A lot has been said over the past 20 years about little JonBenét Ramsey and her mysterious murder. Numerous clues have surfaced since her death, many of which showed promise, yet the case still remains unsolved.
On December 26, 1996, Patsy Ramsey woke up to every mother’s nightmare: Her child was missing, and a ransom note was left behind on the family’s staircase. Frantic, Patsy called out to her husband, John Ramsey, who immediately began searching the family’s sprawling mansion home in Boulder, Colorado.
Whoever wrote the ransom note demanded the family refrain from calling the police, but Patsy called 911 anyway, followed by calls to friends and family. Within minutes, police arrived at the Ramsey home, and right away, they knew they were dealing with an extremely rare case for Boulder. With relatively little experience with kidnappings and ransom notes, authorities called for back-up. Short staffing around the holidays resulted in additional help taking hours to arrive.
While waiting for additional resources, an officer followed John around the home, looking for JonBenét, but little did she know that they were contaminating a crime scene, which would lead to one of the biggest unsolved murder cases of all time. The officer eventually lost control of John, as he went through every inch of the sprawling mansion, yelling out for his daughter.
Close to 1 P.M., John screamed in agony as he approached his lifeless little girl, lying on the basement floor of the family home, with clear evidence of strangulation and a violent blow to her head. An autopsy would later reveal that she’d also been sexually assaulted. A small basement window was broken, just above where JonBenét was found.
The Boulder police immediately sprung into action, taking a number of items into evidence, including the ransom note and a suitcase found in the basement, among other things. While doing so, however, crucial evidence was completely destroyed as they traipsed through the house. Even worse, the grieving father took JonBenét into his arms, removing her from the basement floor, which even further tarnished precious evidence.
Detectives did as much as they could to preserve key information and build a case. They took blood, handwriting, fingerprint, and hair samples from the Ramsey family and from a friend who was at the home when the murder occurred. It was the ransom note, however, that detectives were especially interested in.
The Ransom Note
The two-and-a-half page ransom note, currently the longest ransom note in FBI history, is still, to many, the most important piece of evidence in the case.
Patsy gave detectives at least five handwriting samples, and experts determined that she couldn’t be cleared. There were too many similarities in her samples that matched the ransom note to completely exculpate her, although handwriting experts didn’t give a definitive “yes.” Other family members also gave handwriting samples, none of which matched the ransom note.
When the public learned that everyone but Patsy was cleared, utter chaos began. The eerily similar handwriting samples were enough for a good majority of the public to think that Patsy not only killed her own child, but also staged the murder. It didn’t help that the ransom note was written on Patsy’s personal notepad and with one of her pens. Even worse, the notepad, which showed evidence that the ransom note was likely written several times in practice, was placed neatly back into Patsy’s desk.
Why would an abductor go through the trouble of finding a pen and a pad in the family’s home? Shouldn’t the note have been written beforehand? Why would an abductor take the time to practice the ransom note several times and then place the pad and pen back in Patsy’s desk? These are among just a few of the questions that swirled through detectives’ minds, but without additional evidence, they simply couldn’t prosecute based on handwriting samples alone.
Bill McReynolds, 67 at the time of JonBenét’s murder, was the local Santa Claus in Boulder. He spent a lot of time with JonBenét, even notoriously offering her a “special gift” that she would receive after Christmas. The night before she was killed, McReynolds, dressed as Santa Claus, visited the Ramsey home.
Detectives were acutely aware that McReynolds offered JonBenét some sort of prized gift after Christmas. Was that used to lure the little girl down to the basement? Absolutely not, according to McReynolds, but his backstory had detectives and the public alike scrutinizing the elderly Santa.
Exactly 22 years prior to JonBenét’s death, McReynolds’ daughter was abducted and forced to watch a man sexually assault her friend. Later, McReynolds’ wife wrote a play that involved a child being molested, tortured, and killed in the basement of a home.
Yet, despite the uncanny similarities among his wife’s play and his daughter’s abduction to the JonBenét case, McReynolds, who passed away in 2002, was always adamant that he never laid a hand on the little girl. In fact, he credited JonBenét with helping him get through heart surgery.
“The star dust was all I took with me for good luck when I had heart surgery (last summer)… Her murder was harder on me than my operation. She made a profound change in me. I felt very close to that little girl. I don’t really have other children that I have this special relationship with — not even my own children or my own grandchildren,” McReynolds wrote. “When I die, I’m going to be cremated. I’ve asked my wife to mix the star dust JonBenét gave me with my ashes. We’re going to go up behind the cabin here and have it blow away in the wind.”
McReynolds was also out of shape, and given his age and weight, experts surmised there was no way he could’ve crawled through the basement window. There was also no DNA evidence linking him to the crime. McReynolds was eventually cleared as a suspect, and detectives were once again back at square one.
Burke Ramsey and the Pineapples
Older brother Burke, 9 at the time, was instantly shielded by his parents after JonBenét’s murder. Why didn’t they ask the police to keep the boy safe? Why wouldn’t they initially allow detectives to interview Burke? While the Ramseys claimed they were simply trying to protect their son from the media and public, others weren’t so sure.
Despite going into hiding, Burke was named a suspect by many people, including a recent panel of law experts who theorized that he struck his sister with a blunt object, in a fit of anger over a bowl of pineapple.
Authorities found a bowl of pineapple sitting on a table in the Ramsey home. An autopsy revealed that a chunk of a pineapple was in JonBenét’s system. What makes the pineapple, a seemingly innocuous factor, so interesting, is that Patsy denied even knowing about the fruit, although her fingerprints were found all over the bowl. Burke’s fingerprints were also found on the bowl.
The pineapple was only half-eaten when investigators located the bowl, and experts theorized that something had interrupted JonBenét from finishing her dessert. They think that perhaps JonBenét, whose fingerprints were not on the bowl, grabbed a pineapple chunk from her brother’s bowl, which sent him into a childish yet deadly rage that ended with him using an object to fatally hit his sister over the head. Consequently, the theory suggests that John and Patsy staged an elaborate scene to make JonBenét’s death look like an outsider had caused it, to protect their surviving child.
Grand Jury Wanted to Indict John and Patsy
In 1999, for reasons incomprehensible to many, former Boulder DA, Alex Hunter, decided against indicting John and Patsy. He refused to sign the documents despite a grand jury finding probable cause of child abuse.
Although Hunter likely decided not to move forward with the case due to lack of evidence, Lawrence Schiller, author of a comprehensive book on the case, Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, wrote that detectives felt that if Hunter had arrested Patsy (even on a lesser charge), she would have eventually came clean. “The detectives were sure that if only Hunter had agreed to jail Patsy — even for a short time — she would have caved in,” Schiller wrote.
Patsy passed away in 2006. If she did indeed play a part in her child’s death, she took it with her to the grave.
— People Magazine (@people) December 19, 2016
In December, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation announced that new DNA testing technology would be used to help solve the JonBenét case once and for all. The FBI’s Combined DNA Index System will be utilized, which involves a highly sensitive testing method that wasn’t available during the first rounds of DNA testing in the case.
Whether the new testing will lead authorities to the suspect (or suspects) remains to be seen, but it’s certainly clear that no one is willing to forget about the little girl who died so needlessly.
Tune in for more episodes of the 10-part true-crime series, People Magazine Investigates, on Mondays at 10/9c on Investigation Discovery. And watch full episodes with ID Go.
Main photo: JonBenét Ramsey’s image emblazoned on dozens of binders crammed with investigators’ reports for case which is still unsolved [Ray Ng/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images]