‘It Was My Fault’: The Story Of Gary Oliva, The Sex Offender Who Confessed To The Murder Of JonBenét Ramsey

Published March 7, 2024
Updated March 10, 2024

A convicted pedophile who lived near JonBenét Ramsey at the time of her 1996 killing, Gary Oliva had a deep obsession with the six-year-old pageant star — and claimed responsibility for her murder in a series of prison letters.

Gary Oliva

Colorado Department of CorrectionsGary Oliva, a convicted sex offender who was just released from prison, once confessed to the murder of JonBenét Ramsey.

Since six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey was brutally murdered in her Colorado home in 1996, police have been puzzled as to who might have killed the child pageant star. Over the years, they investigated her parents, her brother, an electrician, a former school teacher named John Mark Karr, and the family’s housekeeper. But one of the most compelling suspects is a man named Gary Oliva.

In 2019, Oliva, a convicted sex offender, seemingly confessed to JonBenét’s murder in a series of disturbing jailhouse letters and poems, claiming he killed the six-year-old by “accident.”

Oliva had been obsessed with JonBenét for years and had had hundreds of images of the six-year-old on his phone when he was arrested in 2016. What’s more, Oliva had lived near JonBenét at the time of her murder and even attended a vigil for the one-year anniversary of her death.

But to this day, Gary Oliva has never been charged with the murder.

Gary Oliva’s Disturbing Tapes

Born on January 7, 1964, Gary Howard Oliva grew up in California. Former classmates in high school called him “Scary Gary,” according to The Sun. They later reported he’d often behave erratically, doing strange things like deliberately burning himself or running screaming through the streets. He sometimes made disturbing jokes about necrophilia.

Notably, he also reportedly had a fascination with knots and a bizarre habit of breaking into homes to steal art supplies.

After high school, Oliva started exchanging audio cassette tapes with his former classmate Michael Vail as a way to keep in touch. At first, Vail says, the recordings were playful and innocent. However, in 1989, Oliva’s tapes began to devolve into something more sinister.

In one recording, Oliva reportedly pretends to be babysitting a friend’s daughter and jokes about raping her. On another tape, he fantasizes about cooking and eating children.

“The tapes started getting darker, more depraved, and sicker, it would turn my stomach,” Vail told CBS in 2002. Some of the tapes, Vail said, were smeared with blood. He also claims Oliva sent him packages containing hair, and posters of missing girls.

Gary Oliva’s First Known Crimes

Gary Oliva’s extensive criminal history dates back nearly three decades. In 1990, Oliva was arrested in Oregon for sexually abusing a seven-year-old girl.

In May 1991, while on probation for this crime, Oliva threatened to kill his mother, Anne Freitag, attempting to strangle her with a telephone cord at their home in Grants Pass, Oregon.

According to a 2019 Daily Mail article, the Oregon Department of Corrections wrote in a report: “During the course of the assault, Oliva threatened his mother, stating ‘I should have killed you a long time ago’ and made other threats to kill her. He also stated that ‘When the sheriff arrives, they will find you dead.'”

Gary Howard Oliva

Michael VailGary Oliva penned multiple letters to a friend in which he admitted to the 1996 murder of JonBenét Ramsey.

The report goes on to detail how Oliva attacked his mother: “Oliva removed a butcher knife from the drawer and had it in his possession. Oliva also pulled a telephone cord loose from a telephone and wrapped it around his mother’s neck and began tightening it.”

Oliva fled the house before the police arrived, but was later caught and arrested. He spent 17 months in jail for the attempted murder and moved to Colorado after his release.

Then, in December 1996, a six-year-old girl was found murdered in her Boulder home.

Who Killed JonBenét Ramsey?

The murder of JonBenét Ramsey on Dec. 26, 1996 has puzzled investigators for decades and remains a headline-grabbing mystery to this day.

The six-year-old beauty pageant star was initially thought to have kidnapped by an intruder when her parents, Patsy and John Bennett Ramsey, woke up to find JonBenét missing from her room and a three-page handwritten ransom note in the house.

Then, her father found JonBenét in the basement of the Ramsey home. She was wrapped up in a blanket, with her mouth covered, her wrists bound, and a cord around her neck. She had died of asphyxiation and a skull fracture.

Described as a drifter who frequently wandered the Boulder area, Gary Oliva was reportedly using an address 10 blocks from the Ramsey home at the time of the murder.

Jonbenet Ramsey

Wikimedia CommonsSix-year-old JonBenét Patricia Ramsey was murdered on Dec. 26, 1996 in her family’s home in Boulder, Colorado.

On the day JonBenét’s body was found, Vail claims that Oliva called him sobbing and said, “I just hurt a little girl.” The following day, news broke of JonBenét’s murder.

Fearing that Oliva had something to do with the crime, Vail called the Boulder Police Department on Dec. 27 to report the disturbing call he had received from Oliva. But investigators never returned Vail’s call, even after Vail followed up months later.

As more information came to light about the murder, Vail became more convinced that Oliva was involved. The garrote used to strangle JonBenét had been made from a broken paintbrush and a knotted rope. And Oliva had an obsession with knots and art supplies.

Gary Oliva Is Investigated As A Possible Suspect

Four years later, in December 2000, Boulder Police arrested Gary Oliva on a drug charge. He was found to have a photo of JonBenét Ramsey in his possession, along with a poem titled “Ode to JonBenét.”

Investigators also looked through Oliva’s backpack and found a stun gun — one of the weapons theorized to have been used in the crime.

For the first time since JonBenét’s murder, investigators questioned Oliva about his potential involvement. Initially, he denied having anything to do with it. However, he openly admitted to having an obsession with the child pageant star.

“I believe that she came to me after she was killed and revealed herself to me,” he said in a 48 Hours Investigates interview at the time. “I’d like to see a memorial set up for her. I haven’t seen that, anywhere.”

Oliva was cleared of the murder after samples of his DNA were found not to match DNA found at the crime scene.

However, very little DNA had been found on the scene in the first place. What’s more, the police have been accused of failed to properly secure the crime scene after the murder, possibly destroying or contaminating the evidence in the process.

Jonbenet Sketch

Michael VailA drawing of JonBenét Ramsey by Gary Oliva, sent to his pen pal, Michael Vail.

In June 2016, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received a tip from Google that someone in the Boulder area was uploading child pornography. The Gmail account was traced to Oliva.

When Boulder Police arrested Oliva, they found 695 images on his phone depicting the sexual abuse of children. He also had 335 photographs of and related to JonBenét — including photos of her autopsy.

Oliva was sentenced to 10 years in prison for possession of child pornography. Three years later, he would seemingly confess to being JonBenét Ramsey’s killer.

The Prison Letter Confessions

In 2019, Gary Oliva sent Michael Vail a series of disturbing letters and poems in which claimed responsibility for JonBenét Ramsey’s murder, saying he killed her by “accident.”

“I never loved anyone like I did JonBenét,” Oliva wrote in one letter, “and yet I let her slip, and her head bashed in half, and I watched her die. It was an accident. Please believe me. She was not like the other kids.”

In these letters, Oliva repeatedly professed his love for the six-year-old and often likened her to a god.

“JonBenét completely changed me and removed all evil from me,” he wrote. “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.”

Vail alerted Boulder authorities to the confessions. After Vail released the letters to the public, private investigator Jason Jensen commissioned two handwriting experts, Mozelle Martin and Dawn McCarty, to conduct a forensic analysis of Oliva’s letters. In 2023, they found significant similarities between his handwriting and the ransom note discovered inside the Ramsey home before JonBenét’s body was found.

Martin and McCarty concluded that Oliva “most likely” authored the Ramsey ransom letter.

“When you overlay some of those letters and words — words and letters from different eras of writing — and they line up so well, that’s a clear indication in my profession,” stated McCarty, according to The Sun.

But despite this evidence, the police have not charged Oliva with JonBenét’s murder.

Gary Oliva Handwriting Analysis

Dr. Mozelle Martin, 2023Oliva’s handwriting was compared to the Ramsey ransom letter and determined by experts Mozelle Martin and Dawn McCarty to be a likely match.

Gary Oliva Walks Free

To this day, no one knows for certain who killed JonBenét Ramsey.

Although Gary Oliva is a plausible suspect in JonBenét’s murder, he has been cleared by DNA testing. Despite multiple confessions, he has never faced any charges related to the murder, and his involvement remains unproven.

At the time Vail released Oliva’s confession letters, a Boulder Police spokesperson said the department “is aware of and has investigated Mr. Oliva’s potential involvement in this case. We have passed the additional information you provided onto investigators. We will not comment on any actions or the status of this investigation.”

Oliva was originally set to be released from prison in 2025. However, in January 2024, he was released early. He has since been spotted living in a Denver motel and halfway house.

For his part, Michael Vail believes Oliva is not capable of reform.

“Gary is a danger to society,” he told The Sun in 2023. “This guy needs to stay in jail.”

After learning about Gary Oliva, read the chilling story of Jeff Doucet, the pedophile who was killed by his victim’s father. Then, learn about why Peter Scully may be the world’s worst pedophile.

Rivy Lyon
True crime expert Rivy Lyon holds a Bachelor's degree in criminology, psychology, and sociology. A former private investigator, she has also worked with CrimeStoppers, the Innocence Project, and disaster response agencies across the U.S. She transitioned into investigative journalism in 2020, focusing primarily on unsolved homicides and missing persons.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.