Twenty years ago a 911 call reporting a missing and possibly kidnapped 6-year-old girl launched a murder mystery — one that continues to endure, fascinate and perplex.
In their Boulder, Colorado, home on the morning of Dec. 26, 1996, parents John and Patsy Ramsey found a ransom note handwritten on a pad with a black Sharpie that belonged to the family. It demanded $118,000 — the exact amount of a bonus recently received by John — for the return of JonBenét, the couple’s blonde, child-pageant princess daughter.
Later that morning JonBenét’s body, beaten and strangled with a garrote around her neck and duct tape covering her mouth, was found in the basement of the family’s Tudor brick home.
Police are still looking for the killer.
At least 37 books have explored the crime, along with at least a dozen TV programs and movies. None have helped resolve the cold case.
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John and Patsy — among more than 140 suspects — have been investigated. The Boulder County District Attorney at the time said there was insufficient evidence to bring charges after grand jurors voted to indict the parents in 1998 for child abuse resulting in death and accessory to a crime.
More recently, a CBS docuseries this past fall presented a case against JonBenét’s brother Burke, then aged 9, as the likely killer, prompting the family’s attorney to announce his intent to file a libel suit on Burke’s behalf against the network. CBS issued a statement saying it stands by its report.
The Ramseys’ attorney, L. Lin Wood, tells PEOPLE he believes there is still a clear path to finding the murderer. The answer lies in the DNA profile drawn from apparent saliva he says was identified in the crotch of JonBenet’s underwear after she was found.
“That profile is the profile of the killer,” Wood says. “The question is whether we’ll ever get a match.”
It clearly does not match Burke Ramsey, Wood says.
In a court filing in October, Wood accused forensic pathologist Dr. Werner Spitz of libeling Burke by stating that Burke killed JonBenét. Spitz’s attorneys have since moved to dismiss the suit, which seeks damages in excess of $150 million and is based upon comments Spitz made to a Detroit radio station after participating in the CBS docuseries.
Spitz’ attorneys responded in court papers by saying that his comments about Burke amount to free speech protected by the First Amendment, and arise “from the public discussion about theories involving one of the major unsolved crimes of the 20th Century.”
“The United States Supreme Court has made it very clear that the First Amendment does not provide blanket protection to all statements characterized as opinion,” Wood said in a written response to Spitz’s motion to dismiss the case. “Spitz’s statements conveyed that Burke Ramsey killed his sister. That accusation is capable of being objectively proven to be false.”
“Further, Spitz’s accusation was based on undisclosed facts and more importantly, false and distorted facts,” Wood said. “Simply stated, Spitz’s accusation is legally viewed as a statement of fact, not a protected opinion.
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In a statement to PEOPLE, the network said after the two-part The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey, aired in September, “CBS stands by the broadcast and will do so in court.”
Wood points to just one statement about JonBenét’s mother early in the broadcast that he says undermines the entire series’ claim of accuracy.
“The broadcast starts off by stating that Patsy Ramsey developed Stage 4 ovarian cancer a couple of years after JonBenét’s death,” he says. “Patsy Ramsey was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer in 1993, three years before JonBenét was murdered.”
“If you can’t get the little facts right,” he says, “be very careful about what that person says about the big facts.”
Two decades after JonBenét’s death, however, the facts as they are known have yet to move the case toward closure or criminal charges.
Controversial Letter of Apology to Ramsey Family
Investigators continue to review whether JonBenét was murdered by an outside intruder or by someone within her own family. A 2008 statement by then-Boulder District Attorney Mary Lacy, who publicly apologized to the family for placing them under suspicion and announced that evidence cleared JonBenet’s brother and parents, failed to halt debate.
Earlier this month, current Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett reiterated his belief that his predecessor erred in declaring anyone to be innocent.
“When any district attorney goes around and starts issuing exonerations based on a particular piece of evidence, that can be very misleading to the public about the nature of the case,” Garnett told PEOPLE.
Citing the infamously “compromised” crime scene, he said, “The state of the evidence is not one where you could really say anything definitively.”
But Garnett does not now lay blame on the parents or anyone in the Ramsey family, who are “totally covered by the presumption of innocence,” he said. “If we ever change our opinion about that with regard to the Ramseys or anyone else, we will file charges and say what we have to say about the case in open court.”
Patsy died in 2006. John, 72 and remarried, owns a promotional marketing firm and lives in Charlevoix, Mich., and Las Vegas. Burke, 29, is a software developer in Indianapolis.
Burke ended his long public silence about the case last September in a three-part broadcast interview with Dr. Phil McGraw, stating he had not killed his sister and that his parents had not covered for him. “I know that’s not what happened. … Look at the evidence. Or lack thereof,” he said.
John shared his own account in a 2000 book written with Patsy, The Death of Innocence: The Untold Story of JonBenét’s Murder and How Its Exploitation Compromised the Pursuit of Truth. (In 2012 he also wrote The Other Side of Suffering: The Father of JonBenét Ramsey Tells the Story of His Journey from Grief to Grace, chronicling his loss of JonBenét, Patsy, and a daughter, Beth, from an earlier marriage who was killed in a 1992 car accident.)
On Dec. 14, Boulder police announced they are working with the Colorado Bureau of Investigations to again apply the latest DNA testing technology on evidence in the unsolved case “to determine if this new technology could further this investigation.”
Garnett told PEOPLE: “I don’t anticipate that it’s going to lead to any dramatic developments in the case, but obviously we would love to solve it.”
Asked how the years without any resolution have affected John, the Ramseys’ attorney Wood tells PEOPLE: “I’m hesitant to try to put words into John’s mouth. Only he can express his feelings accurately, because he’s had to live the experience.”
“I’m sure that there is a mixture of emotions that John experiences. It probably goes from frustration to hope, perhaps at times to anger,” he says. “But I think that John’s predominant position has always been one of hope that one day the killer of his daughter will be identified. He is still involved in efforts to himself aid in the investigation.”
John, says Wood, “is a man of deep faith, and I think that’s what has helped him survive.”