A Case Forever Unraveling

THE LETTER, THREE hand-scrawled pages on lined white paper, didn't mince words: ""Mr. Ramsey, Listen carefully! . . . At this time we have your daughter in our posession [sic]. She is safe and unharmed and if you want her to see 1997, you must follow our instructions to the letter.'' In the nine months since the Christmas murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey, no piece of evidence has been more closely scrutinized than the ransom note. At first, investigators believed that handwriting and behavioral experts would help them create a profile of the killer. A photocopy of the note, obtained exclusively by NEWSWEEK, shows that its author made what one handwriting analyst calls a ""clumsy'' attempt to disguise his or her writing. To the dismay of local prosecutors and an increasingly impatient public, police still say they don't have enough evidence to make an arrest.

What is taking so long? By now it's well known that the small Boulder, Colo., Police Department wasn't equipped to handle a complex and high-profile murder case. But a NEWSWEEK investigation reveals that the police made errors surprising even for a department unfamiliar with finding a killer--and may have overlooked evidence supporting the possibility that an intruder killed JonBenet. What's more, facts gathered on a tour inside the Ramsey house--and gleaned from the police report taken the day of the murder--indicate that much of the information leaked to the public about the case is simply wrong. The new information may help explain why the investigation has dragged on for months but turned up so little.

It didn't take long for the cops in surrounding towns to realize that their Boulder colleagues were in over their heads. But Boulder Police Chief Tom Koby turned down all offers of assistance. Left on their own, Boulder investigators quickly focused their attention on John and Patsy Ramsey--and many top investigators in the department still strongly believe one or both of the parents were involved in the crime.

The ransom note, for one thing, was written on paper from a pad found in the house, suggesting that the killer wasn't in any hurry to get out, even though the rest of the family was presumably sleeping upstairs. But in the crucial days after the murder other potential suspects were ignored, and witnesses with information relevant to the case were never contacted. One close friend of the family, who asked not to be identified, told NEWSWEEK that she and her husband were probably the last people besides JonBenet's parents to see her before the murder. On the night of the crime, the Ramseys stopped by her house to drop off a Christmas basket of gourmet foods. Two days later the friend called Chief Koby. She thought the police would want to learn about the Ramseys' state of mind the night their daughter was murdered. But even though she and Koby were friends, he didn't call back. She called twice more in the coming weeks. At last, Koby sent out a detective to hear her story. But when he arrived, the officer said he had no idea why he was asked to visit her and was totally unfamiliar with the facts of the case.

There are other examples. The mother of the girl JonBenet played with the entire day before her death said she had to call the police repeatedly before detectives came out to see her. And even then, she says, the interview was brief, and the officers took few notes. The police never thoroughly canvassed the Ramseys' area to question neighbors as to whether they had seen or heard anything unusual that night--a routine procedure even with lesser crimes. Neither did they question known child molesters in the area until last month.

The police also failed to thoroughly investigate employees at Access Graphics, John Ramsey's company. Some were interviewed repeatedly; others were ignored. The day JonBenet's body was discovered, police went to the company and asked to see personnel records of employees who hadn't shown up for work that day. After turning over some of the documents, office employees told the police that the rest of the records were confidential and they would have to return with a subpoena. But even though there was reason to suspect that the killer may have been someone who worked with John Ramsey--the $118,000 ransom demand was nearly the same amount as Ramsey's 1995 bonus--the police ""never subpoenaed anything,'' says Laurie Wagner, an Access vice president. ""They didn't come back.''

The media frenzy surrounding the case has only fueled the public suspicion that the Ramseys are guilty. Relying on leaks from law-enforcement sources, the tabloids, as well as mainstream papers and magazines like NEWSWEEK, have published details from inside the investigation that were later found to be misleading or untrue. In fact, several of the most widely believed ""facts'' about the case are demonstrably false. For instance, many news stories about the murder have alleged that the basement window--where the Ramseys claim an intruder could have entered and left--was too small for an adult to fit through. But a tour of the house, given to NEWSWEEK by Ramsey family friend Mike Bynum, reveals that the window is actually fairly large--big enough that even a tall man could have easily fit through the space. Bynum says John Ramsey himself crawled through the window one day when he was locked out of the house.

IT HAS BEEN WIDELY ALLEGED THAT John Ramsey steered police away from the basement room where JonBenet's body was later found. But the police report from the crime scene, read by NEWSWEEK, shows that Ramsey wasn't even in the basement at the time police first searched it. The report also disputes one of the most damning rumors implicating the Ramseys: that the killer changed JonBenet's clothes after the murder to hide evidence. Before the family went out to dinner that night, JonBenet couldn't decide what to wear. According to a source close to the family, her mother suggested a festive red turtleneck, but JonBenet wanted to wear a collarless white knit shirt, which she did. JonBenet fell asleep in the car on the way home from dinner. Before putting her to bed, her parents changed her into long-underwear bottoms--the same outfit she was discovered in the next day.

Why didn't John Ramsey, a millionaire who believed his daughter had been kidnapped and was still alive, try to get the $118,000 ransom money together that morning? As it turns out, he did. NEWSWEEK has learned that one of Ramsey's first calls that morning was to a longtime friend in Atlanta. The friend, who requested anonymity, is an investment banker who has known John Ramsey since they both lived in Atlanta in 1980. He says Ramsey called him that morning in tears. ""They've got my baby,'' he recalls Ramsey saying. In a panic, Ramsey told his friend, ""I need the money; you've got to get it for me.'' The note requested $100,000 in $100 bills and $18,000 in $20 bills. The friend woke up an acquaintance, a bank president in Boulder, and arranged for a Visa advance. Later that morning, another Ramsey friend in Boulder went to the bank to make sure the bills were in order. The Atlanta friend says police investigators ""have never asked me once about the money arrangements. They just wanted to know if I knew anything weird about John. I find that amazing.'' The Boulder police refused to comment on any aspect of this article.

At this point, investigators say there is no single piece of evidence that clearly implicates the Ramseys. The ransom note, the key piece of evidence in the case, has been combed for drops of blood and other body fluids, analyzed for traces of DNA and subjected to a chemical test the police had hoped would illuminate the author's palm print. Members of the family and at least 50 other friends and business associates submitted detailed handwriting samples. Patsy Ramsey alone was called back five times. None of the tests turned up conclusive evidence that pointed to the Ramseys.

But neither is there any evidence that completely exonerates them. Gregg McCreary, a retired FBI profiler who has studied the case, says the circumstantial evidence against them is still strong. The fact that the killer spent so much time at the scene, he says, shows that it was somebody very close to the family--and makes him suspicious that the crime scene was staged. ""There's no need to make it look like a stranger if it is a stranger.''

But the longer the investigation drags on, the less likely the killer--whoever it is--will ever be caught. For Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter, the waiting has gone on just about long enough. Tensions between the police and the district attorney's office are so high, they openly snipe about each other. Late last week The Denver Post reported that a broken paintbrush found by police among Patsy Ramsey's art supplies may be the missing half of the garrote used to strangle JonBenet. But prosecution sources say police have known about the stick for months and leaked the story to counter charges that the case is going nowhere.

Hunter, an experienced investigator, has the upper hand in the fight. Unless the police case gets a dramatic break soon, the D.A. could invoke a Colorado statute that gives him the authority to call in the Colorado Bureau of Investigation--the same agency that offered to help the Boulder cops out in the first place. This time, it will be an offer Koby can't refuse.

The original ransom note was permanently altered in a forensic test, but NEWSWEEK obtained a copy and hired handwriting analyst Gerald Richards, former head of the FBI's Document Operations/Research Unit, to examine it; Clinton Van Zandt, formerly of the FBI Behavioral Sciences Unit, volunteered his services. Both warn against conclusions made without all the evidence but say that the note was intended to mislead investigators and could provide clues to the author's identity.

1 - Claiming to be part of a terrorist organization is a common ruse in ransom notes. Van Zandt says he sees 'no linguistic evidence' to imply a foreign connection.

2 - The writing in the first paragraph is noticeably shakier than at the end--compare how the word 'that' is written in the first and last paragraphs. Richards suspects that the writer couldn't sustain a disguised handwriting style.

3 - NEWSWEEK has learned that John Ramsey's bonus in 1995 totaled $118,117.50. The writer's unusual use of the decimal point and zeros hints to Van Zandt that he or she may have seen the bonus check and was reflecting the style in which the number was written.

4 - This phrasing and words like 'attache' are uncommon in ransom notes. They suggest to Richards an educated writer, perhaps familiar with the world of business.

5 - Despite threats of violence throughout the note, Van Zandt says, it has a 'softness' suggesting its author was a woman or perhaps a 'genteel man.'

6 - The letter is full of commanding phrases like this one about 'immediate execution.' To Van Zandt, they point to an author used to exerting authority over others.

7 - The line 'If we catch you talking to a stray dog, she dies' echoes the movie 'Dirty Harry,' as do other phrases. Van Zandt says: 'This is a novice trying to sound like an experienced criminal.'

8 - The note's salutation is formal, but here the overall tone becomes more familiar and casual. Van Zandt thinks the writer may be suggesting a personal acquaintance with John Ramsey.

9 - Richards says the ransom note is one of the longest he has ever seen, indicating either that the author had enough time to carefully craft the letter or that it is not a genuine demand for ransom.

10 - With its connotations of revolution, the closing 'Victory!'-harks back to the connection to foreign powers. 'S.B.T.C' may be another attempt to sound foreign, says Van Zandt.