Monday, November 22, 2010

The Ramsey case: a primer

By Todd Hartman, Rocky Mountain News
August 26, 2006


Six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was found strangled in the basement of her Boulder home on Dec. 26, 1996. Since then, the murder has grown into one of the country's most notorious unsolved crimes, with competing suspicions focused on family members or an intruder.

911 call: Patsy Ramsey calls 911 at 5:52 a.m. after discovering a handwritten ransom note demanding $118,000.

Securing the home: Police fail to secure the home as a crime scene and thoroughly search it themselves. Police tell John Ramsey to look through the home.

Crime scene: The crime scene is further compromised when Ramsey family friends arrive at the house and walk through it.

Body found: About seven hours later, John Ramsey, accompanied by family friend Fleet White, discovers JonBenet's body in the basement. She is found with duct tape over her mouth and a cord around her neck.

Body moved: JonBenet's body is moved twice, first by John Ramsey and then by Boulder Detective Linda Arndt, who then covers the body with a sweatshirt. All this occurs before the coroner's office can examine it.

Interviewing parents: Police fail to separate the parents and interview them individually. Instead they talk to them together throughout the day at the house, a failure of what critics say is conventional police procedure.

The investigation

The investigation was challenged from the start, with the poor handling of the crime scene. Over time, the focus of the investigation appeared to narrow on the Ramseys, while some wondered if more attention shouldn't be paid to the possibility of an intruder.

No help: Boulder police refuse help from the Denver Police Department. Several Boulder police officials with major roles investigating the case had never before handled a homicide.

Ramsey attorneys: Within five days of JonBenet's death, John and Patsy Ramsey hire attorneys to represent them.

First interviews: In April 1997, police conduct first formal interviews with John and Patsy Ramsey.

Detectives removed: Two detectives, including the first to arrive at the Ramsey home, are removed from the case in May.

Under the umbrella: In December 1997, Boulder police commander Mark Beckner says John and Patsy Ramsey are under an "umbrella of suspicion."

More questioning: The Ramseys are questioned again by police in June 1998. JonBenet's brother, Burke, 9 years old at the time of her death, is interviewed for six hours. He's later cleared of any involvement in the crime.

Grand jury: A grand jury is convened to investigate the case by District Attorney Alex Hunter. The inquiry lasts just more than a year. Afterward, Hunter announces no indictments will be issued.

Smit resigns: Early into the grand jury investigation, retired Colorado Springs homicide detective Lou Smit - brought aboard by Hunter to help investigate the case - resigns. He believes Boulder authorities are on the wrong track, and states his belief the Ramseys are innocent.

The intruder theory: In December 2002 newly elected District Attorney Mary Keenan (now Lacy) takes control of the case from the Boulder Police Department. Keenan, known to prefer the intruder view, promises a fresh look.

The clues

The JonBenet case is chock-full of clues, or apparent clues, from a strange ransom note presumably written by the killer, to a grotesque murder weapon, to DNA evidence found on JonBenet's body and clothes.

DNA samples: Investigators recover a DNA sample of an unknown Caucasian male from JonBenet's underwear. The Ramsey family attorney believes it's the DNA from the killer. Michael Kane, who led the grand jury investigation for the DA, suggests it could have come from someone handling the underwear at the point of manufacture.

The ransom note: A three-page ransom note discovered by Patsy Ramsey contains several bizarre statements, including a claim that the kidnappers are part of a "small foreign faction." The ransom amount of $118,000 matches John Ramsey's 1996 bonus from his company. Also puzzling is the sign-off of the writer, "SBTC," the meaning of which investigators have never settled on.

Stun gun theory: Mysterious marks are found on JonBenet's face and back. Police suggest the marks were somehow made by a button or snap. Smit believes the marks were from a stun gun used by an intruder who killed the little girl.

Items used from house: A notepad in the home was used to write the ransom note. The duct tape on JonBenet's mouth and a piece of the broken paintbrush used to fashion the garrote were never found, suggesting the killer took them from the home.

The suitcase: A hard-sided suitcase is discovered below an open basement window. Those promoting the idea of an intruder say it could have been used by someone to get a boost from the floor out the window.

Layout of the house: The size of the Ramsey house - a basement and three stories - suggests the killer knew the layout well enough to navigate from JonBenet's second-floor bedroom to the wine cellar. Police think this points to an inside job. But intruder theorists believe the killer spent time in the house before the death, while the Ramseys were away at a Christmas party.

Handwriting analysis: Analysis of the handwriting in the ransom note results in disagreement about whether Patsy Ramsey could have written it. Police say she couldn't be eliminated as a suspect. Similarly, experts disagree about whether the latest suspect, John Mark Karr, wrote the note.

The suspects

Boulder investigators focused much of their attention on the Ramsey family. Friends and neighbors also were looked at as possible suspects. Others say ample evidence suggests an intruder committed the crime.

Ramseys behavior: Some Boulder police think John and Patsy acted oddly on the day JonBenet's body was discovered. They say the couple didn't comfort each other. They wondered why John was off by himself and why Patsy covered her face and peeked through her fingers. Police also point to the Ramseys' resistance to formal police interviews until four months after the murder as highly suspicious. A Ramsey spokesman blasts the police analysis of the couple's behavior, asking just how parents were supposed to act in such a situation.

Top suspects: Two months after the crime, the spokesman says the Ramseys believe they are top suspects in the case, citing public comments from the police and district attorney.

Pointing to Patsy: Some analysts believe the ransom note and physical injuries to JonBenet are part of a staged event. Former Boulder Detective Steve Thomas advanced the idea in his book that Patsy Ramsey accidentally killed JonBenet in a rage, then tried to disguise her death as a kidnapping and strangulation.

The Ramseys' list: An assortment of Ramsey associates, house workers and friends are investigated and eliminated as suspects. The Ramseys themselves put forth a list of possible suspects. But police critics complain investigators did not aggressively pursue possible alternative suspects.

Smit changes his mind: Smit, the retired Colorado Springs homicide detective, initially thinks the Ramseys are involved. But he changes his mind, saying significant evidence suggests an intruder committed the crime. Since then, Smit's intruder theory has received national publicity and gained a major following among those interested in the case.