Why the JonBenét Ramsey Murder Case Matters

The Ramseys answer reporters’ questions outside of John’s home in Atlanta, February 2001. John had just encountered a burglar in his house the night before, catching the attention of a media always fascinated with the Ramseys. RICH ADDICKS/ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION/AP IMAGES

This article, written by Jeremy Brown, and other articles about the the murder that still grips the nation are featured in Newsweek's special edition, JonBenet: 20 Years Later

Had she lived, JonBenét Ramsey would be 26 years old today. As shocking as it is to believe, nearly two decades have passed since that terrible Christmas. More than 30 books have been written on the subject. Numerous movies and TV specials have been produced (with more on the way this year). But despite the near-constant attention, the case itself is no closer to being solved, with more questions than answers lingering in the minds of everyone involved (as well as those who weren't).

And yet, as the murder case itself has gone cold, public interest has most certainly not. Other high-profile murder cases, such as Caylee Anthony and Laci Peterson, have come and gone, but 20 years after her death, JonBenét's murder still haunts the nation. Her face continues to grace magazine covers on supermarket checkout lines. The case has been documented in programming as varied as Dateline NBC and E! True Hollywood Story. The movie Perfect Murder, Perfect Town (based on the book of the same name and directed by that book's author) aired on CBS in 2000. Dr. Phil is planning a three-part interview with her brother, Burke, who was 9 when the murder occurred. CBS will release a documentary series examining the case, and there is even a Lifetime movie in the works. "JonBenét Ramsey is the most compelling cold case murder of our day," said Dylan Howard to the National Enquirer. Howard, Chief Content Officer at AMI, the company behind JonBenét: An American Murder Mystery, a three-part series airing in September, continued, "[It] still haunts millions of people around the world who so desperately want answers." Despite being dead for 20 years, JonBenét, it would seem, is not allowed to rest. "This case keeps on coming back," Lawrence Schiller, the author of Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, told the New York Post. "It's like going to the beach. The tide goes out and it goes back in, and the police are hoping the next time it comes in, they may catch who did it."

The questions that linger over the case also linger in the minds of those still held in its sway. Was JonBenét really kidnapped and held for ransom? Did someone actually break into the Ramsey house on Christmas Day of 1996? Some point to a broken window and mysterious footprints as proof of an intruder, while others maintain the wine cellar's relative pristine condition says otherwise. And what of the ransom note? So much about it, from the quotes from Ransom and Speed to the oddly specific request for $118,000, rings false. The fact that it was composed on a legal pad, and with a Sharpie, from the Ramsey's house, adds even more layers of uncertainty to the proceedings. The myriad details and dangling threads have turned average people into armchair sleuths, each convinced they have the necessary insight to divine the truth.

So much about the case still resonates with the American public, which is drawn to the mystery, the scandal and the lurid details that surround it. "Children are murdered every day," Harold Schechter, a true-crime author and professor at Queens College, told the New York Post. "It's the story, the characters, the setting. The JonBenét case has a lot of the elements of the closed-room mystery: Everybody's home, no apparent break-in. In general, true crime speaks to these very dark places in our heads that none of us would consciously admit to."

The basics of the case read like the setup for a novel—a beautiful, happy family shattered by unspeakable tragedy amid the joy of the holiday season. The fallout is no less sensational. Immediately, the cry for justice—to hold someone responsible—went out around the country. However, even after thousands of hours of inquiry, including a grand jury investigation that stretched out for more than a year, no one was ever convicted, or even indicted, in the murder. A list of suspects, including the girl's own parents and brother, led nowhere. But that has done very little to keep followers of the case from making their own assumptions about the guilty parties. "Many crimes are tried in the court of public opinion long before they reach a court of law," John Douglas, the FBI behavioral scientist who examined the case, wrote in his book The Cases That Haunt Us. "But I know of no other case in which the majority of people have decided the solution based on statistics. I know of no other case in which the public substantially believes what has been reported in the tabloids. I know of no other case in which the mainline media have let the tabloids take the lead and then reported on their reporting. And I know of no other case in which largely respectable television programs have so tried to outdo each other in sensationalism."

The Ramsey murder is a pastiche of details, each one intriguing enough on its own, but when combined the case becomes impossible to resist. From the angelic child part of the wealthy family to the bizarre and somewhat discomfiting world of child beauty pageants, to the bizarre ransom note that claims to be from a "foreign faction" and dares to quote the movie Speed in its closing paragraph. "This case would have lasted in regional newspapers for one week if not for two elements," Schiller told the New York Post. "It's the release of videos of JonBenét in beauty pageants, and the release, days later, of still photos of her in hair and makeup. The tabloids latched on to that. What sustained it? Very simple: The police department said, 'The parents did it,' and a D.A. who said, 'I'm not going to prosecute.'"

The Ramsey case is also a collision of so many things that latch on to the American collective consciousness: celebrity, family tragedy, violence and mystery. "This particular murder is among the most horrifying of all," wrote Douglas, "both because of its beautiful 6-year-old victim and because of the horrendous evil it implies by raising the possibility that a father or a mother could be capable of killing his or her own child."

Recently, public interest in the JonBenét Ramsey case has flared up again, not just because of the upcoming anniversary, but also because the case has received what may be its first major breakthrough. A man named Michael Vail has come forward and claimed that Gary Oliva, who had been a suspect in the case, confessed to him on December 27, 1996, that he had killed a little girl in Boulder, Colorado. "To me, Gary's call that night was a full confession," Vail told In Touch. Oliva is currently serving time on charges stemming from the possession of child pornography, and Vail is hopeful his coming forward will be instrumental in bringing the Ramsey case to a close. "This has been an open wound for me," Vail told In Touch. "He's a monster, and he needs to be where he can never strike again. No other family should be ripped apart by a predator like him."

Whether JonBenét Ramsey's murder will be solved remains to be seen. But, even if Gary Oliva or some other as-yet-unidentified perpetrator signs a full confession, it's unlikely America's grim fascination with the child beauty queen from Boulder will fade. Her tragic story is a dark reflection of our culture and its obsession with both fame and death in equal measure.

This article was excerpted from Newsweek's special edition, JonBenet: 20 Years Later, by Issue Editor James Ellis. For more about the tragic case of JonBenet Ramsey, pick up a copy today.

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