May 24, 2004 12:00 PM

They are, of course, the couple at the center of a true crime mystery. Seven and a half years ago someone murdered JonBenét Ramsey, age 6, in her Boulder, Colo., home. The public first saw John and Patsy Ramsey as grieving parents. Over the days and weeks that followed, questions grew about the couple’s innocence: Why, when police started asking questions, had they gotten lawyers and refused to take lie detector tests? Why had someone composed a “practice” version of a ransom note on one of the Ramseys’ legal pads? Why had that note demanded the very specific sum of $118,000—the amount of the work bonus that John had recently received? Neither John nor Patsy was ever charged with a crime, but in the face of relentless press coverage, they were all but found guilty in the court of public opinion.

After the Ramseys’ trial by media, during which they were chased by the tabloids from Colorado to Atlanta to their summer refuge in northern Michigan, one might expect that the family would crave nothing more than their privacy. Instead, John Ramsey has done the one thing guaranteed to have the opposite effect: On May 11 he announced that he would run for a seat in the Michigan House of Representatives, thereby reopening the Ramseys’ lives to scrutiny. “One friend said, ‘Why don’t you start a restaurant instead? That’s probably the next most crazy thing you could do. Why would you want to subject yourself to that?'” admits Ramsey, 60.

“Some of that is true,” allows Patsy, 47, who is in the midst of chemotherapy for a recurrence of ovarian cancer. “But we have been through the worst. This is something he’s embarking on to try to make good come of the rest of his life.”

Or might John Ramsey just be trying to focus public attention on dramatic new turns in the investigation of JonBenét’s death—turns that he claims help exonerate him and his wife once and for all? “A cynic would say that this new adventure on the part of the Ramseys is a continuation of their desire to be in the spotlight,” says former Denver prosecutor Craig Silverman. “A non-cynic would say this is clear evidence that they don’t fear public scrutiny because they are not responsible for the death of their daughter.”

Whatever happens, judging by an emotional Mother’s Day interview with PEOPLE at their cottage-style home in Charlevoix, the lakeside Michigan community where they moved last summer, it’s clear that the Ramseys see themselves as writing a new chapter in their life without JonBenét. Son Burke, now 17, is growing up fast, with college applications on the horizon. Patsy helps run a Yellow Pages-like directory for Web sites. Perhaps a campaign isn’t so risky after all. “John and Patsy have already been investigated clear back to their birth,” says Patsy’s sister Pam Paugh. “It’s clear there are no skeletons in their closets.”

It’s true that the “umbrella of suspicion”—as one Boulder police official called it—hanging over the Ramseys now appears to have some holes in it. In October 1999 a Boulder grand jury declined to indict either John or Patsy after a 13-month probe. On March 31, 2003, Atlanta judge Julie Carnes concluded that based on the selected documents and evidence she had reviewed in a civil lawsuit against the Ramseys, “the weight of the evidence is more consistent with a theory that an intruder murdered JonBenét than it is with a theory that Mrs. Ramsey did so.” Last December, Boulder county district attorney Mary Keenan reopened the case. “The investigation is continuing,” she says. “We feel we are making forward progress.” In December, Colorado authorities finally submitted DNA from a spot of blood found on JonBenét’s underwear—long known to have come from a male unrelated to her—to the FBI database for potential matching. (Boulder police declined to comment on why it hadn’t been sent previously.) But D.A. Keenan faces the same problems her predecessors confronted: The first police arriving at the Ramsey house allowed John to search his home and carry his daughter’s body upstairs, thereby seriously contaminating the crime scene.

“If the killer can be found, this group will find him,” predicts Patsy. And then, she claims, the mysterious clues such as the ransom note and the DNA (see box) “will fall in place.” Even if that were to happen, the couple doubt they will ever be completely vindicated. “We can have a confession, we can have a conviction and we can have an execution, and there will still be 10 percent of the population who believe that somehow Patsy and I are involved,” says John.

During the months after JonBenét’s murder, when the family relocated to Atlanta, that grim reality, they say, was at times too much to bear. “I was broken all the time. I couldn’t even stand up for several days,” says Patsy. Feeling under siege, the Ramseys turned to one another and, in John’s words, developed an “us against the world” attitude. “For better or worse, in sickness and in health,” says Patsy, “we have really tested the vows.” What kept them together, adds John, is that “we both realized we still had three beautiful children”—Burke and the two surviving children from John’s previous marriage, Melinda, now 32, and John Andrew, 27—”that needed us to be strong.”

To help protect Burke, the Ramseys went without television for three years. “We didn’t want Burke to flip across Geraldo Rivera,” says John. “And frankly, we didn’t need to see it either.” It was harder to protect him from random tabloid headlines at stores, but they tried.

Though the couple had discussed for some time the idea of living year-round in Charlevoix, where they had summered since the mid-’80s, they wanted to keep “Burke’s life stable to the best of our ability,” says John. So they remained based in Atlanta, with Burke enrolled in the exclusive Lovett School. Toward the end of last summer, however, Burke told his parents that he would rather finish school in Charlevoix—a decision his parents embraced. Says John of leaving Atlanta, where JonBenét’s grave lies next to that of her older half sister Elizabeth, killed at 22 in a 1992 car accident: “It was a factor in my heart that I have two daughters buried there, but that’s not where they are. They’re in heaven.”

Since moving to Charlevoix, the Ramseys have plunged full-tilt into town life, from learning to snowmobile to the lobbying efforts by Burke, an avid skateboarder, to get approval for and raise money for a local skate park. “Charlevoix really gave him back his childhood,” says John of his son. “He’s able to be on his own and be safe.”

The Ramseys say they had frequently mulled how they might harness their name recognition. But it wasn’t until a few months ago when a friend of John’s urged him to consider running for a vacant Michigan House seat that he seriously considered the prospect. “I think I can advocate with a much louder voice for things that are important in this area,” says Ramsey—who faces five rivals in the August primary—”so in a way it’s employing this platform I’ve been given for some good.” He describes his planks as including “the sanctity of life,” “the right to own firearms” and affordable health care. (He has a Web site pushing his candidacy at “Politics certainly would have been the last thing on my list of choices 10 years ago,” Ramsey says. “But we haven’t written the final chapters in our lives yet.”

Pam Lambert. Lauren Comander in Charlevoix

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