JonBenet: Paula Woodward on New Book, John Ramsey, Burke-Did-It Claims

The media barrage about the murder of JonBenét Ramsey is nowhere close to being over, as witnessed by The Killing of JonBenét: Her Father Speaks, an A&E documentary broadcast last night, in which John Ramsey, the father of the six-year-old Boulder girl murdered on Christmas Day, 1996, blasted a CBS series in which a panel argued that her nine-year-old brother Burke had committed the crime.

Also prominently featured in the program was Paula Woodward, a longtime 9News investigator who retired from the station in 2009. Woodward has devoted the seven years since then to writing the just-released book We Have Your Daughter: The Unsolved Murder of JonBenét Ramsey Twenty Years Later.

As noted in the interview below, conducted prior to the airing of the latest A&E production, Woodward has long been a target of those who believe that John, his late wife Patsy (who died of ovarian cancer in 2006) and/or Burke were involved in or responsible for the death of JonBenét. Critics have accused her of lofting softball questions at the Ramseys during exclusive interviews and otherwise serving as a de facto representative of what became known as the intruder theory — the supposition that JonBenét was killed by an unknown individual rather than a family member.

Woodward insists that We Have Your Daughter — the title is drawn from a line in a ransom note at the heart of the mystery (conspiracists say Patsy wrote it, her supporters say that's nonsense rejected by a raft of handwriting experts) — is no Ramsey apologia. While she says she didn't decide to go forward with the project until John Ramsey said he would cooperate (something important to her, since she wanted to tackle the story from "all sides"), she stresses that he had no editorial control over her work and wasn't allowed to read the finished product in advance. She quotes him as telling her, "If you find Patsy or I were complicit, go ahead and write it."

The book doesn't reach a conclusion about who did it, Woodward emphasizes, but it certainly presents a great deal of material, based on interviews, research and documents in the thousands, that the Ramseys weren't complicit.

Below, in a Q&A illustrated with images from the website for her book, Woodward talks in detail about We Have Your Daughter, including a discussion about the contents of the little girl's stomach at the time of her death (she was said to have eaten pineapple from a bowl that had Patsy's and Burke's fingerprints on it, but Woodward notes that it was really fruit cocktail), her own meeting with Burke during his young adult years, and why she's hopeful the killer can still be brought to justice.

Westword: When did you first start thinking about writing a book on this topic?

Paula Woodward: I've always thought about writing a book — probably the last ten years of my television career. I just couldn't figure out what to write. I was thinking about fiction. And then I thought, shoot, all I do is non-fiction. So I decided to do non-fiction and resigned from the news. I did some network reporting, helping them out in emergencies like the Aurora theater shooting, and started this book in the summer of 2009. I went to Charlevoix, Michigan, to meet with John Ramsey, because I thought that was the only way I could write this book — with all sides. No one had ever written a book with all sides, because the Ramseys wouldn't cooperate. And he said, "All right. I'll do it."

What did his cooperation entail?

I would ask him for access to anything JonBenét had in terms of report cards and drawings and things that none of us had ever seen. And he said, "Well, this will be the last book I'll do" — because of his age, he said. And he said, "Can you write it?" And I said, "I sure hope so."

What did he provide to you beyond report cards and those kinds of things?

He provided some documentation. There's so much documentation in the book.

Did you speak to Burke?

I spoke to Burke in 2010 when I went to Atlanta, and interviewed him for probably twenty minutes. I hadn't ever seen Burke. He walked into the hotel where I was saying, and he had a big smile on his face. And I said, "Wow, your smile looks just like your mom's." He said, "Thank you." And the reason he said "Thank you" was an acknowledgment that others had told him that, and that he was very pleased by it.

I talked to him about the impact his parents had on him, what he remembered about JonBenét and her death, which wasn't very much. I thought what was interesting about the conversation about his mom was he said, "My mom sat me down and said, 'Things have happened to us that haven't happened to many families, in terms of tragedies. And you need to decide how you want to live your life. You can be optimistic in the way you live your life. You can be gloomy and depressed and stay at home, or you can be optimistic.' And she said, 'I have chosen to be optimistic, because it's the only way I can survive.'" And he said, "I chose to be optimistic, too." And he said, "My mom was really neat."

Then I asked him about his dad, and he said that he had learned a lot about how to handle things in life, because so much had gone wrong in theirs. He remembers running into the house from the front yard when they were living in Atlanta and he heard a helicopter, because they didn't want the media to take photographs of them. He said, "He taught me how to fly a plane. And I guess what I really like about what my dad did was he was always calm and he always saw a way through a problem. We had a flat tire when we came out at the airport once, and my dad said, 'Okay, let's just get the jack and let's fix it.'" His dad was there, and he had admiration for his dad, and you could see it in the way he looked at him.

I'm sure you've seen the Dr. Phil interview with Burke. There was a lot of conversation afterward about that smile you mentioned. Many observers thought it was an uncomfortable or awkward smile. What was your impression of that speculation?

I said to him, "You smile a lot," because I'd already mentioned his smile. And he said, "I'm kind of nervous, and I smile when I'm nervous." That's all I would be able to tell you about that. I was looking at it differently. But I know after the show, a lot of people said, "Wow. Look at that smile."

What did you think of the interview overall?

I thought it was fairly thorough. The CBS special hadn't aired, so you couldn't key off any of that. [Dr. Phil] asked questions that I would have asked. Showing the ransom note to him. I thought it was very interesting to see what transpired.

The panel on the CBS report came to the conclusion that Burke was the perpetrator in this case. What did you think about that, and about the program as a whole?

I don't want to comment about that report. I will tell you that there are two pieces of information that I think are pertinent. One is a social-services report that's mandatory after the death of a child, and Burke submitted to an interview. I have the evaluation of the report, which is a rare thing to get, and in that report, there was one sentence. It said, "It is clear that Burke was not a witness to JonBenét's murder." And that, to me, is very definitive.

And then there was something else. One of the things I got — I call it a JonBenét murder book index. It was about 4,000 pages long and it had portions, summaries, sentences from police reports, and some from CBI and FBI that I was able to verify. It was fascinating, and one of the things in there was about that bowl of pineapple that so much was made of — to all of us. The picture of it, and how Burke's and Patsy's fingerprints were on the bowl. And Boulder police didn't take the contents of her stomach to be tested until October of 1997. Which is a long time. Took it to the University of Colorado. Two experts at the University of Colorado, they came back in January of 1998, and they came back with a report that said what was in her stomach was grapes, grape skins, cherries and pineapples. A fruit cocktail.

I asked one of the forensic pathologists and said, "Is this unusual to wait so long to test the stomach contents?" And he said, "In a high-profile case like this, you have to move everything forward really fast." And he said, "Knowing that, in relation to the pineapple, what you can say is, an hour before she was killed, JonBenét ate fruit cocktail." We don't know who fed it to her. There are no remnants left in the house that we know of.

How would you describe the central theme of the book? And what do you consider your biggest discoveries to have been over the course of writing it?

I approached the book just like investigative reporting. Here's the best information I can give. You decide what you think. In other words, you decide if you think it was a Ramsey. You decide if you think it was an intruder. I'm not going to tell you what to think. I'm just going to give you the best information I can.

There's a lot of Ramsey in the book because there wasn't a lot of Ramsey in the beginning of that case. We couldn't get to them. One of the reasons I was able to get to the Ramseys was, long before JonBenét was killed, I had covered trials where the Ramsey defense attorneys were: Hal Haddon, Bryan Morgan and Pat Burke. And once you cover a trial, you keep in touch with everybody. So I did, and that's ultimately what got me to the Ramseys.

There has been an avalanche of JonBenét Ramsey-related material that's already come out, and I'm sure there will be more prior to Christmas. What will make your book stand out from the pack?

The documentation. The police reports. I have portions of thousands of police reports that I studied. I have tremendous amounts of information about things like the fruit cocktail, for example. The long delay, and then, after the testing, the realization that, gee, that pineapple might not be relevant because of the fruit cocktail. And in police reports I saw, there were no references to fruit cocktail. There are still people who talk about the pineapple being in her stomach, and partially it was. But there was also grapes, grape skins and cherries. That's pretty misleading.

So I think it's the documentation. The access to John Ramsey. The access to some of the police officers who talked with the agreement that it be off the record. Twenty years later, people are still afraid to criticize, and they don't want people to know who they are. Some people in the DA's office. The three governors, all of whom were involved in different ways. And people like Bob Grant, who was on the governor's special task force.

I think talking to all those people, and being able to balance all the sides there are to this story, and the documentation — that's what makes the book. Getting that index: I was flabbergasted. And reading it over and over. There was so much. I got the index in 2010. I still don't know who gave it to me.

Do you come to any conclusions in the book?


A lot of books and productions on this topic have often included speculation and the attempts to build cases. Why did you decide not to go in that direction?

I think when you do investigative reporting, your focus is the story and getting the best possible information. It's a discipline. You try to present it the best way you can, in an unbiased manner, and stick with it. And if you have your own personal opinions, that's what they are. They're your own personal opinions. They're not relevant to what you present to the public.

This case has been treated as entertainment in a lot of quarters. Is that offensive to you? Does it fly in the face of the approach you've taken?

One of the things I think I've always done when I've covered child abuse, child deaths, some of the terrible things we had to cover around Columbine, is I've stepped back and talked to myself a lot and said, "Don't lose part of yourself in this story. Don't get too involved." And with JonBenét, it wasn't that difficult not to get involved.

On December 31, when the pictures of the child beauty pageants and the videos started coming out, that was easy to latch onto. But I didn't know she'd been tortured at that point. And that's how I regard that story. But then, John Ramsey showed me some of her drawings, and I talked to some of her teachers, and read her teachers' reports. And then Patsy, a long time before she died, talked about JonBenét being a three-year-old when Patsy was going through her cancer treatments.

Patsy was stage four. She was in a class of 25 patients, where, to be in the class, you had to have ovarian cancer and you had to be stage four, both of which she had. There were 25 women in the class, including Patsy, and she lived the longest. But JonBenét went through a real withdrawal. Patsy would be gone for a week and then she'd go straight to the hospital, so they could in essence save her life. JonBenét couldn't see her, she couldn't hug her. She had a mask on, they had masks on, for infection. She was a very lonely little girl, and I identified with that while I was going through her things, seeing her pictures. I could just see a little girl drawing these pictures, trying to draw within the lines. That's when I identified with her. And for her to be tortured and murdered.... I don't think there's anything worse than the murder of a child.

She was the one who her teachers would have take a sick child to the office, because, her teachers said, she was so used to sickness because of her mother, and she was very nice, very mature. In talking to the teachers, one of them said, "She'd put her arms out for a big hug, and then she'd put her feet on my feet and we'd waddle down the hall." And so I liked this little girl. There's a picture of her on our website, and when I look at it — just the delight in her face, the joy in her smile — I find myself smiling, too. That picture brings a smile to my face.

Your question was about people treating it as entertainment — and it is what it is. My personal feeling is that she was a wonderful, nice, sweet little girl who was murdered, and whoever did it still hasn't been punished for it.

As you know, you're a controversial figure in this case. Critics argue that in your interviews with John and Patsy, you didn't ask tough enough questions. They feel you've been biased toward assuming their innocence and that you've carried water for them over the years. What's your response to that?

What's that based on? That's based on the fact that there were only four of us in the very beginning, for seven or eight months, who were able to talk to them. I was, Dan Glick from Newsweek, Sherry Keene-Osborn, bless her heart (the late Keene-Osborn also wrote for Newsweek), and Lisa Ryckman (of the Rocky Mountain News). But I'm really proud of the way I covered that case. I'm proud that we didn't do any interviews about it. I wouldn't, because the story wasn't about us. The story was about that little girl's death. And we didn't pull from other media sources without first double-sourcing. Everything was double-sourced, and you know how hard it was to get anything from the Ramseys.

So I just ignore that criticism, because I'm very proud of what we did, and I know we did it right. I know that I used my best investigative skills on this story. But at the same time, I wanted to write the book because there was so much that I knew I didn't know. And one of the things I found out was that the first four or five stories that the police leaked to us weren't true.

The very first one, on Friday, in the Rocky Mountain News, quoted a source from the DA's office saying, "Something doesn't seem right." And everyone went, "Ooooo." And then, on the next Monday, the police leaked information that all of the Ramseys were tested for DNA except for Patsy — and that wasn't true. There's a police report in the book that shows Patsy was tested for DNA the Saturday before that Monday. And then there was the quote, "I did not kill my daughter." That was leaked to the media, too. And then there were the leaks that John and Patsy weren't interviewed before they left for Atlanta. But, yes, they were. They were interviewed all Thursday morning. They had their forensic exams and their interviews. They were told they couldn't go back into their home, which is understandable, because it was a criminal scene. But they needed to have a place to stay.

There were a lot of mix-ups between an interview and an interrogation. An interview is standing there, observing. An interview is listening to people talk. But these officers were with them constantly on Thursday morning until they left for Atlanta. And on that Friday afternoon, John Ramsey called the police and said, "Please talk to us." And the incest allegations were false — there was no prior history. Four people said that there wasn't, including her pediatrician, who could have been sent to prison if he'd lied about that. There was also all the talk about no footprints in the snow. Well, there was no snow on one side of the house. There are pictures of that.

The first week after JonBenét had been murdered, Patsy and John were on CNN. And Patsy was very dramatic. Turns out she was on prescribed medication, anti-anxiety medication, and she didn't come off well. And she said, "Someone's out there." And immediately, the mayor and the chief of police come out and say, "There's no one out there stalking our children." We were like, what? And we couldn't get to them. We couldn't ask them about that. So that's when I learned about why I didn't know more — because of these leaks that weren't true.

You should be able to trust a police release. You certainly have to stand back when police are talking, and listen for the spin. But what I remember most was talking to Patti Dennis, our news director, and saying, "I've done difficult cases before, but this is a whole different ballgame. We can't get anything from anybody. And we can't use the things we see in the newspapers, because I can't verify them. So we're going to be left with small, little reports with the information we have — like, they went to Atlanta for the funeral." And I told Patti, "People are going to be wondering why we're not doing more, and you need to tell them to back off. This is the best I can do."

So what I learned that stunned me most were the deliberate leaks, things that were not true.

Do you think those early impressions led to some of the criticism of your work? The idea that because you weren't going in certain directions, you were protecting the Ramseys?

I can't tell you what they were thinking. But I can tell you that the people who were thinking that way weren't able to get to the Ramseys. And I can tell you that I didn't listen to any of it. Others in our newsroom did. But I didn't, because I didn't want it to affect my reporting. I said, "Let's send out a memo and let's have a meeting in the newsroom about this story and how this one's going to be unlike any other...."

We talked about how you don't take anything from the newspapers, and you don't take anything from radio, and you don't take anything from other TV stations. You can't.

Most crimes that have gone unsolved for this long are never solved. Why do you think this one might be an exception to the rule?

I hope it will. And if it is, I think it will be DNA, or something we've never heard about. The advances in DNA have been absolutely incredible, so maybe it will be DNA. Maybe it will be familial DNA [a test that doesn't show a direct hit, but reveals similarity to a family member]. Maybe somebody's grandson or granddaughter will link back to someone. Or it could be something we don't know about. That may be a pipe dream, but with the advances in DNA, I'm very hopeful this case can be solved. [Note: The A&E broadcast says that unknown male DNA found at the crime scene is likely linked to someone of Latino descent — an assertion based on technology discussed in our September 16 post Could DNA Imaging Used in Bennett Family Murder Break JonBenet Case?)

What about this case is so important that it's kept you working on it for all these years?

Because so much was done wrong. And that's not the way our society is supposed to work.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts