Ten Years After

A decade of blunders, spin and hype hasn't solved the JonBenét Ramsey murder case. Is it time for the truth?

She would have been sixteen now. A boy-crazy cheerleader, maybe, or the dorky president of the debate team. A wobbly-voiced contestant on America's Got Talent. Or just another girl in narrow-legged jeans at the mall -- diamond stud in nostril, cell phone clamped to ear. Who can say?

Instead, she's gone. In place of the teen she might have become is a media obsession with the "pageant princess" she never was. And a pile of well-worn theories, idle conjectures and wild assertions about who killed her.

Next Tuesday, December 26, marks the tenth anniversary of the day the crumpled body of six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey was found in the basement of her Boulder home. She'd been sexually assaulted, strangled and bludgeoned -- although in what order remains a topic of online debate, like just about every other aspect of the crime.

Patrick Davison/afp/getty images
Fred Harper

Her murder was a shocking aberration for Boulder that soon evolved, through the magic of television and the tabloids, into an international wallow in morbidity. There was an abundance of leads and clues: the absurd ransom note, the oversized underwear, the odd attempt at a garrote. The unlocked but spiderwebbed grate over the busted basement window, the partial bootprint, the broken paintbrush. The pineapple in her digestive tract, the foreign DNA in her panties. The tacky pageant videos.

So many clues, but no viable suspects.

The case provided endless fodder for books and docudramas, talk-show Sherlocks and web-chattering Columbos. For the authorities in Boulder, it was a career-busting frustration, to be discussed in terse phrases at hurried press conferences, then in the high secrecy of the grand jury room -- and finally, not at all. The failure to charge a killer put the city's inept criminal-justice system in an embarrassing national spotlight, and rightly so.

Pundits have blamed the cops, the prosecutors, the lawyered-up parents, the rabid media or any combination of the above for this long-running charade of a murder investigation. And why not? The past decade of false hopes and blown opportunities, dead ends and sideshow lawsuits has been a chronicle of catastrophe, with plenty of blame to go around. Yet there are also a few grim lessons to be gathered from revisiting the Ramsey case, in all its lurid folly.

It's probably too late to get justice for JonBenét. Maybe it always was. But knowing where things went wrong is the first step to not going there again.

Our guy won't walk.

-- Boulder Chief of Police Tom Koby

Rice already cooked. Crime scene gone.

-- Dr. Henry Lee, forensic scientist

Some say the case was lost in the first few hours after Patsy Ramsey's emotional 911 call. "There's a note left and our daughter's gone," she said breathlessly to the dispatcher (and then said something else, perhaps, after she thought the call had ended, with other voices heard in the background -- but that's another point of contention, never resolved by the poor copy of the recording released years later). It was the day after Christmas, and a short-staffed police force responded to the Ramsey home, along with a cadre of family supporters.

The police failed to control the scene, fully search the premises or account for the movements of various family members and friends hovering around the place. The body in the basement wasn't discovered for hours, and then it was John Ramsey who found her, ripping the tape off JonBenét's mouth and bringing her upstairs, where a hysterical Patsy collapsed on top of her. By the time the cops knew they had a homicide scene on their hands, it was already a nightmare of contaminated evidence, a muddle of fibers and prints and hairs that might or might not have something to do with the crime.

Things got worse. Within days, Patsy's sister, Pam Paugh, was allowed back into the house with a police escort to retrieve a few items, a trip that police detective Steve Thomas would later describe as "a one-woman raid on the crime scene" that removed boxes of clothes, photos, toys, bills, personal papers and other possible evidence.

It would be months before investigators were able to obtain the clothing the Ramseys wore the night their daughter was killed, and even longer before they could get access to the parents' phone records and credit-card bills. In the meantime, the case went slowly, inexorably cold. Anyone could see that the Boulder Police Department didn't have the resources or the leadership to manage a complex, high-profile murder investigation.

Anyone, that is, except Chief Tom Koby, who continued to insist, "We've done it just right." He said so right up until his retirement from the force in 1998, at the ripe old age of 49.

The list of suspects narrows. Soon there will be no one on the list but you.

-- Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter, addressing "the person or persons who took this baby from us"

The early mistakes in the investigation might have been rectified had the police had sufficient guidance and the full backing of prosecutors. But if the cops were ill-prepared for the pressures of the Ramsey case, the district attorney's office -- where Alex Hunter had been entrenched for a quarter-century -- was even worse off. Hunter and his crew were known for plea bargains and feel-good compromises, not for taking risky homicide cases to trial.

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She never left.