Debunking the JonBenét Ramsey Kidnapping: What was the family’s real role in the murder?

On 26 December 1996, the lifeless body of six-year-old beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey was discovered in the wine cellar of her family home. The little girl had been strangled with a homemade device and hit over the head with a blunt heavy object – the force of the strike caused a 30 centimetre crack in her skull, which would have inevitably killed her regardless of further injuries. She was also sexually assaulted with the broken handle of a paint brush. Those accused of her murder include a disgruntled intruder as well as her own family, but the truth of what happened almost 20 years ago remains unknown.

Real Crime spoke with Chief Marshal A James Kolar, a former lead investigator in the case between 2005 and 2006. From his involvement in the case he produced his book Foreign Faction: Who Really Kidnapped JonBenét. He resigned from the Boulder department due to their decision not to pursue certain leads that he had developed in the case, and currently resides in Colorado and works as chief of the Telluride Marshal’s Department.

Foreign Faction: Who Really Kidnapped JonBenét? by A James Kolar is out now
Foreign Faction: Who Really Kidnapped JonBenét? by A James Kolar is out now

What is the most popular theory on who murdered JonBenét?

I think there was the family involvement.I don’t think an intruder was involved.I think the evidence of someone being involved from the outside was discounted and there’s nothing except the ransom note that was left by the alleged perpetrator that points to an outsider.

Why was the focus on the family as the killers?

When the coroner’s office called in some other experts to look at JonBenét during the autopsy, they observed what they thought were signs of previous sexual contact with her, other than just the insertion of the paint brush handle into her vaginal orifice. There were
indications she had been violated or penetrated previously, so if there was a history of that taking place frequently prior to the assault, that is most likely to involve family members or people who are close to the family.

I think there was a lot of bizarre behaviour that investigators just couldn’t contribute to – such as being held off and the family not wanting to be interviewed. They hired attorneys right away. Also how long it took them to have a first full sit-down interview with the police, it wasn’t until 30 April, four months after the murder. It’s not typical behaviour that you see from families who have had a child or family member murdered. Typically they are there right away to demand what is being done and getting themselves cleared so that the police could move onto other possible suspects. That just wasn’t happening in this case.

Also there were things that were showing deception. The family maintained all along that Burke had been asleep through the night and that he was asleep at the time that the 911 call was made and yet his is a voice that’s heard along with Patsy and John after the 911 call was thought to have been terminated. Why would they think it important to conceal the fact that he was up and awake and in the kitchen area at the time?

The 'Train Room' window, initially believed to be the entry point for the "kidnapper"
A crime scene photo showing the ‘Train Room’ window, initially believed to be the entry point for the “kidnapper”

Would you mind discussing ‘staging’ and ‘undoing’? How it is relevant to this case and how does it helps to build a profile of the perpetrator?

Staging is seen sometimes in crime scenes when the actual perpetrator or perpetrators want to misdirect the investigation. Typically it’s to try to point investigators in a different direction – to another suspect or to a broad range of suspects, making it harder for the police to pin down

the person responsible. The other motivation might be to protect the victim or the victim’s family, which could be through embarrassment or be because of family members involved.

One aspect of staging in this instance is that there were ligature marks on JonBenét’s wrists even though the bindings were loose when her body was discovered. The purpose of a binding is to restrict someone from moving their hands and arms. In JonBenét’s case, the loops around her wrists were so loose that there would have been no abrasions or ligature marks on her wrists. You think they would have been bound close together, wrist to wrist, palm to palm or behind her back, but there was an 18-inch (46 centimetre) strand of cord between the wrists that would almost allow her free movement of her hands. Another aspect of the staging was the duct tape, which appeared to have been placed long after she had nasal discharge running on her lips and face. That would suggest that she was not muzzled for some period of time. So those were some of the elements of staging that were present that led investigators to believe the scene had been altered from what really had taken place.

The undoing shows that one person was responsible for the injuries and someone else was responsible for covering her up, concealing her and trying to in their own mind make her comfortable following the violence. I think two different sets of hands were involved, not literally, but this was fairly vicious. When you look at the blow to her head, we don’t know if it was intentional to kill her but it was a pretty heavy blunt object that was used to strike her in the head. Then there’s the pretty severe garrotting taking place, which seemed to be overkill for someone of her size or age. An adult could have easily suffocated her with a hand or strangled her with a hand versus using a cord to end her life.

So those are pretty vicious attacks when you look at the violence involved in the injuries and then, contrary to that, she’s placed and wrapped in a blanket “like a papoose”, according to John’s statement of the discovery of his daughter. That’s more of a caring act towards the victim compared to leaving them sprawled out on the floor for discovery and not protected in a blanket with her favourite nightgown next to her.

A police photo showing the loose binding found on JonBenét’s wrists
A police photo showing the loose binding found on JonBenét’s wrists

In 2013, it was reported that an indictment against the parents was prepared in 1999 by the ruling judge, but wasn’t signed by the DA. How do you feel about this?

I’m surprised that took so long to be revealed. I thought the information might have been released before, but it was a really tightly held secret in the DA’s office. Only a handful of people at Boulder PD were aware and everyone held it close to their chests, until a couple of jurors decided to confirm journalist Charlie Brennan’s thoughts about it when he was enquiring. It’s harder to prove someone killed in a court of law. The grand jury apparently thought there was sufficient ground for

arrest, but Hunter didn’t feel like he could prove that at trial should he charge them. He might have been holding out to see if he could actually charge murder against conspiracy and child abuse. Now that’s no longer an option, and not having had an opportunity to do that before the statute of limitations ran out, no one’s going to be charged. If Burke was responsible for the murder, he was not yet at an age in Colorado to be charged with the crime. You have to be ten years of age in Colorado to be thought old enough to form criminal intent and he was about two weeks away from turning ten. So even if he came out and admitted that he had struck and killed JonBenét – even to this day if he said it publicly – he wouldn’t be charged because he was not of sufficient legal age to be held responsible.

In 2008, trace DNA determined that the Ramseys had not been involved in their daughter’s murder. Have there been any new developments or speculations about the murder

I think the most recent thing was the revelation of the grand jury indictments back in 2013. Everyone was under the impression of the grand jury investigation in 1999 that no one had been indicted. People were mislead about the fact that the grand jury, after hearing the evidence, thought that the parents were somehow involved. That was a new revelation and the most revealing piece of the puzzle in the last few years. A lot of people didn’t think it was appropriate that the DA office issued an apology and exonerated them. I think a lot of people who are familiar with that type of evidence would say that trace DNA is not sufficient to… prove someone’s innocence. I don’t think this case is going to be solved by DNA, I think it’s artefact evidence that has nothing to do with who is the perpetrator, at least the DNA that’s out there so far. Who knows if something else might come up and help identify the murderer.

A police photo shows broken paint brush used to sexually assault JonBené
A police photo shows broken paint brush used to sexually assault JonBenét before her death


Why do you think Burke has never spoken to the media about his sister’s murder?

I think he probably wants to stay out of the media spotlight. I think it’s probably based on legal advice as well, to not speak to the media. There was a lot of focus and attention on this case both nationally and internationally, and I suspect that the family got tired of that as well and wanted to protect him rather than offer him up for interviews. I talked to a network producer several years ago who said they had made an approach to see if he would be interested in interviewing. I was told he wanted a pretty big sum of money to do so. It sounded like he was willing to do the interview but they weren’t willing to come up with the kind of figure they might have been talking about. That was what was relayed to me by the producer.

In your opinion, what is the strangest factor or piece of evidence in this case?

I think the ransom note. It’s undisputed that it was reportedly left by the person responsible for the murder and no one else, and they alleged kidnapping. So although there’s other pieces of evidence – the duct tape, the cord, the trace DNA samples – the note was specifically written by someone directly involved in the murder either as the perpetrator or someone involved in covering it up for someone else. I think there’s a strong consensus from a lot of people that Patsy was the author of that note. Some people think she was assisted by her husband, some think she wrote it herself.

Do you think that the false confession from John Karr hindered the investigation?

I don’t think I would say it hindered it. It was a tangent that led the DA’s office to Thailand to get the guy they thought was responsible. They relied heavily on the DNA, and when it came back negative, they had to release him. When I first heard about it I thought maybe I’d been wrong and there was an intruder out there, anything is possible. When some of the evidence was released regarding the conversation he’d been having with journalism professor Michael Tracey, I said: “This guy is a fraud.” He had no idea of the physical evidence; he was not present at the time. There was no information about the manner and the cause of death and this guy was just living in his own world. I think that was about $35,000 worth of tax payers’ money that went off in pursuit of that false lead, plus all of Tim Bennett’s time investigating that. He was hired back after I left and he worked on that for almost three months straight without a day off, so there was time and salary involved in that expense as well as travel and expenses, but if you think it’s going to be a valid pursuit of a suspect, I can understand that decision.

John Karr "confessed" to the murder of JonBenét, but this was later debunked
John Karr “confessed” to the murder of JonBenét, but this was later debunked

What has the response to your book been like from the Ramsey family?

I was surprised because usually the Ramsey attorneys have been pretty vocal about going after people who wrote about this case, whether it be the media or the magazines or Steven Thomas, who brought out his book, although he was much more direct at pointing the finger at Patsy, whereas I let people draw their own conclusions. But I never heard a word, not an e-mail, not a phone call, not a letter – nothing. Which made me think that I was kind of spot on with my thoughts and theories about the events that had taken place.

Were there ever any other cases that were considered connected to JonBenét’s murder?

Nothing ever connected similarly. There’s never been a case like it before and there’s never been a case like it afterwards. Those are the direct words from the FBI and those who are involved in cases like this nationally every day.

What is the contributing factor as to why this case remains unsolved?

I think there were a lot of things that were done to alter the scene and misdirect investigators. People do their best to try to figure out what happened based on prior investigative experience, and by working with other behaviour models by people who have been in this situation where they’ve murdered siblings or spouses or children. There are thousands of cases out there, so you try to understand the motive, the reasoning behind it, and try to form some investigative conclusion that way, and figure out who might have been involved. I’ve got my theories as far as family involvement and they might be different to what other people think, but taking theories of speculation and trying to go forward to find a prosecution, that’s a different matter.

Do you think this case will ever be solved?

I think you might be able to say it’s closed. We have a pretty good idea of the family involvement and the cover up and who was responsible for doing this. They’re not going to find an intruder who is responsible for this is my feeling. Is it solved? I’m not sure they solved it. There are only two other people alive that were in the house that night – John and Burke – and perhaps they’ve said something to someone in a weak moment and perhaps that person could come forward to give us a better insight as to what happened, that’s always a possibility. Witnesses come forward sometimes years later in cold cases. One can only hope.

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