Twenty-six years since the unsolved killing of 6-year-old JonBenét Ramsey, one of the original prime suspects isn’t shunning the limelight. Instead, John Ramsey, now 79, wants to keep attention on what happened — even if people still believe he killed his daughter.
Ramsey is prominently featured in yet another documentary, Suburban Nightmare: JonBenét Ramsey, which premieres Dec. 21 on Tubi. He’s been speaking to local and national media, and he even took the stage at CrimeCon this spring, answering (mostly softball) questions in a huge ballroom filled with true crime enthusiasts.
So why invite more scrutiny into a case that’s been picked apart for decades in tabloids, internet forums, and even a Lifetime original movie? He wants it to be solved, Ramsey said, and he believes that DNA and other evidence exist that will identify a killer — and in the process, publicly exonerate him, his late wife and JonBenét’s mother, Patsy, and their son Burke.
“There's still things that need to be done and can be done, and we want to highlight them and bring pressure on the government to do the right thing,” he told me in a phone interview Friday.
Ramsey has made no secret of the fact that he believes the Boulder Police Department bungled the investigation, and he thinks the pressure he’s put on elected officials — backed by a petition he shared at CrimeCon — was a factor in the announcement last month that, for the first time, local authorities would be enlisting the help of a state cold case team.
“We've been trying to get the case out of the hands of the Boulder police because we think they're incompetent,” he said, “and so we asked the governor to intervene to get the ball rolling again.” Politicians, he said, “react to public pressure if it's big enough because they want to please their constituents, and so the media can help immensely in that role.”
In a way, he’s turning the tables on Boulder police, whose initial strategy, he claimed, was to “put intense pressure” on both him and Patsy in the hopes that one of them would confess.
“They literally concluded on the first day that I was the killer,” he said. “And then they switch[ed] to Patsy.” The police investigation hinged on their belief, Ramsey said, that “it's always the parents.”
In the aftermath of JonBenét’s death, Boulder police took advantage of the media attention on the case to amp up the pressure on him and his wife, Ramsey said.
“They used the media to do that,” Ramsey said. “They released a lot of misleading information — some false information — and then went about to collect evidence from the crime scene. … So a lot of misleading information went out to the media.”
Ramsey noted that JonBenét was killed just a year after O.J. Simpson went on trial for the grisly killings of his ex-wife and her friend. For the better part of a year, millions of Americans watched the gavel-to-gavel TV coverage (more than 100 million people, or 57% percent of the US adult population, watched the verdict being read live). Fledgling cable channels and mainstream news outlets flourished through the public’s insatiable interest in the sensational crime.
“Ours came along after the O.J. Simpson trial concluded, so there's a lot of bandwidth in the media created by that case, and now there was nothing to fill it,” Ramsey said.
Though some of the tabloid headlines about JonBenét’s death were fueled by speculation, there was enough evidence against the Ramseys for a grand jury to indict them. (Then–Boulder County District Attorney Alex Hunter refused to file charges, however.)
Not only were the Ramseys at home when their daughter was killed, but Patsy was the one who found the bizarre two-and-a-half-page ransom note, which police believed was written on one of the Ramseys’ notepads.
Incredibly, her parents didn’t search their own house thoroughly enough to find JonBenét's body themselves before notifying police that she’d been kidnapped. The initial police officers on the scene didn’t locate her either. It wasn't until a detective asked Ramsey hours later to search again himself that he found JonBenét’s body in the basement. He removed the tape on her mouth and tried to untie the ligatures before carrying the child’s body upstairs.
Although the Ramseys agreed to several interviews by police in the days after, their lawyers advised them against speaking publicly. “‘That's a very dangerous police department [that’s] made up their mind so quickly,’” Ramsey said their attorneys warned. “We didn't talk to media, they wouldn't let us talk to the media, and they didn't want us talking to the police.”
According to Ramsey, Mary Lacy, the district attorney who formally cleared the couple in 2008, later told him that “their whole case was based on their opinion that you didn't ‘act right’ that morning.”
“Keep in mind,” Ramsey said, “these are traffic cops that are there for the most part in our home. How could they make that judgment?”
Ramsey has been especially vocal in his criticism of detective Linda Arndt, who flagged as suspicious the fact that he was calmly reviewing the day’s mail (delivered through a mail slot) in the hours after they reported the child missing to police.
“My whole focus was on doing whatever I can to get her back. And I really thought I could, you know, raise the ransom money immediately. I just was so focused on that. And then the so-called detective that was there this morning wrote in a report that ‘John was very casual, he went through the mail.’ I was looking for more communication with the kidnapper — there's a pile of mail on the floor, [by the] front door, and I was going to the mail looking for … another communication from the kidnapper.
“She should've been doing that as a legitimate detective, which she was not. That was the whole case: We didn't ‘act right.’ Therefore they're guilty, one of them was guilty.”
More recently, Ramsey said he’s been “overwhelmed” by the support he’s received from the public, including the more than 29,000 signatures on the petition imploring Colorado Gov. Jared Polis “to move DNA decisions in this case away from the BPD to an independent agency.”
“There's enough people that are angry about it,” Ramsey said, “and demanding action, and all we're asking is for them to do more. Do their job. That's it. Period.”
When he presented the petition at CrimeCon, he wasn’t sure how people would react. “I expected a crowd that large would have hecklers,” Ramsey said. “And I've said to people, ‘Look, we could have this killer captured, confessed, and in prison, there'll still be 5% of the population that think we're guilty.’ That's just the way life is.”
When I asked him what he would say to people who still believe he’s involved in his daughter’s death, Ramsey referenced a proverb in the Bible.
“I couldn't understand why the police were so focused and didn't have any level of discernment. Or common sense. And the Bible calls them fools and said, ‘You cannot reason or ration with a fool with facts.’ Just leave them alone, keep them out of your life, and accept the fact that there are fools out there that… they're fools. You can't deal with it. Keep them out of your life.
“I guess what I've gotta realize, I'm dealing with fools in the Boulder Police Department. And I say that once your reputation is tarnished, either fairly or unfairly, it'll never go back to pure white. It's just a fact. So you just accept that. … And there's always going to be doubters. Same people that don't think there was a moon landing or that Elvis is still alive. You know?”
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