By Alex Tresniowski
Updated November 01, 1999 12:00 PM

Twelve glistening angels beckon from this otherwise ordinary place, the St. James Episcopal Cemetery in Marietta, Ga. Dangling from the branches of a hardwood tree, the angels—Christmas ornaments—hover over one particular grave, a site that is surrounded by roses and begonias. This is the grave that visitors like to call JonBenét’s garden, a lovingly tended and sorrowful spot. “Rest in peace, my little darling JonBenét,” reads one note tucked into the begonias. “God takes care of everything in His own time.”

Yet, here on earth, justice for JonBenét’s murderer is not yet in sight. Nearly three years after the bright and beautiful 6-year-old was found bludgeoned and strangled the day after Christmas in her family’s home in Boulder, Colo., the case remains America’s most famous and frustrating unsolved crime. On Oct. 13 a Boulder grand jury wrapped up a 13-month inquiry, during which it examined 30,000 pages of testimony and evidence, by ending its term without an indictment, essentially bringing the $2 million investigation back to square one. “We are no closer to resolution today than we were on Dec. 26, 1996,” says Craig Silverman, a noted Denver defense attorney who has followed the case closely. “It’s all a tremendous mystery.”

At the center of that mystery are John and Patsy Ramsey, the enigmatic and embattled parents of JonBenét. Authorities have long considered both of them leading suspects in their daughter’s murder, and much of the key evidence—from a ransom note written on paper belonging to the Ramseys to the duct tape used to gag JonBenét, which reportedly contained fibers consistent with clothing worn by Patsy that evening—has brought them under suspicion. But there is also other, more ambiguous evidence, such as DNA found on JonBenét’s underwear. “The DNA is contaminated; it could belong to anyone,” says famed pathologist Dr. Henry Lee, who testified for the defense at O.J. Simpson’s criminal trial and who consulted with Boulder prosecutors only days before the grand jury’s decision. Meanwhile, the case against the Ramseys, entirely circumstantial, would most likely not hold up in court. “If you look at each piece of evidence, does it tell you who did it? No,” says Lee. “There is no handwriting expert who will definitely say that the ransom note was prepared by someone. They say they have a feeling who wrote it, but you can’t go to court saying ‘I have a feeling.’ ”

Alex Hunter, the Boulder district attorney in charge of the case, was quick to note that his investigation is continuing, and that John Ramsey, 55, and Patsy, 42, are still suspects. (Colorado Gov. Bill Owens has said he may appoint a special prosecutor but that his decision may be weeks away.) The big question, though, is whether any future investigation will be able to overcome the devastating errors committed by police immediately following the murder—chief among them, allowing John Ramsey to earn’ his daughter’s body from the basement and cover it with a blanket, thus forever contaminating the crime scene.

Whether or not they ever race prosecution, John and Patsy seem certain to remain under a cloud of suspicion. “The Ramsey family lives a nightmare,” they said in a statement following the grand jury’s decision, their only public comment on the verdict so far. “There has been no end to the public lynching and speculation which marred this case from the beginning.” Still, since leaving Boulder six months after the murder and buying a home in the Atlanta area, the Ramseys and their 12-year-old son, Burke, have quietly resumed many of the activities they enjoyed before JonBenét’s death. “They go to church and they have dinner parties and they boat and they visit and they vacation,” says Patsy’s mother, Nedra Paugh. “They just go on. What else can they do? But, you know, their hearts are gone.”

It wasn’t that long ago that life for the Ramseys seemed close to ideal. John was the CEO of a thriving computer equipment distributor, Access Graphics; his wife, Patsy, was a charming socialite and a former Miss West Virginia. Married in 1980, they had two children, Burke and JonBenét, and settled into a 15-room faux-Tudor home in Boulder. By the age of 5, JonBenét was competing in beauty pageants, donning elaborate costumes and heavy makeup to win the title of Little Miss Colorado. The Ramseys have insisted that the pageants were a minor part of their daughter’s life, but dozens of provocative photos of the young beauty queen have undoubtedly fueled public fascination with the case. “It suggests some kind of weird sexualization of this child,” says criminal lawyer Scott Turow, author of several bestselling legal thrillers. “That seems like evidence that something was wrong in that household.”

Something was indeed wrong early on the morning of Dec. 26, 1996, when Patsy Ramsey frantically called police to report her daughter missing. Later that day, at the suggestion of a detective—and before police had thoroughly combed the house—John searched his home and emerged from a basement room carrying JonBenét’s body, a cord attached to a wooden handle wrapped around her neck. Not securing the crime scene proved to be a critical blunder. “It was as if the police were attempting to do everything possible to handicap the prosecution,” says Denver defense attorney Scott Robinson. The Ramseys were also not interviewed separately right after the crime—a mistake many believe was made in deference to their obvious affluence. “If these were working class people, they would be in jail by now,” says Jeff Merrick, a former friend of John Ramsey’s who claims John named him as a suspect to police.

Instead, the investigation has dragged on for years with no smoking gun in sight. Since the murder, the Ramseys have, for the most part, doggedly avoided the public eye. Their friends say they have remained generally upbeat. “Burke is always around, so they can’t have their jaws on the ground all the time,” says Patsy’s close friend Linda McClean. “There’s this young boy who has a life to live.” Burke, 9 years old at the time of the murder, is now a seventh-grader in an exclusive private school in Atlanta. “He’s like all 12-year-olds,” says his grandmother Nedra. “He has a laptop, one of the very best money can buy, and he wants to be on that computer all the time. He’s an excellent student.”

His parents, too, are trying their best to resume their lives. John, who left Access Graphics in 1997, has been helping coach his son’s baseball team as well as pitching in with Burke’s other activities. “He recently took Burke on a weekend Boy Scout trip,” says Jim Marino, a family friend. “He plans on being a normal father.” Not long ago, Patsy—who was stricken with ovarian cancer in 1993 and is now in remission—began joining her husband on golf outings and is starting to socialize again within her tight-knit circle of friends. “Having to be a recluse must be terrible torture for her because she loves people,” says Diane Barnett Lough, a childhood friend of Patsy’s. “She was always that way.”

The Ramseys, who have been staying in the Atlanta area while their cream-colored brick mansion in the same city is renovated, regularly attend services at the Evangelical Anglican Church of the Apostles. This summer, the family stayed with friends in Charlevoix, a picturesque resort community on the top of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula where they once owned a summer home. There the Ramseys went to weddings, shopped in town and strolled through fairs. “I would say they were subdued but normal,” says their friend Pat Gaskin.

Harsh reality intervened in early October, when the JonBenét grand jury was nearing the end of its term. According to friends, the Ramseys flew to Boulder shortly before the announcement that an indictment would not be forthcoming. “John didn’t want to be extradited,” says Jim Marino. “He was willing to cooperate if he had been indicted.” Linda McClean says the Ramseys were watching on TV when District Attorney Alex Hunter revealed the grand jury’s decision. “They were on their knees, they were holding hands, and they were praying,” says McClean.

The Ramseys’ reaction to the verdict, adds their friend, “was that now they can start on phase two, which is, ‘Okay, let’s find the real killer.’ ” To that end, they have hired their own investigators and at one time posted a $100,000 reward. But the Ramseys have yet to disband their team of four lawyers—aware, no doubt, that there is no statute of limitations for the crime of murder. “The Ramseys are nowhere near out of the woods yet,” says CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen, a frequent commentator on the case. “Five years from now, 10 years from now, they could be indicted and tried.”

Regardless of their guilt or innocence, the Ramseys seem trapped in a state of limbo, perpetual suspects unlikely to be either charged or cleared. As the three-year anniversary of JonBenét’s murder approaches—and as officials remain stumped as to how to bring the case to any kind of resolution—the Ramseys are bracing for another difficult holiday season. “Christmas has no meaning to us anymore,” says Patsy’s mother, Nedra. “We exchange gifts, but we’re quiet. It’s not like it used to be.”

Alex Tresniowski

Vickie Bane and Lorenzo Benet in Boulder, Fannie Weinstein in Miami, Gail Wescott, Jill Westfall and Cynthia Wang in Atlanta, Sara Gay Dammann in Charlevoix, Tom Duffy in New York City and Barbara Sandler in Chicago