What Happened to JonBenet Ramsey?
20/20 September 27, 1998
(This is an unedited, uncorrected transcript.)
DIANE SAWYER, ABCNEWS Good evening, and welcome to 20/20 Sunday. Let's us say at the outset that we've all seen a lot of stories about the JonBenet Ramsey case. But tonight, we have new details, new information.
BARBARA WALTERS, ABCNEWS Isn't it amazing, Diane, that it's been two years and we are still fascinated by this case?
DIANE SAWYER And two years in which no charges have been brought, no indictment has been brought. And we can't emphasize enough that the Ramseys are presumed innocent under the law and evidence is still being gathered. But tonight, we have provocative new information that sources tell us comes from the police investigation.
BARBARA WALTERS We also have the first interview ever with one of the lead detectives who served on the case from the beginning, and who recently resigned in protest. You will find out why. A grand jury in Colorado was just beginning to review the murder evidence in secret now. But, tonight, Elizabeth Vargas has the JonBenet Ramsey story with brand new revelations.
NEWS ANCHOR (VO) Frantic family members began searching the Ramsey home. They found JonBenet's body inside a rarely used room in the basement. She had been strangled. Duct tape covered her mouth.
ELIZABETH VARGAS, ABCNEWS (VO) It is clearly a new chapter in the case of JonBenet, a bright, blonde 6—year—old the world knows best through the distorting lens of the beauty pageant cameras, and the spotlight of a bizarre crime scene. Around 9:00 pm on Christmas Day, 1996, the Ramseys say they came home from dinner with friends and carried a sleeping JonBenet upstairs to bed. They say it was the last time they saw her alive. (on camera) One year, eight months and 21 days after the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, grand jurors assembled here in Boulder to begin reviewing evidence in the case. Sources say much of it implicates her parents. The proceedings here are secret. And unlike witnesses in federal grand juries, witnesses here cannot even reveal they testified.
(VO) Now, we don't know exactly what the district attorney is presenting to those grand jurors, but sources have told us some of the key evidence Boulder police have collected. Last June 1st and 2nd, Boulder detectives made a preparation to the DA. That presentation included evidence, sources say, suggesting that one or both of the Ramseys were involved in or had guilty knowledge of the crime.
CHIEF MARK BECKNER, BOULDER POLICE DEPARTMENT (June) We also discussed and identified and articulated 30 specific reasons that we believe a grand jury is necessary in this case and why we think it will be helpful in moving us forward.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (on camera) Our information of what was said in that meeting comes from well—placed sources in various law enforcement agencies. We emphasize there may be evidence to the contrary not available to us or different conclusions that might be drawn. And a reminder—in law, and in fairness, all people are considered innocent until proven guilty. Graphic: The Ransom Note.
(VO) Sources say the ransom note written by the alleged kidnapper is considered a key piece of evidence. Handwriting experts have ruled out John Ramsey and others close to the family. They have not excluded Patsy Ramsey, who has submitted several samples. The ransom note analysis, however, doesn't end with handwriting. The detectives enlisted the help of this man, professor Donald Foster of Vassar College.
(interviewing) You look at something and you figure out who wrote it, in essence?
PROF DONALD FOSTER, VASSAR COLLEGE Yes. That's what I do best.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) Foster analyzes not the handwriting, but the text, the content and syntax.
PROF DONALD FOSTER Use of language, grammar, source material, borrowings, political or religious opinions and anything that might enter in to making a piece of writing distinctively one person's or another's, from punctuation to spelling and so on.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) The professor once discovered Shakespeare was the author of a centuries—old manuscript. And the FBI hired him to prove Ted Kaczynski wrote the Unabomber Manifesto. But he is perhaps best known for proving "Anonymous" was really "Newsweek's" Joe Klein. Early in the case, Foster actually volunteered his expertise to Patsy Ramsey after reading of her extreme distress. Ironically, she never called. But the Boulder district attorney's office did. In the Ramsey case, Foster had high marks for the detectives who brought him an impressive sampling of Patsy Ramsey's writings—letters, notes, even files police retrieved from the family computer.
PROF DONALD FOSTER My experience with the Boulder detectives was that they were entirely professional in their work. They were dedicated to the case.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (interviewing) Have you determined who wrote the ransom note?
PROF DONALD FOSTER I have no comment.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) Foster is bound by a confidentiality agreement with the Boulder Police Department. But sources tell us in his report, summarized by detectives in the June presentation of evidence, Foster identified the writer of the ransom note as Patsy Ramsey. Foster analyzed commonly used words and also found similarities between Patsy's letter format and that of the ransom note writer's. The indentations and punctuation, especially the repeated use of the exclamation point. We looked back through our own archives and found two samples of Patsy's writing—this 1996 Christmas letter peppered with exclamation points and this 1978 photo with a two—line note, each sentence ending in an exclamation point. Also, sources say as many as 250 books were cataloged and photographed from various rooms in the Ramsey house in the event they yielded possible clues. At least one book, found in the bedroom, did—"Mind Hunter," by FBI profiler John Douglas. In chapter 16, there is a case of a young girl who is kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and suffocated with duct tape. When the killer called the mother, he began with the words "listen carefully." The same two words begin the ransom note. Patsy Ramsey has said she found the note at the bottom of the back spiral staircase. She has said she read it, and then called for John. In an interview for A&E airing tomorrow night, John Ramsey recalled his reaction after he read the note.
JOHN RAMSEY (Clip from A&E) That was the worst moment—suddenly realizing that someone had your daughter, your child and has taken her. And she was gone and we didn't know where she was. It was dark and was cold outside.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) But there's something curious here. According to a source, there are no fingerprints on the ransom note—not Patsy Ramsey's nor John Ramsey's. The question is—if the Ramseys held the note to read it, where are their prints? Graphic: The 911 Call Experts were hired to enhance the 911 call placed by Patsy Ramsey at 5:52 am the morning of the crime. Sources report the enhancement appears to reveal the voice of 9—year—old Burke, the Ramseys' son, asking his parents "what did you find?" In that June presentation, the suggestion was the Ramseys were not being truthful when they told the police that Burke was asleep until after the police arrived. Graphic: Patsy Ramsey's Clothing. But what was Patsy wearing? According to our sources, when Patsy Ramsey greeted the police that morning, she had on makeup and the same black pants, fur—trimmed boots and red sweater she wore with a black and red—checked blazer to Fleet White's home for dinner the night before. Sources say the police theory presented in June was that Patsy Ramsey never went to bed that night. Graphic: Staging. According to sources, a forensic pathologist concluded JonBenet was first hit on the head with a blunt object, consistent with the shape of the head of a flashlight, and she was immediately knocked out. After that, they say, she was strangled to death with nylon cord, then wrapped in a blanket and hidden in the dark with a favorite Barbie nightgown nearby. Why not just dispose of the body? In their June presentation, detectives cited FBI profilers who believe it is more difficult for parents than intruders to callously dispose of a body. Graphic: The Scream. Sources say a neighbor who slept with her window cracked two inches, told police she heard a scream between midnight and 1:00 am The neighbor said it was, quote, "obviously that of a child." The question raised—if a neighbor heard the scream, why didn't the Ramseys? Graphic: The $100,000 Reward.
PATSY RAMSEY (May 1, 1997) I'm appalled that anyone would think that John or I would be involved in such a hideous, heinous crime. But let me assure you, that I did not kill JonBenet. I did not have anything to do with it. I love that child with my whole of my heart and soul.
JOHN RAMSEY I did not kill my daughter, JonBenet.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) A $100,000 reward offered by the Ramseys for information about the killer was also discussed in the June presentation of evidence by Boulder police to the DA's office.
PATSY RAMSEY Please, please, if you know anything, I beg you to call us. Call us.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) Police find it significant the $100,000 reward has never been collected. Graphic: The Basement Intruder Theory. From the beginning, the Ramseys and their attorneys have suggested that an intruder could have entered through this basement window, which had been broken. Sources say that detectives in the June presentation excluded this as a point of entry. They say the grate above was covered with spider webs that were undisturbed, showing that it had not been removed for access. One problem—two detectives reported seeing the webs, but no one ever photographed them. Graphic: Items In The House Sources tell us many of the items used by the killer came from the house. The notepad in one room. From the kitchen, a Sharpie pen with ink consistent with ink on the note. The wooden paint brush, which held the nylon cord around JonBenet's neck, was from Patsy's art supply set kept here, outside the windowless room in the basement where JonBenet's body was found. A forensic pathology expert concluded a sliver, consistent with that paint brush, was found in JonBenet's genital area, indicating she was sexually assaulted with that paint brush. The origin of the black duct tape and nylon cord used on JonBenet has not been confirmed. Nor has the source of a partial marking from a high—tech boot found near the body. Graphic: Timing. Sources say detectives told the district attorney they believe the timing of the events discounts an intruder theory. Sources say detectives prepared a time study showing how long it would take an intruder to enter, collect items around the house, write a practice ransom note and then a final draft, accost, assault, and murder JonBenet, stage the scene and then leave the house—all without disturbing the family. Graphic: The Ramsey's Behavior, Access and Opportunity. Sources say the June presentation also included an analysis of the Ramseys' behavior—the lack of cooperation with police and the fact that they hired separate lawyers. Also noted was the point that the Ramseys had both access and opportunity to commit the crime. Graphic: Fiber Evidence. Finally, sources say the last point made in the June presentation was that four fibers consistent with those from Patsy Ramsey's black and red check blazer were found in a strategic location—on the sticky side of the duct tape which John Ramsey pulled from JonBenet's mouth. He left the tape in the basement, an area Patsy Ramsey said she had not been during the time in question. So how strong is this evidence as reportedly presented to the district attorney last June? We asked noted former prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi to serve as our ABCNEWS consultant on the case and to review the information we gathered. Again, we point out there may be other evidence we are not aware of gathered by the detectives or the DA.
VINCENT BUGLIOSI. FORMER PROSECTOR, LOS ANGELES The strongest evidence against the Ramseys in this case, as I see it, is nothing that directly implicates them. But the implausibility that anyone else committed these murders. But paradoxically - paradoxically, the strongest evidence that I've just pointed to, by its very nature, is the weakest evidence against the Ramseys.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (interviewing) Why?
VINCENT BUGLIOSI Because even if we come to the conclusion that JonBenet was not murdered by an intruder, the inevitable question presents itself. Which one did it? And a prosecutor can't argue to a jury, ladies and gentlemen, the evidence is very clear here that either Mr or Mrs Ramsey committed this murder and the other one covered it up. Even if the DA could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that JonBenet had to have been murdered by at least one of her parents, there'd be no case to take the jury unless they could prove beyond a reasonable doubt, which one did it.
ELIZABETH VARGAS Why couldn't it have been Burke Ramsey, Patsy and John's son? He was the third person in the house that night.
VINCENT BUGLIOSI It certainly could have been. But, if it were, then certainly the parents would know about it. The question is, why wouldn't they release that information? It's not like they're protecting them from a life in prison. He's 9 years old. And in Colorado he could not be punished at all. There'd be no legal consequences. The only thing is, he'd get medical help that he obviously would need.
ELIZABETH VARGAS Let's go through some of the evidence that we have been told was presented in this June meeting. First of all, the ransom note. How much weight does that carry in a court of law?
VINCENT BUGLIOSI Well, it carries weight, obviously. But it's not conclusive. Don't get me wrong. It's good evidence. It's not conclusive evidence. It's not going to carry the day. Even if it did carry the day and you could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Patsy Ramsey wrote the ransom note, that doesn't mean that she committed the murder.
ELIZABETH VARGAS You have characterized this case as a nonphysical, circumstantial evidence case. What do you mean by that?
VINCENT BUGLIOSI Well, physical circumstantial evidence—eg, fingerprints, blood, bullets, hair matchups—usually is the very strongest kind of evidence in a criminal case. But nonphysical, circumstantial evidence cases, as the Ramsey case, almost always are the toughest to solve, the most difficult to get a conviction of because we're talking about things like an inappropriate remark.
ELIZABETH VARGAS Hiring separate lawyers, not giving.
VINCENT BUGLIOSI A subtle effort to deflect the investigation. So, this is a very tough case. The only physical evidence that I know of so far are these four fibers that supposedly came from Patsy Ramsey's clothing. And there could easily have been a transference from her clothing to JonBenet's clothing that would have been normal, expected.
ELIZABETH VARGAS So given what sources have told us was presented at—and given what sources have told us is the evidence against the Ramseys, if this case were to go to court, you think the Ramseys would beat it?
VINCENT BUGLIOSI I think they would, yeah. At this particular level. At this particular level, yeah. And I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that the prosecutor has to prepare that summation of hundreds of hours. I'm talking about 200, 300, 400 hours of preparation, so he can put each speck of evidence upon another speck for the jury until ultimately there's a strong, irresistible mosaic of guilt. The prosecutor's argument and logic has got to be so powerful that the jury feels it has no choice but to convict.
DIANE SAWYER On Friday, we spoke to lawyers for John and Patsy Ramsey. They told us that they believe the Ramseys are the innocent victims of a, quote, "unprecedented and vicious media assault, attempting to influence the grand jury." They also believe police have stirred up, in their words, "a lynch mob." The lawyers say it is difficult to address specifics without seeing the actual police reports. And added that they have not heard the 911 enhancement.
BARBARA WALTERS Furthermore, the lawyers also challenged the credibility of Donald Foster, who analyzed the text the ransom note. And they told us they believe it's easier to hear a scream in the basement from across the street than from the Ramseys' third—floor master bedroom.
ANNOUNCER (VO) The murder of JonBenet Ramsey consumed his life. So why did this detective suddenly up and quit the case, and his job? He'll tell you tonight in an Elizabeth Vargas exclusive when 20/20 Sunday continues.
BARBARA WALTERS The big question most people seem to ask is why, after nearly two years, has no one been arrested for the murder of JonBenet Ramsey? The insider you're about to meet has a very strong opinion. He is Steve Thomas, and he was one of the lead detectives in the Ramsey investigation. And then, suddenly, last month, he quit, igniting a firestorm of controversy. Tonight, for the first time, he speaks out. And while his ground rule was that he wouldn't discuss the evidence, he does tell Elizabeth Vargas and the rest of us why he thinks this murder remains unsolved.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (interviewing) This case took over your life?
STEVE THOMAS, FORMER DETECTIVE, BOULDER, COLORADO Well, absolutely it did. It became all consuming, night and day, birthdays and holidays. And Christmas and anniversaries that we spent away from home.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) Detective Steve Thomas is a dedicated cop with a solid record for 13 years. For nearly two years, he says, he and the other detectives worked 100—hour weeks. All in the name of justice for a murdered 6—year—old.
STEVE THOMAS That's some of the sentiment behind where the—where the detectives stand and what they feel about JonBenet.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (interviewing) And yet, August 6th, you resigned from your job?
STEVE THOMAS A career that I loved, a career that I think was pretty good at.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) But on that painful day, he resigned. On JonBenet's birthday, detective Thomas sent flowers to her grave, turned in his badge and wrote a scathing letter.
(interviewing) In your letter, you made a very serious allegation accusing the district attorney, Alex Hunter, of thoroughly compromising the Ramsey investigation.
STEVE THOMAS I stand by my letter.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) That letter, a five—page single—spaced hand grenade thrown right into a case that seemed to have stalled for months. In it, Thomas accused the Boulder district attorney's office of mishandling and compromising the case. He accused them of shameless tactics against innocent people, of failing to support basic search warrants for telephone and credit card records, and of sharing police evidence with the Ramseys and their lawyers.
STEVE THOMAS It just got to a point where it was very disheartening.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) Also, in Thomas' letter, the serious accusation that some evidence was never collected, some never tested because of the office of the Boulder's district attorney Alex Hunter.
ALEX HUNTER, BOULDER DISTRICT ATTORNEY If I come across as arrogant, I apologize to you for that.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) Citing the sensitivity surrounding the grand jury, Hunter declined our request for an interview.
(interviewing) Some people might say, "Well, you are the police. It doesn't matter what support or lack thereof you're getting from the DA's office. Just go out and get the evidence and tell us who the killer is." Why can't do you that?
STEVE THOMAS Maybe on television, but police detectives know that that is not the case in real life.
ELIZABETH VARGAS Do the police know who killed JonBenet Ramsey?
STEVE THOMAS I'm not going to answer that question.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) He says he is loyal to his victim, above all else. And since his resignation, many have called him a hero who forced a reluctant prosecutor to convene a grand jury. Some call him a traitor. (interviewing) There have been some critics who maintain that your letter may actually hurt a prosecution's case in the future. That, in fact, it may be used in a trial to help a defendant get off.
STEVE THOMAS I hate to think that the truth would hurt anything.
ELIZABETH VARGAS You called this case a failure of the system. Those are very harsh words.
STEVE THOMAS We're coming up on the second anniversary of this homicide. I certainly don't see a success or a victory of justice.
ELIZABETH VARGAS Did JonBenet get to you more than other cases?
STEVE THOMAS Absolutely. Someone needs to stand up and speak for JonBenet. She can't speak for herself and the detectives tried to do that.
ALEX HUNTER We're going to solve this case. But we're going to do it our way.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) As Boulder's district attorney for 26 years, running the last seven terms unopposed, Alex Hunter is certainly popular. Yet, the Steve Thomas letter ignited a firestorm of criticism.
FLEET WHITE We asked him to remove this case from Alex Hunter's jurisdiction.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) Some key Ramsey case witnesses joined Thomas in a call for a special prosecutor—like Fleet White and his wife, Priscilla, who had dinner with the Ramseys that Christmas day.
PRISCILLA WHITE It is likely that the district attorney has attempted to discourage police detectives.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) Last month, a newspaper column called Alex Hunter "the reluctant prosecutor." Veteran reporter Juliet Wittman outlined a sampling of cases not filed or undercharged.
JULIET WITTMAN I think there's real fear and incompetence and laziness.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) Attorney Claudia Bayliff ran Boulder's rape crisis center for five years. She says she was surprised at the plea bargains for child molesters in 1990, she prepared this formal study of Hunter's record.
CLAUDIA BAYLIFF, ATTORNEY The most staggering statistic we came up with was of 60 individuals who were convicted of sexually abusing children or incest, only one went to prison. And we were absolutely stunned by that.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) Bayliff resigned in frustration. The new team at the rape crisis center says Hunter's record has improved. But what about the thorny case of Sid Wells, murdered in 1983? June Menger is Sid Wells' mother.
JUNE MENGER, MOTHER OF MURDER VICTIM (September 1, 1998) It's like deja vu for me, watching the Ramsey case.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) Before JonBenet, the world media swarmed on Boulder to cover the murder case of Sid Wells, the steady boyfriend of Shauna Redford, Robert Redford's daughter. Wells, a handsome journalism student, was fatally shot in his apartment in the back of the head with a .20 gauge shotgun. Fred Neitzel was lead detective on the case. He arrested Sid Wells' roommate, Thane Smika.
(interviewing) How convinced were you that Thane Smika was the killer?
RET DET. FRED NEITZEL, BOULDER POLICE I was very convinced myself.
ELIZABETH VARGAS One hundred percent sure?
RET DET. FRED NEITZEL My opinion was 100 percent.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (on camera) Back then, the cops found Smika with a .20 gauge shotgun and two rare shells with pellets the FBI said chemically matched the ones in the victim's head. But Hunter's office thought the case was weak, and Smika was out of jail in less than a month. But there was something else that made the detectives angry.
(VO) This document. Neitzel says he found it by accident. It shows a puzzling deal Hunter cut with the suspected murderer. If Smika would wave his right to a speedy trial, Hunter would guarantee a grand jury would not indict him.
RET DET. FRED NEITZEL At first it was total shock. Then it became rage.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) The deal did allow for a future prosecution. And now, under the scrutiny of the Ramsey case, the Smika case has been reopened. State—of—the—art ballistics tests confirm the old ones. But here's the problem—Thane Smika skipped town and disappeared more than a decade ago. Again, June Menger, the murder victim's mother, on Alex Hunter.
JUNE MENGER I think he should resign.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) But the pressing question today is, can district attorney Alex Hunter rise to the current challenge of the Ramsey case? Again, ABCNEWS consultant Vincent Bugliosi.
VINCENT BUGLIOSI I'm sure he's an honorable person and he's interested in seeking justice in this case. But he's certainly not the stereotypical DA who's tough and hard—nosed. And you need an aggressive DA in a situation like this. And he apparently is not that type of person.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) Which, perhaps, is why his critics say it took public protest to get the Ramsey case to a grand jury after nearly two years. Remember, a grand jury can compel reluctant witnesses to testify. (interviewing) How unusual is it to wait that long to impanel a grand jury to investigate that?
VINCENT BUGLIOSI It's highly unusual, particularly when you have two suspects and they're not cooperating with you I mean, it's DA 101 that when you have two suspects, you do everything possible immediately to separate those two and not give them time for their stories to harden and to reconcile with each other. It's being done now, a year and a half later. But it's a little late in the day. Incompetence.
ELIZABETH VARGAS Incompetence?
VINCENT BUGLIOSI Incompetence, right.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (VO) Based on what we know right now, based on what our sources have told us is the evidence right now, if they don't come up with anything more, is this the perfect murder?
VINCENT BUGLIOSI Obviously, if they don't come up with enough evidence, then the perpetrators committed a perfect murder, yeah.
DIANE SAWYER And now one more note in the case—this weekend, a detective who came out of retirement to help the district attorney try to solve the case resigned, saying he believes an intruder committed the crime. As for Steve Thomas, he now works as a carpenter. And the grand jury—it has been at work for four days hearing testimony from the first police officers to arrive at the crime scene.