The tragic story of the death of JonBenet Ramsey and the other suspects police considered


Jul. 24 2021, Published 2:44 p.m. ET

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Editor's note: This is part 3 of our series looking at the death of JonBenét Ramsey's death that still captivates the nation. For part 1, click here. For part 2, click here.

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With the Ramsey’s excluded as possible suspects in the death of their daughter JonBenét., the questions only grew. Who could have done it?

Who could have broken into their home on Christmas 1996 and killed the young pageant queen? She was found in the basement of their family’s home. A ransom note was left on the steps. For many, they believed her parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, played a part in the death.

But, prosecutors cleared them saying the DNA from the scene did not match.

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Yet, this was far from the end for the family, and the DNA evidence wouldn't be as clear-cut as might immediately be imagined. Being a mere speck, the possibility exists that the DNA may have been transferred through nonsuspicious means, with Gordon Coombes, a former investigator for the Boulder County District Attorney's office telling the New York Post in 2016 that "[DNA] can be deposited anywhere at any time for various reasons, reasons that are benign. To clear somebody just on the premise of touch DNA, especially when you have a situation where the crime scene wasn't secure at the beginning ... really is a stretch."

Additionally, there were additional samples of male DNA on the garrote, with six different examples found belonging to unknown individuals. With the crime scene open to anyone in the initial stages, it's likely some came through police failings. However, the same DNA from the underwear was found elsewhere around the body. It was under the fingernails, under the waistband of the victim's leggings, on the wrist bindings and on the garrote.

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Despite the DNA evidence seemingly suggesting that the district attorney’s office was right all along, Boulder police maintained a high level of support in the case. Lacy's exoneration of the Ramsey family was seen as continuing the feud with the police department and a slap in the face to detectives working the case since 1996.

Boulder police chief Mark Beckner said in 2015, "exonerating anyone based on a small piece of evidence that has not yet been proved to even be connected to the crime is absurd." 

Interest in the case was heightened in 2013 when the 1999 indictment against John and Patsy Ramsey was released. The news that a grand jury recommended charges on "two counts each of child abuse" brought out the usual talking heads in the case back. However, this time two new people were willing to speak, Fleet and Priscilla White.

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The Fleets had remained nearly silent since 1996, having initially told police, "There's absolutely no way it could be a family member." However, during the interim years, the Whites found targets on their backs from those within the Ramsey legal circle, their reputations coming under assault.

Source: MEGA

John and Patsy Ramsey

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John Ramsey even told police that Priscilla was the kind of person who might possibly own a stun gun, with some believing one had been used on JonBenét. He told police Fleet "knew a lot about lines, mostly associated with sailboats," about the garotte and that duct tape was "something that Fleet White would have." Still, they refused all requests for interviews, wishing to save their testimony for any future court case.

Seventeen years later, however, while choosing their words carefully, it was plain that both Fleet and Priscilla believed the killer came from within the home. "What happens is that evil comes in," Fleet told Denver's Westword. "If you don't have truth, all you have are lies, then what comes in is evil. And evil just does its thing. In the Ramsey case, it just did its thing, and it's eaten up so many people.”

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After a lull in important news for years, the eyes of the world would again return to the Ramsey family in September of 2016 when CBS broadcast "The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey," a two-part documentary miniseries.

The show featured an investigative team that reviewed the evidence and sought to bring forward a suspect. Those taking part included former FBI agents Jim ClementeStan Burke and James R. Fitzgerald alongside former chief investigator for the Boulder District Attorney James Kolar and former Scotland Yard criminal behavior analyst Laura Richards.

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Key to the show was a new analysis of the 911 call made by Patsy that once again seemingly confirmed there were three voices heard, Patsy, John and Burke, despite the claim from the family that Burke had been asleep. The allegation had been one believed by Steve Thomas, who wrote in his book, "JonBenét: Inside the Ramsey Murder Investigation," that enhancing the tape revealed the voices and that the family had lied from the start.

The show alleged that Patsy said, "What did you do?" and "Help me, Jesus."

Like many, the show also took objection to the "ransom note." It took experts 21 minutes to copy the note, an unreasonably long time for any kidnapper to calmly sit in his victim's house. They also pointed out that the alleged perpetrator took the time to return the pen and paper to their rightful place, with many of the phrases taken directly from famous films of the era, such as "Ransom" and "Speed."

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The ultimate conclusion of the show was Burke Ramsey killed his sister during the night while the two were eating pineapple in the kitchen. Burke likely used a nearby object to hit her in the head, such as his father's flashlight. With JonBenét being the pageant star and likely doted on over Christmas, a certain amount of sibling rivalry and jealously is undoubtedly plausible. John and Burke Ramsey then staged the scene to protect their son, including the garrote and ransom note.

Hoping to get ahead of the fallout, Burke Ramsey gave his first public interview to Dr. Phil just days before the CBS show aired. However, if anything, his performance on camera only made him even more of a suspect in the eyes of many, with social media commentators highlighting how he smiled throughout his interview, including when talking about JonBenét's murder.

He denied the claims of involvement in his sister's killing, saying on the show, "I don't know what to say to that because I know that's not what happened. There's been a few people who've said it's not even physically possible for a 9-year-old to do that."

child killed
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While Burke's mannerisms may have appeared suspicious, it's also worth noting it was his first-ever time in front of a camera with a severe accusation about to be made. Speaking on his show afterward, Dr. Phil said the young man was suffering from anxiety and was not socially comfortable, not enjoying being on camera: "He's socially uncomfortable. I've seen it a lot. He's not autistic, he's not weird, he's not creepy. He's just nervous. This is a young man that has grown up in kind of a siege mentality."

The content of the CBS documentary would also soon come in for questioning, with the analysis of the 911 call questioned. The Secret Service and FBI both rejected the theory that Burke can be heard on the tape, conclusions ignored by the show. At the same time, CBS was accused of confirmation bias, overselling the importance of behavioral analysis and dismissing the DNA evidence.

CNN political commentator John Phillips called the show "fake news."

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However, it was far from the first claim that Burke or another member of the Ramseys had been involved. As far back as 1999, the family sued "Star Magazine" in a $25 million defamation suit after the tabloid ran a front-page photo of the Ramsey children under a headline reading "JonBenét was killed by brother Burke." Others would be hauled into court for his participation in the "JonBenét: Inside the Ramsey Murder Investigation" book, so would CBS and those involved in their 2016 documentary.

Source: MEGA

JonBenet Ramsey's grave.

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Most of the many defamation cases pursued by the Ramsey family were through L. Lin Wood, now more commonly known eccentric behavior on social media. There were cases against St. Martin's Press and Time Inc. Ones against Fox News and American Media, Inc., Court TV, and The New York Post. While upholding the family reputation is certainly understandable, the frequency of the lawsuits and behavior of Wood continued to cast the Ramseys in a bad light.

While Burke has perhaps become the focus of claims the family was involved in recent years, at the time of the killing, police interviewed the youngster on three separate occasions, with no concerns ever raised. A child psychologist stated a "healthy, caring family relationship" existed in the household, and, in 1998, Police Chief Mark Beckner dismissed the theory surrounding the 9-year-old.

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Police certainly favored the theory the killer had been inside the family, however. With John never apparently looked at seriously as a suspect, investigators seemingly favored Patsy as the individual responsible for killing her daughter, putting it down to a fit of rage. Despite this, again, there was no evidence the mother had any tendency toward violence or that corporal punishment was ever administered in the Ramsey house.

With the obviously fake "ransom note," the garrote sourced from the house, the unlikely actions of the supposed perpetrator, and lack of evidence that there had been an intruder, it's easy to see why police focused on the Ramseys. However, some contend that the evidence was there, and the police simply failed to put it together as they focused in a single direction, this being the belief of the DA's office.

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Besides the contested DNA evidence, there was a clear and unidentified footprint from a Hi-Tec shoe in the basement where JonBenét was found. Despite claims, there was undoubtedly an opportunity for intruders to enter the property. As part of their Christmas festivities, the Ramsey family installed Christmas lights outside their home and ran cables to the outside through the broken window in the basement and an unlocked door.

However, the window had an undisturbed cobweb, and the surrounding steel grate and foliage was undisturbed. Meanwhile, the size of the footprint couldn't be determined, and Burke Ramsey would tell both investigators and the grand jury that he owned a pair of Hi-Tec boots. Patsy Ramsey refused to release credit card information to confirm the purchase before police eventually obtained the document and confirmed it was the case. 

Despite Burke telling Dr. Phil, "I went and played in the basement all the time, with the train set, so, if they, they, determine that to be my footprint, that doesn't really prove anything," his father still denies that Burke ever owned the boots.

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If an intruder had been responsible, who that may have been is little more than conjecture. Police looked at neighbor Bill McReynolds, Linda Hoffmann-Pugh, and plenty of false confessors such as John Mark Karr, but could never produce a solid or likely suspect amongst the 140 people investigated, meaning that any such killer remains a mystery. Proponents of the theory often suggest that JonBenét's beauty pageantry may have attracted the attention of pedophiles, with some views descending into outright conspiracy theory concerning the police, the district attorney’s office and significant cover-ups.

However, if one suspect stands out above the others, it would likely be convicted pedophile Gary Oliva. Currently serving 10-years in Colorado for possession of child pornography, Oliva's name was mentioned to police just days after the murder of JonBenét.

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Former childhood friend Michael Vail alleges on the night of the murder, Dec. 26, 1996, he received a call from Oliva, telling the Daily Mail that "He was sobbing and said, 'I hurt a little girl.'… I tried to get more information out of him. The only other thing he told me was that he was in the Boulder, Colorado area."

After seeing the headlines about the killing in Boulder the next day, Vail alerted the police but never heard back.

Oliva was one of the sex offenders living close to the Ramsey home, and there were reports he attended one of the candlelight vigils after the murder. After being arrested on unrelated charges in 2000, police discovered he was obsessed with JonBenét, carrying her photograph and writing a poem called "Ode to JonBenét."

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Source: MEGA

John and Patsy Ramsey at an arrest announcement.

In 2019, Oliva seemingly confessed to accidentally killing JonBenét in a series of letters to Vail, telling his old classmate, "I never loved anyone like I did JonBenét and yet I let her slip and her head bashed in half, and I watched her die." Despite the admission, Oliva is considered a sick fantasist and not a legitimate suspect, his DNA failing to match any found at the crime scene.

Prosecutor Mary Lacy publicly eliminated him as a suspect in 2003.

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"JonBenét completely changed me and removed all evil from me. Just one look at her beautiful face, her glowing beautiful skin, and her divine God-body, I realized I was wrong to kill other kids. Yet by accident, she died, and it was my fault." - Gary Oliva to Michael Vail, as quoted in Rolling Stone, 2019

More than two decades from the killing that shocked America, police are no closer to proving who killed JonBenét Ramsey than they were in 1996.

With more than 1,400 pieces of evidence and 50,000 pages of investigation documents, not to mention a minor industry of books and documentaries, the case is one that still fascinates and horrifies in two very different ways. Either the affair is a frightening tale of a night prowler, a man who sneaked into a home and murdered a little girl, likely a pedophile.

Or it is one of a killer within a seemingly ideal all-American family, possibly a mother or even a child themselves—a tale of a family cover-up that has gone on for a quarter of a century.


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