Ten years later, it is a blur of morbid fascination and speculation, of gross misjudgments and disturbing suspicions, a torrent of bold type and flashing images that makes it difficult to remember the dark winter stillness in which it all started.
It was 5:22 a.m., the morning after Christmas, 1996 — the moment the story of JonBenet Ramsey simultaneously ended and began.
In the 15-room Tudor home at 755 15th St., Patsy Ramsey picked up the phone and dialed 911. Please help, she implored the Boulder police dispatcher; someone had stolen her little girl.
When police officers arrived at the home in the upscale Chautauqua neighborhood, not far from the University of Colorado campus, they were told they were looking for a 6-year-old with shining eyes and flowing blond hair, a diminutive beauty queen. They studied a ransom note found inside.
“Mr. Ramsey: Listen Carefully!” it began. “At this time we have your daughter in our possession. She is safe and unharmed, and if you want to see her in 1997, you must follow our instructions ...”
In that moment, the case, horrific as it was, was at least fairly straightforward. By afternoon, even that dubious bit of reassurance would be lost.
Nearly a decade has passed since then. But the uproar unleashed this past week by the arrest in Thailand of John Mark Karr, a 41-year-old itinerant teacher who says he killed JonBenet, makes it clear that fascination with the case, while it may have ebbed over time, has never really diminished.
And it provides just one more discomforting twist to a story that continues to both repulse and intrigue in a way that few other notorious cases have ever done.
“We move on (from other cases) because they get replaced. They’re almost generics. But how many involve victims of this degree of wealth? How many involve ... parents of victims who call press conferences (to) keep it alive?” says Andrew Vachss, a best-selling author of crime novels that are an outgrowth of a career spent defending the rights of children.
“It’s so bizarre on its surface ... and now you have this very forensic-minded public which you didn’t have before,” he said.
It is not at all clear that Karr is guilty. His confession appears pockmarked by inconsistencies. Doubts and questions have been raised about whether Karr, who has not lived in Colorado, was ever in the state, let alone at the time of the murder. Authorities, urging patience and caution, will not say whether DNA tests have revealed any connection.
It is all very strange. But looking back on the JonBenet case, is it also all too typical?
The doubt that now twists around the case took root hours after police reached the Ramsey’s home. As police searched the scene that Thursday afternoon, detectives allowed Patsy’s husband, John, to re-enter the house alone.
He emerged a few minutes later, JonBenet’s body limp in his arms.
That was the first of what would be criticized as a series of inept mistakes by investigators. It set the scene for the Ramseys to launch their own parallel campaign for clues, even as they straight-armed Boulder Police Chief Tom Koby’s department. And, as supermarket tabloids and cable networks swarmed over the case, a bizarre dynamic began to take shape.
“The family is cooperating,” a Boulder city spokeswoman assured reporters early on. “They are in Boulder under protective custody. They are not under house arrest.”
By New Year’s Eve, the Ramseys had hired an attorney, their own publicist and their own investigators. Soon, they drew into seclusion, shifting between friends’ homes week to week, their movements and possible motivations the subject of cover headlines in the tabloids.
“Cops: Mom Confesses ‘It’s My Fault’” cried the front page of The National Enquirer, two months after the murder.
Investigators began to signal their frustration. The case would take months to solve, Koby said.
Five months after the murder he would remove two detectives from the case, including the first one to arrive at the Ramsey home. Later, he would acknowledge mistakes had been made in the early going. Eventually, he would retire in disgrace.
As the months dragged on, little headway appeared to be made. Handwriting samples were taken from both of JonBenet’s parents. But their thrust and parry with investigators intensified, as the two sides negotiated publicly about where detectives would be allowed to interview the couple — at their home together or at the police station, recorded on tape.
Not until more than four months after the murder did they finally sit down with police for formal interviews. After that, it would be more than a year before the couple and their 9-year-old son, Burke — under the “umbrella of suspicion” along with his parents — were interviewed again.
Even as it began to appear that the murderer might never be identified, prosecutors seated a grand jury to examine the case in spring of 1998.
As the case entered its third year, the grand jury even sought records on the books that JonBenet’s parents bought. But in late 1999, prosecutors announced that no indictments would be issued, citing a lack of evidence. A former Boulder detective went on TV, declaring that she knew who the murderer was, but that the killer would never be brought to justice.
By the end of 2000 — four years after the murder — with investigators exhausted, vast amounts of time and money spent and no apparent progress made, many observers believed the case might never be solved.
“JonBenet Ramsey has been dead for 1,441 days,” wrote Chuck Green, a columnist for The Denver Post. “The investigation into her murder has been dead for just as long.”
That is the case that Mary Lacy inherited when she became the new district attorney for Boulder County, promising to revisit JonBenet’s death.
“I would expect her to carry out what I believe is her responsibility, which is to tell the public the plain and simple truth — that there is insufficient evidence to file charges against anyone, specifically John and Patsy Ramsey,” an attorney for the couple told reporters at the time.
Instead, the case entered a three-year period of relative quiet. In 2003, after the Ramseys moved to Georgia, a federal judge in Atlanta concluded that evidence in the case was far more suggestive that an intruder had killed JonBenet than one centering on her mother, who had become the prime suspect in many minds. Lacy agreed.
Still, the case appeared to be going nowhere. In 2004, tests on DNA found in JonBenet’s underwear were compared with a national database of offenders, with no match. This June, weeks before Karr’s arrest, Patsy Ramsey died of ovarian cancer.
Without an arrest, the story outwardly seemed to be winding down. But, behind the scenes it turns out investigators were piecing through a long chain of e-mails exchanged by a University of Colorado professor, Michael Tracey, and a stranger with a deep and increasingly disturbing interest in JonBenet’s death.