Casting JonBenet

I’ve no idea how many documentaries have been made about the appalling murder of 6-year old beauty pageant queen JonBenet Ramsey in 1996, the hash made of the police investigation, or speculation on what really happened, but they are heading in the direction of Jack the Ripper frequency.  I saw a two-parter recently that gathered together a group of experts to sift through the evidence, albeit walking on eggshells since some of the protagonist/antagonists (see here) are still alive and are eagerly litigious to protect their own reputations against defamation (see summary from Wikipedia below.)

Did we need another documentary on the subject?  Emphatically, yes we did.  This one in particular, since Kitty Green‘s modus operandi employed to gain insight was a stroke of individual genius, giving a perspective nobody had even considered a viable option, and one not likely to be repeated any time soon, which is to say Green eschews the entire concept of documentary detective work in favour of capturing on film the gossip trail.

A TV dramatic reconstruction is being planned, but the actors, amateur and professional alike, are filmed during the audition process, explaining their background and similarity to the characters, offering their opinions of the evidence and who perpetrated the murder, and reading audition speeches, culminating in an other-worldly scene were numerous Patsys and Johns are seen on set emoting, chatting among themselves and practising lines, as if in a scene from hell the aftermath of the murder is being endlessly replayed.

If this sounds bizarre, it’s actually compelling in the way that Making A Murderer is a beguiling series about a real-life American small-town dude and his relationship with actual murders, plus the judicial soap opera that grew around them.  What really strikes home is that these people have spent time to get under the skin of John Ramsey, Patsy Ramsey, Burke Ramsey, the police chief, the creepy paedophile who confessed, the dodgy town santa, and a few JonBenets into the bargain.

This is as close as an audience can come to getting under the skin of the characters, short of playing the roles themselves, though as with all fly-on-the-wall documentaries, some of the comments are more revealing than the participants realise, about them and about the currency of opinion in this affair.

In real life the family were cleared by DNA evidence, but there seems little doubt that local opinion, just as a good slice of expert opinion, favours the father, the mother and/or the elder child as the likely culprit – and even their most ardent supporters would agree the behaviour of the family during this traumatic period was decidedly odd.  That Patsy was irritated by JonBenét’s bed wetting is fact, and equally that brother Burke had a vicious temper and was known to attack his sister.  These facts and many more are discussed at great length, woven around the mythology of the case with no attempt to separate fact and fiction.

Whether the DNA is irrelevant, the crime scene contaminated, the evidence misinterpreted and/or key clues missed I can’t say,  but the police did not handle it well and for Patsy any cold case reinterpretations will be too late, since she died of ovarian cancer in 2006 – but the speculation in Boulder will continue until long after all the protagonists have died.

Full marks to Green for a valid and insightful context usually denied a widespread public audience.

Theories and suspects

Intruder theories

There are two types of theories about the death of JonBenét. One is the intruder theory that was pursued by the Boulder District Attorney’s office,[58][e][f] with whom the Ramseys developed a relationship.[51][g] Although the police may have had the Ramseys under an “umbrella of suspicion,” they and the prosecutors followed leads for intruders partly due to the unidentified boot mark left in the basement room where JonBenét’s body was found.[35]

Early suspects included neighbor Bill McReynolds who played Santa Claus, former family housekeeper Linda Hoffmann-Pugh, and a man named Michael Helgoth who died in an apparent suicide shortly after JonBenét’s death. Hundreds of DNA tests were performed to find a match to the DNA recovered during her autopsy.[60]

Smit assessed the evidence and concluded that an intruder had committed the crime.[61] Smit’s theory was that someone broke into the Ramseys’ home through the broken basement window. The intruder subdued JonBenét using a stun gun and took her down to the basement. JonBenét was killed and a ransom note was left.[38] Smit’s theory was supported by former FBI agent John E. Douglas, who had been hired by the Ramsey family.[61][h] Believing that the Ramseys were innocent, Smit resigned from the investigation on September 20, 1998, five days after the grand jury convened against the Ramseys.[20] While no longer an official investigator on the case, Smit continued to work on it until his death in 2010.[61]

Stephen Singular, author of the book Presumed Guilty: An Investigation into the JonBenét Ramsey Case, the Media and the Culture of Pornography, refers to consultations with cyber-crime specialists who believe that JonBenét, due to her beauty pageant experience, could have attracted the attention of child pornographers and pedophiles.[62]

It was determined that there had been more than 100 burglaries in the Ramseys’ neighborhood in the months before JonBenét’s murder. There were 38 registered sex offenders living within a two-mile (3 km) radius of the Ramseys’ home.[63] In 2001, former Boulder County prosecutor Trip DeMuth and Boulder County sheriff’s Detective Steve Ainsworth stated that there should be a more aggressive investigation of the intruder theory.[36]

One of the individuals that Smit identified as a suspect under his intruder theory was Gary Howard Oliva, who was arrested for “two counts of attempted sexual exploitation of a child and one count of sexual exploitation of a child” charges in June 2016 according to Boulder’s Daily Camera. Oliva, a registered sex offender, was identified as a suspect in an October 2002 episode of 48 Hours Investigates.[37]

The Killing of JonBenét: The Truth Uncovered, broadcast by A&E on September 5, 2016, concluded that an unidentified male was responsible for JonBenét’s death, due to DNA analysis. Dr. Lawrence Kobilinsky commented that the documentary showed that an intruder “committed that sexual assault and murdered JonBenet”.[64]

Family member theories

The second group of theories is that a family member was involved in her death. Boulder police initially concentrated almost exclusively upon John and Patsy Ramsey.[49][51] According to Gregg McCrary, a retired profiler with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, “statistically, it is a 12-to-1 probability that it’s a family member or a care giver” who is involved in the death of a child.[51] From the police’s perspective, they did not see evidence of a forced entry, saw evidence of staging, such as the ransom note, and did not find the Ramseys cooperative in helping them solve the death of their daughter.[51][i] The Ramseys had stated that their reluctance was due to their fear that there would not be a full investigation for intruders and that they would be hastily selected as the key suspects in the case, according to Daily Camera.[32]

Twenty-year-old Patsy Ramsey as Miss West Virginia in 1977

One theory is that Patsy struck JonBenét in a fit of rage after a bed-wetting episode, and then strangled her to cover up what had happened after mistakenly thinking she was already dead.[32][65] However, she did not have a known history of uncontrolled anger.[65] JonBenét’s brother later said “We didn’t get spanked, nothing of the sort, nothing close, nothing near laying a finger on us, let alone killing your child.”[65]

Theoretically, the strangulation could have been a “red-herring” aspect to conceal what had actually happened.[52][65]

Burke, who was nine years old at the time of JonBenét’s death, was interviewed by investigators at least three times.[66] The first two interviews did not raise any concerns about Burke. A review by a child psychologist stated that it appeared that the Ramseys had “healthy, caring family relationships”.[52] In 1998, Boulder Police Chief Mark Beckner said during an interview with a news reporter that Burke Ramsey was not involved in the killing of his sister. In May 1999, the Boulder County District Attorney’s office reiterated that Burke Ramsey was not a suspect.[6] The investigators had never considered him a suspect.[7]

A $100,000 reward was offered by the Ramseys in a newspaper ad on April 27, 1997.[20] Three days later, they submitted to separate formal interviews for the first time at the Boulder County Justice Center.[34][20]

In 1999, Colorado Governor Bill Owens told the parents of JonBenét Ramsey to “quit hiding behind their attorneys, quit hiding behind their PR firm”.[67][i]

A Colorado grand jury had voted in 1999 to indict the parents.[68][j] The indictment cited “two counts each of child abuse” and said the parents “did unlawfully, knowingly, recklessly and feloniously permit a child to be unreasonably placed in a situation that posed a threat of injury to the child’s life or health, which resulted in the death of JonBenét Ramsey, a child under the age of sixteen.”[69] Among the experts in the case were DNA specialist Barry Scheck and forensic expert Dr. Henry Lee.[20] On October 13, 1999, Alex Hunter, who was the district attorney at the time, refused to sign the indictment, saying that the evidence was insufficient.[20][68] This left the impression that the grand jury investigation had been inconclusive.[70] In 2002, the statute of limitations on the charges expired.[69] The indictment was not known publicly until October 25, 2013, when previously sealed court documents were released.[71][k]

On July 9, 2008, the Boulder District Attorney’s office announced that, as a result of newly developed DNA sampling and testing techniques (touch DNA analysis), the Ramsey family members were no longer considered suspects in the case.[75][76][l] Gordon Coombs, former investigator for the Boulder County District Attorney’s office, questioned total absolution of the Ramseys.[58][m]

The police sought to interview Burke Ramsey again in September 2010, according to L. Lin Wood, a high-profile libel (defamation) attorney who the Ramsey family hired in 1999.[16][20] In 2012, Foreign Faction – Who Really Kidnapped JonBenet? by A. James Kolar, a former investigator under Boulder County District Attorney Lacy, was published. The book discounts the intruder theory and proposes scenarios of Ramsey family involvement in JonBenét’s death.[20]

The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey, broadcast on CBS on September 18 and 19, 2016, used a group of experts to evaluate the evidence and theorized that Burke hit his sister in the head with a heavy object, perhaps not intending to kill her. It suggested that the ransom letter was an attempt to cover up the circumstances of JonBenet’s death.[77] Wood threatened to sue CBS for libel based on its conclusion.[78]

False confession

John Mark Karr, a 41-year-old elementary school teacher, was arrested in Bangkok, Thailand, on August 15, 2006 and falsely confessed to murdering JonBenét. He claimed that he had drugged, sexually assaulted, and accidentally killed her.[79] According to CNN, “Authorities also said they did not find any evidence linking [Karr] to the crime scene.”[80][81] He had provided only basic facts that were publicly known and failed to provide any convincing details. His claim of drugging JonBenét was doubted because no drugs were found in her body during the autopsy.[82] DNA samples taken from Karr did not match DNA found on JonBenét’s body.[81][83][84][n]

Defamation lawsuits

Lin Wood, the Ramseys’ family libel attorney, filed defamation lawsuits against several people and companies that had reported on the case, starting in 1999. Star magazine and its parent company American Media, Inc. were sued on their son’s behalf in 1999.[91]Defamation suits have been filed by the Ramseys and their friends against several unnamed media outlets.[92] A defamation suit was filed in 2001 against the authors and publisher of JonBenét: Inside the Ramsey Murder Investigation. The suit against Don Davis, Steven Thomas, and St. Martin’s Press was settled out of court the following year.[93]

John and Patsy Ramsey were sued in two defamation lawsuits arising from the publication of their book, The Death of Innocence. These suits were brought by two persons named in the book who were said to have been investigated as suspects by Boulder police. The Ramseys were defended in those lawsuits by Lin Wood and three other Atlanta attorneys, James C. Rawls, Eric P. Schroeder, and S. Derek Bauer. They obtained the dismissal of both lawsuits, including an in-depth decision by U.S. District Court Judge Julie Carnes that “abundant evidence” in the murder case pointed to an intruder having committed the crime.[94]

In November 2006, Rod Westmoreland, a friend of John Ramsey, filed a defamation suit against an anonymous web surfer who had posted two messages on Internet forums using the pseudonym “undertheradar” implicating Westmoreland in the murder.[95]

During a September 2016 interview with CBS Detroit and in The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey documentary television program, forensic pathologist Dr. Werner Spitz accused Burke of killing JonBenét.[96] On October 6, 2016, Burke Ramsey filed a defamation lawsuit against Spitz. Burke and his attorneys, who include Lin Wood, sought a total of $150 million in punitive and compensatory damages. Wood said he would also file a suit against CBS at the end of October.[97][98]

On December 28, 2016, lawyers for Burke Ramsey filed an additional civil lawsuit accusing CBS as well as the production company Critical Content LLC and seven experts and consultants of defamation. They sought $250 million in compensatory damages and $500 million in punitive damages.[99]

Blogs, reviews, novels & stories