BYLINE: BY DANIEL GLICK, SHERRY KEENE-OSBORN AND ANDREW MURR
HIGHLIGHT: Did mistakes in the early hours of the
JonBenet investigation keep police from making a case?
BODY: IT WAS THE FIRST MISTAKE IN A DAY OF many. In the early morning of the day
after Christmas 1996, Boulder, Colo., police officer Rick French responded to a
frantic 911 call from a woman claiming her daughter had been kidnapped. It was
just before 6 a.m. and still dark when he arrived at the Tudor home of John and
Patsy Ramsey. French read the ransom note and later conducted a quick search
of the house. In the basement, he came to a door secured with a wooden latch.
According to police reports obtained by NEWSWEEK, he paused for a moment in
front of the door -- but walked away.
As the world now knows, he should have opened the door. In the darkened room
on the other side lay the bludgeoned and strangled body of 6-year-old
JonBenet Ramsey. It
wasn't until later that day that John Ramsey would open the door to the room
and carry the body, which was under a white blanket, upstairs. In doing so, he
contaminated the crime scene and may have disturbed critical forensic evidence
the police could have used to help identify the killer.
Why didn't French open the door? And why did the police allow John Ramsey to
wander through the house in the first place? As the investigation of the
still-unsolved murder drags through its second year, questions like these
continue to dog police investigators. The facts of the case remain confusing
and contradictory. Prosecutors have publicly admitted they still don't have
enough evidence to charge anyone in the case -- including the Ramseys -- though
JonBenet's parents remain under what police have called the
"umbrella of suspicion." The police haven't given up the chase. NEWSWEEK has learned that both police
and prosecutors are pursuing more than one suspect outside the family. One
clue: a still unidentified partial bootprint found in the basement room. The
authorities say they have also analyzed
"fiber evidence" that may raise new questions about JonBenet's parents.
Why has this case been so hard to crack? A NEWSWEEK
reconstruction of the crucial hours and days after the police first arrived at
the Ramsey home sheds light on why the police and prosecutors are at a loss to
solve it. Interviews with law-enforcement officials, family friends and
eyewitnesses -- and close scrutiny of internal police reports -- paint a
picture of an investigation that began badly and was slow to recover. Many of
the facts about the crime that have been widely reported -- and presumed true
by the public -- turned out to be misleading or false. Officers on the scene
made serious, and irreversible, mistakes that may have resulted in the
contamination or destruction of crucial evidence.
No new facts have emerged that prove the Ramseys' innocence or guilt, or that
clearly implicate someone else. But John and Patsy Ramsey, who have shunned
reporters and refused to talk to police since just after the murder, have now
broken their silence. The Ramseys
gave their first wide-ranging and emotional interview with producers of a
British documentary, which will air this week on the U.K.'s channel 4
(NEWSWEEK's Daniel Glick and Sherry Keene-Osborn were consultants to the
In the interview, the Ramseys angrily denied any involvement in the crime.
"The American public has been led to believe that we went to bed that night
after a wonderful Christmas, brutally beat JonBenet, sexually molested her,
strangled her, went to sleep, got up the next morning, wrote a three-page
ransom note, called the police, sat around the house for four hours, [and] then
I went downstairs and discovered her body and was able to act distraught," Ramsey said.
"Help me understand that."
In the police report French filed about the events that morning, he says he
didn't open the door to the basement room because he was looking for
exits the kidnapper might have used. He noticed the latch was on the wrong
side for a door leading out of the house. So he kept moving. Soon other
officers arrived, including detectives and a forensics team that began dusting
the house for fingerprints and searching for other clues. For the most part,
the police followed standard procedure. They put taps on the telephones inside
the house and at John Ramsey's office. Detective Linda Arndt told Ramsey what
to say if the ransomer called: demand to talk to JonBenet. John Ramsey took
"Must talk to JB," he scribbled.
But the police reports also show that officers did little to protect the
integrity of the crime scene. Believing the crime was a kidnapping, the cops
cordoned off JonBenet's bedroom with yellow and black crime-scene tape to
preserve whatever evidence her abductor
may have left behind. But strangely, they didn't seal the rest of the house --
also potentially part of the crime scene.
The Ramseys and a steady stream of friends and visitors were allowed free
access to the house. John and Patsy's close friends Fleet and Priscilla White
and John and Barbara Fernie arrived early. Burke, JonBenet's 9-year-old
brother, was taken to the Whites' home. The Ramseys' minister was also there.
Early that morning, police had called in a team of victims' advocates, trained
in helping families through traumatic situations, who arrived with bagels and
coffee. After using the kitchen, the advocates began tidying it up, a
law-enforcement official told NEWSWEEK. One friend helped clean the kitchen,
wiping down the counters with a spray cleaner -- and possibly wiping away
In the early afternoon, after the
forensics team and other officers had packed up and left, Detective Arndt
stayed behind to wait with the Ramseys. The mood in the house was quiet and
tense. John Ramsey milled anxiously around the living room; Patsy sat
virtually motionless in a chair. Arndt noted in her police report that she
wanted to give John Ramsey something to do
"to keep [his] mind occupied." She pulled Ramsey and friend Fleet White aside and told them to conduct a
"top to bottom" search of the house to see if anything seemed amiss. When John Ramsey swung
open the basement door -- the one French had by-passed hours earlier -- he saw
"All I could do was scream, to try to attract attention," he says. Fleet White bounded up the stairs yelling for someone to
"call 911." White later told police he had looked in the
basement room earlier that morning but hadn't seen the body. Ramsey ripped the
duct tape off JonBenet's mouth and carried her up the stairs, setting her down
on the floor. Though it's unclear why, Arndt then picked up the body again and
moved it to the living room near the Christmas tree, where Ramsey knelt beside
"My little angel," over and over. Friends carried Patsy, too stunned to walk, over to the body.
Police reports describe her throwing herself over JonBenet.
Arndt quickly called for backup, declaring a
"Code Black" -- police lingo for a murder -- over the radio. The forensics team returned
to the house. But by then the basement room, and the body itself, had become
contaminated. Once Ramsey, and then Arndt, moved the body, they compromised
whatever evidence may have been left on it or
in the room.
The police did little to correct sensational press accounts suggesting Ramsey
had tried to keep officers away from the basement room. It was widely reported
that officers noted no footprints in the snow outside the Ramsey house. But
the weather was warm that Christmas season; there was only patchy snow on the
property. JonBenet had ridden her Christmas present, a bicycle, on the
backyard patio the day before.
Another seemingly incriminating and widely published piece of evidence was also
misleading. Police found no signs of forced entry, which led to speculation
that no outsider could have gotten in. In fact, law-enforcement officials told
NEWSWEEK that the police knew several windows and a door had been unlocked that
night. Two windows were open slightly, allowing electrical cords for the
outside Christmas lights to pass through. And a basement window was also
broken. Ramsey himself had smashed the glass and gone through it one day when
he'd forgotten his house keys.
Other false reports persisted, and the Ramseys blamed police. One was that
pornography had been discovered in the house, and that John Andrew, John's
older son from a previous marriage, was a suspect, even though he was known to
be in Atlanta at the time. The Ramseys soon stopped cooperating with the
police and launched their own search for JonBenet's killer. The police
"were not there to help us," Ramsey says,
"they were there to hang us." The police deny focusing exclusively on the Ramseys.
"We've looked at a lot of different people," says Boulder Police Chief Mark Beckner.
Recently, the Ramseys decided to fight back. They agreed to sit for interviews
with prosecutors. Last April, John Ramsey wrote a letter to Boulder District
Attorney Alex Hunter at home and offered to meet. The only ground rule: no
Boulder police would be allowed in the room. The interviews, conducted by
veteran homicide detectives from other cities, went on for 42 hours. At times,
the questioning was rough, as the interrogators tried to break the Ramseys
down. Hunter and his staff stood by in a nearby room, watching the proceedings
on a bank of closed-circuit monitors.
Still, the relationship between the Ramseys and Boulder law-enforcement
officials remains chilly -- and JonBenet's parents remain very much under
police suspicion. But as any cop knows, every month that passes without a
break in the case makes it less likely that the killer will be caught -- and
the mystery of what happened in that house may never be solved.