On Boxing Day morning in 1996, Patsy Ramsey got out of bed and walked down the staircase to her kitchen. There, on the bottom steps she made a horrifying discovery: a two-and-a-half-page ransom note, claiming that her daughter had been kidnapped and was in grave danger, unless a long list of demands were met.
The Ramsey family immediately called the police for help (despite the note warning them against it) but by the end of the day, little six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey’s body would be found by her own father in the basement of her home in Boulder, Colorado.
Within days, professional photographers would sell photos of the young girl participating in beauty pageants and her smiling image would be beamed across TV news, newspapers and magazines worldwide.
And within the week, fingers would also start pointing to who might have committed the violent crime. Most were pointing at someone within her home and a heated debate began as to whether it was her mother, or father who was responsible.
The murder itself of little JonBenét Ramsey was so incredibly shocking – she was tortured and assaulted before being killed – but when that was paired with the controversial pictures and videos of the six-year-old in full make-up and costumes, competing in pageants – the story took on a life of its own. True crime had reached a fever pitch the year before, with the trial of OJ Simpson, and it seemed the public couldn’t get enough of this new case.
I remember it well – whenever I hear her name mentioned I can easily recall one of her pageant photos; her little angelic face surrounded by a mass of blonde curls. I can also picture the family’s home that we were shown night after night – surrounded by snow, with candy canes on the front lawn and Christmas wreaths still hanging in the windows and doors.
I also remember the stories and rumours and wondering – how could the parents do this?!? Did one of them act alone? Were they both involved?!? I dipped into documentaries over the years and heard the theories pointing to her parents, or even her brother being responsible. Did the parents cover up his crime? Did the family really get away with murder?
The murder of JonBenet Ramsey remains unsolved to this day, but one thing appears clear – despite the media hype, the rumours and the failings of the Boulder Police Department, the family were not responsible for her death. In 2008 the District Attorney sent a letter of apology to the family, after DNA testing “completely cleared” them from having any involvement. Sadly, the news came too late for Patsy, who passed away from ovarian cancer in 2006.
The family faced suspicion from the get-go – which intensified in the years following, including in 1999 when a grand jury was called to test if there was enough evidence to charge the Ramseys. The DA concluded there was insufficient evidence to pursue an indictment.
But it’s really thanks to one man, who saw that the evidence pointed outside of the home, that the Ramsey’s were never charged, and eventually had their names cleared. That man is Police Detective Lou Smit, who came out of retirement to work on the case.
Lou worked tirelessly to find the killer responsible, until his death in 2010 from colon cancer. His dying wish was that his work be continued, which is family and former colleagues have vowed to do.
This week, I spoke to Lou Smit’s daughter, Cindy Marra and his former colleague – former El Paso County Sheriff John Anderson who continue to finish the work that Lou began. In an effort to remind people of the case – and the fact that the killer is still out there, they both also appear this week in a new documentary, JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?
Cindy, first of all, I’d love to talk about your dad, because he sounds like an extraordinary man. Not just because of what he achieved in this case, but he helped so many families and victims find justice. Can I check I have this right? I read the Lou worked on 200 homicide cases over the course of his career, and every one that went to trial led to a conviction.
CINDY: Yes! Of the cases that went to trial, he never lost a case. He was very meticulous and thorough and just a really good detective. It was just in his blood, he was an amazing guy.
What kind of man was he like outside of his career?
CINDY: He was fun! He was just a fun person. He had so many friends – he’d make friends with everybody, including defendants in cases. He just had a way about him that just made you want to be near him.
That’s particularly incredible given what he did for a living! Did it ever take a toll on him, dealing with that much death and seeing the worst of humanity? Did that ever seem to weigh heavily on him?
CINDY: You know, I remember him saying, especially when he was in hospice, he would talk about how he had to find a way along the years to compartmentalise what he had seen and what he’d had to experience and witness. He said he just felt like he had a little box in his head, and he had to store those memories in that box. And he was always a little concerned that one day that box would be opened. He didn’t want that to happen. But he was able to successfully do that, over years of experience – to be able to just separate himself from the horrible side of human nature with this other side of being a family man and the man who was a friend to everybody. He was an amazing man.
Do you remember when he was called back out of retirement to work on the JonBenét case?
CINDY: I remember that the case had been all over the news. It had been for months. It was a couple of months later, and I was on vacation somewhere and I heard the news that he had been hired to work on the case. So, y’know, that was kind of exciting to hear.
Then I vividly remember a week or two into it I talked to him on the phone and I asked him whether it was the mom or the dad who did it – because at that point, the media and everyone had honed in on the idea that it was either John or Patsy. I remember asking him and he said, “You know, I don’t think it was either one of them. I thinking someone outside of that house did it.” I remember that distinctly.
Lou’s take on it proved to be very unpopular back then. The police department didn’t seem too keen to follow any other direction, and very few media outlets reported on any other possible theories, beside the parents being the lead suspects. Why was that such an unpopular stance? Why did people want to believe it was the Ramseys?
JOHN: I’ve always felt like it might be a little, I don’t know, petty jealous or bias against the parents. Y’know, they were very successful, very affluent and had a beautiful daughter and a beautiful home. I think there was a bias against the parents from the very beginning – perhaps because some people were judgmental that they allowed their daughter to put on make-up and be in these beauty pageants or whatever. There was definitely a bias against the parents right from the start, which was really tragic.
Early on, Lou believed the killer to be someone outside of the house – to him, the evidence pointed away from the family. Then when he actually met John & Patsy Ramsey he continued to believe they were innocent. What evidence do you find the most compelling?
JOHN: Yes, I think Lou always allowed the evidence to drive him to his theories, and the facts are what convinced him that this could not have been a family member. In particular, the DNA that was found at the crime scene had a source of an unknown male DNA that didn’t match any of the family.
Then Lou, of course, found evidence of a window that had been broken out months before the murder.
There was a lot of misinformation that was put out early on that the media kept reporting that was not factual – like the “fact” there were no footprints in the snow. They would show that picture – it became so famous of the front of the house with snow in the front yard and candy canes. But what Lou did was look at the crime scene photos from the back of the house – where he thought entry had been gained – and there was no snow there. Someone could easily have come and gone without leaving prints there.
It seemed like every time he offered an alternative theory, how it may have been an intruder, someone either in the department or in the media tried to dismiss that by coming up with an alternate theory.
I think one of the strongest pieces of physical evidence was the two marks on the little girl’s back and on her face that Lou ended up associating to a stun gun. There was not one found at the crime scene – the Ramsey’s did not own one, so whoever did this had to take that stun gun into the crime scene and then take it out again.
But you know, people came up with suggestions that it might have been the little boy – the nine-year-old who stabbed his sister with railroad tracks, leaving the marks, which was just nonsensical, it didn’t fit.
Absolutely – I’ve seen stories that it was a mark just left by a button, which makes no sense. But still, the police department really backed these “alternate theories” to the point where the Ramsey’s were almost indicted at one stage. If it wasn’t for Lou coming in, that could have gone very differently. What was his reaction when the news came through that there was insufficient evidence to go ahead with a charge?
CINDY: He was driving and he pulled over when he heard. He described it that he said a little prayer and started crying – because at that point, he truly believed that the Ramsey’s had nothing to do with the murder of their daughter.
I mean, you can only imagine if you didn’t do something like that but had been accused of it and having the whole world believe that you did…
My dad felt such a duty to JonBenét herself to make sure that the right person was arrested for her murder. He did not believe that John or Patsy had murdered their child, so there was such a sense of relief that they were not going to be basically railroaded into a conviction for a murder they didn’t commit.
The case then hit a bit of brick wall – your dad was off the case. But then, a few years later a new District Attorney arrived and reopened the case and gave Lou a second shot at it. What was it about this case that kept your dad out of retirement, and kept him coming back to it, time and time again?
CINDY: I think that’s an easy answer – he always put the victims first. He never gave up on one case he worked on. And so to have another bite of the apple, I think he was very excited about that. And he really thought he could make a difference, being back in the office and being able to hopefully convince people of the intruder that was in the house on that night.
Lou obviously got to know the Ramsey’s quite well over the years – John Ramsey even spoke at his funeral. Have you kept up that connection with the family?
JOHN: Oh yes, we stay in contact all the time. In fact, I spoke to her older brother John Andrew Ramsey just yesterday. We’re not working for the Ramsey family though, Lou didn’t work for the family either, But they’re – we’re on the same mission. What we really want is justice for JonBenet, and we keep an open line of communication with the family. And it’s been very helpful in running past some more people of interest past the family – particularly the father, you know, asking, has there been any business association with this individual? Do you remember this person ever having been in the home?
The business side is interesting isn’t it, because it was well-known how much success John had been enjoying. Even just a few weeks before her murder, there was a newspaper article all about his business. And then there was the fact that the ransom note asked for $118,000 – the exact bonus John had recently earned…
JOHN: That’s 100% correct. So, yes, we definitely have our top 20 people of interest, and through DNA analysis we’ve eliminated nine individuals so far. Lou insisted, even when he was in hospice – some of our last conversations were about the people on this list.
Lou identified over 800 people or leads or evidence that needed to be pursued. He organised them into three tiers and eliminated many of those. But he really felt the suspect’s name could very likely be in the case file all long, but had not been pursued aggressively. So that’s what we’ve tried to do since he passed in 2010, is prioritise our top 20. And when we eliminate one individual, then we move someone else from those lists on tier two or three.
Our focus, since we’re not criminal investigators and we have no jurisdiction, all we are focusing on is just collecting DNA and testing DNA. So we were not conducting full investigation like Lou and I would have been when we were partners in homicide. But we do think he was right all along that the DNA will either exclude people from that list or include them. Then we can focus more on who that person is, where they were in 1996, on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and look into their past. Because it’s very infrequent that someone would commit a crime of this level of violence and there not be prior or following incidences. So our focus continues on the people that he had already identified; people of interest in the case file.
That’s an incredibly long list – but it makes sense. I remember that fact that of all the tips that came into the PD about the case, 98% of them were not followed up.
JOHN: Yes, it was really frustrating for Lou. There’s a host of people of interest out there and some very compelling tips that came in that really should be pursued. And we think many of those could still be pursued if a law enforcement agency took the case over even just for 12 months tried to focus on it. Now, a quarter of a century later, we could look at what the DNA could tell us that it couldn’t before.
Do you believe you’re on track to finding her killer?
JOHN: Absolutely. I think every year with advancements in DNA and ancestral databases, I think we’re in better position. I think we’re in a better position today in solving this case that we have ever been.
Part of our challenges though is the Boulder Police have been very reluctant or resistant or just won’t share any information with us. We’ve met with them twice last year. And Cindy and I and some of our other team, we requested an additional meeting in December which was refused. They’re just are so unwilling to communicate or accept any information at all – but we continue to provide them with our updated persons of interest lists, as well as the people we’ve eliminated.
We’re sure there’s probably a few people on our top 20 that they’ve already eliminated and, that could save us a lot of money! We budgeted about $5,000 for every DNA sample that we collect, and then test, it’s very expensive. So if we could even just eliminate two people that would save us over $10,000 in budget, as well as, the four to six months that might take to raise that. It’s one of the reasons why we establish this GoFundMe account, so that we could help offset some of that cost of the DNA analysis. We just couldn’t continue doing that out of pocket.
You’ve been paying for this yourselves? Wow. This really is a huge commitment to finish what your father started, Cindy.
CINDY: Yes, we’re doing this because of my father – he just made such an impact on so many people and his dying wish was that this case not be forgotten, that we do all we can. I don’t know what he thought that would look like when he died, but he just urged everyone to continue to keep this case alive. And in this case, there’s just no reason that it can’t be solved.
And it’s really become a family affair – I see your daughters have started a podcast about the case.
CINDY: Yes! My two daughters have a podcast and Instagram account called the Victim’s Shoes which is to put the actual evidence out there and what my dad found as far as an intruder is concerned, because people just don’t seem to know this information. And when you don’t know what the information is, you tend to believe that the parents did it, which is not only a disservice to the Ramsey family who have had to live with this stigma for 24 years now, but JonBenet – and the community that we should find this killer who is a dangerous man. My dad always said DNA was going to solve this case and we believe we’re closer than ever to finding him.
What would it mean to you if he was found?
JOHN: It would mean we can get on with our lives and do something different! Not that this is the only thing we’ve been doing, but it certainly dominates your life. Cindy works full-time and is a wife and mother, and I’m a full-time writer and author, but you put all of those personal objectives on hold while we work on this case. And we’re not the only ones! There’s many other friends and family members of Lou who are involved. It would definitely be a relief to have this killer caught.
And what about for you, Cindy? What would it mean to finish your dad’s work?
CINDY: It would just mean so much to me, for my dad’s sake. Noe that I’m discounting JonBenét in this, but I know that it meant so much to my dad to find who killed this little girl. It was his driving force – he devoted the end of his life to trying to find that killer. It would just mean so much that we could go to his grave and tell him it’s solved. To tell Dad that this horrible person, he’s in jail.
JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened? screens on Investigation Discovery, Saturday 6 March at 8.30pm.