia Ramsey. The indictment cited "two counts each of child abuse" and said the parents "did unlawfully, knowingly, recklessly and feloniously permit a child to be unreasonably placed in a situation that posed a threat of injury to the child's life or health, which resulted in the death of JonBenét Ramsey, a child under the age of sixteen". Among the experts in the case were DNA specialist Barry Scheck and forensic expert Dr. Henry Lee. On October 13, 1999, Alex Hunter, who was the district attorney at the time, refused to sign the indictment, saying that the evidence was insufficient. This left the impression that the grand jury investigation had been inconclusive. In 2002, the statute of limitations on the charges expired. The indictment was not known publicly until October 25, 2013, when previously sealed court documents were released.
On July 9, 2008, the Boulder District Attorney's office announced that, as a result of newly developed DNA sampling and testing techniques (touch DNA analysis), the Ramsey family members were no longer considered suspects in the case. Gordon Coombs, former investigator for the Boulder County District Attorney's office, questioned total absolution of the Ramseys.
The police sought to interview Burke Ramsey again in September 2010, according to L. Lin Wood, a high-profile libel (defamation) attorney who the Ramsey family hired in 1999. In 2012, Foreign Faction – Who Really kidnapped JonBenet? by A. James Kolar, a former investigator under Boulder County District Attorney Lacy, was published. The book discounts the intruder theory and proposes scenarios of Ramsey family involvement in JonBenét's death.
The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey, broadcast on CBS on September 18 and 19, 2016, used a group of experts to evaluate the evidence and theorized that Burke hit his sister in the head with a heavy object, perhaps not intending to kill her. It suggested that the ransom letter was an attempt to cover up the circumstances of JonBenet's death. Wood threatened to sue CBS for libel based on its conclusion.
John Mark Karr, a 41-year-old elementary school teacher, was arrested in Bangkok, Thailand, on August 15, 2006 and falsely confessed to murdering JonBenét. He claimed that he had drugged, sexually assaulted, and accidentally killed her. According to CNN, "Authorities also said they did not find any evidence linking [Karr] to the crime scene." He had provided only basic facts that were publicly known and failed to provide any convincing details. His claim of drugging JonBenét was doubted because no drugs were found in her body during the autopsy. DNA samples taken from Karr did not match DNA found on JonBenét's body.
Lin Wood, the Ramseys' family libel attorney, filed defamation lawsuits against several people and companies that had reported on the case, starting in 1999. Star magazine and its parent company American Media, Inc. were sued on their son's behalf in 1999. Defamation suits have been filed by the Ramseys and their friends against several unnamed media outlets. A defamation suit was filed in 2001 against the authors and publisher of JonBenét: Inside the Ramsey Murder Investigation. The suit against Don Davis, Steven Thomas, and St. Martin's Press was settled out of court the following year.
John and Patsy Ramsey were sued in two defamation lawsuits arising from the publication of their book, The Death of Innocence. These suits were brought by two persons named in the book who were said to have been investigated as suspects by Boulder police. The Ramseys were defended in those lawsuits by Lin Wood and three other Atlanta attorneys, James C. Rawls, Eric P. Schroeder, and S. Derek Bauer. They obtained the dismissal of both lawsuits, including an in-depth decision by U.S. District Court Judge Julie Carnes that "abundant evidence" in the murder case pointed to an intruder having committed the crime.
In November 2006, Rod Westmoreland, a friend of John Ramsey, filed a defamation suit against an anonymous web surfer who had posted two messages on Internet forums using the pseudonym "undertheradar" implicating Westmoreland in the murder.
During a September 2016 interview with CBS Detroit and in The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey documentary television program, forensic pathologist Dr. Werner Spitz accused Burke of killing JonBenét. On October 6, 2016, Burke Ramsey filed a defamation lawsuit against Spitz. Burke and his attorneys, who include Lin Wood, sought a total of $150 million in punitive and compensatory damages. Wood said he would also file a suit against CBS at the end of October.
On December 28, 2016, lawyers for Burke Ramsey filed an additional civil lawsuit accusing CBS as well as the production company Critical Content LLC and seven experts and consultants of defamation. They sought $250 million in compensatory damages and $500 million in punitive damages.Carlton Smith (1997). Death of a little princess: the tragic story of the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. New York: St. Martin's Paperbacks. ISBN 0312964331. Linda Edison McLean with foreword by Patsy Ramsey (1998). JonBenét's mother: the tragedy and the truth. Parsons, WV: McClain Print Co. ISBN 0870125966. Eleanor Von Duyke and Dwight Wallington (1998). A little girl's dream? A JonBenét Ramsey Story. Austin, TX: Windsor House. ISBN 1881636445. Cyril H. Wecht and Charles Bosworth, Jr. (1998). Who killed JonBenét Ramsey?. New York: Onyx Book. ISBN 0451408713. Lawrence Schiller (1999). Perfect Murder, Perfect Town: The Uncensored Story of the JonBenét Murder and the Grand Jury's Search for the Final Truth. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0060191538. Stephen Singular (1999). Presumed guilty: an investigation into the JonBenét Ramsey case, the media, and the culture of pornography. Beverly Hills, CA: New Millennium Press. ISBN 1893224007. John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker (2000). "The JonBenét Ramsey Murder". The Cases That Haunt Us. New York: Scribner. ISBN 978-0-684-84600-2. Steve Thomas and Don Davis (2000). JonBenét: inside the Ramsey murder investigation. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0312253265. John Ramsey and Patsy Ramsey (2001). The death of innocence: JonBenét's parents tell their story. New York: Onyx. ISBN 0451409736. Walter A. Davis (2003). An evening with JonBenét Ramsey. Philadelphia: Xlibris Corporation. ISBN 1413411096. Don Gentile and David Wright, ed. (2003). JonBenet: the police files. Boca Raton, FL: American Media. ISBN 1932270035. A. James Kolar (2012). Foreign faction: who really kidnapped JonBenét?: a former lead investigator breaks six years of silence. Telluride, CO: Ventus Publishing. ISBN 0984763201. Paula Woodword (2016). We Have Your Daughter: The Unsolved Murder of JonBenét Ramsey Twenty Years Later. Prospecta Press. ISBN 1632260778. "City under siege: The news media's coverage and Boulder officials' secretive handling of the investigation into the murder of JonBenét Ramsey". Nightline. January 31, 1997. LCCN 00568713. ABC. "Case Closed: The Boulder Police Department's investigation into murder of JonBenét Ramsey". Nightline. May 30, 1997. LCCN 00571015. ABC. Edward Lucas, director (2000). Getting Away with Murder: The JonBenét Ramsey Mystery (television). Fox Broadcasting Company. LCCN 2003632300. Bill Kurtis, executive producer (2000). Investigative reports. Jon Benét – anatomy of an investigation (television). A&E Television Networks. LCCN 2001646808. "JonBenét Ramsey". Haunting Evidence (television). Court TV. October 4, 2008. LCCN 2009595419. Jim Clemente, Laura Richards, Stan Burke, James Fitzgerald, James Kolar, Henry Lee, Cyril Wecht, Werner Spitz (2016). The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey (television). Critical Content (CBS broadcaster). David Mills and Janet Taylor, executive producers for Mill Productions (September 5, 2016). The Killing of JonBenét: The Truth Uncovered (television). Mills Productions for A&E network.