The JonBenet Ramsey Murder
Remind us what happened?
Ten years after 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey was found beaten and strangled in her family's home, investigators say they may have found the killer. John Mark Karr, a schoolteacher in Thailand, was arrested Wednesday in what may be the final chapter of the case that spawned a decade's worth of books, documentaries, and made-for-TV movies. Can't quite remember all the details? Slate offers this guide to the murder and the investigation that ensued.
In 1996, the Ramseys were living in Boulder, Colo. John Ramsey ran a software-distribution company; his wife, Patricia, a former Miss America contestant who had been diagnosed with cancer in 1993, looked after their kids, JonBenet, 6, and Burke, then 9.
In a 1997 Slate Gist summarizing the Ramsey case, Franklin Foer described the crime scene:
On the morning of Dec. 26, 1996, Patsy phoned the Boulder police in a panic about a ransom note she says she found on a staircase leading to the kitchen. The note demanded $118,000 for the return of JonBenet. Police arrived at the Ramsey home to monitor incoming phone calls, left a few hours later, and returned with a warrant to search the house for evidence of a break-in. During the police's absence, John Ramsey and a family friend searched the house themselves, and John found JonBenet's corpse in a basement storage room. According to the coroner's report, the cause of death was strangulation. JonBenet's skull was fractured, and she had been sexually assaulted (though no semen was found)…
Investigators initially dismissed the ransom note as a fake and asserted that it contained intentional misspellings. A search of the house produced the legal pad on which it seemed to have been written, as well as a draft of the note. Subsequent analysis of handwriting samples ruled out John as the author, but proved inconclusive in Patsy's case.
The note also betrayed what Foer called:
an intimate knowledge of the Ramsey family. The amount demanded matched John Ramsey's 1995 bonus—and the note ended with "Victory SBTC," which police say refers to the Subic Bay Training Center, the defunct U.S. Navy base in the Philippines where John Ramsey was stationed in the 1960s.
The Ramseys hired criminal-defense lawyers to represent them four days after the murder, even though they had not been named as suspects. These lawyers advised them not to submit to formal, videotaped police interviews until the police agreed to show the Ramseys copies of the statement they had made to police the day of the murder. The police agreed to the terms, and the couple was interviewed on April 30. There was an hourlong break between John's and Patsy's interviews, which may have given them time to coordinate their stories.
In April 1997, just before the interrogations, Cmdr. Mark Beckner notoriously declared the Ramseys to be under an "umbrella of suspicion." The Ramseys' attorneys responded by issuing a letter accusing investigators of a lack of objectivity. The parents also placed a newspaper ad offering a $100,000 reward for information about the killer.
Meanwhile, tensions escalated between the police and the county prosecutor's office, as each department accused the other of bungling the case. The district attorney's office charged the police with withholding important pieces of evidence. Police officials saw the prosecutors' office as overly sympathetic to the Ramseys. In October 1997, Police Chief Tom Koby acknowledged that his force had made mistakes early on in the investigation and that his relationship with the district attorney had been "strained." Steve Thomas, the lead detective, resigned the following August, accusing the district attorney and his staff of refusing to cooperate with police. He called the case "so fundamentally flawed, it reduced me to tears." A month later, retired police investigator Lou Smit, who had joined the team, also stepped down, declaring as he did so that the Ramseys were innocent.
On Sept. 15, 1998, a grand jury began its investigation. It concluded in October 1999 with no indictments issued.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.