The photo that accompanies People magazine’s recent cover story on JonBenét Ramsey shows a corona of soft blond curls, a row of glistening baby teeth visible behind just-parted pink lips, and a pair of wide eyes gazing out from behind thick, dark lashes. At 6 years old, she has not just been given a woman’s hairstyle or clothes or makeup, but she’s been taught a woman’s stillness. She is not caught in motion, as children so often are in photographs. She seems conscious of no desire, no distraction, that will keep her from sitting still as her image is captured. She is letting us look at her.
For the past 20 years, the American public has never stopped looking at JonBenét Ramsey, and has never stopped looking for justice in her name: in primetime specials and TV movies, in best-selling true crime accounts and self-published screeds, in online communities that formed in the early days of dial-up and still thrive today, and in magazine and tabloid spreads that prompt readers to mourn, year after year, as if it were always a fresh assault on America, a CHILLING DISCOVERY, an UNTOLD STORY, the MURDER OF A LITTLE BEAUTY.
In 1996, Americans were still reeling from the trial of Susan Smith, a South Carolina woman who had been convicted, in July 1995, of drowning her toddler sons. Also still fresh was the O.J. Simpson trial, whose unprecedented gavel-to-gavel TV coverage had been a ratings bonanza the previous year, and which had seemed like it would go on forever until it ended in Simpson’s acquittal. The Internet, still in its infancy, gave viewers little opportunity to talk back to a media that both terrified and informed them. But the Simpson trial had helped to usher in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, and proved that viewers would seemingly watch anything, no matter how dull or inconclusive, so long as it related to a crime that fascinated them.
Though little more is known today than in 1996 about how the 6-year-old beauty pageant star died, a new wave of JonBenét-related media has nonetheless begun to crest in anticipation of the 20th anniversary of her murder. Earlier this month, Dr. Phil broadcast an interview with JonBenét’s brother, Burke Ramsey, who was 9 years old at the time of her death, and whose family once took pains to shield him from tabloid allegations that he was his sister’s killer. Though the Dr. Phil interview itself was newsworthy, it simply rehashed information that has long been public. The same week also saw the premiere of A&E’s The Killing of JonBenét: The Truth Uncovered and Dateline’s Who Killed JonBenét, though these specials were only a prelude to CBS’s two-part series The Case Of: JonBenét Ramsey,which aired Sept. 18–19. Yet so far, though investigative panels have been assembled and viewers continue to hold out for a break in the case, none of our return visits to the story have yielded the kind of information that would make it any less of a paradox.
Revisiting crimes and tabloid sensations has long been a staple of American media, and at its best can provide the public with a new sense of understanding, or even closure. Horror can even inspire nostalgia, if the source is understandable. And the more innocent the victim — the younger, the fairer, the richer, the whiter — the more horrendous the monster, and the stronger the forces of law and order prove themselves to be.
But even when it was first in the news, JonBenét Ramsey’s murder was never presented to the public in a single, coherent narrative. The clues the public clung to came from rumors and tabloids; what was a fact one day could be proved false the next, and often was. The case’s suspects frequently suffered far less from police pressure than from public attention. JonBenét’s mother, Patsy Ramsey, was never officially indicted or brought to trial, but for many viewers her guilt was never in question. Compounding the tabloid furor was JonBenét’s preternatural femininity, and the pervasive sense that her murder was somehow inexorably linked to her partial citizenship into the land of womanhood — and the mother who some argued pushed her there. Such a story combined the lurid with the pure in a way that forced Americans to imagine the unimaginable.
JonBenét Ramsey was 6 years old when she was murdered in her home in Boulder, Colorado, on Christmas night in 1996. JonBenét’s mother, Patsy Ramsey, told investigators she first noticed something was wrong when she woke up early the following morning to find a ransom note on the stairs.
Listen carefully! it instructed her. We are a group of individuals that represent a small foreign faction… At this time we have your daughter in our possession. She is safe and unharmed and if you want her to see 1997, you must follow our instructions to the letter.
Patsy Ramsey and her husband, John, claimed to have slept straight through the night. Patsy woke first, and told the police she hadn’t yet looked in on her daughter’s room when she found the ransom note. “And then,” as true crime writer Carlton Smith later put it in his book Death of a Little Princess, “in one of those moments when time seems to stop, the heart of Patsy Paugh Ramsey, former Miss West Virginia, about to be forty, the happy wife of a successful businessman, was shattered by a bolt of terrifying, unthinkable fear, the first step down the road that would alter her life forever.”
The ransom note found in the Ramsey home was shocking not just for its terms, but for their specificity. It demanded $118,000 in exchange for JonBenét’s life — the same amount as the salary bonus John Ramsey had recently received as president and CEO of Access Graphics, the billion-dollar subsidiary of Lockheed Martin. The note was also addressed only to John.
Any deviation of my instructions will result in the immediate execution of your daughter, the ransom note continued. You will also be denied her remains for a proper burial. … You stand a 99% chance of killing your daughter if you try to out smart us. Follow our instructions and you stand a 100% chance of getting her back. You and your family are under constant scrutiny as well as the authorities. Don’t try to grow a brain John. … Don’t underestimate us John. … It’s up to you now John!
Patsy called 911, and the police searched the Ramsey house but found nothing. By afternoon, they were certain enough that the scene would yield no further evidence that they told John to take one last look around, to see if he noticed anything unusual. Along with his friend Fleet White, John went into the basement, past the area where household odds and ends were kept, and into a small, windowless room the Ramseys called the wine cellar. It was there that John Ramsey found JonBenét’s body. She had suffered a skull fracture. She had been strangled. Her hands were bound. Her mouth had been covered with duct tape. And she had been wrapped in a white blanket.
John Ramsey pulled the duct tape from his daughter’s mouth and carried her body upstairs. The police told John to inform his wife of their daughter’s death, and he laid her body beside the family’s Christmas tree.
After news of the murder broke, police and press theories about the ransom note’s author proliferated dizzyingly: Patsy Ramsey woke up to find the note, or wrote one, or sat by as her husband wrote one, or woke to find a ransom note written by her husband, or maybe by her 9-year-old son Burke. “Some acquaintances wonder if all the attention lavished on JonBenét, however innocent and well meaning, hadn’t left brother Burke feeling slightly left out,” Bill Hewitt wrote in People magazine. Yet reporting that implicated other members of the family also returned to Patsy’s relationship with her daughter: Hewitt also quoted a photographer who worked with JonBenét, and who recalled Patsy saying, “This is not just my daughter, this is my best friend.” Even Boulder police Detective Steve Thomas would argue it was possible Patsy had punished JonBenét for a bed-wetting incident and lost control of her temper.
There are still websites and forums actively dedicated to discussing the minutiae of JonBenét Ramsey’s murder. Commenters debate and revisit everything from the significance of the movie posters in the Ramseys’ basement (“I think An Officer and a Gentleman would appeal more to Patsy”) to the size and brand of underwear JonBenét was wearing when she was murdered. But amateur detectives soon have to move beyond the physical evidence, which suggested much but ultimately said little: It was impossible for experts to state, conclusively, whether the handwriting on the ransom note matched Patsy Ramsey's, or whether JonBenét had been sexually assaulted in the past or on the night of the murder, or even whether the murder had been committed by an intruder or by those who lived in the house. Much was possible but little was known, and as a result, nearly every theory of the murder eventually had to make the leap into pure speculation. Often, for those who continue to debate the case, this means looking at the usual suspects, means analyzing photographs and video of the Ramsey family, means asking: Were they really grieving? Were they really monsters? And shouldn’t I be able to tell just by looking at them?
The JonBenét Ramsey Case Encyclopedia, an exhaustively sourced website that provides both a database of evidence and testimony and forums where visitors can discuss their own hunches, has an entire page reserved for theories about to how and why Patsy Ramsey killed her daughter. There’s the Boulder police–endorsed “Bed-Wetting Rage Theory,” but also the “Marital Rage Theory,” “John Caught in Act,” “Sexual Abuse by Patsy,” “Munchausen-by-proxy Syndrome,” “Child Pornography Ring,” and “Ritual Sacrifice.”
Taken in the aggregate, this speculation seems, finally, less about Patsy Ramsey herself than about people’s need to create a list of every scenario, no matter how outlandish, that could lead a mother to kill her own child in so brutal a fashion. A story where the most innocent victim imaginable is preyed upon by the darkest of forces is still better than no story at all: Grim as it is, it points the finger at a real villain. The worse JonBenét Ramsey’s death was, the greater the contrast between her innocence and the gruesomeness of her death, the greater the payoff when her killer can be caught, when justice can be served, at the long-awaited end of the story.
In the days following her daughter’s murder, Patsy Ramsey was often heavily sedated, sometimes to the point of delirium. In interviews from that period, she speaks weakly, haltingly, and the simple act of ordering a sentence seems to take every ounce of her will. She appears, simply, broken.
Questioned by the reporters who soon flocked to the town, Boulder residents remembered a very different woman. They described Patsy Ramsey as a glamorous and energetic mother who volunteered at her son’s elementary school even as she was undergoing chemotherapy, and who seemed determined to make her daughter as decorated a pageant queen as she had once been herself.
“Patsy was dynamic,” Robert Elmore, a parishioner at the Ramseys’ church, told author Lawrence Schiller. “She was a take-charge person with very definite ideas. And she had this living angel. JonBenét was an actual angel. I don’t remember ever seeing any child more beautiful.”
“Why couldn’t she have grown up?” Patsy asked Kristine Griffin, a high school senior who competed on the pageantry circuit and coached JonBenét, the day after the murder. “All Jonnie B ever wanted,” Patsy told her, “was to win a crown like yours.”
Yet there were some who wondered how interested JonBenét really was in the pursuit her mother loved so dearly. Even Griffin had noticed that JonBenét frequently gave her prizes away to participants who finished a pageant empty-handed. If she wasn’t forced into pageantry, she also didn’t seem to see it as anything more than a way to have fun, despite the titles she quickly amassed: Little Miss Sunburst, Little Miss Merry Christmas, Little Miss Colorado, National Tiny Miss Beauty.
For Patsy, who was crowned Miss West Virginia in 1977 and went on to compete at Miss America, JonBenét’s pageantry may have been a way to return to a world she knew better than any other — or at least thought she did. In The Death of Innocence, the memoir she co-wrote with her husband, Patsy fondly recalled how, as JonBenét prepared for the Little Miss Sunburst pageant in August 1996 — the month she turned 6 years old — Patsy asked her mother and sister to help her with a costume. They found, Patsy wrote, “a white satin cape and collar that could be made into a Ziegfeld Follies costume, reminiscent of the one I had worn in the Miss West Virginia Pageant some twenty years earlier. Like mother, like daughter.”
Days after JonBenét’s death, pageant organizers began selling videos of her performances to network affiliates. In particular, footage of JonBenét in what Patsy called the Ziegfeld Follies outfit captivated viewers: It showed her wearing a costume and performing a flirtatious routine that may have suited a young woman, but was jarring from a little girl. It also created an even more sensationalized narrative around JonBenét’s murder.
“When it emerged that the child had been a beauty pageant queen,” CNN’s Brian Cabell said at the time, “the story became sexier.”
It was around the same time that newspaper articles began to wonder whether JonBenét Ramsey could have been a victim of sexual assault on the night of the murder, and perhaps of ongoing sexual abuse in the months or even years prior to her death. The tabloids didn’t wonder so much as proclaim. A January 1997 issue of the National Enquirer promised to tell “The Untold Story” of “How Daddy's Little Girl Really Died,” the headline paired with a grainy photograph of JonBenét gazing up at some unseen figure, as if in fear. “We are learning more about the innocent lamb who was slaughtered,” a Hard Copy special promised viewers, before playing an exclusive clip of JonBenét’s appearance in the Little Miss Charlevoix County pageant.
The story wasn’t a solid-gold ratings draw until it was no longer about a murdered child, but about a murdered child-woman. Only then did tabloid reporters converge on Boulder in what one journalist described as a “gang bang”; only then did the story turn from a senseless tragedy to a morality play.
Rooted in the public’s enduring fascination with JonBenét’s pageantry was the idea that her murder was unavoidably connected to her apparent womanliness: that a woman was, inherently, even more vulnerable than a child. News stories that focused on JonBenét’s pageant involvement — what a Newsweek cover story called "The Strange World of JonBenét" — were taut with the suggestion that Patsy Ramsey had pushed her daughter into a dangerous world. And that she should have known better.
In the missing white woman cases the public knows so well (Chandra Levy, Natalee Holloway, and Brooke Wilberger, to name a very few), and whose hold on the American imagination remains undiminished, it is impossible to escape the symbolism of light versus dark. It is in the tabloid headline, in the detective’s remarks to the press, in the nightly news. The girl walked into the night, into the darkness, and then she was gone. She grew up just enough to leave her well-protected home, and as soon as she stepped into the hungry world, she was consumed. These are terrifying stories, but in these tellings they at least have rules: Stay where you belong and you won’t be hurt. But JonBenét Ramsey, too young to step into the dark world beyond her front door, was still consumed by darkness. As video of her pageant performances played on every channel, it was hard for viewers not to wonder if Patsy Ramsey, by making her little girl into a little woman, had invited that darkness home.
From the moment their daughter’s murder became national news, John and Patsy Ramsey’s actions only served to make them seem more suspicious. Rather than waiting for the police to take control, they deferred to their attorneys to advise them of their rights, and to do as much as possible to ensure that they did not make any statements or release any evidence to the police that might later be used against them at trial. Overwhelmingly, those who had begun to suspect the Ramseys pointed to this strategy as proof of their guilt. Less widely discussed was the fact that hiring a lawyer at the start of a murder investigation that would almost inevitably name you as a suspect was, simply, the only sensible thing to do.
John and Patsy Ramsey had yet to give a formal interview to the police as they prepared to transport JonBenét’s body to Atlanta for burial. As the Ramseys planned their daughter’s funeral, John Eller of the Boulder Police hit on what seemed like the ideal solution: withhold JonBenét’s body from her parents until they agreed to an interview. It did not occur to Eller, perhaps, that the ransom note Patsy Ramsey found in her home had made the same threat. Any deviation of my instructions will result in the immediate execution of your daughter, it said. You will also be denied her remains for proper burial.
JonBenét Ramsey’s body was ultimately released to her parents without their having to earn the right to bury their child by consenting to a police interview. She was buried wearing one of her pageant crowns.
The Boulder Police dedicated their resources to solving JonBenét Ramsey’s murder, investing in new technology, extensive testing, a dedicated task force, and experts who could help handle the unprecedented media attention the crime had provoked. Yet every answer investigators uncovered seemed to lead them only deeper into a tangle of uncertainties. One expert said JonBenét’s body indicated prior sexual abuse; another said the opposite. There was broken glass in a basement window on the night of the murder, but there were no fresh footprints in the snow. “SBTC,” the acronym used at the end of the ransom note, could mean “Subic Bay,” the naval base where John had once been stationed; or it could mean “Saved by the Cross,” a reference to Patsy Ramsey’s rumored belief that faith healing had cured her ovarian cancer; or it could stand for any of a thousand other things. There was no evidence at the crime scene sufficient to indicate the presence of an intruder, and there was no conceivable motive sufficient to explain why someone within the home might have committed the murder.
When John and Patsy Ramsey appeared on CNN on New Year’s Day, 1997, facing growing suspicion that they were responsible for their daughter’s death, their emotional state as they responded to interviewer Brian Cabell’s questions received far more scrutiny than the answers they gave.
“The police said there is no killer on the loose,” Cabell said. “Do you believe it’s someone outside your home?”
“There is a killer on the loose,” Patsy said. “I don’t know who it is. I don’t know if it’s a he or a she. But if I were a resident of Boulder, I would tell my friends to keep — keep your babies close to you.” Patsy’s voice was fragile, quiet, tearful. But she looked straight at the camera as she whispered, “There’s someone out there.”
It was hard to look at Patsy Ramsey in the days and weeks following her daughter’s murder. Sometimes, it was literally hard to look at her: hard to take in the specter of her pain without immediately molding it into a theory in which she had murdered her youngest child. Who else would grieve so extravagantly, show herself to the world in such a raw and traumatized state? Was it possible that this, too, was a form of torture to which the innocent were not immune?
“This child was the most precious thing in my life,” Patsy Ramsey told the police, after consenting to an interview. “Quit screwing around asking me this stuff and let’s find the person who did this.”
But there were no answers. Boulder police tested all the evidence they had, and found only inconclusive results. They availed themselves of the FBI; the FBI’s results were no better. Seemingly every possible suspect outside the home had an ironclad alibi. There was little to do but suspect the parents. The investigation continued. The public’s outrage grew.
“You need to know that tonight you should feel safe,” the principal of JonBenét’s school told her classmates soon after her death. “What happened doesn’t usually happen in Boulder.”
“JonBenét’s parents would have told her that too,” one child replied.
Some adults tried to reassure their children; others admitted it was all they could do to try and reassure themselves. “When I think about JonBenét Ramsey,” James R. Gaines wrote in Time, “it is not a matter of prurient curiosity; I’m wondering what to believe in … whether this is the work of the darkest evil imaginable or a more or less random act of malice and greed gone awry. Evil on this scale is impossible to comprehend. To know who murdered JonBenét Ramsey is to know what world we live in, where we are.”
In her CNN appearance, even Patsy Ramsey described JonBenet’s death not just as a personal loss, but as part of an overarching sense that Americans had lost something larger, perhaps irrevocably.
“You know, America has just been hurt so deeply,” Patsy said, “with the — this — the tragic things that have happened. The young woman who drove her children into the water, and we don’t know what happened with the O.J. Simpson — and I mean, America is suffering because we have lost faith in the American family.”
“The young woman who drove her children into the water” was Susan Smith, a 23-year-old South Carolina woman who, in October 1994, drowned her toddler sons, then claimed a black man had carjacked her. When the manhunt ended, and the blame for the children’s death jumped from a black man to a white woman, Susan Smith’s trial became one of the most widely followed crime stories of that year.
Smith became a living symbol of all a mother must never imagine doing to her children, of all a human being simply could not be. After she was found guilty, Entertainment Tonight held a call-in poll where viewers, for 50 cents a vote, could say whether they believed she deserved to die in the electric chair. Yet Smith’s trial, as “unimaginable” as her crimes were, still ended in a life sentence. At the end of the story, viewers could reassure themselves that evil had been found and vanquished, despite its clever hiding place, and order had been restored.
Twenty years after JonBenét Ramsey’s death, the American public remains convinced that the authorities in Boulder failed. Those who watched as the investigation unfolded expected it, inevitably, to name a killer, bring them to trial, find them guilty, and push them out of society forever, into the darkness and out of the light. This was the story Americans were used to, the story that had come, by then, to seem less like a form of tabloid entertainment than a constitutional right. Yet the JonBenét Ramsey investigation failed to provide it — and though the Ramseys’ legal and financial resources may have been what kept them from being charged, this also doesn’t serve as proof of their guilt. If they had been less savvy, less well-connected, and simply less wealthy, investigators may have had more leeway to bolster their theories with inconclusive evidence, and act in accordance not with the facts, but with public outrage and fear. To have brought such a case to trial would have indicated nothing more sinister than the need to provide a sense of order for the public. It also could have led to a wrongful conviction, so long as enough people were willing to believe that any answer was better than none.
Whether or not Patsy was guilty of loving JonBenét in a way that objectified and dehumanized her, the American public certainly was. Throughout the media frenzy surrounding JonBenét Ramsey’s murder, Americans did their best to invent a story that forced her death to make sense, and gave her a role as an angelic symbol of all that darkness will take from us, if we let it. A society can’t be sure of its skill at enforcing order and defeating monsters if these monsters do not claim the occasional victim.
Deprived of a trial, deprived of a verdict, deprived even of a coherent story, the American public has had no way to turn the horror of a child’s murder into the beginning of a fairy tale. Which is why the desperation for an end to the story still remains — an end where JonBenét, the fairest of them all, is still dead, but all she symbolizes is safe again, since the monster singularly evil enough to threaten it has been slain. The understanding of the case the public is still searching for, and which the onslaught of anniversary-related media is still desperate to supply, is the one where the story ends, where order is restored, and where Americans finally secure “justice for JonBenét.”
In America today, “justice” can mean almost anything. In this case, it does not mean that JonBenét Ramsey will come back to life, that she will grow up, that she will experience the childhood she had barely begun. It means, instead, that her death will finally be part of a story that makes sense, and that gives the public the sense of comfort that only such a story can provide. This is the version of justice the public has been seeking for the last 20 years: justice not just for JonBenét Ramsey, but for ourselves.
Sarah Marshall's nonfiction has appeared in The Believer, The New Republic, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2015, and The Week, where she is a contributing writer.