My brush with the hunt for JonBenet Ramsey’s killer
Two decades have passed since six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was found murdered at her home in Colorado. The case has never been solved. Mathew Scott looks back on a mystery that still grips America, and on his own memories of how investigations took a detour to Bangkok
Somebody knows who killed JonBenet Ramsey but nobody seems to know who that somebody is.
The six-year-old was found murdered, on the morning of December 26, 1996, in the basement of her family home in Boulder, Colorado, and the case has held America in its grip ever since. In the lead-up to the 20th anniversary of that day, there has been such a steady stream of documentaries released in the United States, and beyond, as well as made-for-television movies and talk show specials, that various fictions have by now clouded over the facts.
Part of the obsession with the case comes because the culprit has never been found – the finger of blame has never reached its rightful target. Part of it no doubt also has to do with the haunting images released to the world after Ramsey’s death, of a pretty little girl dressed up by her parents – even at that fragile age – to look like the fully formed woman she would never become.
Ramsey’s body was discovered by her father, John, her mouth sealed with duct tape, strips of rope tied fast around her neck and right wrist. The official cause of death was “asphyxiation due to strangulation associated with craniocerebral trauma.”
Originally, the cops had come to the house of John and Patsy Ramsey to investigate a possible kidnapping after a 2½-page handwritten ransom note had been found, demanding US$118,000 and telling the parents to wait for further instructions. But it somehow took more than two hours for someone to suggest a search of the house, and for the body to be found in the basement.
The crime scene quickly turned farcical. John Ramsey removed the duct tape, and then moved his daughter’s corpse upstairs and onto the lounge room floor. It was moved once again – by a policewoman who lay JonBenet next to a Christmas tree. No crime scene photographs were taken.
Police reported there had been signs of sexual assault – but it was later revealed they suspected these acts had been carried out after the murder, and in order to support the story that the death had been caused by a failed kidnapping attempt.
The police also seemed to hint from the outset that they suspected someone in the family was responsible, and the majority of the media covering the homicide seemed to take that as a given. Even when handwriting experts virtually cleared the parents of writing the ransom note, people were unconvinced, pointing the finger of blame in turn at both father and mother, and even JonBenet’s brother Burke, who was nine years old at the time of her death.
Estimates are that around 140 people have since been investigated in connection with the murder – including a local man who dressed as Santa Claus and had visited the family in the days before JonBenet’s murder. But no conviction has ever been made, and the theories, and accusations, continue to abound to this day.
Ramsey’s case would have pretty much been forgotten by much of the world if it wasn’t for John Mark Karr.
While the mystery continued to haunt America, the rest of humanity had moved on, over time, to concerns closer to home, especially after the trail of the killer – or killers – appeared to go cold. That was until April 2006 – more than 10 years after Ramsey’s body had been found and as Patsy Ramsey was dying of ovarian cancer – when Karr suddenly emerged from the shadows.
The Boulder police – desperate for a lead of any kind and hooked by the fact that Karr seemed to know intricate details about the crime scene – told the Ramseys they had started looking at the 41-year-old as a person of interest. Karr had been in contact with University of Colorado journalism professor Michael Tracey, a man who had produced a number of documentaries about the Ramsey case, and he had apparently claimed to have committed the murder during a failed sexual assault.
Karr had also promised Tracey he would give him the exclusive inside scoop on what had happened to Ramsey – as long as Johnny Depp played him in any film or TV adaptations of his story.
Investigators became convinced Karr’s letters – and later phone messages – revealed the mind of a murderer and his that personal life was a fit with the profile they had formed of the killer. Karr, who had twice married teenagers, had also bolted the country in 2001 while awaiting sentencing in California on five misdemeanor counts of possessing child pornography.
After making his way through South America, Karr had eventually found a grubby little bolt-hole in the suburbs of Bangkok, hidden mostly from prying eyes in a back-alley hotel where no one asked questions and where you could rent rooms by the hour, or for as long as the fancy took you.
Karr had been a resident there for more than a year, and had found employment at a local school, but on August 16, 2006, a representative from the Boulder district attorney’s office, along with Thai police and immigration officials, dragged him from his bleak hotel room and off into custody. The charges were first degree-murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault.
The next morning I woke to find a stream of messages on my laptop from fellow freelance journalists, urging me to investigate the case, and to find out just who this John Mark Karr was – and what he had been doing in the Thai capital.
I had vague recollections of the JonBenet Ramsey case – and of those photos of the child dressed-up like some miniature Marilyn Monroe – and caught up on what had happened overnight via the blanket coverage Karr’s arrest was getting across international broadcast media.
On the ground in Bangkok no one seemed to know what was going on other than that it appeared, for an instant, that the Ramsey mystery was about to be laid to rest.
The world’s media had been quickly mobilized.
Karr’s hotel had already been identified in local newspapers following his arrest – and by the time my taxi arrived, about 50 or so reporters and camera crew had set up shop outside the lobby. Some of the hotel’s residents didn’t seem to mind the attention, asking if their opinions were needed (“creepy,” was the most common phrase offered) and even brushing past the media pack as they led young, local women back to their rooms.
But what was Karr doing in Bangkok and why had he confessed?
The calls revealed Karr had a passive interest in golf, and an active interest in a sex change – he had approached a number of Bangkok’s private medical clinics, and made inquiries about the procedures for gender reassignment
In an effort to trace his movements the front desk clerk was asked if Karr had officially been checked out. No, she said, his possessions had mostly been removed but he had not signed away his outstanding bill. I asked if I could have a copy – the thinking being that through tracing his out- and incoming phone calls, his room service orders, and any other miscellaneous expenses, a picture might form of the man, and of what he had been up to.
At first the clerk was reluctant, saying her boss would not allow a copy of the bill to be made. Then she suggested I head outside to wait. Ten minutes later, she appeared with a small pile of printouts – which she suggested I show to no one.
My investigations into how Karr had lived his life in Bangkok began with a run through the calls he had made from his room during his stay – only about half a dozen, in total. Calls were then made to each of the numbers Karr had dialed. They revealed Karr had a passive interest in golf, and an active interest in a sex change – he had approached a number of Bangkok’s private medical clinics, and made inquiries about the procedures for gender reassignment.
At the school where he had been teaching, an employer vouched for Karr’s good nature, but before long worried teachers and parents were coming forward to voice their concerns about what they claimed had been Karr’s inappropriate behavior toward school kids.
The rumor, they said, was that the Thai police had been alerted about this, and that Karr had been looking for the fastest way out of the country. A confession – to one of the most publicized and unsolved murders in American history – would ensure exactly that. Or so the theory went. But nothing was ever proved; no charges were ever laid.
By this stage the only thing Karr had offered to police, and to television cameras – with the sly smile that would become his signature – was that the charge he was facing back home should be second-degree murder, because it had been an accident.
The next day he was photographed on his flight back to Los Angeles – in first class – as America waited for his return.
His story soon began to fall to pieces.
On his return to the US, Karr was held for two weeks, and then the charges against him were dropped. The district attorney announced investigations had now shown Karr’s DNA didn’t match crime scene evidence, and that tests had also proved Karr had not written the ransom note.
After a bizarre sideshow in Asia, the case of JonBenet Ramsey had once again gone cold.
So where do things stand today?
The case resurfaced again in 2013, with the release of a Boulder grand jury report from 1999 that showed jurors had leaned toward charges against the parents, but prosecutors could never follow through with them due to a lack of direct evidence.
It has remained an active homicide case to this day.
Meanwhile, John Mark Karr appeared on TV this year claiming this time around that he was at the scene of JonBenet Ramsey’s murder – but that he was not responsible for it.
“Maybe God up in Heaven will forgive me for some of the things that I did to help other people,” Karr told the Investigation Discovery network’s JonBenét: An American Murder Mystery special in September.
In 2015 it had been claimed Karr was still living somewhere in the United States, running a child sex cult called “The Immaculates,” and living as a woman. This year, the unconfirmed story was that he had changed his name many times, and was back living in Thailand.
Whether Karr knows the real story or not, the killer of JonBenet Ramsey has never been found.