I think the mother did it. I honestly do. Or it could have been the brother. I believe that's a possibility, though not as likely. Either way, the father helped cover it up. But that doesn’t explain the motive: why? Why would a family kill its six year old daughter? And the ransom note left on the stairway – there was no fingerprints, no folds, no creases. Pristine. How is that possible? (But how would an intruder know to place it so carefully on the back staircase that Patsy used every morning?) And the unidentified DNA in the child’s panties – whose was it? And that palm print on the cellar door – unknown.
See, this is the thing. I could be reasonably happy alone in a room for the rest of my life, provided that I had a supply of good books. If the books happened to be true-crime stuff, I would be in heaven. Usually, this is a genre that gets a bad rap, and deservedly so; exploitive, lurid junk, most of it is. It is a genre, however, that has also given us Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD and Norman Mailer’s THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG – two books that are about as good as books can get.
Mailer’s researcher on THE EXECTUIONER’S SONG, Laurence Schiller, wrote PERFECT MURDER, PERFECT TOWN, which I recently read, a 1999 true-fiction account of the JonBenet Ramsey case that gripped the United States back in 1996 and 1997.
You remember it. Probably vaguely. I was in university at the time, and didn’t pay much attention to all the media shenanigans surrounding it. I knew the outlines of the case, roughly: A wealthy family, a beauty-queen child, the girl killed, the parents under suspicion. Whatever.
Oh, but let me let you in on a secret. Come closer. Don’t be shy. This is no ‘whatever’ story. This is one of the most fascinating, infuriating, maddeningly unsolvable cases I’ve ever encountered. I read the 600 page book in two days flat. Couldn’t get enough. No movie could make this up. No case could be more tragic.
In brief: Jon Benet Ramsey and her family went to a Christmas party on December 25th, 1996. They came home, went to bed. The next morning, the police received a phone call: a kidnapping had taken place. They arrived at the home of wealthy Boulder socialites John and Patsy Ramsey. A ransom note had been found by Patsy Ramsey on the back staircase, asking for $118 000 for the safe return of their daughter. The note stated that the kidnappers would call later that morning. They never did. Sometime in the early afternoon, the father, John, searches the house once again. He finds the body of his dead daughter in a wine cellar in the basement. She is wrapped in one of her favorite blankets. A noose is around her neck. A garrote has been fashioned around her neck.
And that’s just the beginning.
What makes this case so fascinating is the physical evidence, and the human evidence, and all the things that should add up but don’t. The fact that the ransom note was the ‘war and peace’ of ransom notes, as the police put it, when most ransom notes are short and to-the-point. The fact that the amount of money asked for in the ransom note is $118 000, which just happens to be the amount of John Ramsey’s Christmas bonus. The fact that the note was written using a Sharpie pen and a pad of paper that were already in the house. The fact that a Bible was found open in the Ramsey’s bedroom to psalm 118, which talks about giving a sacrifice unto God. The fact that the house was so large and so winding that there was no way anyone unfamiliar with the house could have located the wine cellar where the body was found. The fact that a neighbour heard a scream in the night, but the parents didn’t. The fact that the parents said that their son, Burke, was not awakened until after the police had arrived and the body had been found, and yet, on an aural enhancement of the original 911 call placed by the mother, in the distant background, you can hear the son’s voice asking: “What do I do now?” The father, John: “We’re not talking to you.” The son: “What DID you find?” The fact that, despite the ransom note stating that if anyone was notified about JonBenet’s disappearance their daughter would be killed, the family instantly phoned not only the police but their priest and closest friends and invited them over to the house. The fact that, only thirty-five minutes after finding the body of his dead daughter, John Ramsey phoned his private pilot to try and arrange for his family to fly out of state that evening. The fact that some experts declared the sexual abuse evident from examination of the vagina determined that JonBenet had been the long-term victim of abuse, while others stated it had happened for the first time the night of the killing. The fact that a flashlight was found on the kitchen counter that could have been used to knock her unconscious. The fact that it was proven that Patsy Ramsey purchased material from a hardware store the month before that was the same exact price as the rope and duct tape used in the killing. The fact that the role of duct tape was not found at the house. The fact that fabric from the outfit Patsy Ramsey wore the night of the party was found on the duct tape plastered across the daughter’s mouth. The fact that it was proved the duct tape was placed on the girl’s mouth after she was already dead. The fact that she was found wrapped in her favorite blanket and near her Barbie outfit, indicating that the killer wanted her to feel comforted. The fact that the ransom note uses phrases like “and hence”, the same exact phrase that the Ramsey’s themselves used in a thank-you message to their church the following Christmas. The fact that handwriting experts could not exclude the mother from writing the ransom note. The fact that a linguistic expert, after examining various samples of the mother’s writing, determined that she wrote the ransom note. The fact that two experienced investigators, viewing the same evidence, came to opposite conclusions: one determined an intruder had killed the girl; another determined it was the parents.
And all of that is just the beginning.
I’m losing sleep, I’m telling you.
See, I’m the deluded type of guy that actually thinks: I can figure all this out. I can crack the case, given enough time. In high school, I became obsessed with the Kennedy assassination, reading every book ever written on the subject that I could find, culminating in my Grade 13 History Independent Study that was supposed to be eight pages and ended up being thirty. (I haven’t figured that one out yet, not completely, but I have my theory, more or less, and I’m sticking to it.)
Have you ever heard of Occam’s Razor? It’s the rule stating that, all things being equal, the simpler explanation for an unexplained event is usually the correct one.
When a child is murdered in the home, it is usually the parents who do it. That’s a fact. All of the circumstantial evidence in this case, and the parents’ behavior, indicates that one or both of them were in on it. (The evidence for an intruder, I think, is quite scant.)
So, bearing that in mind, my two cents:
As one interesting article I read recently on the Internet postulated: If you stop thinking of it as a ‘murder’, and instead think of it as an ‘accidental death’, then things become clearer.
I think either the mother or the brother accidentally killed JonBenet.
If it was the mother: The little girl had a history of wetting her bed, and still wanted to be wiped by others after using the bathroom. Perhaps the mother got angry, wiping too hard, resulting in the vaginal tears that the autopsy found. They later determined that the type of head injury she had was consistent with a fall on a bathtub or the floor. So the mother accidentally kills the daughter, panics, awakens her husband, and the two decide to make it look like a murder to save their own skin. (This could account for why the husband and wife acted completely distant from each other the morning of the murder, never once seeking to console the other.)
Or, if you believe the other experts who insist that the girl had been sexually abused for quite some time…
If it was the brother: The brother sometimes slept in the bed with JonBenet. The fact that the parents did not tell the police that the brother was awake and aware when they made the initial phone call indicates that they did not want to implicate the brother in any way. The anger in the father’s voice audible in the aural enhancement of the phone call – “we’re not talking to you” – indicates he was pissed at the son. Perhaps the parents found out that night that the brother had been molesting JonBenet. (A photo from the crime scene shows a dictionary open to the ‘I’ section, and the page folded so that it points towards the word ‘incest’.) The angry mother takes JonBenet into the bathroom, accidentally whacks her, kills her, and the scenario plays itself out again.
This case, I’m telling you…
It’s not an open and shut case, by any means, and I’ve left out a bunch of evidence, a ton of evidence. It’s almost ten years later, and nobody’s been charged. If you’re at all intrigued by what I’ve written (and if you’re still awake by this point in the post), I recommend the book PERFECT MURDER, PERFECT TOWN. It draws you into these people’s lives, their community, their loss. It’s a fair and multifaceted and balanced look at a heartbreaking, tragic story, as the saying goes, and I can’t pretend to have it all figured out.
But I’m working on it.