In Depth

Who killed JonBenet Ramsey?

Twenty years on, the murder of a six-year-old beauty queen continues to fascinate

On Boxing Day morning in 1996, Patsy Ramsey came down the stairs of her home in Boulder, Colorado, and found a ransom note from a kidnapper demanding $118,000 for the safe return her six-year-old daughter, JonBenet. When she discovered that JonBenet was not in her bedroom, Patsy called the police.

Later that day, JonBenet's father John was searching the basement of the large house when he made the gruesome discovery of his daughter's body. The six-year-old's hands were bound and her mouth covered with duct tape. She had been struck on the head and strangled with a garrotte made from cord and the broken handle of a paintbrush belonging to her mother.

Twenty years later, the murder remains unsolved and continues to fascinate amateur sleuths. Two documentaries about the JonBenet Ramsey murder are scheduled to be screened later this month, with CBS and Investigative Discovery both giving their take on the case. A third, The Killing of JonBenet: The Truth Uncovered, produced by the American TV network A&E, aired on Monday. So what are the main theories behind the girl's murder?

Patsy and John Ramsey

Given that JonBenet's body was discovered at home, eyes immediately turned to her family as the potential culprits in her death, although police have never named them as suspects.

Several details around the case have served to arouse investigators' suspicions, however: not only was JonBenet strangled with a garrotte partially made with Patsy's paintbrush, the ransom note was written inside the house using the family's own stationery – the pen even neatly replaced in the pen pot. Would a kidnapper really arrive at the house so unprepared?

Amid theories of family dysfunction and even sexual abuse as a potential motive to kill their daughter, the Ramseys always maintained their innocence. They were officially exonerated in 2008 after DNA evidence recovered at the scene of the crime pointed to an unrelated male as the killer.

Patsy died of ovarian cancer in 2006, aged 49. John Bennett Ramsey has since remarried.

Burke Ramsey

Pineapple was found in JonBenet's stomach and it is believed to have been consumed only a few hours before her death. Detectives discovered that the DNA on a bowl of half-eaten pineapple in the kitchen belonged to Burke, JonBenet's nine-year-old brother. There was never an explanation for how JonBenet had apparently eaten several hours after her parents said she was in bed, nor for why Burke's fingerprints were on the bowl.

James Kolar, a former lead investigator on the case, later wrote a book in which he strongly suggested that Burke had – either deliberately or accidentally – been responsible for his sister's initial head injury, with one or both parents staging the subsequent crime scene to protect him. However, the 2008 DNA evidence exonerated Burke along with his parents.

The intruder theory

A&E's take on the case – The Killing of JonBenet: The Truth Uncovered – leans towards the theory that JonBenet was killed by someone who broke into the house.

Media speculation over the disappearance and death was intensified by the fact that JonBenet was a regular performer in child pageants, often made up to look far older than her age. Could she have attracted the dangerous attention of a paedophile? Or did her wealthy family make her a tempting proposition for a would-be kidnapper?

DNA found on the girl's underwear was confirmed not to belong to any of her family, although critics of the intruder theory have pointed out that the DNA of clothing factory workers and packers can be transmitted onto items they handle.

The only person to be arrested over the death was 41-year-old John Mark Karr, who initially confessed to killing JonBenet. However, he was released when his DNA did not match that found at the crime scene, and police believe Karr fabricated his confession, which he later retracted. For now at least, the case remains open.

The two upcoming documentaries on the JonBenet Ramsey case are:

JonBenet: An American Murder Mystery – Investigative Discovery, three-part series begins Monday 12 September

The Case Of: JonBenet Ramsey – CBS, six-part docu-series begins Sunday 18 September

                                                   

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