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JonBenét Ramsey: 4 new fall television shows will explore our obsession with her murder

The grave of JonBenet Ramsey is shown August 16, 2006, in Marietta, Georgia. A suspect in the murder of Ramsey, the 6-year-old beauty queen whose parents were under suspicion early on, was arrested today in Thailand.
The grave of JonBenet Ramsey is shown August 16, 2006, in Marietta, Georgia. A suspect in the murder of Ramsey, the 6-year-old beauty queen whose parents were under suspicion early on, was arrested today in Thailand.
Barry Williams/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Children are integral, cherished parts of our lives.

They embody our innocence. They are our future. When they’re little, they are compliant models, letting us put them in tiny outfits that warm our hearts.

But sometimes children serve a different purpose in our lifetimes.

Sometimes they play key roles in fairy tales, a.k.a. some of the most heinous stories of human depravity. These stories frequently involve children being put in cages and waiting to be eaten, falling down hills, suffering curses cast by evil witches, growing up with terrible mothers, and living in jungles.

Fairy tales exist to teach us important lessons about following rules, trusting the right people, and seeing bad guys for what they are. They’re immortal, but by no means ancient or archaic.

These horrific stories still happen today — that just take a different form.

For proof, just take a look at your local news or try to remember your high school history lesson about the Lindbergh baby. But there is none in recent memory as intriguing or as dark as that of JonBenét Ramsey, the 6-year-old pageant queen who was infamously murdered in 1996, kicking off an enduring controversy and fascination about the story and its reach.

The photos of JonBenét Ramsey that you’ll find on the internet — mostly from her pageant wins — give the impression that she’s a perfect child. But there’s something eerie about them, like the smile she’s flashing is too perfect by half. Like there’s something haunting that belies this young girl.

When Ramsey was killed, her strangled body was found the day after Christmas, along with a two and a half page ransom note. The circumstances and facts surrounding her death point to a perpetrator who must have known her.

Yet no killer was ever found.

And even with recent DNA revelations clearing their names, JonBenét’s parents — John Ramsey, a businessman, and her late mother, Patsy Ramsey — have always been the prime suspects in their daughter’s murder, the convenient villains in a case that’s still evolving.

The mystery and conspiracy surrounding JonBenét’s death has turned her into a figure of cultural fascination, one who is so much more than the victim of a terrible crime. She reflects our own thoughts about children, family, and humanity. Twenty years later, it’s no surprise that JonBenét’s murder — which is still unsolved — has inspired four new television shows and renewed interest in the case.

What we know about JonBenét Ramsey’s murder

JonBenét Ramsey’s murder feels like it was written and diagrammed specifically to become the plot of a television show that begins with the end, on the day her parents found out she had been killed.

The 6-year-old was reported missing from her home in Boulder, Colorado, on the day after Christmas in 1996. Her parents later found her body — nylon cord wrapped around her neck, wrists bound, mouth covered with duct tape, covered by a strange white blanket — in the family’s basement, eight hours after reporting her missing. An autopsy revealed that JonBenét had died of asphyxiation and trauma to her skull.

Losing a child is one of the most terrible horrors a parent can experience, and JonBenét’s death is a real-life example of that. But many details of her case make it feel like more than just a random act of violence. There’s something strangely personal, almost ritualistic, about the crime scene and the way her body was found — not unlike the way death is depicted on TV (True Detective, Law and Order: SVU) and in movies (Prisoners).

And then there are the eyebrow-raising events and circumstances leading to this brutal discovery.

Patsy Ramsey said she learned her daughter was missing when she discovered a ransom note that, among other things, was scrawled on paper found inside the Ramseys’ home, and asked for $118,000 for JonBenét’s safe return. The note said JonBenét had been taken by "a group of individuals," and demanded that no one know about her abduction or the existence of the ransom note:

One page from the ransom note the Ramsey family allegedly received. (Smoking Gun)

Patsy notified the police at approximately 5:25 am after she went to JonBenét’s room and confirmed that her daughter was missing, ignoring the ransom letter’s demands. Police conducted a preliminary search of the Ramseys’ home and did not find any sign of forced entry.

The ransom letter was eerily detailed in its knowledge of the Ramsey family. $118,000 is an oddly specific number, and it so happens that John Ramsey had received a bonus of the same amount earlier in the year. According to CNN, the note referenced "little-known details about the family's past and its finances."

JonBenét’s murder was an intimate one. If her killer was a stranger to the Ramseys, he or she or they knew which bedroom in the Ramsey home was hers, and left a note that was oddly specific to this family. It doesn't seem too farfetched to assume that her parents must’ve had something to do with it.

In 1999, a grand jury voted to indict Patsy and John Ramsey for abuse that resulted in JonBenét’s death. However, Colorado prosecutors decided not to file charges, citing a lack of evidence. In 2008, DNA tests found skin cells not belonging to John or Patsy Ramsey on JonBenét’s garments and underwear, and prosecutors cleared her parents as suspects.

The two main theories about JonBenét’s death suggest she was killed by either an intruder or her parents

What makes John and Patsy Ramsey the biggest suspects — other than the cryptic ransom note with so much information about the family’s life and the logistics of the murder (that the killer had to know which room JonBenét was in, and that everything happened without waking anyone else in the home) — is that there weren’t any solid leads on any other suspects.

While the ransom note specified a group of killers, law enforcement and reports have usually referred to JonBenét’s killer as an individual. The long-running footnote to this murder is that over 140 suspects have been investigated without any results. There’s been a false confession, and one suspect named Michael Helgoth has died since he was investigated, but a 2004 investigation by 48 Hours said that his DNA was not found at the scene.

And so we come back to the DNA sample found on JonBenét’s dead body.

The DNA evidence, which cleared JonBenét’s parents in 2008, didn’t match anyone in the crime database but still remains the most crucial element in the theory that an intruder killed JonBenét.

Lou Smit, a detective from Colorado Springs who worked on the case in 1997, believes in the intruder theory — a theory that someone came in and killed JonBenét while her parents were asleep — and told the Denver Post that the most compelling piece of evidence were wood splinters found on the carpet outside the room where JonBenét’s dead body was found. Smit also said there was a baseball bat — a bat Smit believes killed JonBenét — found outside the home that carried the same carpet fibers, ergo someone was tracking those fibers out of the house while fleeing the scene.

But there are also counter theories against this claim.

Even though DNA evidence cleared JonBenét’s parents, A. James Kolar, a lead investigator on the case for nine months, believes that centering the investigation and drawing definitive conclusions (like ascertaining the presence of an intruder) based on DNA samples is a mistake.

"I don’t think we should be letting the course of the investigation be run by one single artifact that may or may not necessarily be involved in the actual crime of the kidnap or murder," Kolar told NBC in 2012.

The gulf between Kolar and Smit’s analysis is based on one thing: the willingness to look at JonBenét’s parents as suspects. Smit believed the investigation too heavily focused on the parents. Kolar believes the opposite.

The story of JonBenét Ramsey is a scary fairy tale about good parents and bad parents — and child beauty pageants play a key role

Looking back at JonBenét’s murder today, after some 20 years have passed, you start to realize the case wasn’t treated like there was a killer on the loose and terrifying a community. There was no feeling that what happened to JonBenét might happen to another child in the neighborhood.

JonBenét’s death was and is a more about examining the mentality and behavior of her parents, and judging whether or not they were good ones. I don’t mean "good" in the sense of teaching your children about stranger danger or putting them in car seats.

But rather, were these parents capable of killing their own child? Were there any tell-tale signs that they weren’t good parents?

The Ramseys’ involvement in child beauty pageants was a major part of the scrutiny they faced after JonBenét died. Patsy Ramsey, who died in 2006, was a pageant mom from a pageant family. She won Miss West Virginia in 1977, and her sister Pamela won the title three years later in 1980. Clearly she wanted her daughter to follow in her footsteps.

And the only memorable thing about JonBenét was her involvement in pageants — she’s constantly and consistently referred to as the 6-year-old beauty queen. There’s always been something of an unspoken connection between the child pageant circuit and JonBenét’s death, an implicit suggestion that there’s something awry with the mentality of pageant parents and their kids. As Time pointed out, her murder prompted people to "raise eyebrows, particularly surrounding the current phenomenon of child beauty pageants."

Child beauty pageants have frequently been depicted in pop culture as odd, and more recently, as freak shows.

Ten years after JonBenét’s death, the 2006 indie feel-good movie Little Miss Sunshine examined and lampooned the child pageant industry. Despite the film’s heartwarming ending, there were darker moments that suggested that pageants’ biggest fans, aside from parents whose kids participated in them, were pedophiles.

In 2008, the reality TV shows Toddlers and Tiaras debuted — the criticism of the contestants and parents on the show were as potent as its popularity. The show, which ran through 2013, also birthed a spin-off, 2012’s Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo. The current series Dance Moms, though it doesn’t concern child beauty pageants, is very much in the same vein, featuring the same kind of demanding "pageant mom" mentality.

The goal of these pieces of pop culture isn’t to make you understand or empathize with the contestants featured. They were created to document and showcase the spectacle of young children competing in beauty pageants and behaving in a way that many people think is inappropriate, and to conjure up feelings of disgust toward the parents involved.

"I judged a pageant this summer, and one of the contestants is like a celebrity here because she was on Toddlers and Tiaras," a former child beauty queen told the Cut in 2012. "She was a lovely girl, but her wardrobe was horrific. For her to be 13? She looked like a prostitute. All of the judges were horrified. I've seen moms cuss judges out; I've seen moms take out second mortgages on their homes to buy gowns."

The implication: Pageant moms and dads aren’t good parents. Good parents don’t put their kids into beauty pageants.

With all the stories of terrible pageant moms who treat their daughters more like dolls than humans, it’s not hard to believe that one might kill her own child, perhaps by accident (a theory posited by detective Steve Thomas, who spent two years investigating case).

"We were so naïve," John Ramsey told ABC in a 2012 interview, expressing regret for putting JonBenét into the child pageantry circuit. "I now believe with all my heart that it's not a good idea to put your child on public display."

His voiced regrets seem to suggest that his daughter’s participation in pageants may have exposed her to someone who could have killed her.

Nostalgic true crime stories are having a bit of a moment

True crime is not a new storytelling genre, not by any means, but a number of recent entries have brought about a new level of an excitement and buzz in pop culture.

Earlier this year, FX’s The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and the ESPN documentary series O.J. Simpson: Made in America both won much critical acclaim. After it launched late in 2015, Netflix’s Making a Murderer was wildly popular, developing a fervent following. In 2014, the breakout podcast Serial created debates in homes, at restaurants, in dorm rooms, and classrooms throughout the country about the criminal justice system.

And with all the projects focusing on O.J. Simpson and JonBenét Ramsey, nostalgic true crime, in particular, seems to be having a moment.

This isn’t to say that JonBenét and O.J. Simpson’s cases are similar; as both of this year’s O.J. Simpson series pointed out, his trial was always about bigger topics and conversations (race, police brutality, corruption) than Simpson’s guilt. I don’t believe that JonBenét Ramsey’s murder is a touchstone for those types of national conversations (though I wouldn’t be opposed to hearing that argument).

But both cases evoke a similar feeling of nostalgia.

As evidenced by the recent re-emergence of certain songs, this summer’s hit television show Stranger Things, and what seem like endless TV and movie reboots of older properties, there’s a thirst for nostalgia in pop culture. Of course, nostalgia is relative to a person’s age and experience. But we’ve hit the point in pop culture where many of the events that creators, documentarians, musicians, and artists are drawing from are cultural artifacts and moments of the '80s and '90s that resonate with any audience who at some point felt some kind of connection to these moments.

It’s the reason why ESPN’s and FX’s O.J. Simpson features resonated with younger baby boomers, Gen X-ers, and older millennials. It’s the reason why so many new shows are banking on interest in JonBenét Ramsey’s death.

Why we’re still obsessed about the death of JonBenét Ramsey

The simple answer as to why JonBenét Ramsey remains a point of cultural fascination is that her death is still a mystery.

It’s difficult to imagine JonBenét’s murder going unsolved if it took place today, what with our achievements in forensic technology and a general lack of privacy when it comes to surveillance.

There’s also been a false confession, a report about a broken window in the Ramsey basement, and a handwriting test from Patsy that "set off alarm bells."

Not to mention the several websites bent on debugging and puzzling out the "intruder" theory, or the conspiracy theory that pop singer Katy Perry is actually JonBenét Ramsey.

But one of the most notable recent developments came from a 2015 Reddit AMA with Mark Beckner, the former chief of the Boulder Police Department. That AMA is now littered with deletions, but the Denver Post cached the responses. (At the time of the AMA, Beckner apparently did not realize he was writing in a public forum.) In it, Beckner hints that he believes JonBenét’s parents are still prime suspects.

"Exonerating anyone based on a small piece of evidence that has not yet been proven to even be connected to the crime is absurd in my opinion," he wrote in response to the 2008 discovery of DNA and subsequent clearing of JonBenét’s parents. He stated that he believed the district attorney didn’t push hard enough on the Ramseys.

"Mary Lacy, the DA who said the DNA exonerated them made up her mind years before that a mother could not do that to a child, thus the family was innocent. Even though we pointed out that it is not unheard of for mothers do such things," he added.

Beckner also stated that missteps were made in controlling the crime scene — people reportedly entered and left the house while the police were investigating the Ramseys’ home — and questioning JonBenét’s parents. It gives credence to the theory that Patsy or John may have covered for one another. He wrote [emphasis mine]:

As for the police department in general, I wish we would have done a much better job of securing and controlling the crime scene on day one. We also should have separated John and Patsy and gotten full statements from them that day. Letting them go was a big mistake, as they soon lawyered up and we did not get to formally interview them again until May of 1997, five months after their daughter was murdered. Had the police found the body early on, as they should have, I believe the initial course of the investigation would have gone differently, but who really knows at this point. We also did a poor job of protecting the crime scene.

The case of JonBenét Ramsey still feels like it’s evolving. But at the same time it doesn’t feel like investigators are chasing new leads or finding new suspects. Based on what Beckner has said, the focus seems to be on taking another look at what we already know and narrowing current suspects (with the focus back on her parents).

That approach lends itself to the true crime treatment.

In true crime shows, podcasts, and documentaries — regardless of their format — there’s a conceit of giving power to the listener, perhaps to solve the crime. These programs are created with a point of view that, at the bare minimum, alerts the audience that a particular case is worth a second look. And as humans, we have an instinctive desire to solve something that history says couldn’t be solved.

That’s why the first season of Serial started a national conversation about Adnan Syed’s guilt. It’s why, when Making a Murderer questioned the conviction of its subjects, Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, and its creators spoke openly about how they believe Avery is innocent, people created online petitions to have Avery freed and balked at the presumed failings of the justice system that convicted him. Both these cases are still unwinding, and new developments are still happening.

When it comes to JonBenét Ramsey’s murder, many of us who are familiar with it have — in some capacity — already made up our minds about who killed the young girl. This is a case that’s over 20 years old. But even though it’s unlikely, until new evidence is unearthed, or some sort of concrete finding or verdict is passed down, people won’t be able to rest. And to those of us who have already passed judgment, the new TV shows about JonBenét’s death will to confirm our beliefs or give us an opportunity to argue that the opposing viewpoint is completely wrong.

A&E’s The Killing of JonBenét: The Truth Uncovered aired on September 5.

Investigation Discovery’s JonBenét: An American Murder Mystery aired on Monday, September 12.

CBS’s The Case Of: JonBenét Ramsey is a six-part series that began on September 19th and concludes on Sunday September 25.

Lifetime’s Who Killed JonBenét? airs in November.