The unsolved murder of JonBenét Ramsey in 1996 made headlines again last week, when the Boulder Police Department and Boulder County district attorney’s office in Colorado sent out a news release announcing an “update about the ongoing homicide investigation.” For the first time, the local agencies said they would be enlisting the help of a state cold case team, as well as consulting with private DNA laboratories about the decades-old murder investigation.
“As in any cold case homicide, the investigation can always benefit from the perspective of outside experts,” authorities said in a statement. “So, in addition to talking with the private DNA labs, the Boulder Police Department will be consulting with the Colorado Cold Case Review Team in 2023.”
BPD’s handling of the case has been criticized from the start, most vocally by John Ramsey, JonBenét’s father. He and his wife Patsy and their son, Burke, were long viewed as suspects but were officially cleared by Boulder prosecutors in 2008 — two years after Patsy’s death from cancer. Boulder County’s then–district attorney Mary Lacy proclaimed that “touch” DNA found on the waistband of the 6-year-old girl’s long johns and samples taken from her underwear and fingernails all came from the same source — someone who wasn’t a member of the Ramsey family. (Touch DNA comes from minute skin cells or other biological material transferred during physical contact. It’s not visible to the naked eye, and analysts must rely to a certain extent on guesswork; JonBenét’s killer could have touched her waistband while undressing and dressing her, or the DNA could have come from another person who touched the clothing at another time.)
But DNA experts have questioned Lacy’s decision, and the Boulder Daily Camera noted in 2016 that “the findings don’t implicate or exonerate anyone in the family.”
“Two of the three samples that led Lacy to declare publicly that no one in the Ramsey family could be responsible for the murder actually appear to include genetic material from at least three people” — and could even be “a result of inconsequential contact,” said DNA experts who reviewed laboratory results and reports from the Ramsey case for the Daily Camera and 9News.
Last year, Boulder police said that their Major Crimes Unit, working closely with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, had found no matches despite analyzing nearly 1,000 DNA samples. The department pledged to continue to use the latest DNA technology — including genetic genealogy — and regularly run the samples against new profiles uploaded to DNA databases.
But that hasn’t been enough for John Ramsey, who took the stage at CrimeCon this summer to pressure police to retest the evidence. He also expressed frustration that investigators were not taking advantage of modern DNA techniques. Ramsey exhorted members of the packed ballroom to sign a petition calling on Colorado Gov. Jared Polis to hand over decision-making power regarding DNA evidence from local police to an independent agency.
“The government moves based on public pressure. Our government is reactive,” John Ramsey said at CrimeCon. “And we need to apply pressure to the government to do the right thing.”
Polis has not commented on the case — but Ramsey has said he believes that this week’s update from police is a result of that pressure.
"It appears the governor’s office has brought pressure on the Boulder police to finally accept help from outside to solve the murder of our daughter Jon Benet,” Ramsey said in a statement to Fox News on Nov. 10. “We have been fighting and praying for this almost from the beginning when it became obvious the Boulder police department was not equipped or experienced to deal with the unthinkable murder of an innocent child."
But Boulder police cautioned in their news release that they haven’t yet agreed to retest the DNA found on JonBenét’s body and clothing because additional analysis could destroy it:
“The amount of DNA evidence available for analysis is extremely small and complex. The sample could, in whole or in part, be consumed by DNA testing. In collaboration with the CBI and the FBI, there have been several discussions with private DNA labs about the viability of continued testing of DNA recovered from the crime scene and genetic genealogy analysis. Those discussions will continue. Whenever there is a proven technology that can reliably test forensic samples consistent with the samples available in this case, additional analysis will be conducted.”
John Ramsey has remained unsatisfied with the explanation.
“Waiting for the next generation of DNA technology is silly,” he said in an interview Friday with Denver’s 9News. Ramsey has maintained for decades that an unknown intruder killed his daughter, citing the unidentified DNA found at the crime scene as proof, and he believes that identifying where the touch DNA came from could provide a new suspect. For years, investigators had focused on John and Patsy Ramsey, saying publicly they remained under an “umbrella of suspicion.”
Officially, authorities have backtracked on that line of investigation.
"To the extent that we may have contributed in any way to the public perception that you might have been involved in this crime, I am deeply sorry," Lacy, the Boulder district attorney, wrote in a letter to John Ramsey in 2008. "No innocent person should have to endure such an extensive trial in the court of public opinion."
When speaking to 9News on Friday, Ramsey described the devastation he has experienced, not just from his daughter’s death, but what happened in the years afterward.
“I lost my job, our life savings depleted … That was not a function of the killer. It was the function of the police department, and the information that they put out was misleading and false and the media picked it up and ran with it and basically convicted us in the court of public opinion,” he said.
Asked by 9News whether he thinks the case will ever be solved, Ramsey said, “Not if it stays in the hands of Boulder Police, I don’t. I really don’t.”