Child beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey was just six years old when she was found murdered on December 26, 1996. And we still don't know who killed her.
On December 26, 1996, John and Patsy Ramsey reported that their six-year-old daughter JonBenét Ramsey had been kidnapped and that they’d found a ransom note demanding $118,000. A few hours later, she was found dead — in the family home in Boulder, Colorado. The shocking murder of JonBenét Ramsey was just the beginning of a decades-long mystery.
In the days, weeks, months, and years that followed, authorities and amateur sleuths alike tried to answer one question: Who killed the child pageant star? Had it been a home intruder? Were JonBenét’s parents responsible for her death? And what did her nine-year-old brother Burke know?
As the case twisted and turned — under the ever-present glare of the media — police considered hundreds of possible suspects. They looked into the lives of housekeepers, neighbors, and even far-flung pedophiles.
But despite a number of confessions and clues, the murder of JonBenét Ramsey remains unsolved.
Today, the photos from the young girl’s beauty pageants stand as haunting reminders of the bright life mysteriously extinguished years ago. Here’s the full story of what happened to the child beauty queen — and the people who may have been responsible.
The Brutal Death Of JonBenét Ramsey
JonBenét Ramsey’s short life seemed glamorous — at least on the surface. Born on August 6, 1990, to John and Patsy Ramsey, JonBenét spent much of her time competing in and winning beauty pageants for children.
By the time she was six years old, JonBenét had already won titles like America’s Royale Miss, Little Miss Colorado, and National Tiny Miss Beauty, among others. She had also posed for several “glamour” shots — which many would later criticize as inappropriate for her young age.
Aside from the pageant circle, JonBenét had a relatively normal life. She lived with her affluent parents and older brother Burke in Boulder, Colorado, and attended High Peaks Elementary School. On December 25, 1996, she and her family celebrated Christmas like millions of others around the world.
But that holiday was the last time that anyone ever saw JonBenét Ramsey alive. According to her parents, all seemed to be well when they put their daughter to bed that night. No one — aside from the killer or killers — knows exactly what happened in the late night and early morning hours.
As the Ramseys told it, they first realized that something was wrong around 5:30 a.m. It was then that Patsy spotted paper stuck on the staircase. Picking it up, she found a two-and-a-half-page ransom note. In it, the author claimed, “we have your daughter,” demanded $118,000 for JonBenét’s safe return, and promised to call with more information by 10 a.m. “tomorrow.”
“I just remember when I read, ‘We have your daughter,'” Patsy Ramsey later recalled. “I just [felt] this overwhelming fear. And I just dashed back up those stairs as fast as I could and pushed her door open.”
Since JonBenét was not in her bedroom, Patsy said she woke up her husband and called 911. “We have a kidnapping,” she cried on the phone. “Hurry, please… There’s a note left and our daughter’s gone.”
Though police, family, and friends descended on the house, they found no sign of the missing girl. After a few hours, most of the officers left, leaving behind a detective named Linda Arndt to wait with JonBenét’s parents.
Arndt, who found it odd that neither parent reacted when the kidnappers failed to call by 10 a.m., suggested that John Ramsey look through the house again. Maybe, she told him, he could see if anything seemed out of place.
John then went down to the basement, a place the police had not searched yet. There, John found JonBenét’s dead body. She’d been brutally bludgeoned over the head, strangled with a garrote made from a nylon cord and one of her mother’s paintbrushes, and possibly sexually assaulted.
“I knew instantly what I found. I found my daughter,” John Ramsey later said. “She was lying on a white blanket. The blanket was wrapped around her. Her hands were tied above her head. She had tape over her mouth.”
After the grisly discovery, the Boulder Police Department made multiple mistakes that compromised the investigation, including allowing JonBenét’s father to move the body and not interviewing the parents separately.
Even before the body was found, the cops had allowed several visitors in the house, contaminating the crime scene. Some houseguests had cleaned the home, potentially eliminating fingerprints that may have been left behind.
The cops’ failure to properly secure the entire crime scene is believed to be one of the main reasons why the case has been so difficult to solve. Early on, the investigation into JonBenét Ramsey’s death was off to a rocky start.
Inside The Decades-Long Murder Investigation
An autopsy later painted a grim portrait of JonBenét’s death. The six-year-old had died from “asphyxia by strangulation associated with craniocerebral trauma.” In other words, she’d been hit in the head very hard and strangled.
It didn’t take long for suspicion to fall on John and Patsy Ramsey. After all, JonBenét’s body had been found in her family home, making it likely that a close family member was involved with her death. Her mother and father were also noticeably quick to lawyer up, which some found suspicious. According to the police, both parents were also wary of being interviewed.
In fact, moments after the body was found, Detective Arndt wondered if John Ramsey had killed JonBenét. As she watched him carry his dead daughter up from the basement, she wondered if he’d try to kill her, too.
“I remember — and I wore a shoulder holster — tucking my gun right next to me and consciously counting [that] I’ve got 18 bullets,” Arndt recalled.
Early investigations did, indeed, seem to circle back to one place — the Ramsey house. The garrote used to kill JonBénet? It was made with one of Patsy’s paintbrushes. The paper used for the ransom note? It was torn from a notepad that was already in the home. The pen? Also found in the house.
Even the content of the ransom note seemed suspicious. For one, it went on for pages and pages — while most ransom notes tend to be short. For another, the author was after an oddly specific amount of money: $118,000. Turns out, that was the exact same amount of money that John Ramsey had received as a bonus that year. His colleagues would later say that “very few” people other than John himself would be familiar with that number.
Police soon began to consider John and Patsy Rasmey their primary suspects. The theory was that they’d killed JonBenét by accident and then staged a crime scene to make it look like she’d been killed by an intruder. Meanwhile, JonBenét’s parents adamantly denied the accusations.
“We were outraged. We were shocked,” said John Ramsey. “How could they think that? We were a normal family.”
But the widely-circulated photos of JonBenét in her pageant wear continued to cast a negative light on her parents. Patsy defended her daughter’s “gift” at performing, while John insisted beauty pageants were just one of JonBenét’s many “hobbies.” These claims didn’t help their reputation.
However, as the mystery dragged on, some investigators started considering other options. Lou Smit, a Colorado detective called out of retirement to help with the case, initially considered it a “slam dunk” and suspected the parents. But the more he looked into it, the more he doubted their guilt.
Instead, Smit believed that a mysterious intruder had snuck in through one of the home’s several open windows, specifically one that was in the basement. Pointing to evidence like an unfamiliar shoe print near the crime scene and the possible mark of a stun gun on JonBenét’s body, he argued that this unknown person was JonBenét Ramsey’s killer.
But most Boulder police officers continued to focus primarily on JonBénet’s parents. Eventually, Smit resigned from the case in frustration.
“I cannot in good conscience be a part of the persecution of innocent people,” Smit stated. “It would be highly improper and unethical for me to stay when I so strongly believe this.”
But if the parents didn’t kill JonBenét Ramsey, then who did? As time marched on, investigators have gathered a long list of possible suspects.
Theories About Who Killed JonBenét Ramsey
To this day, most people believe that JonBenét Ramsey’s parents were responsible for her death — even though they were never officially charged with the murder. Ever since the case took off, John Ramsey has blamed the Boulder Police Department for making them look guilty in the media: “The police were not there to help us. They were there to hang us.”
In 2008, there was a twist in the case when a new form of DNA testing found at least one unknown male’s DNA on JonBenét’s pajamas. Since the DNA did not belong to her relatives, the Ramsey family was officially cleared in the case — two years after Patsy Ramsey had died of ovarian cancer.
But by 2016, that conclusion was called into question when forensic experts revealed that the DNA from “Unknown Male 1” may have been a composite from multiple people, which would render it “worthless as evidence.”
With the case wide open, many people still buy into the “Ramseys did it” theory. They usually believe that the couple worked together, either throughout the entire timespan of the crime or at least a portion of it. However, a few have speculated that either John or Patsy committed the crime on their own, with their spouse covering for them in the aftermath.
But the Ramseys have never been the only potential suspects. Those who believe in the Ramseys’ innocence stand by the “intruder did it” theory. One popular branch of this theory is that a pedophile was behind the crime, especially considering JonBenét’s heavy involvement in pageants.
One early suspect was a local sex offender named Gary Oliva who allegedly told a friend he’d “hurt a little girl” shortly after the murder in 1996. However, DNA testing eventually cleared him in the case. Years later in 2006, a pedophile named John Mark Karr confessed outright to killing JonBenét Ramsey in a “love game” gone awry. But he too was soon cleared by DNA.
Another branch of the intruder theory is that it was someone who the Ramseys personally knew. One intriguing potential suspect is their housekeeper, Linda Hoffman-Pugh. Not only did she carry a key to the home and know the family’s schedule, but she may have also potentially seen a paystub with John Ramsey’s bonus. And according to Patsy Ramsey, Hoffman-Pugh had recently asked for a loan of several thousand dollars.
Though it seemed unlikely that Hoffman-Pugh would kidnap, ransom, and murder a child — even if she was in dire need of the money — her alibi was not airtight as she claimed to be sleeping at the time of the murder. That said, Hoffman-Pugh has never been formally accused of involvement in the crime, and much of the “evidence” against her is largely circumstantial.
Other suspects have ranged from a local electrician who was reportedly involved in a property dispute with the Ramseys to the local town Santa who allegedly chose Ramsey to be his “special friend.”
But perhaps the most shocking theory is that JonBenét’s brother Burke — who was just 9 years old at the time — was responsible for her death. This idea gained momentum after the release of the 2016 CBS docuseries The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey. The doc noted that undigested pineapple had been found in JonBenét’s stomach, and a bowl of pineapple had been found in the kitchen. But Patsy denied preparing a pineapple for JonBenét.
As the controversial theory goes, Burke prepared the pineapple for himself as a late-night snack. But when JonBenét took a piece, Burke supposedly hit her over the head with an object — perhaps a flashlight. Their parents, thinking JonBenét dead, then staged her murder. In response to the doc, Burke Ramsey sued CBS for $750 million, and both parties later settled.
But for all the confessions, clues, and conspiracy theories, authorities are no closer to solving this case today than they were in 1996. Decades after the murder, we’re still asking the same question: Who killed JonBenét Ramsey? Only time will tell if we’ll ever get a clear answer. For now, the full truth about JonBenét Ramsey’s death seems to have tragically died with her.
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