The six-year-old's body was found in the basement of her family home on Christmas day, 1996
This was PEOPLE’s original story on the mysterious murder JonBenét Ramsey, published in the Jan. 20, 1997 edition. We have also included cover images, showing how PEOPLE has covered the murder through the years.
Earlier this week, JonBenét’s father, John Ramsey, spoke with Barbara Walters about the aftermath of his daughter’s murder and the subsequent investigation into it, saying he desperately tried to shield his son Burke from the tabloid headlines that accused him of murdering his sister.
JonBenét was six years old when she was murdered the day after Christmas in 1996. Her body was found in the basement of her family’s Boulder, Colorado, home. She had been struck on the head and strangled. Neither John, Patricia or Burke have been charged in connection with the murder.
Since then, the case has become one of the most publicized police investigations in recent memory, but it remains unsolved.
Nearly two weeks after Christmas, the lawn in front of the elegant, red-brick Tudor mansion in Boulder, Colo., is still decorated for the holidays. A small Santa in a red-and-green sleigh sits under a giant evergreen tree by the driveway. Striped candy canes line the path to the front door. More ominously, the entire property is bordered by bright yellow crime-scene tape, like a package no one wanted to open.
Their reluctance would be, now, understandable. Certainly no surprise could have been more terrible than the one that confronted John and Patricia Ramsey on the day after Christmas, when their 6-year-old daughter, JonBenet, a lovely child who had won the local Little Miss Christmas beauty pageant, was discovered dead in the basement of their home, with duct tape over her mouth and a cord twisted around her neck.
The ripples of shock quickly spread from Boulder across the nation, in the wake of a crime as brutal as it was baffling. A ransom note left in the house demanded the oddly precise sum of $118,000, but there was no sign of a break-in. Although JonBenet’s half-brother John, 20, had been with the family Christmas Day, the only people known to have been in the Ramsey home that night are JonBenet, her older brother, Burke, 9, and her parents, Patricia (Patsy), 40, Miss West Virginia of 1977, and John, 53, a successful computer executive, who found his daughter’s body. Authorities later determined that JonBenet (pronounced jahn-be-NAY) had been sexually assaulted. “If we don’t have the full resources of all the law-enforcement community on this case,” an emotional John Ramsey said a few days later, “I am going to be very upset.”
But given the peculiar circumstances of the crime–it would be unusual, to say the least, for kidnappers to kill their victim, stash the body in her home and leave a ransom note behind anyway–speculation in the media immediately arose that someone close to JonBenet, perhaps a family member, was involved. Nor did the Ramseys help dispel such suspicions. Four days after the murder, John and Patsy each hired their own criminal lawyer. They soon added a private investigator and a high-powered public-relations consultant to their retinue. Even stranger, as of Jan. 8 they had refused a formal, taped interview with investigators about the murder. (By law, since they had not been charged, neither was obligated to talk to police.) Instead they went on CNN on New Year’s Day to deny they had anything to hide. Asked about conjecture that he or his wife might be involved, John Ramsey said he found it “nauseating beyond belief.” The next day, though, Boulder mayor Leslie Durgin pointedly told the press, “There isn’t a crazed killer on the loose.”
For the record, authorities insisted that no one had been ruled in or out as a suspect and refused to divulge any details of their investigation. But they confirmed that they had obtained search warrants for the Ramseys’ residence in Boulder and their vacation home in northern Michigan. “There are certain facts in this case that only the killer and the police are aware of,” said Boulder Police spokeswoman Leslie Aaholm, “and it is vital to our investigation that the integrity of the information remain intact.”
All the same, a few details have emerged since the killing. Police sources told reporters that JonBenet had suffered a skull fracture before she was strangled, and investigators reportedly concluded that the paper used for the ransom note had been taken from a legal pad that had been found in the house. It was also reported that police had recovered a second note from the house, which may have been a partial rough draft of the ransom letter.
To many friends and associates, however, the suggestion that someone in the Ramsey family might be responsible seemed incredible. “There was never any indication of anything wrong in that home,” says businessman Joe Saportas, who lived next door to the Ramseys in Atlanta, where they resided until 1991. “I’d leave my kids with them anytime.” Shirley Brady, who worked as a nanny for the Ramseys in Atlanta from 1986 to 1989, is even more adamant. “Anybody who thinks that this family could have committed this atrocious thing is insane,” Brady told The Denver Post. “Nothing bothers John more than anybody being mean to his children. He adored his children.”
That view was echoed by those who had only passing contact with the Ramseys. Photographer Randy Simons, who spent a day shooting a portfolio of JonBenet last June, recalls being struck by the uncommon devotion between mother and child. “Patsy was your normal mom who absolutely loved her kid,” says Simons. “She had the opportunity to spend a huge amount of time with JonBenet, and they were just really close.” To his eyes, they were “the perfect mother and the perfect daughter.”
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At any rate, the family lived a life of near-perfect comfort and privilege. John Ramsey, who pilots his own corporate jet, has done exceedingly well in business. In the late 1970s he started a computer-equipment manufacturing company in Atlanta, which eventually merged with two other companies to form Boulder-based Access Graphics, now a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp. Named president and CEO of the unit, which markets business computer systems, he proceeded to build sales from $150 million in 1991 to $1 billion in 1996.
In 1992 he and his wife bought and completely renovated a summer house in the popular resort town of Charlevoix, Mich. Their 6,800-square-foot home in Boulder, which is estimated to be worth $1 million, is a virtual shrine to moguldom, complete with a separate catering kitchen, a retractable movie screen in the master bedroom and pricey European antiques. “Everything in that house was way beyond what you usually see, even in Boulder,” says one local woman who has been inside. “I couldn’t help thinking that it was meant to show people what you’ve got.”
Patsy, who married John in 1980, after he was divorced from his first wife, Lucinda, took obvious pleasure in her role as a luminary on the social scene in Boulder, donating time and money to a host of charities. Yet she impressed many who met her as a down-to-earth woman free of snobbery or vanity. Two years ago, though she had undergone chemotherapy for ovarian cancer, she allowed a local organization to showcase the family home as part of a charity fund-raiser and gamely showed up herself for the walk-through. Around town, Patsy and her husband were well known for their lavish entertaining. (It is worth noting, say neighbors, that those affairs may have created security problems for the family. “There were so many people who had access to the house,” says a person who lives on the block. “Nannies, cleaners, gardeners, caterers.”)
Another focus of Patsy’s life was the demimonde of “Little Miss” beauty pageants, in which JonBenet had become a frequent–and successful–participant. Patsy may have wanted to share with her daughter her own love of such pageantry. She and her sister Pamela, who was Miss West Virginia 1980, were only the second set of sisters to have gone to the Miss America pageant. Over the past year, the Ramseys had hired photographer Simons, arranged for a model trainer from Florida and taken JonBenet to more than one out-of-state competition.
There was one video that showed JonBenet, who had won a half-dozen pageants, including a 1995 Little Miss Colorado title and a 1996 America’s Royale Miss title, dancing in flirtatious–even provocative–fashion. Photographs also surfaced of her in heavy makeup more suited to a woman at least three times her age. “It’s impossible to look at these photos and not see a terribly exploited little girl,” Denver Chief Deputy District Attorney Karen Steinhauser told reporters. “You get this uncomfortable, sad feeling that she didn’t get the chance to be a normal 6-year-old kid.” Yet friends of the Ramseys insist that Patsy was anything but a domineering stage mother. “She was not like some of the mothers who are so competitive,” says Diane Hayes, a Colorado Springs mother who met the Ramseys through pageants. “Patsy really wanted JonBenet to have fun with it, and she did.”
At the same time, some acquaintances wonder if all the attention lavished on JonBenet, however innocent and well meaning, hadn’t left brother Burke feeling slightly left out. One neighbor recalls that JonBenet seemed to get all the attention. “Hers was the name one heard all the time,” says the woman. “I don’t think Burke ever got much of a reference.” Simons recalls Patsy telling him of JonBenet, “This is not just my daughter, this is my best friend.”
JonBenet herself appeared to have a close and loving relationship with her brother. In fact it may have been difficult for anyone to resist her. A naturally attractive child, she was also an exceptionally bright little girl who was fond of dancing and singing. She had a natural ebullience, especially when it came to her beloved dog Jacques, a bichon frise she had received on her fifth birthday. “She loved that little dog,” says Joe Barnhill, a retiree who lives across the street from the Ramseys. “She would lie down on the floor and let the dog lick her face, and she would laugh and laugh. It tickled me to see such joy and happiness.”
That spirit made her death all the more shattering to those who knew her. As the Ramseys described the terrible events of Dec. 26 on CNN, Patsy had gone down to the kitchen shortly after 5 a.m. to make coffee. On the stairs she discovered a three-page note, neatly hand-printed, saying that her daughter had been abducted and demanding the ransom money. Patsy said she had immediately rushed up to the children’s bedrooms, where she found Burke asleep and JonBenet missing, and let out a scream. Shortly afterward the police dispatcher in Boulder recorded Patsy’s frantic call for help, in which she reported that her daughter had been kidnapped. Officers arrived quickly and were later joined by FBI agents from Denver, all of whom waited for the call promised in the note. It never came.
Around 2 p.m., just after police had gone to get a search warrant as a matter of routine, John and an unidentified family friend began searching the house themselves. Starting in the basement, John told CNN, he opened the door to one windowless room, flicked on a light and found his daughter on the floor with tape over her mouth. She had a cord with a wooden handle around her neck.
Four days later, at JonBenet’s memorial service in Boulder, John spoke emotionally of his daughter. “He didn’t leave a dry eye in the house,” says Joe Barnhill, who attended. Afterward the Ramseys flew the little girl’s body back to Atlanta, where she had been born. She was buried, with a teddy bear and wearing one of her pageant costumes and a rhinestone tiara, next to Elizabeth Ramsey, a half sister by her father’s first marriage who was killed in a car crash five years ago at age 22. After the funeral, the Ramseys spent five days with Patsy’s parents in the Atlanta suburb of Roswell, then returned to Boulder and went into seclusion.
The family’s grief and need for privacy were understandable. But their explanation for retaining criminal lawyers–a friend “suggested that it would be foolish not to have knowledgeable counsel to help both of us,” John explained to CNN–seemed vague. Since talking to police just after the murder, John and Patsy have declined formal, face-to-face interviews with investigators. Family members, including John’s two surviving grown children from his previous marriage–John, who attends the University of Colorado in Boulder, and Melinda, 25, who lives in suburban Atlanta–did submit hair, blood and writing samples to authorities.
Meanwhile the Ramseys were left to cope with their nightmare as best they could. As was clear from their appearance on CNN, the burden of being the object of so much innuendo and suspicion was taking its toll. “There is a killer on the loose,” a tearful Patsy had said that day in a bare whisper. “I don’t know if it’s a he or a she, but if I were a resident of Boulder, I would tell my friends to keep your babies close to you.”