It was the murder that shocked the world, when the child beauty queen was found dead in her family's Colorado home on Boxing Day, 1996. Yet, 21 years on, her killer remains unknown. Here, we look at the evidence, suspects and a surprising new twist that could finally solve the case.
When six-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey was found dead in the basement on Boxing Day by her father John, she had been bludgeoned and strangled.
Her body was hidden beneath a white blanket and she had a nylon cord around her neck. Her wrists had been bound above her head and her mouth was covered by duct tape. The previous day had been as exciting as any other Christmas for the Ramsey clan.
When the Ramseys returned home that evening, John carried a sleeping JonBenet up to her room and Patsy helped put her to bed.
But that was the last time they saw their daughter alive. The next morning, JonBenet was reported missing.
Eight hours later, her body was discovered in the basement. She had been murdered.
Suspicion immediately fell on the family. A ransom note found at the scene raised more questions than answers.
The three-page note – which was handwritten – claimed to be from a foreign faction that was demanding money for the return of the six-year-old.
The note asked for $118,000 to avoid harm befalling the child – the sum was the exact amount of John’s bonus that year.
In a twist, the pages used for the ransom note had been torn from a pad that Patsy kept by the telephone.
A jury voted in 1999 to charge John and Patsy with child abuse resulting in the death of their daughter – but the charges were never pursued and DNA evidence taken from JonBenet’s clothes later cleared them both.
The DNA came from an unknown male and could not be matched to anyone who had been near the scene or handled JonBenet’s body. It was not a match to John, either.
In 2008, the district attorney issued an apology to John and Patsy – saying they were exonerated of any criminal wrongdoing in relation to the death of JonBenet.
Patsy died of cancer in 2006. John has since remarried and lives in western United States.
While John and Patsy faced their own battle with doubters, JonBenet’s brother Burke also came under suspicion.
In a controversial CBS television show that aired in September 2016, forensic pathologist Dr Werner Spitz said there was reason to believe the then-nine-year-old struck JonBenet with a heavy flashlight and accidentally killed her.
Burke has since filed a $150 million defamation lawsuit in response to the claim.
In a rare interview – given on Dr Phil in September 2016 – Burke gave an insight into what happened on the morning that his sister was found dead.
‘The first thing I remember is my mum bursting in my room, really frantic, saying: “Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!” Running around my room – now I know looking for JonBenet,’ Burke recalled. ‘The next thing I remember is a police officer coming into my room and shining a flashlight.’
The software engineer subsequently came under fire for appearing to smile as he recollected the events of that fateful morning.
Burke also told the show that his unwillingness to be in the public eye came from the chaos in the aftermath of his sister’s death.
‘For a long time, the media basically made our lives crazy. It’s hard to miss the cameras and news trucks in your front yard. And we’d go to the supermarket sometimes and there’d be a tabloid newspaper with my picture, JonBenet’s picture, plastered on the front. They would follow us around,’ he said.
When asked who he thought committed the crime, Burke told of his own theory: ‘I kinda always thought it was a paedophile who saw her in one of the pageants and snuck in [to our house]. Who knows?’
The False Leads
JonBenet’s parents always maintained a stranger had killed their little girl, and in 2006 it seemed they may be proved right when a man confessed.
A 41-year-old teacher named John Mark Karr was arrested in Thailand after saying he loved JonBenet, was with her the night she died, and that her death was accidental.
But quickly his ‘confession’ failed to ring true. Karr claimed to have drugged JonBenet, but an autopsy failed to find any drugs in her system. He also couldn’t explain how he had managed to gain access to the Ramsey family home. Most compellingly, DNA evidence did not connect Karr to the crime scene, and so he wasn’t charged.
But in a bizarre interview that aired on the 2016 US TV show Investigation Discovery’s series JonBenet: An American Murder Mystery, Karr, then 51, stuck to his story.
‘Nobody wanted that little girl to die that night – nobody. Her death was an accident. I was with her when she died. But I was not the person who caused it,’ he said, explaining ‘panic’ had ensued after her death. ‘How she was found, that’s not how she died. Where she was found in that basement is not where she died,’ he added. Karr also said JonBenet’s body was ‘tampered with in a bid to cover up who the killer was’. ‘Something happened to her [and I] had to take care of it,’ he told the program.
‘I have always been able to fix things. Nobody came in there and did a paedoerotic thing to that little girl, but it was made to look as though it was done that way.'
Karr – who later made headlines after identifying as a female – also claimed the kidnap letter found at the Ramsey house was fake and simply there to make her death look like a ‘botched kidnapping’.
That Ransom Note
The issue of the ransom note remains under scrutiny. Penned on pages torn from the pad Patsy Ramsey kept by the telephone, it was handwritten and one expert has claimed it is ‘highly probable’ Patsy wrote the note herself.
In an interview with US news show 20/20, expert Cina Wong said there were more than 200 similarities in the writing of the ransom note and 100 samples of Patsy’s penmanship.
A New Suspect?
In a shock new development, an official who worked on the JonBenet case has called for another man to face DNA tests.
A year before the young beauty queen’s killing, Keith Schwinaman pleaded guilty to one count of sexual assault of a child, and was given a four-year deferred sentence.
In a 2003 plea deal, Schwinaman agreed to a 32-year prison sentence for sex acts he committed against three women between 1993 and 1996. He remains imprisoned at the Crowley County Correctional Facility in Colorado.
‘If you look at JonBenet’s murder and Schwinaman’s crimes for just the methods of operation, a lot of similarities fit,’ retired Boulder, Colorado, detective Bob Whitson has said. 'But what we didn’t have was any physical evidence against him.’
Schwinaman tied up two of his victims with nylon rope and taped another victim’s hands behind her back. In one case, Schwinaman broke through a window before attacking his victim.
Schwinaman’s DNA did not match that found on JonBenet’s clothes, but Whitson has said that he ‘always wore gloves’ while committing crimes. In an explosive twist, Schwinaman’s ex-partner has said she can’t give him ‘a 100 per cent’ alibi for the night of JonBenet’s death.
The Weirdest Theories Uncovered
During the two-decadelong search for JonBenet’s killer, an array of bizarre theories have surfaced about the case. Santa Claus came under suspicion by some – specifically a Father Christmas impersonator called Bill McReynolds.
Two nights before JonBenet’s death, he was at the Ramsey house dressed as the jolly old bearded man. He reportedly gave JonBenet a card that read: ‘You will receive a very special gift after Christmas.’
The message led some to believe he was the killer. M
cReynolds claimed he was innocent and he died in 2002. That wasn’t the only bizarre theory surrounding the case.
A 2014 YouTube video claimed that JonBenet’s murder was staged and the former child beauty queen is actually alive and well living as pop star Katy Perry. The video cited lyrics from Perry’s songs, and claimed that the two look alike. Finally, could a creature have killed JonBenet? Animal hairs were found on JonBenet’s body and on the duct tape covering her mouth, which led to some theories that an animal, such as an owl or a beaver, killed her. But that doesn’t explain who created the homemade garrotte around her neck.