What happened to JonBenét Ramsey?


Claire Bruland

JonBenet Patricia Ramsey, the young pageant queen who disappeared in 1996

photo via Wikimedia Commons under the creative commons license
The 3-page ransom note left to Mr. Ramsey on the morning of Boxing Day.

On Christmas day 1996, the Ramsey family was celebrating the holiday in their holiday home in Boulder, Colorado. The family consisted of John and Patsy, and their two children JonBenét, a pageant queen, age 6 and Burke, age 9. At around 5:30 that night, they visited a family friend’s house for dinner, and left at roughly 8:30 to deliver gift baskets to their neighbors. They returned home around 10:30. JonBenét was fast asleep in the back seat of the car. John carried JonBenét into the house where Patsy tied up her hair and tucked her into bed.

On Boxing Day 1996, Patsy woke up at 5:00 am and went downstairs to make her coffee. On her way down the staircase, she came across three sheets of paper laid out on the bottom of the staircase. It was a ransom note. The note stated that their daughter was safe, but demanded $118,000 ransom for her. It stated that if the police became involved, she would be killed immediately. The police were called at 5:25 am and they arrived at the scene seven minutes later.

Over twenty years later, it is still not apparent who killed JonBenét.

Before this tragedy, John Ramsey had sold his company to another large company, resulting in a bonus of about $118,000. The family had been incredibly wealthy before this. They were set to return to their mansion in Michigan on Boxing Day. John Ramsey tried to uphold this plan, even though JonBenét had been “abducted.” The police prevented him and his family from leaving their Colorado home.

After the police arrived at the scene, there were multiple fatal flaws that likely helped this case go cold. JonBenét’s room was not taped off, allowing friends and family to enter the room and perhaps tamper with evidence, a full house search was never completed by the police, only a couple of searches in high traffic areas of the house.

The ransom note had mentioned that a call would be placed to the Ramsey’s house between 8:30 and 10:00 am to arrange the exchange of money for JonBenét. 10:00 am passed and there was no call received. Neither Patsy nor John mentioned the absence of the alleged call. A bit before 1 that afternoon, the detective working on the case had sent John Ramsey and family friend Fleet White on a complete search of the house. The search started and ended in the basement. JonBenét’s body was found at 1 pm that afternoon. She was in her white pajamas she had worn the previous night and was covered with her white blanket. Her wrists were tied, there was a large gash in the back of her head, and there were bruises and a garrote tied around her neck. Once the autopsy was performed, there was evidence for sexual assault, but no DNA found pointing to rape.

When JonBenét was found, her body had already entered “advanced rigor mortis” (rigor mortis is Latin for ‘the stiffness of death’ meaning that her body was very stiff). This led investigators to believe she had died very early that morning or late on Christmas night. Her body was already beginning to decompose, so investigators believe she died closer to 10 pm on Christmas night.

Both of the Ramsey parent’s reactions were a little odd when their daughter was found. When John found her, he didn’t leave her where she was laying and let the police handle the situation. Instead, he picked her up and carried her upstairs. He laid her on the ground upstairs, and Patsy threw herself onto her daughter. While this might be an appropriate reaction to seeing your deceased child, it seemed odd when they didn’t know who had killed her. Touching the body could be considered tampering with evidence, which made it seem like maybe John and Patsy had something to do with her passing.

When the autopsy was released, it showed there was fleshy fruit in JonBenét’s lower digestive system, meaning she had to have eaten shortly before she was killed. The aforementioned fruit turned out to be pineapple. There was a bowl of pineapple and milk found in the Ramsey’s home, but the only fingerprints on it were those of Burke and Patsy. Patsy also denied feeding JonBenét any pineapple, because she was asleep when the family returned home.

After the autopsy was released, the media lapped the story up. Since JonBenét was a pageant queen, there was a plethora of photos and videos that they could use in their stories. This case quickly became very popular due to the oddity of it, and to the immense media coverage.

To circle back to the gash in JonBenét’s head, at first it was not apparent what weapon was used on her head. There were no sharp objects or potential seemingly lethal weapons in the home. The only thing that police think could have caused this gash was a large, industrial metal flashlight in the kitchen. When dusted for fingerprints, none were found on the flashlight.

Screenshot via Google
A sample of the handwriting test

The absence of fingerprints on the flashlight was not the only oddity found in the investigation. First, there were multiple windows open in the house. A couple of them were open to be able to string lights around the house, one of them was open because it was broken and couldn’t be shut all the way.  The next door neighbors had reported that early in the morning they heard a scream and metal clanging against concrete, but decided not to call it in because they thought it was just a child having a nightmare. Finally, the three-page ransom note was written with a notepad and a Sharpie that were both found in the home. Because the note was written in Sharpie, previous drafts that had bled through the paper they were written on were found. This led many investigators to believe that one of the Ramseys wrote it, and the most likely suspect was Patsy after handwriting tests were conducted.

Patsy Ramsey passed away in 2006, never being able to find out what happened to her daughter. Months later, a John Mark Karr was arrested in Bangkok, Thailand after confessing to an American investigator that he had committed the crime. A few months later, he was released because of lack of DNA evidence connecting him to the crime scene.

Though this case hasn’t been solved, many believe that JonBenét’s brother Burke killed her that night. They believe in the possibility that while Burke was eating his pineapple, JonBenét woke up and came downstairs. As the theory goes, JonBenét took a piece of pineapple out of his bowl (which is why her fingerprints weren’t on the silverware) and ate it. This made Burke angry, so he grabbed the closest thing (the flashlight) and hit her over the head with it. This knocked her out, and so Burke became afraid. This is where the theory differs because some believe that he ran upstairs and went to bed, hoping his parents wouldn’t notice or that his sister would wake up (which is why the pineapple was unfinished). Others believe that he called his parents downstairs, and they saw what he did. For a young boy to hit his sister isn’t a stretch, and if he would have done it with the flashlight as the theory suggests, it definitely would have knocked her out. So why was there a garrote around her neck? Theorists believe that JonBenét had woken up after she was knocked out, and her parents didn’t want their son to be convicted of a crime, even if it was an honest mistake. Both of the Ramseys had very good reputations (Patsy was a pageant queen like her daughter, and John was a business owner). People believe that John made the garrote and strangled his daughter, so as not to tarnish the family name. If she was dead, then she ccouldn’t tell on her brother.