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JonBenet Murder Mystery Solved? (Not by Psychics)

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.4, July/August 2017

On the day after Christmas 1996, child beauty-pageant star JonBenet Ramsey, age six, was found dead—garroted and her skull broken—in the basement of her family’s home in Boulder, Colorado. As police vied with the district attorney’s office over incompatible theories, the mystery of the little girl’s death became a national media sensation, but it never led to an arrest. The case is a complex puzzle—not only with many pieces to sort out and fit into place but with some bogus pieces tossed into the mix.

I have worked privately on this case over the years. Unfortunately, I lacked the direct access (to police files, crime-scene evidence, etc.) that I had when I was enlisted to investigate homicide cases (e.g., Nickell 2007; Nickell with Fischer 1992, 107–129; Nickell and Fischer 1999, 39). Still, much essential evidence in the Ramsey case has now become publicly available. What I present here is not an accusation but an exercise in trying to select and interpret the best evidence for “One of the greatest unsolved crimes in history” (Murder2016).

Death of JonBenet

At about 5:52 am on December 26, the girl’s mother, Patsy Ramsey, called 911 to report her daughter missing—although a ransom note Mrs. Ramsey had found on the kitchen stairs warned that alerting authorities would result in her daughter being killed; ditto talking to anyone else, although she also called friends.

Responding to the emergency call, two police officers arrived separately at 755 Fifteenth Street and looked around, but they did not see any evidence of breaking and entering.

The ransom note was addressed to JonBenet’s father, John Ramsey (see below).

The patrol sergeant called for additional officers, a crime-scene investigation (CSI) crew, and what are known as victim advocates to comfort and assist the Ramseys. Unfortunately, the house was not vacated and guarded as a crime scene, and a Ramsey friend, Fleet White, even went looking in the basement. In a large room with a model railroad, he saw a broken window, picked up a piece of glass, putting it on the ledge, and moved a suitcase to look for other pieces. He had unthinkingly altered part of the crime scene (although it would be learned that John Ramsey had himself broken the window on an earlier occasion, when he had locked himself out of the house). Also, an advocate followed behind a fingerprint technician, using spray cleaner to tidy up as he finished with the area (Ramsey with Chapian 2012, 12; Thomas with Davis 2000, 18–27).

About one o’clock that afternoon, detective Linda Arndt initiated a further search with White and Ramsey. Ignoring her suggestion to begin at the top floor and work their way down, Ramsey headed straight for the basement, “a warren of rooms, closets, nooks, and crawl spaces” (Thomas with Davis 2000, 27). There, in a little room lacking a window, he discovered the lifeless body of JonBenet. She lay face up with her arms extended above her head. She was dressed in a white knit top and white long underwear over an “oversized” pair of floral-print panties. A pink nightgown was in the white blanket that she was neatly tucked into (Wecht and Bosworth 1998, 23; Thomas with Davis 2000, 28, 42; Douglas and Olshaker 2000, 284; Gentile and Wright 2003, 306). Ramsey ripped off duct tape covering her mouth, picked up the stiffened little body, and—carrying it upstairs—placed it on the floor close to the front door. Arndt noticed the smell of decomposition when she reached to the neck to feel for a pulse. Ramsey put a quilt over the body, and someone covered the feet with a sweatshirt. He lay down to put his arm around the dead child and stroked her hair, while Patsy came and fell across the body. All of these actions, and more, seriously compromised any future evidence collecting (Thomas with Davis 2000, 27–30; Wecht and Bosworth 1998, 22–26).

The following day, when the coroner began to autopsy the forty-five-pound corpse, he saw a loop of white cord loosely around the right wrist and a loop on the opposite end as if it had previously secured the left wrist as well. A length of similar white cord was wrapped tightly about the neck, and a piece of broken artist’s paintbrush was in place where it had been used as a twisting handle for the garrote. (It was later found to have come from a brush belonging to Patsy Ramsey and to match a piece of the brush’s bristle end, although the bottom third was never discovered1 [Gentile and Wright 1993, 211].) Slivers from the broken paintbrush were found on the floor of the room where the body was found, indicating it was the site of the garroting (Killing 2016). The upper right side of the little girl’s skull had been caved in by a severe blow, leaving a rectangular imprint.

Among other findings were a heart drawn with red ink on the left palm, an empty stomach (but the upper digestive tract contained bits of pineapple), and, at the hymeneal opening, an abrasion. Petechial (pinpoint) hemorrhaging in the eyelids indicated her heart was still pumping at the time the choking occurred (Thomas with Davis 2000, 41–43). More on this later.

Search for an Outsider

While from the outset the Boulder police suspected the Ramseys, District Attorney Alex Hunter commissioned retired homicide detective Lou Smit to conduct an independent investigation. Like the Ramseys, he was very religious and prayed with them (Ramsey with Chapian 2012, 124–126).

Shortly after entering the case, Smit embraced the theory that an outsider—a pedophile targeting the child beauty queen—was responsible (Douglas and Olshaker 2000, 319). He found an unlocked grate and window leading to the basement. Although the window was small and still partially covered by an intact spider web (Case2016), he stubbornly defended this as an entry point for an intruder. (When he himself went through the space to test his theory, the film shows his trim body spanning the entire width of the window [Killing 2016].)

Although JonBenet did not suffer penile penetration (some experts concluded the frontal vaginal redness and abrasion could have been due to her known vaginitis or even rough wiping), Smit had a theory. He thought the offender had entered the child’s bedroom and used a stun gun to immobilize her, based on certain odd markings on her body. The use of a stun gun or taser only made sense in terms of an outsider scenario, and, if proved, would seem to clear the Ramseys.

However, Stephen Tuttle, an expert on the brand of taser (Air Taser) that was supposedly identified, stated that the only similarity was the spacing between the two marks on JonBenet’s back. Only a single mark appeared on the side of her face. “We have never seen those types of marks when you touch somebody with a stun gun,” Tuttle said. “We are talking hundreds of people that have been touched with these devices. I can’t replicate those marks” (Anderson 2001; see also Case2016). Famed criminalist Henry Lee and others suggested the set of paired marks on her body was caused by the ends of a segment of the basement’s toy-railroad track being poked at her, perhaps in an attempt to rouse her from unconsciousness (Killing 2016).

Smit had suggested that after supposedly rendering JonBenet unconscious (which the Air Taser would not do, according to its expert [Anderson 2001]), the perpetrator set about his nefarious work: He taped her mouth, carried her to the basement, choked her in an erotic fantasy, and sexually abused her digitally (Douglas and Olshaker 2000, 319).

Smit amassed other evidence for the outsider scenario—DNA traces on 
her clothing, for example, as well as a single pubic hair on her blanket, an unidentified palm print discovered on the door, and some other possible evidence. Boulder police and several experts tended to regard such evidence as doubtful and likely due to contamination (Douglas and Olshaker 2000, 319–320; Case2016).

As to the bizarre ransom note, Smit believed the intruder had written it after first entering and exploring the house. Then he hid until the family returned home and waited until all were asleep before going to JonBenet’s bedroom. To say the least, the combined ransom and molestation scenario appears farfetched—especially to skeptics of the outsider hypothesis who rely on evidence that the ransom note was written after the child’s death—strong corroborative evidence that it was an inside job.

An Insider’s Work

Of course the outsider hypothesis disappears like a phantom if JonBenet’s mother wrote the ransom note. Let’s revisit the peculiar text.

A “foreign faction” indeed. The note is wordy (“At this time we have your daughter in our possession,” rather than simply, “We have your daughter”). It is replete with irrelevancies and implausibilities, and even borrows expressions from the 1994 movie Speed (whose extortionist character played by Dennis Hopper says, “You know that I’m on top of you. Do not attempt to grow a brain”) and the 1971 Clint Eastwood movie Dirty Harry (which has the lines, “If I even think you’re being followed, the girl dies. If you talk to anyone, I don’t care if it’s a Pekinese . . . the girl dies”). The amount of ransom asked for was almost exactly that of a bonus John Ramsey had previously received (Cheer and Rahman 2016).

This laughably phony ransom note was surely not part of any kidnapping. It only makes sense as a staged element in a cover-up of the killing. But who wrote the two-and-a-half-page contrivance?

Early on, police did not think the Ramseys were acting normally. Detective Arndt said John Ramsey was oddly “cordial” when he greeted her. Also, the couple did not try to console each other. Officers found it suspicious that Burke, almost ten, was still in his room. One saw Patsy Ramsey, although sobbing, slyly watching them through splayed fingers (Killing 2016).

Police soon discovered that the note was written on a notepad belonging to Patsy Ramsey. One leaf in the pad (number 26) has the beginning of an earlier draft, “Mr. and Mrs.,” followed by a downstroke that was likely the beginning of an R. Leaves 17–25 were missing, but the ink writing from leaf 25 had bled through onto 26, suggesting that some of the last of those leaves could have been used for still another draft. Finally, leaves 27–29 matched the ragged top edges of the ransom note, proving they came from Patsy Ramsey’s notepad (Thomas with Davis 2000, 73).

Of seven fingerprints found on the writing pad, one was left by a police sergeant, another came from a forensic examiner, and the remaining five were those of Patsy Ramsey. The ink of the writing on the ransom note exactly matched that of a black water-based ink Sharpie that also belonged to Mrs. Ramsey—according to the U.S. Secret Service document laboratory (where I was once given a VIP tour). The lab maintains a federally mandated Ink Library containing many thousands of reference samples (Thomas with Davis 2000, 54, 152). (Recall that the wood used for the garrote came from a paintbrush that belonged to her as well.) And there was much more.

Forensic Document Examination

As to the all-important handwriting of the note, some sources have asserted that it was never linked to Patsy Ramsey. That is untrue. Others—John Ramsey, of course, and son Burke—were ruled out as authors, but she was not. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation compared her handwriting samples to the writing on the note, but there were problems. The questioned writing, for one thing, lacks the smoothness (from good motor control) of Mrs. Ramsey’s normal writing (see for yourself at Gentile and Wright 2003, 399–407). During a fourth session with her, however, in 1997, the forensic document experts had a surprise: they asked her to write a specimen using her left hand.

The result was striking. One leading expert—one I know personally and regard as absolutely top tier—gave a very definite opinion, identifying Patsy Ramsey as the author: “I am absolutely certain that she wrote the note.” He is Gideon Epstein,2 who began his career as Chief of the Questioned Document Division, U.S. Army, then became Senior Forensic Document Examiner with the National Laboratory Center, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. He established the Immigration and Naturalization Service Forensic Document Laboratory in 1980, where he then served until retiring in 2000. A past president of the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners and a fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Science, he is now in private practice in Rockville, Maryland.According to Epstein’s sworn testimony, “The handwriting on the ransom note is a classic example of an attempt to disguise the true handwriting habits of the writer” (Epstein 2002, 97–98). Epstein, referring to “the poor line quality of the ransom note writing,” added that while stress could have played a factor, “I felt there was more evidence of a conscious attempt to disguise” (Epstein 2002, 98–99). Regarding his examination of Patsy Ramsey’s handwriting in comparison to that of the ransom note he stated: “After I concluded that examination, which was more than 1150 hours of work, I felt that I had identified sufficient significant handwriting characteristics with no significant differences.” He went on to emphasize that regarding another examiner’s finding of some alleged differences between Patsy Ramsey’s writing and that of the note: “There are no significant differences. There are variations to the same basic handwriting patterns, but there are no significant differences” (Epstein 2002, 89).

Scenario of Death

The identification of Patsy Ramsey as author of the pseudo–ransom note points directly to one of the Ramseys. I have always doubted, however, that either of the parents was the killer. Among other reasons, I question why one would conspire to protect a guilty other. But both, I have always thought, would be quick to protect their son Burke. One can easily understand how—having lost one child—they would join to prevent losing another. Might the never-identified acronym, “S.B.T.C.,” written below the word “Victory!” on the fake ransom note, stand for “Save Burke Through Christ”?

While police focused largely on the Ramseys, Patsy seemed the most suspected, Burke the least. The District Attorney’s office bought into Smit’s intruder notions, and—while a grand jury recommended indicting John and Patsy (for child abuse resulting in JonBenet’s death)—D.A. Alex Hunter concluded there was insufficient evidence for filing charges. In 2008, his successor, Mary Lacy, actually sent the Ramseys a letter rashly declaring them “completely cleared” and apologizing for their treatment. The following year the Boulder police reclaimed the case, reopening the investigation (Killing 2016).

Let us pause here to review the cause of death, which according to the autopsy report (Meyer 1996) was “asphyxia by strangulation associated with craniocerebral trauma.” Those who have suspected Patsy Ramsey have postulated that she may have injured her daughter in a fit of rage in which the child’s head hit against, say, the bathtub; the ligature followed later, as part of the staging of the scene (see e.g., Thomas with Davis 2000, 286–287). Actually, although it is not precisely certain which trauma came first, the petechial hemorrhages—such as on the insides of the eyelids—together with relatively minimal bleeding from the head blow, are indications that the strangulation occurred first (Wecht and Bosworth 1998, 254–256; Douglas and Olshaker 2000, 285; Schiller 1999, 156, 467).

This would seem to be confirmed by the presence of short curved marks on JonBenet’s neck, thought to have been left by her fingernails as she clawed at the cord in a vain attempt to relieve the choking (Killing 2016). But this remains controversial.

If the strangulation did precede the head blow, then the garroting was not done as staging; it may also not have been intended to kill. Famed pathologist Cyril Wecht calls attention to the little-discussed practice of auto-erotic asphyxiation, usually carried out by males attempting to “heighten the sexual experience during masturbation.” In the case of JonBenet, Wecht postulates “an extraordinary act—a vicarious form of auto-erotic asphyxiation.” As he explains, “Someone had found sexual stimulation by forcing JonBenet to experience the terribly uncomfortable and even terrifying effect of this near strangulation; at least it was supposed to be near strangulation” (Wecht and Bosworth 1998, 58–62).

However, such activity is inherently dangerous: If the vagus nerve (extending from the brain along either side of the neck and controlling many body organs) is pinched and its electrical messages interrupted, respiratory and cardiac functions may cease. Thus JonBenet’s death “would have been inexplicable to the one who had ignorantly applied the fatal pressure to her neck” (Wecht and Bosworth 1998, 61).

While Wecht thought the assailant was “probably an adult,” males as young as nine are known to have engaged in sexual asphyxia (Brody 1984), and Burke was only a month shy of ten. Also there is a nonsexual practice among some children as young as six (largely but not exclusively males) involving strangulation either by oneself or by another. It is called the “choking game” and is intended to cause a brief state of euphoria. (It is also called the “pass-out game,” “blackout game,” “space monkey,” scarf game,” and other names. It is known at least as early as 1995 [Russell et al. 2008].)

Nevertheless, in the Ramsey case, a sexual element seems established by the autopsy. Although JonBenet had not been raped per se, the evidence, insists Wecht—some non-extensive abrasion and damage to the hymen—indicated sexual molestation by a slender object such as a finger (Wecht and Bosworth 1998, 94–99). Some “birefringent foreign material” in the vagina led to speculation that it came from a shard (of varnish perhaps) from the broken paintbrush (from which a piece was used for the garrote, the end section having gone missing) (Meyer 1996; Thomas with Davis 2000, 305; cf. Wecht and Bosworth 1998, 97).

There are both further evidence and credible speculations that the assailant could have been Burke Ramsey. Police observed a bowl of JonBenet’s favorite fruit, fresh pineapple (bits of which, we recall, were found in her upper small intestine), on a breakfast-room table. It bore Burke’s fingerprints (and those of his mother). Possibly Burke had enticed his sister from her room and suggested some secret play in the labyrinthine basement, leading the way with a large flashlight that police observed before it later disappeared from the kitchen counter. Renowned pathologist Werner Spitz thought it could have been the murder weapon (Thomas with Davis 2000, 192, 239). Police photographed a dictionary on a coffee table in the first-floor study, opened and with the lower left page corner creased so as to point to the word Incest (Thomas with Davis 2000, 263). This suggests the Ramseys tried to see if the sexual explorations between their beauty-queen daughter (whom many felt was being sexualized by her mother) and their precocious son fit that label. It is worth mentioning that Burke and JonBenet occasionally slept in the other’s bedroom—as acknowledged by Patsy Ramsey in her first interview with police (Gentile and Wright 2003, 91).

The perpetrator may have passed out himself and then—finding JonBenet unresponsive—became alarmed. He may have first tried to revive her by shaking her (Wecht saw evidence of this from bruises to the brain’s temporal lobes [Wecht and Bosworth 1998, 100]), then by poking her (with, say, the toy train track). Finally, in despair and rage he could have hit her with the flashlight. In time, he might be expected to run to his parents. The piercing scream heard by a neighbor—between midnight and two am December 26—was probably not from a child, as the neighbor thought, but Patsy Ramsey, who was given to such outbursts (Thomas with Davis 2000, 29, 71–72), when she first saw her little girl dead.

Psychic Connection

If this hypothesis is correct, it helps explain why the case has gone unsolved for twenty years. It has been widely acknowledged as extremely difficult. But if one finds the explanation bizarre (Wecht knew many would find the sexual asphyxia aspect shocking), that is not so surprising after all. I have a saying, “An unusual case may have an equally unusual solution.”

In any case, during the twenty years of mystery and controversy, we must ask, where were the psychics? Could not those who profess to help police solve crimes tell us what really happened to JonBenet Ramsey?

The fact is, psychics frequently tried to insinuate themselves into the Ramsey case. A lead detective on the case, Steve Thomas, tells us that—before politicization of the case and frustration with the Ramseys prompted him to resign—“a Beverly Hills psychic left multiple hours-long voice mail messages for me.” This was only one aspect of an avalanche of “unsolicited theories, possible suspects, and hate mail.” In addition, “Sketch artists offered everything from a Michael Jackson look-alike to ‘the Fly’ as the culprit,” and “Internet groupies passed along their ideas” (Thomas with Davis 2000, 111, 330–341).

I was already closely following the Ramsey case when in 1998 my friend, the great entertainer and author Steve Allen, sent me “a quick note, while on the usual run.” He mentioned “an alleged psychic,” consulted in unsolved deaths “such as the JonBenet case,” who had appeared on the previous day’s (April 27, 1998) LEEZA (Leeza Gibbons’s show). As Steve suggested, I obtained a copy of the program and learned it was a psychic I was quite familiar with, having been featured in my book, Psychic Sleuths (1994, 12, 42–59, 214, 238).

Her name was Dorothy Allison. From Nutley, New Jersey, she was a high-profile pretend psychic, with a string of failures to her credit, although one would think otherwise from her claims. Allison told Leeza’s audience that JonBenet’s parents were “absolutely not” involved and that the actual killer was a former Ramsey handyman. She said she saw “connections” to Germany and Georgia, the numbers 2-8-9, and the names “Martin” and “Irving”—the latter, she said, being “the one I think that did this” (the murder). Allison worked with a police artist to create a drawing of the alleged killer (Nickell 2004, 252–257).

Shrewd psychics use a number of tricks to give the illusion they have visionary powers. Some obviously research cases, then use their best guesses to say something believable. A technique called “retrofitting” (after-the-fact matching) is often employed: The psychic offers several vague “clues,” trusting that after the true facts are known some may seem correct or they may be interpreted to fit, while those that do not are conveniently forgotten. Even sincere—but generally fantasy-prone—psychics can unintentionally fool themselves and others by saying whatever pops into their mind, since credulous people tend to count the hits and ignore (or favorably interpret) the misses.

None of Allison’s “clues” seemed to be of any help to law enforcement. The Boulder police noted that no one outside the Ramsey family was likely to have been involved in the death of JonBenet. Years passed, and in 2006, a forty-one-year-old man named John Mark Karr gained much attention when, arrested in Thailand, he “confessed” he was JonBenet’s long-sought killer. The credulous rushed to try to link Karr with the late Mrs. Allison’s pronouncements and drawing, claiming the resemblance of the latter to Karr was impressive. In fact, it was anything but (Nickell 2006). Moreover, neither DNA nor handwriting—or anything else—linked Karr to the crime scene, and he could not be placed in Colorado on or about December 26, 1996 (Fisher 2016). There were other false confessions as well (Ramsey with Chapian 2012, 173–174).

Other psychics fared no better than Allison. Most adopted one of the prevailing theories. For example, online psychic Marie Saint Clair saw an intruder, likely “homeless or a drifter” as supposedly indicated by “his bare feet”—but for which there was no evidence (“Can Psychics” 2016). One “consulting group,” PSI TECH, used what they term “Technical Remote Viewing” (TRV), “a breakthrough mind technology that allows a trained operative to consistently obtain accurate intuitively derived information, on demand” (“PSI TECH” 2016). The technique resulted in psychic-sounding impressions presented with jargon (“base line data points”). Among the “conclusions” was that the “murderer” worked in “an industrial plant located in a generally NE to SE direction from the murder site” (“Can Psychics” 2016). Of course there was no intruder, so all this was worthless.

Still other psychics focused on the Ramseys. For instance, Elizabeth Joyce from Chalfont, Pennsylvania, claimed, “JonBenet Ramsey’s mother’s spurned lover killed the baby beauty queen as retribution for his rejection” (“Can Psychics” 2016). Again, Amy Venezia, a “psychic medium” who says she speaks with dead celebrities, claimed to receive spirit communication from JonBenet. Allegedly, Patsy was jealous of her daughter and was sexually abusing her, while some “secret cabal” was behind the child’s “ritualistic” murder (“Did a Psychic” 2016).

We could continue, but perhaps this is enough to indicate the uselessness of psychics in the Ramsey case. The hypothesis I have presented—not an accusation but simply the most likely scenario provided by the best evidence—has led us where psychics never went. Hopefully, one day we shall know how close it is to the truth. Meanwhile, Ramsey family lawyer L. Lin Wood is suing—on behalf of Burke Ramsey—famed pathologist Werner Spitz (author of a major forensic textbook [Spitz 1993]). The $150 million defamation lawsuit stems from Spitz’s participation on a CBS documentary (Case2016) and other statements he was quoted as making (Stockman 2016).

Spitz advances Burke Ramsey as the killer and his parents as participants in a cover-up. My own hypothesis goes further, focusing on what must be seen as crucial: whether the blow to the head preceded or followed the garroting. If the latter, then the garrote was the probable unintentional cause of death. I think it unlikely the Ramseys added such a gruesome and unnecessary element to the corpse of their beloved child. If I am right, the death may not actually have been a murder after all, and the Ramseys only guilty of protecting their son.



Notes
  1. 1 The following were known to be missing from the house, in addition to the end piece of the paintbrush handle: the roll of black duct tape; a ransom-note practice page; and the presumed remainder of the white cord used in the bondage—all presumably removed as part of the cover-up (Douglas and Olshaker 2000, 73–74; Killing 2016).
  2. 2 I met with Gideon Epstein (then with the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization) and Antonio Cantu (U.S. Secret Service) after they invited me for a VIP tour of their respective document laboratories, October 25, 1996, all of us having been involved in the case of Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk.


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Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.