A primer on the JonBenet Ramsey murder.

A cheat sheet for the news.
Aug. 17 2006 8:15 PM

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.

Advertisement

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.

But the story wasn't finished. In 2000, John and Patsy Ramsey published a tell-all book, The Death of Innocence, arguing that an intruder had killed JonBenet after a botched kidnapping. Later that year former Boulder Police Detective Steve Thomas published his own account. He blamed other officials for bollixing up the case and accused Patsy of killing her daughter after a bedwetting accident. In response, Patsy challenged Thomas to confront her and John on Larry King Live. Thomas agreed. "He has called my wife a murderer," John Ramsey said on the show, referring to Thomas. "He's called me ... a liar, he has slandered my relationship with my daughter, Patsy's relationship to JonBenet. He did it in a public forum, and it's reprehensible. It needed to be addressed in a public forum." Polygraph tests in May 2000 supported the parents' claim that they didn't kill their daughter and didn't know who did.

Throughout the investigation, the case was closely followed in the media, which circulated numerous theories about who the killer could be. The most common narrative—bolstered by Thomas' accusations—contended that Patsy killed JonBenet because she was jealous of her daughter's success. Some media accounts implicated JonBenet's older brother, Burke. In April 2000, Boulder resident Chris Wolf sued the Ramseys for libel after they lumped him in with a list people they considered suspects in their book. A district judge in Atlanta dismissed the case, concluding that evidence supported the intruder theory and did not implicate Mrs. Ramsey as the killer.Boulder District Attorney Mary Lacy (then Keenan), who had taken over the investigation in 2002, issued a statement saying she agreed. After a public opinion poll showed that only one in eight Colorado residents believed the Ramseys' polygraph test results exonerated them, Ramsey attorney Lin Wood said the poll was part of the media's "anti-Ramsey" campaign.

In 2004, Denver police tried to compare DNA found beneath JonBenet's fingernails and on her underwear with DNA profiles in the FBI's database. They never announced a match. The family's attorney said it didn't match the parents' DNA, either.

That same year, Michael Tracey, a journalism professor in Colorado, produced a documentary called Who Killed JonBenet? A spokesperson for the University of Colorado recently told the AP that Tracey had been communicating with Karr over several months and eventually tipped off police.

In June 2006, Patsy Ramsey died after a long battle with ovarian cancer. "Patsy was aware that authorities were close to making an arrest in the case," John Ramsey said in a statement Wednesday, "and had she lived to see this day, would no doubt have been as pleased as I am with today's development almost 10 years after our daughter's murder."

Karr will be flown to Colorado, where he could face charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping, and child sexual assault. Karr said he was there when JonBenet died and that her death was an "accident." It's unclear whether there's DNA evidence to connect Karr with the crime.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

  Slate Plus
Working
Dec. 18 2014 4:49 PM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 17 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked a middle school principal about his workday.