JonBenét Ramsey: A Beauty Queen Whose Death Immortalized her Life

With the release of the documentary "Casting JonBenét" on Netflix this Friday, we're taking a look back at the tragic unsolved murder of the 6-year-old beauty queen that still captures America's attention.
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JonBenét Ramsey

By age 6, JonBenét Ramsey had already won five beauty pageant titles. Her life was tragically cut short when she was brutally murdered on Christmas night in 1996.

Few murder mysteries have captured America’s attention like JonBenét Ramsey’s tragic death. Her sparkling smile, glowing blonde hair, and countless glittery costumes have never ceased to trigger debate. Whether it be about her involvement in the pageantry scene or the list of suspects in her brutal murder, many have opinions about JonBenét's case. 

Here is what we do know. On Christmas night in 1996, JonBenét was brutally beaten, strangled, and sexually assaulted. Although a three-page ransom note was left requesting $118,000, her body was later found in the basement of her home in Boulder, Colorado. She was only 6 years old. Suspicious behavior on the part of her parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, and even her 9-year-old brother, Burke, leads many to think the family was somehow involved in her death. In 2003 and 2008, “touch” DNA (based on analyses of skin cells) was found on JonBenét’s panties and on the waistband of long johns she was likely wearing prior to the attack. Initial reports indicate that the touch DNA can be attributed to an unknown male who is unrelated to the Ramseys and the Boulder County District Attorney Mary Lacy issued a formal letter exonerating the Ramseys from any involvement in JonBenét’s murder. No one has ever been charged for her murder and the investigation remains open over two decades after her death.

JonBenét Ramsey Memorial in 1997

Candles left at the murder site of 6-year-old JonBenét Ramsey in Boulder, Colorado in December 1997. 

Here is what we don’t know. Who killed JonBenét and why? 

The swirling questions about her murder have been engulfed by conspiracy theories and more questions remain than answers. For example, why was the ransom note so lengthy and why did the captor(s) demand such an oddly specific amount of money? Whose DNA was at the scene and can new evidence, including recently released reports that the evidence actually “contains a mixture of DNA — JonBenét, an unknown male and, in one sample, a third unidentified person,” according to ABC News, challenge the previous exoneration of the Ramseys’ involvement in JonBenét’s murder? Why did Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter decide not to file charges against John and Patsy Ramsey even though the grand jury voted to indict them in 1999? 

It is likely we will never know the answer to these questions. Although they told their side of the story in the poignant 2001 memoir, The Death of Innocence, JonBenét’s mother, Patsy, died from ovarian cancer in 2006 at the age of 49 and her father, John Bennett, for whom JonBenét is named, claims he has lost his entire family fortune after being a multi-millionaire in the 1990s. In September 2016, her brother Burke made a surprising appearance on The Dr. Phil Show, breaking his 20-year silence about the case but bringing no new evidence to the story.

In the meantime, countless books, documentaries, and true crime shows have featured their own theories about JonBenét’s murder. The mom, the dad, the brother, the convicted child sex offender (Gary Oliva), the electrician (Michael Helgoth), the school teacher (John Mark Karr), the housekeeper (Linda Hoffman-Pugh), and the town Santa (Bill McReynolds) have all been suspected—at least by media and news outlets—but none have been charged. 

In 2017, the sensationalization of this crime has even made its way to Netflix. Casting JonBenét takes a new perspective about this infamous murder. By interviewing dozens of Colorado actors about the crime as they audition for a part in the documentary, this film brings together the real-life perspectives of local citizens in an eerily authentic way as they portray the Ramseys, other locals, and even JonBenét herself. They offer their own accounts of what they went through when they learned about the crime, relaying their own experiences with trauma as well as their own theories about what happened. The film juxtaposes their contradicting stories, making us question our assumptions about this horrific murder, all the while bringing life to this decades-old murder mystery.

There is no debate that JonBenét’s award-winning smile was captivating. Her titles of Little Miss Colorado, Little Miss Charlevoix, Colorado State All-Star Kids Cover Girl, America's Royale Miss, and National Tiny Miss Beauty are not the only things that we will remember. She was a beauty queen whose death has immortalized her life. But questions still remain. As one adorable, blonde, pageant-ready little girl (Hannah Cagwin) asks the director of Casting JonBenét in her audition tape, “Do you know who killed JonBenét Ramsey?” 

'Casting JonBenét' will be released on April 28 on Netflix.