By Richard Jerome
October 06, 1997 12:00 PM

FOR BOSTONIANS JUNE REIDLINGER AND Richard Shibiey, Aug. 7 was one of those days when life turns ineffably strange. The couple had planned to rendezvous in the resort community of Charlevoix, Mich., then ferry out to go camping on Beaver Island. But as Reidlinger approached town, a truck rammed her van; almost instantly a woman from a nearby house arrived on the scene, offering to help.

With clockwork efficiency, Patricia Paugh Ramsey took charge: She unloaded Reidlinger’s camping gear and drove it to the ferry, brought Shibiey to her Victorian summer home, then took Reidlinger out for hamburgers. While at the Ramsey house, Shibiey, a computer consultant, encountered Patsy’s mother, Nedra Paugh. “She asked, ‘Do you know who my granddaughter was?’ ” he recalls. “Then she told me it was JonBenét Ramsey and asked, ‘Do you want to see her room?’ ”

Uneasily, Shibiey trailed upstairs to behold the dead child’s “canopy bed and the small pillow with her name embroidered on it.” Riding with Reidlinger, meanwhile, Patsy identified herself as the mother of the slain Little Miss Colorado. Says Reidlinger, an assistant professor at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Sciences: “I wasn’t sure why it was important for me to know.”

Perhaps Patsy Ramsey was looking for allies—as if, one citizen at a time, through her well-documented altruism, she could dash public suspicion that she or her husband, John, killed their little girl Christmas night, then tried to mislead police with a bogus ransom note. Nine months after 6-year-old JonBenét was found garroted and bludgeoned in a basement storage room of the Ramseys’ home in Boulder, Colo., no one has been brought to justice, yet everyone seems to have a theory about the case. “No smoking gun” is the operative phrase; evidence made public so far is tantalizing but circumstantial. Still officially just “a focus” of the murder investigation, John and Patsy Ramsey have become a kind of national preoccupation, objects of intense scrutiny and speculation—now more than ever, with the expected release by the court of the search warrants for the couple’s Colorado home. But who are they, really? To some, the millionaire CEO of the software distributor Access Graphics and his wife, Miss West Virginia of 1977, seemed too good to be true, a hyperextension of the American Dream, even if they did occasionally dress their kindergartner like a French courtesan. Is John, 53, actually an infanticidal monster? Is Patsy, 40, a driven perfectionist who—stressed by a grueling bout with ovarian cancer—snapped, perhaps over the child’s reported bed-wetting? Or are the Ramseys victims, model parents who after a string of tragedies must now suffer persecution by tabloids, a curious public and the Boulder police?

Under fire for being inept, mainly for letting John Ramsey contaminate the crime scene by carrying the girl’s body upstairs, the police have summoned five samples of Patsy’s handwriting, which have yet to eliminate her as the author of the ransom note, 2½ pages that have undergone more exegesis than Finnegan’s Wake. The cops are apparently trying to wear down the Ramseys until one of them, likely the more volatile Patsy, breaks. One weapon may be leaks to the press. For instance, the stick attached to the rope that strangled JonBenét was broken off one of Patsy’s paintbrushes.

The probe, of course, is famously burdened by strife between Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter’s department and the police, who, in a highly unusual action, have retained three private attorneys to help build their case. The D.A. has been widely skewered as ineffectual or at least overcautious. “What it boils down to,” he said to PEOPLE, “is that I’m an evidence man.” Hunter, says D.A. spokeswoman Suzanne Laurion, continues to consider “the real possibility that the murder was committed by an intruder.” That, certainly, is Ramsey canon: While the family slept, someone moved a grating covering a basement window, slipped inside, killed JonBenét and, after writing a “practice” note, composed a ransom demand on the Ramseys’ legal pad. The two have hired an army of investigators and assorted specialists and advanced their own list of more than 100 suspects—including some erstwhile intimates. Echoing the strategy of an earlier case, John and Patsy have offered a $100,000 reward for the capture of the real killer and waged a public relations campaign. They have placed ads detailing a “personality profile” of the murderer, published handwriting samples from the ransom note and given supportive friends the green light to speak to the media.

The Ramseys themselves haven’t spoken publicly since their May 1 press conference to a handpicked group of reporters—dubbed an infomercial by some in the media—with one notable exception. On Sept. 2 Patsy was watching Larry King Live. In the wake of Princess Diana’s death, King was hosting a celebrity rant against stalkerazzi, and Patsy charged headlong into the fray. “She jumped out of her chair and started calling,” Nedra reports. “I said, ‘What are you going to say?’ She said, ‘The Lord will direct my words.’ ” King took her call, and she launched into an on-air diatribe castigating the tabs: “I would ask in the memory of my daughter, JonBenét, America’s people’s princess—and the beautiful people’s princess of Great Britain—to ask everyone worldwide to boycott.” By the time of her outburst, Patsy and John had put Boulder behind them, if only geographically, moving into a cream-colored brick home in a wealthy neighborhood of Atlanta, the city where the couple met 18 years ago. Much of their tight-knit family, including Patsy’s parents and John’s brother Jeff, 49, live nearby. Across the street is the private Lovett School, where the Ramseys’ son Burke, 10, just entered fifth grade. John plans to move his company’s headquarters to the area early next year. “It’s taking them time to get settled, but they’re getting there,” says Jeff Ramsey, a computer sales manager. “They have a pretty good support group here.”

Indeed, if much of the U.S. considers them the equivalent of Lizzie Borden, Claus von Billow and O.J., the Ramseys also have zealous defenders, chiefly longtime friends. “Absolutely everyone who knows them feels they are completely innocent,” says tearful Joanne Beemon, who has taught Bible school with Patsy in Charlevoix during the summer. Patsy especially is portrayed as a paragon of charity and passionately devout. “Someone who elicits this much love and devotion could not be filled with evil,” says Linda McLean, her former speech and debating coach at Parkersburg High School in West Virginia. “We’re all 100 percent behind Patsy,” adds Dianne Lough, Miss West Virginia of 1970.

Less stalwart acquaintances are ostracized, says one who was, ex-friend Judith Phillips, a Boulder photographer who has known the Ramseys for 13 years and conducted photo shoots of JonBenét and Patsy. “I’ve met a lot of families in the South where they just sweep all the [bad] stuff under the rug and they create this perfect outward image,” she declares. “Patsy was a Miss America contestant. And image building is the whole thing in the Miss America contest. She does it well.”

For that, it seems, she was groomed by Nedra, whom even the admiring Lough calls “kind of a stage mother.” Nedra and her husband, Donald Paugh, an engineer and a manager at Union Carbide, raised their daughters Patsy, Pamela and Paulette in a modest two-story brick house. At Parkersburg High School, Patsy excelled, winning many awards—”three banquet tables full,” says Lough. She belonged to the debating club—twice winning the state championship—joined the drill team and was active in the school’s recycling program. “Just a joy to have in class,” recalls Andre Brown, her social studies teacher. “She always seemed to know where she was going in life.”

One primary goal was Atlantic City, where Miss Americas are crowned. By high school Patsy had caught What she referred to as pageant fever. In 1977, the summer after her sophomore year at West Virginia University, she won the state crown. (Eyes fixed on the prize, she had gone to Atlantic City in 1976 and taken notes at the Miss America competition.) Patsy proved so adroit at ribbon cuttings, parades and such that she landed a summer public relations job with the state. “She was just charming as all get-out,” says Albert Cox, who headed the Miss West Virginia pageant. “She commanded a lot of attention when she walked into a room.”

After graduating magna cum laude in advertising from WVU’s School of Journalism in 1979, Patsy moved to Atlanta and met John Ramsey, then a recently divorced father of three. They married at Atlanta’s Peachtree Presbyterian Church in 1980.

With broad strokes and a brilliant palette, Patsy’s allies paint her as kinetic and magnetic, but for all his own achievements, her husband seems scarcely to cast a shadow. Most who know John Ramsey contend he’s a modest and taciturn sort who tends to his business and spends leisure hours flying radio-controlled airplanes with Burke or sailing his 34-foot sloop, Miss America. Before his move to Boulder, he drove around Atlanta in a 15-year-old Chevy pickup. Says his brother Jeff: “He’s not boastful.” (Patsy, it seems, is more forthright. In her 1996 annual Christmas letter, she reported that Access Graphics had reached “its one-billion $$ mark in sales.”) Says longtime friend and colleague Jim Marino: “I never saw him get mad. I never heard him cuss. I never saw him raise a hand to anybody.”

Born in Omaha to James Ramsey, a decorated World War II pilot, and his homemaker wife, Mary Jane, John Bennett Ramsey was 13 when the family moved to Okemos, Mich., a rural suburb of Lansing, where his father served as director of Michigan’s Aeronautics Commission. “We were a real Leave It to Beaver kind of family,” says Jeff. At Okemos High School, John ran cross-country. It was a classic ’50s milieu: bowling, movies and school dances. “John was very friendly,” says retired Navy Capt. John Shick, a high school running teammate and later Ramsey’s fraternity brother at Michigan State University. “I remember him as a person who didn’t get excited.” A quote under Ramsey’s yearbook photo (“Some say he’s quiet—others doubt it”) hints that even then, people didn’t quite know what to make of his reserve.

Enrolling at Michigan State in 1961, Ramsey joined Theta Chi fraternity and met Lucinda Lou Pasch, an elementary education major. “She was a short, pretty brunette,” says Shick, “and quiet.” On July 16, 1966, after Ramsey graduated with a degree in electrical engineering, the couple married, then settled in East Lansing. Ramsey spent a couple of years in the Navy’s engineering corps, some of it at Subic Bay in the Philippines, then earned a master’s degree from Michigan State and settled in Atlanta.

The couple had three children—Elizabeth, Melinda and John Andrew—but their union foundered, and they divorced in 1978. The next year John started a small computer company. Jim Marino worked for him, and in the evenings the two single men “played around,” as Marino puts it. “We would go to bars and meet women,” he says, adding that after Ramsey was engaged to Patsy, “I never saw him mess around.”

About the time the Ramseys wed, John started Microsouth, a software distributor, which he ran from the basement of their suburban Atlanta home. (Patsy answered the phone.) He soon launched a second company, which marketed computer accessories, including printers, but the venture faltered. “Patsy had her father come down and basically save the company,” Marino says of Don Paugh. The two companies ultimately merged into Access Graphics, where Paugh is now vice president of operations. As business took off in the 1980s, Patsy immersed herself in volunteer work for the local garden club, a tree festival and a children’s hospital, among other charities—and in perfecting their home. Ex-neighbor and longtime friend Vesta Taylor, 75, recalls that in the span of a week Patsy had her living room painted five times, in five varying shades. “She’d call me over at different times of the day, when the sun was coming in in a particular way,” Taylor says, “and say, ‘Vesta, what do you think?’ ”

Thriving, the couple started a family. Son Burke was born in 1987, followed in 1990 by JonBenét. The next year John relocated his business to Boulder and moved the family to a 15-room faux Tudor home near the University of Colorado. Here, too, Patsy indulged her inner Bob Vila. “Friends said you got lost [in the house] because of the way she added on,” says Taylor. “They said John couldn’t find the bedroom. It was in the attic.”

In Boulder the Ramsey fairy tale would begin to unravel. On Jan. 8, 1992, John’s older daughter, Elizabeth, died from injuries suffered in an auto accident near Chicago. She was riding with her boyfriend Matthew Derring-ton, who was also killed, when his BMW collided with a van. “She was sweet and gentle, just like her daddy,” says Shirley Brady, Burke’s ex-nanny. Devastated, John Ramsey “became more introverted” after she died, according to Marino. “Work became his pacifier, his distractor.”

In 1992, John’s father died. And the couple was shaken again in 1993 when Patsy was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes. “I asked God, ‘Why did you give me my two kids if I was just going to die?’ ” she told Colorado Woman News. “They became my reason to live.” Patsy enrolled in an experimental treatment program at the National Cancer Institute. Shuttling every three weeks between Boulder and Bethesda, Md., she was given a powerful drug cocktail of cisplatin, Taxol and cyclophosphamide. The chemotherapy wrought its drastic side effects—nausea, hair loss and fatigue—and she was ill for months, with Nedra looking after the children.

Outwardly, by this time, the Ramseys’ relationship appeared to have cooled. Early on, says photographer Judith Phillips, the Ramseys “were very touchy-feely.” But in Boulder, she notes, “I didn’t see them do a lot of physical touching and hugging.”

On her good days Patsy resolved to resume her bustling pace. “She said, ‘I am afraid to close my eyes,’ ” says Linda Mason, a Charlevoix decorator who worked on her summer home. ” ‘I don’t want to miss one minute of life.’ ”

By 1995 she was given a clean bill of health. A focus for her renewed energy was JonBenét’s budding career. Friends have insisted that beauty pageantry was but a casual diversion in JonBenét’s short life. But Phillips recalls a telling exchange with Nedra: “I asked, ‘What happens if JonBenét wakes up and says, “Nope, I’m not going to be in a pageant tonight”?’ And she said, ‘We say, “You will do it.” ‘ ” Adds Vesta Taylor: “Nedra told me over and over that JonBenét was her Miss America. ‘This is my Miss America,’ she’d say.”

Cosseted though she was, Jonny B, as the family sometimes called her, suffered nagging health problems. She made 27 trips to the doctor during the last three years of her life, several times complaining of vaginal irritation. A genital abrasion detailed in her autopsy inspired speculation of abuse, but her pediatrician, Dr. Francesco Beuf, told Primetime that the number of visits was not unusual and said JonBenét’s vaginal woes were “perhaps related to the use of bubble bath.”

Last Christmas afternoon, Shirley Brady spoke to Patsy by phone. “I could hear kids giggling in the background,” she says. “And Patsy said, ‘Oh, John is out there cleaning the sidewalk so JonBenét can try out her new bicycle.’ ” The next day John Ramsey would carry his daughter’s appallingly violated body, which was garbed in white long underwear and a white shirt with a sequined silver star, up from the basement. For several months thereafter the family virtually hid out, staying with a series of friends. Some friends, however, began to question the Ramseys’ behavior, including their reluctance to be interviewed by police. One of these apparently was Fleet White Jr., the Boulder oilman who was with John Ramsey when he retrieved JonBenét’s body. Evidently their relationship soured after he cooperated with authorities. Officially police have said that only four people are definitely not suspects in the child’s death: John’s children Melinda, 25, a nurse, and John Andrew, 21, a junior at the University of Colorado—and Fleet White and his wife, Priscilla.

With school out, the Ramseys repaired in June to Charlevoix, where they have summered since 1992. All angles and white gingerbread, their house commands a bluff overlooking the town of 3,100. The Ramseys are popular, known for their civic involvement, and residents shielded them from a daily media assault. Neighbor Rick Wertz recalls that while Patsy was inside, a tabloid photographer stood in front of Christ Episcopal Church “hollering, ‘You are harboring a murderer!’ ” (Wertz and a friend held him off, and Patsy was spirited out the back door.)

John was absent much of the summer, and Burke, says a neighbor, appeared untroubled, “Rollerblading, throwing balls and playing with kids.” Patsy was more fragile. At a June fashion show at Charlevoix Country Club, says one observer, she “really broke down” when a mother-daughter modeling team took the stage. But by late August, Patsy began to socialize more actively, attending church and charity functions and inviting friends for dinner. At the 7-Eleven just steps away from the Ramsey home, JonBenét, coiffed and kittenish, regularly pouted from tabloid covers at the checkout counter, and. one could forget she had been a real little girl and was now buried in a Georgia churchyard.

Her grave is only a short drive from her parents’ new home in Atlanta. The couple’s neighbors, says Nedra, have been “absolutely” welcoming, though she concedes that a few parents at the Lovett School had qualms about having Burke enroll. Since then, she adds, mothers of Burke’s classmates have held a luncheon for Patsy and were “delighted to meet her.”

That may be the case’s most jarring paradox: how to reconcile the suspicion that hangs over Patsy and John Ramsey with the admiration of those who have come to know them. “Oh, I tell you, I tell you,” says Taylor, “if it turns out either one of them had anything to do with this, I will lose confidence in every human being on this earth.”