It is one of the most arresting images of the 1990s: the 6-year-old beauty queen done up in lipstick and eyelashes, her blonde curls falling about her face. The aspects of her all too brief life fascinate us as much as the brutal details of her death and the mystery of who killed her. Since her mother Patsy called 911 to report her daughter missing that fateful December morning, we have been fascinated by the murder of JonBenét Ramsey.
From the outside, the Ramsey family of Boulder, Colorado appeared to be the perfect American family. Father John was a successful businessman, while his wife Patsy was a former Miss West Virginia. They had two children: Burke, 9, and younger sister JonBenét. From a young age, Patsy had enrolled JonBenét in a series of child beauty pageants, for which she won the titles of America's Royale Miss, Little Miss Charlevoix, Little Miss Colorado, Colorado State All-Star Kids Cover Girl and National Tiny Miss Beauty, according to CNN.
In the early morning hours of December 26, 1996, the day after Christmas, Patsy Ramsey called 911, claiming she found a long, rambling, handwritten ransom note on the kitchen stairs. Addressing “Mr. Ramsey,” it said it was from “a group of individuals that represent a small foreign faction. We do respect your bussiness [sic] but not the country that it serves.” They claimed to have kidnapped JonBenét and that they would return her for the oddly precise amount of $118,000. When Patsy went to her daughter’s bedroom, she discovered she was missing.
Police responded quickly to the call but found no signs of forced entry. John Ramsey arranged to make the ransom payment, however, further instructions from the kidnappers never came. Police then told John Ramsey to search the house for other possible clues, and while in the basement he made a grim discovery: JonBenét’s body. Her mouth was duct taped shut, her hands were bound and a nylon cord was wrapped around her neck. An autopsy later revealed she died from asphyxiation and had a fractured skull. She also showed signs of a possible sexual assault, and the DNA of an unknown male was found on her underwear.
The Denver Post was one of the first newspapers to report on the murder, and from the start JonBenét’s pageant history was part of the narrative.
“They were so serious about this beauty queen stuff, but they never put any pressure on her,” it quoted a neighbor.
In the ensuing weeks and months, the national media would cast a spotlight on the case and the incongruous clues, which in their eyes seemed to lead back to the Ramsey family.
A year after the murder, with no arrests made, Boulder police chief Mark Beckner said the Ramseys "remain under an umbrella of suspicion." However, their evidence was circumstantial at best and the police had reportedly mishandled the crime scene. A grand jury in 1999 was willing to indict John and Patsy Ramsey on charges of child abuse resulting in death and accessory to a crime, however, Boulder County District Attorney Alex Hunter ultimately refused to prosecute, not believing he had enough evidence to convict.
Through it all, the Ramsey family maintained their innocence. Patsy Ramsey died of ovarian cancer at the age of 49 in 2006. In 2008, the Boulder County District Attorney said they were “deeply sorry” for implicating the Ramseys in JonBenét’s murder after advances in DNA technology eliminated them as suspects. A 2016 CBS docu-series, "The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey," put forth the theory that Burke Ramsey killed JonBenét and their parents covered it up. Burke has filed suit against the network for defamation of character and is asking for $750 million. Boulder’s Daily Camera reported that John Ramsey filed a separate lawsuit against CBS and the show’s production company on September 14.