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JonBenet: In search of a killer

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JonBenet Ramsey

JonBenet Ramsey

JonBenet Ramsey

IT'S been almost 12 years to the day since the world's media descended on Boulder County, Colorado, but the icy weather gives an ominous sense of deja vu. Try as it might, this sleepy hamlet, nestled snugly between the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains, cannot escape her. Like some restless spirit, the one-time Little Miss Snowflake has pirouetted back into the news.

At a news conference earlier this month it was announced that the police were back looking for clues. A new district attorney -- one locals hope will be less "wishy washy" than the last one -- has been installed. He has a reputation for prosecuting more aggressively than his liberal predecessor. DNA technology has progressed and her anniversary has just passed. Finally, it is hoped, there can be some closure on the strange case of JonBenet Ramsey.

She was, in a way, the American baby Madeleine, a stolen child who inspired half the world to become first,amateur sleuths, and then judge and jury. The judgment part of that equation came easily.

The grainy footage of JonBenet's child beauty competitions which shows her preening and simpering like some miniature geisha was replayed directly after the police news conference. Even more than a decade later, its power to shock remained undimmed.

The sight of her lipsticked rictus grin and her downy hair suspended a foot off her head by a gauze of hairspray again brought the question: Even presuming their innocence, what kind of parents would allow their then-five-year-old daughter to be turned into some kind of paedophile pin-up?

The sleuthing, however, has been rather more difficult. The bizarre circumstances of this child beauty queen's death have been pored over by everyone from the FBI to late-night talk-show hosts, but still only a few bare facts remain undisputed.

It was in the early hours of St Stephen's Day, 1996, when the little girl was found by her father in the basement of the family mansion on the outskirts of Boulder. Her hands had been bound above her head and a primitive noose had been tied around her neck. Her skull was severely fractured and there were signs that she had been sexually abused over a period. Under the duct tape, her lips were blue, her tiny body was rigid and a later search warrant would state that she had "an odour of decay to her".

The only signs of her glory days as a child beauty queen were the Barbie Doll nightdress and the tousled blonde hair. John Ramsey, a multimillionaire computer expert, tore the tape from his daughter's mouth and, weeping, brought her upstairs in his arms to the police and to her wailing mother Patsy.

The Ramseys had been up very early because at 7am they had been due to take a trip to Michigan on their private plane. It was Patsy who had found an apparent ransom note on the spiral staircase. This long and convoluted missive was described by police as "the 'War and Peace' of ransom notes" and was addressed to John.

It said: "Listen Carefully! We are a group of individuals that represent a small foreign faction. We do respect your bussiness [sic] but not the country that it serves. At this time we have your daughter in our posession [sic]. She is safe and unharmed and if you want her to see 1997, you must follow our instructions to the letter.

"You will withdraw $118,000 from your account. $100,000 will be in $100 bills and the remaining $18,000 in $20 bills ... " The note went on to urge John to use "his Southern good sense" and was signed "S.B.T.C."

Statistically speaking, someone in the family is almost always the culprit in cases of child murder. But if they weren't already suspected, the note meant that even by the time John appeared with his daughter in his arms he and his wife, were, in the minds of the police, the chief suspects. It had been written on stationery that was already in the Ramsey home with a pen that was owned by the family. A "practice note" with a rough draft of the final version was also found.

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It seemed unlikely that an intruder would have murdered six-year-old JonBenet and then sauntered upstairs to compose a leisurely ransom note which was full of family in-jokes -- John wasn't from the south but the family used to pretend he was -- and information to which only someone close to the family would have been privy: $118,000 was the exact amount that John had received as a company bonus earlier that year. America's leading handwriting expert would later say that the chances of anyone other than Patsy having composed this note were virtually nil.

John arranged to have the $118,000 made available but never had it picked up. Investigators in the house at the time would later note that John and Patsy spent most of their time during the police search in separate rooms -- normally in cases of a child going missing the couple will cling to each other. The police theory was that one of them had injured JonBenet in a rage and then killed her in a panic.

Against that it seemed very strange that money would be demanded by anyone within this very wealthy and apparently tight-knit family and the manner of the killing seemed far more "hands on" and viscerally brutal than would usually be seen in a parent-child homicide.

A handprint that did not belong to any of the Ramsey family was found on the doorframe of the basement and there was a footprint in the snow which did not match the shoes found in the house.

The police in Boulder were unused to dealing with murders -- JonBenet's was the only such case in the area that whole year -- and this was the day after Christmas. Still, they could be criticised for being woefully amateur in their conduct at the Ramsey house that morning.

A number of John and Patsy's friends as well as their minister, Reverend Hoverstock, had arrived at the house that morning and were allowed to move through the rooms, searching and disturbing evidence. JonBenet's nine-year-old brother, Burke, was sent to stay with friends.

John and Patsy would later claim that he had slept while they had searched for JonBenet, even though later analysis of the 911 call to emergency services revealed that a third voice could be heard in the background of a family discussion. In police reports, Burke was quoted as saying he wanted to "get on with his life" 13 days after JonBenet's death.

Just as we would later "dislike the McCanns" (in Anne Enright's famous phrase) we would allow the Ramseys approximately three minutes of sympathy. Not only were they immediately and relentlessly ubiquitous, but they seemed too shrewd and media- savvy for people supposedly wracked with grief.

In the hours after JonBenet's murder John had retained separate attorneys to represent him and his wife. One of these had been Bill Clinton's counsel from 1981 onward and had acted for him during the Whitewater investigation. The Ramseys also retained a firm of private investigators who conducted their own parallel investigation, the findings of which were never shared with the Boulder police.

What really turned public opinion against the family, however, was the footage of JonBenet during her "career". Patsy had herself been a frustrated beauty queen, having held the minor title of Miss West Virginia in 1977. She had higher hopes for JonBenet, grooming the little girl for Miss America greatness. In the process, she witchily transformed her into, variously, a flirtatious rhinestone cowgirl, a seductive Christmas fairy and a heavily made-up southern belle.

She also told white lies to organisers, claiming that JonBenet spoke fluent French, and choreographed hallucinatory little dances for the child to perform.

Within the tawdry, glitzy subculture of child beauty pageants this teeny debutante would have been seen as perfectly normal, the hairspray perhaps rendering all involved a little light-headed. But the wider public was deeply shocked. In America, perhaps even more so than in Ireland, children are viewed as Wordsworthian innocents, cherubs who will eventually, lamentably, be corrupted by the adult world. A decade before the Bratz dolls, these child beauty pageants seemed like places where children became sexualised far too early by pushy adults. The Ramseys, particularly Patsy, seemed ever more suspicious.

Like the McCanns, they also suffered from poor communication by the police. While not directly named as suspects, they were understood to be "under the umbrella of suspicion". As in Portugal a decade later, this encouraged a trial by media to take place in lieu of a trial by law.

Perhaps it was understandable then that they decided to hire a Washington-based "crisis management agency" to improve their public image. But as is often the case, the involvement of PR people enhanced rather than lessened the impression that the Ramseys might have something to hide.

The family said they knew that the police would have to rule them out before moving on to fully explore the theory that an intruder had broken into the house and murdered JonBenet. Despite this, they initially refused to cooperate fully with the police investigation, declining to be questioned separately and requesting that any questions be first put in writing.

The district attorney and police were remarkably passive in their approach to the Ramseys, impeding the progression of the investigation and leading to suspicions that John had used his powerful contacts to put pressure on the DA's office. Ironically, even supporters of the Ramseys now say that it would have been better had the police stood up to them as an eventual trial would have given them a chance to clear their name in public.

The Ramseys had claimed that only they were being investigated by police, but this was not true and the intruder theory was very seriously examined. All of the employees at John's computer company were asked to give handwriting samples and everyone who was present at the house on the day of the murder was questioned. These included Bill McReynolds, a retired University of Colorado journalism professor, who had played Santa Claus for JonBenet and other children.

McReynolds had given JonBenet a card saying he would give her a "special present" after Christmas and would have been aware of the geography of the house including the warren of a basement.

His wife Janet had written an award-winning play in 1976 about a young girl who was tortured and sexually abused before being murdered in a basement.

Two years after JonBenet's death, Randy Simons, a 46-year-old photographer who had covered the child beauty pageant circuit, was arrested while walking nude down a road in Colorado and before police had said a word to him he blurted out, "I didn't kill JonBenet". Michael Helgoth, another Boulder resident apparently shot himself the day after the DA announced that they were closing in on JonBenet's killer. Boots matching the footprint as well as a stun gun and cap with the initials "SBTC" were found at his apartment. The possibility that he had been shot by someone else who feared being caught was explored by the police but no arrests were made.

In 1999, a Grand Jury dismissed the possibility of John and Patsy going to trial.

As the years passed and no secure conviction was secured, John and Patsy began writing a book, The Death Of Innocence, which was published in 2000. In it, they advanced various possibilities of people who could have murdered JonBenet and were fairly liberal about naming names. Several of those names, including a freelance journalist, Chris Wolf, (who after being questioned by police had alleged that the Ramseys launched an investigation to deflect police attention from themselves) began unsuccessful lawsuits against the Ramseys. The family hit back, and sued a panoply of media outlets which had said or implied that they had killed their daughter.

Their insistence that an intruder had killed JonBenet was apparently borne out by advances in DNA technology. Blood samples taken from the girl's underwear showed that the crime had to have been committed by an unknown Caucasian male. No matches have been found to the murderer's DNA and it has been suggested that the sample was so tiny that it could have ended up there from the factory which manufactured the underwear. Such were the straws to be grasped at in the quest for justice for JonBenet.

In the years after their daughter's death The Ramseys were closely monitored for examples of OJ Simpson-like look-we-got-away-with-it behaviour. On the one hand, they moved away from Boulder to Atlanta and then to Michigan -- where John ran for political office -- and their website ramseyfamily.com lapsed, making John's claim that they would tirelessly spend the rest of their lives seeking justice for JonBenet somewhat incredible.

On the other hand they had continued their trial-by-media offensive -- Patsy did an interview with an American newspaper in which she more or less told the police to put up or shut up, to send the file to the DA or to rule her out. They also gave numerous interviews to television stations in which they protested their innocence. Every gesture and tone of voice was endlessly deconstructed; they seemed somehow believable.

While JonBenet was alive, Patsy had suffered from ovarian cancer and undergone chemotherapy -- photos had shown the child beauty queen lovingly stroking her mother's bald head. The cancer had gone into remission but in the decade after JonBenet's death it would return with a vengeance. Patsy died on June 24, 2006, before her daughter's killer could be apprehended.

At the funeral a letter was read out saying that she had been through a "furnace of fire" and had been "falsely accused". On a large screen in the church a montage of images of JonBenet and Patsy -- the two beauty queens -- was played with the chilling accompanying soundtrack: Thank Heaven For Little Girls. Patsy was buried next to her daughter.

Just two months later, there would be a further development in the case as police arrested a 41-year-old schoolteacher, John Mark Karr, on suspicion of JonBenet's murder. Karr had been arrested in Sonoma, California, on child pornography charges. Authorities had tracked him down after receiving a tip-off from Michael Tracey, a journalism professor at the University of Colorado, who had received hundreds of emails from Karr. Unfortunately, this proved to be a bogus lead as Karr's DNA was shown not to match that found on JonBenet's body. His ex-wife later testified that he had been with her on the night that the little girl was murdered.

In July of last year, two years after Patsy's death, police in Boulder would finally exonerate her and her husband. The District Attorney, Mary Lacy, gave a letter to John Ramsey saying that in future the family would be treated as "the victims" and not the suspects in the crime, and added that she regretted the "trial by media" which they had had to endure because authorities had not sufficient evidence for a trial by law. She also revealed that further DNA samples from a male stranger had been found on separate items of JonBenet's clothing. These matched the sample on the underwear she was wearing when she was murdered.

In a spirit of reconciliation with the authorities Ramsey chose not to gloat, quietly welcoming the statement and adding that he hoped that as the pool of DNA samples on file grew larger that one day a match would be found to the sample found on his daughter's body, "so we can end this nightmare, once and for all".

To the real-life protagonists it has been a nightmare, but America has watched this almost kitschy murder mystery with a mixture of horror and, yes, amusement. In the 12 years since she was murdered JonBenet has become a mainstay of popular culture.

A made-for-TV movie about her life has been screened; a Hollywood movie has been discussed and countless books have examined her case. Her parents were depicted in Family Guy and Southpark. Last year the winner of the biggest drag competition in New York was dressed as little JonBenet in her pageant heyday.

They wouldn't find that funny in Colorado. The snows are back and so is the media blizzard they first saw in the winter of 1996. As of last week a large multi-agency task force has been established in Boulder and the case has been sent back to investigative authorities. The district attorney and police forces have put aside their differences and are beginning one last heave to find out once and for all: whatever happened to baby JonBenet?


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