When his 22-year-old daughter Beth was killed in a car accident in 1992, John Ramsey thought he had hit rock bottom. “It nearly destroyed me,” he says. But fate was just getting started with Ramsey. Four years later, as the wealthy, respected Colorado CEO was emerging from his darkness, his youngest daughter, JonBenét, 6, was murdered in the Ramseys’ five-bedroom home in Boulder. In a case that horrified and transfixed the nation, he and his wife, Patsy, found themselves the focus of the police investigation. That’s when his thoughts turned to suicide. “I wanted an escape from the pain,” he says. “Patsy said, ‘Don’t you dare leave me alone with this mess.'”
He didn’t. Fifteen years later, having suffered through Patsy’s death from ovarian cancer in 2006, Ramsey, 68, is remarried, heading up a promotional marketing company in Las Vegas with his new wife, 54-year-old fashion designer Jan Rousseau, and ready to share his story. In a new memoir, The Other Side of Suffering, he recalls the nightmare years and shares the “faith journey” that helped him survive. “Everybody has got a burden, and I wanted to tell people that it doesn’t last forever,” says Ramsey-who, along with Patsy, was cleared of any involvement in JonBenét’s death by the Boulder County district attorney in 2008. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Certainly no light was detectable the day after Christmas, when Patsy Ramsey found a ransom note on the stairs of the family’s Tudor home stating that JonBenét had been kidnapped. Six hours later Ramsey discovered his daughter’s bludgeoned body in the basement, a nylon cord around her neck. “Her face has a sweet look of peace,” he recalls in his book, a description that contrasts strikingly with the gruesome autopsy photos. “The worst moment was when I realized she was missing, not when I found her,” he explains. “I found her and she was back in my arms.”
In part because murder victims are rarely found in the same location as their ransom notes, suspicion quickly focused on the Ramseys, who hired attorneys and were seen by the police as less than fully cooperative. Ramsey says that as police moved in and as he and Patsy faced criticism over JonBenét’s involvement in beauty pageants (see box), they tried to shield their son Burke, 9, as well as John’s two grown children from a previous marriage. “What got us up off the floor,” he says, was the need to be “strong for our kids.” Any semblance of control evaporated when police began questioning the family, demanding separate interviews with each one. “I was almost more angry at the police than at the killer,” Ramsey says. “We called the police to help us, and they turned on us.” To dull their pain, he and Patsy used drugs to sleep. Patsy also later began treatment for a return of the cancer first diagnosed in 1992.
In 1999, fearing the worst, the Ramseys prepared to be arrested, signing over custody of Burke to John’s brother. “Patsy joked, ‘Can I have stripes that run vertical? Horizontal are going to make me look fat,'” Ramsey says. Then the couple caught a break: A grand jury failed to find sufficient evidence to indict. They sought therapy for themselves and for Burke. “I don’t know if it helped,” Ramsey says of his son. “Probably.” When Burke reached high school, the family moved to their summer home in Charlevoix, Mich., “to make his life as normal as possible.” But at 19, Burke lost his mother. Today, Ramsey describes Burke, now 25, as “pretty quiet,” with a girlfriend and a job in the high-tech industry. “He’s certainly matured,” says Ramsey. “He’s got a 401(k) plan and an IRA, and he did it all on his own.”
Ramsey has coped, too. Briefly, he dated Beth Twitty, mother of Natalee Holloway, who disappeared in Aruba in 2005. He calls Twitty a “wonderful lady” and says they parted mainly because “Beth was behind me in terms of the grief cycle.” He found smoother sailing with the twice-divorced Rousseau, whom he met in 2010. “She was cute and lively and she told me she liked The Office,” says Ramsey. “That was great. I love The Office.” Last July the pair married before a party of 60 guests that included her two grown children and Ramsey’s three. “John’s got the most confidence of any human being I’ve ever met, and the least ego,” Rousseau says. Still, nothing quite prepared her for the prenuptial encounter she had when she went to pick up Ramsey’s wedding ring. “The man behind the counter said, ‘Ramsey. It was the son that did it.’ And I said, ‘The son was 9 years old.’ And he said, ‘Well, that family knows something they’re not telling.’ I just said, ‘You’re wrong,’ and I walked away.”
In a sense, Ramsey has walked away too. When John Mark Karr was arrested in 2006, Ramsey was surprised by his reaction to a photo of the man suspected of having murdered JonBenét: “He wasn’t an evil, dark-looking person.” When Karr was released, Ramsey found his response even more surprising. “I realized there could be a trial and with it the horror of knowing what happened,” he says. “I wasn’t excited about opening that wound again.”
Though the case remains active, Ramsey wonders if it will ever be solved. He also believes that only God can forgive the killer, but he is striving to find forgiveness in his heart. “Forgiveness is not saying to the killer, “Oh, it’s okay,” he says. “Forgiveness is a gift to give yourself.”