Home Culture Culture Lists

Who Killed JonBenet Ramsey? 8 Possible Suspects

From her immediate family to the kindly neighborhood Santa Claus, a brief look at the cases for – and against – the murder’s most popular suspects

The unsolved murder of six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey never fails to spark a heated debate. Rife with conflicting theories, false confessions and a growing inventory of evidence, the 20-year-old case of who killed the tiny, blue-eyed pageant queen has become a white whale for armchair detectives and conspiracy theorists. While many adamantly believe JonBenét was accidentally killed by a member of her own family who then staged her death to look like a kidnapping, others are convinced that an intruder broke into the Ramsey home, slaughtered JonBenét and left her there for her family to find. 

Over the years of relentless and sensationalized coverage that immortalized JonBenét in tawdry pageant photos, the search to find her killer has turned into a massive game of media Clue. Was it her mother in the basement with a paint brush for a garrote? The emotionally disturbed older brother with a flashlight to the face? The family friend dressed as Santa who seemed a little too eager to visit his "special friend" on Christmas?

This fall, several television networks raced to reveal new information in what's become the ultimate cold case. But aside from hype and bombast surrounding its 20-year anniversary, no one seemed to be able to offer much but more theories. As it stands, the list of people linked to JonBenét's murder is as winding as the spiral stairs that led to her corpse in the basement. Now that we've supposedly been given all the information we'll probably get, here's a review of the alleged perps – ranging from her own parents to a child pornographer on the lamb in Thailand – who have come up in countless attempts to nail the killer behind one of America's longest and most baffling true-crime whodunits.

Patsy Ramsey

Erik S. Lesser/Liaison/Getty

The Mother

JonBenét's mother, Patsy Ramsey, took whatever secrets of that morning she had with her to the grave when she passed away after a 13-year battle with ovarian cancer that eventually spread to the brain. Though both she and her husband John were formally exonerated in 2008 thanks to developments in DNA technology, many still suspect that the former Miss West Virginia accidentally murdered her six-year-old child in a fit of rage over a bed-wetting accident then covered it up post haste. From the outside, Patsy was your pleasant and influential suburban mother of two, known for her beauty-pageant-winning daughter JonBenét and the lavish Christmas parties she threw every year. Still, several pieces of evidence suggest she may have had more to do with the crime than she let on.

First, it's been speculated that while cleaning up yet another one of JonBenét's bed-wetting accidents, which are said to have occurred with some frequency, Ramsey flipped a switch and slammed the little girl's head against the side of a hard, blunt surface like a bathtub. Second, JonBenét was found with a rope around her neck, tightened by a homemade garrote determined to have been fashioned out of a paintbrush taken from Patsy’s paint kit that lay nearby. Third, the most bizarre ransom note in the history of ransom notes: Patsy said she discovered a two-and-a-half page ransom note on one of the rungs down the spiral staircase that led to the basement where JonBenét’s body was found. Written in strange verbiage that seemed lifted from classic crime films, the note demanded $118,000 be given to the "foreign faction" by 10 a.m. the next day, which was later figured out to be the same amount of John Ramsey’s Christmas bonus from his company Access Graphics. Some sources, including Boulder PD’s former co-leading investigator Steve Thomas have speculated that Patsy wrote the note herself in a moment of panic after realizing what she'd done to JonBenét. But the handwriting analyses – though convincing – were eventually found to be inconclusive. It was determined, however, that the note had been written on a piece Patsy's stationary from inside the home with her own pen.

In the years following the murder, Patsy appeared extremely defensive, once even hashing it out with a naysayer on Larry King Live. While family friends insisted that Patsy adored JonBenét and would never have put the little girl in harm’s way, some onlookers came down hard, criticizing Ramsey for sexualizing a vulnerable child through a string of beauty pageants.

John Ramsey

Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post/Getty

The Father

Police arrived at the crime scene that morning the morning after Christmas day to find no footsteps in the snow or signs of a possible intruder. Linda Ardndt, the first police officer to arrive at the scene that morning, looked around the house to no avail. Eventually, she sent John Ramsey and his neighbor Fleet White to search the house for anything unusual. Ramsey made a beeline straight for the basement cellar where he immediately found his deceased child. Though he'd been told to leave everything where he'd found it, he picked her up, carried the body upstairs, removed a piece tape from the child’s mouth and placed her down. He even covered her up with a throw blanket, further destroying vital physical evidence.

That's when Arndt started to feel that perhaps Ramsey knew too much. Arndt has made no secret of her suspicions towards the family; while Ramsey's unseen discovery of the body was suggested to have been the fault a botched police investigation, some believe it's strange that intuition alone would lead a person to an admittedly unused part of the home. Arndt told ABC News in 1999 that she'd found other actions of their suspicious, too, like how John and Patsy let the 10 a.m. deadline in the $180,000 ransom note slip by without a word. Arndt described kneeling beside JonBenét's body, "inches away" from John Ramsey, so convinced the murderer was in the house with her that she claimed to have quietly counted the bullets in her holster, just in case she had to use one.

Arndt wasn't the only one who found Ramsey's behavior that morning strangely suspect. A detective on the scene claimed to have overheard John Ramsey making arrangements to fly the family to Atlanta just hours after the murder. (John later admitted to this, saying that they'd been asked to leave the house and just wanted to go home to Atlanta, where they'd lived for over 25 years.) Innuendo of sexual abuse began to circulate, though no evidence was ever found to prove these allegations. "There is no history," Ramsey said in a statement. "A person doesn't go throughout their lives as a normal human being, one night turn into a monster, slaughter their daughter, go to bed and get up and act normal from there on. That doesn't happen."

He, too, was exonerated with his late wife Patsy in 2008, once touch DNA testing cleared all three members of the immediate Ramsey family.

Burke Ramsey


The Brother

John and Patsy Ramsey diligently shielded JonBenét's older brother Burke from the press for years after the murder, and judging by his recent, very strange interview with Dr. Phil, that was a probably good idea. Ramsey, who was formally exonerated in 2008, along with his parents, made a decision to "clear the air" in September, and the 29-year-old software developer creepily grinned through Dr. Phil’s line of questioning that ran down the chain of events leading up to the night in question.

Soon after, CBS aired The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey, a two-part documentary that re-investigated the evidence of the crime with a select group of FBI and forensic experts, including retired profiler Jim Clemente and former Scotland Yard behavioral analyst Laura Richards. The documentary leaned their suspicions towards Burke Ramsey as close as they possibly could without making any kind of formal accusation. 

The CBS team set up a compelling theory. Famed forensic investigator Werner Spitz’s review of JonBenét’s autopsy included a "perfectly rectangular defect" that he suspected came from a blow to the little girl’s head with a blunt, heavy flashlight seen in a photo on the kitchen counter in the crime scene photos. He claimed the flashlight fit the eight and a half-inch gash in her skull "to perfection." (However, no trace evidence of either JonBenét nor Burke was found on the flashlight.) 

The flashlight became even more suspicious when tied to the pineapple scenario, a theory that suggested JonBenét had taken a slice of fruit from Burke’s late-night snack found at on the dining room table – an undigested piece of pineapple was found in the child’s stomach during autopsy – leading him to strike her with the nearby flashlight out of anger. Lastly, the wounds on JonBenét’s back (previously assumed to have come from an encounter with a stun gun) were consistent with the edges of one of Burke’s toy train tracks, which Spitz suggested may have used by Burke to poke his sister’s unconscious body for a response.

However Burke shot back immediately after the special aired – not the usual action of a guilty party – his attorney L. Lin Wood claiming that "CBS perpetrated a fraud on its viewers." Then, last week, Wood filed a $150 million lawsuit against Spitz for potentially defamatory statements he made about Burke while promoting the special, and the lawyer confirmed to Rolling Stone that they are still intent on suing the network once a mandatory waiting period has passed.

The Town Drifter, Gary Oliva

The Town Drifter

Gary Oliva was a 32-year-old known sex offender in Boulder, Colorado when JonBenét was found strangled to death in what looked like a potential sexual assault, given that there was a droplet of blood on her underwear. The convicted pedophile had been living in the area on and off when police allegedly found a magazine cutout of JonBenét Ramsey in his backpack after he was apprehended on drug charges in 2000. He was soon released, but suspicions remained.

The Ramsey family's longtime private investigator, Ollie Gray, once referred to Oliva's ties to JonBenét as a "bombshell arrest" in the case and lambasted the Boulder PD for failing to consider him as a more credible suspect. Soon after, Oliva's high-school friend Michael Vail stepped forward with an allegation supporting Gray’s suspicion. Vail claimed that not long after the murder, a distraught Oliva had called him on the phone and confessed to his longtime pal that to have "hurt a little girl. I hurt a little girl." Vail revealed to InTouch magazine earlier this year that he was particularly unsettled by how the knots used to fashion the garrote that strangled JonBenét were similar to those used in an incident where Oliva attempted to choke his mother with telephone cord. "My blood ran cold when I read that," recalled Vail of his troubled childhood friend. Oliva was also rumored to have possible connections to a theory that links the marks found on JonBenét's body to an encounter with a stun gun. Oliva had one on him at the time of his initial arrest.

While he, too, was cleared by DNA testing for the JonBenét murder, he was recently charged with two counts of sexual exploitation of a child for possessing child pornography. He was last reported by the Denver Post to have been arrested in June and held on $100,000 bond, and is scheduled to appear in court later this fall.

Michael Helgoth

The Electrician

Another potential suspect, according to Ollie Gray, was an electrician named Michael Helgoth who worked in a nearby auto salvage yard. Gray referred to Helgoth as a "hellraiser" tied to an alleged property dispute involving the Ramseys. Could that have served as possible motivation to seek revenge on the family and kidnap JonBenét? It’s been speculated that once the 26-year-old Helgoth caught wind that he could be a suspect in the case (officials found a boot print allegedly similar to his near the Ramsey's home), he committed suicide before anyone could get to him. His death occurred two days after a 1997 press conference announcing that the Boulder DA was zeroing in on a new suspect. However, Helgoth remains cleared by both DNA and death.

John Mark Karr

The Schoolteacher

In 2006, a former school teacher, John Mark Karr, confessed out-of-the-blue to the 1996 strangulation of JonBenét in graphic, sexual detail. Karr was arrested in Thailand where he’d been living on the lamb after facing child pornography charges in the U.S. The now 51-year-old initially brought himself into the mess by reaching out to a University of Colorado Boulder professor named Michael Tracey over email in regards to a documentary Tracey was making on the case. Once those e-mails took a disturbing turn – revealing the grown man's sexual fascination with JonBenét – Tracey reported Karr to the police who arrested him in Bangkok as a possible suspect. He was immediately flown to Boulder for questioning, but was ultimately cleared after his DNA failed to match the profile of an unknown male found on the waistband of JonBenét’s long-johns.

Karr's demented confession involved a series of diary entries allegedly written from the scene of the crime. In one dramatic account, Karr recalls strangling JonBenét in a "love game" gone wrong. "Close your pretty eyes, sweetheart," reads the excerpt, in which Karr repeatedly refers to himself as "Daxis." "Daxis loves you so much. Oh God, I love you, JonBenét. And my lover's eyes are slowly closing …"

Karr's alleged involvement broke international headlines, and his earnest insistence on having killed her was enough to set off a media fiasco. However, he was ultimately dismissed as a suspect altogether and written off as a pedophile who was after notoriety and fame. Officials also failed to verify that he was ever in Boulder. According to a 2010 report by the Daily Beast, the one-time suspect is now living a new identity – and a new gender – in the Pacific Northwest.

Linda Hoffman-Pugh

The Housekeeper

Linda Hoffman-Pugh had worked for the family as their housekeeper and her husband Mervin was their handyman, so it wasn't surprising that she was known to carry a key to the home. And during the investigation of JonBenét's murder, Hoffman-Pugh didn't even begin to fit the profile the police were after (white male, former convict, 25 to 30 years old.) But she didn’t hold back on voicing her suspicions that Patsy Ramsey had accidentally killed JonBenét.

That said, Patsy claimed to investigators that Hoffman-Pugh was struggling for money and had asked for a loan of several thousand dollars, which Ramsey had declined. Police showed up at the Pugh's home the night after the murder and asked the 57-year-old housekeeper to write the number $180,000 on a piece of paper, and reportedly took her fingerprints and several strands of her hair. She then testified in front of a grand jury for a total of eight hours (including a statement against Patsy that read, "I think she had multiple personalities. She'd be in a good mood and then she'd be cranky. She got into arguments with JonBenét about wearing a dress or about a friend coming over. I had never seen Patsy so upset.")

The Hoffman-Pugh theory asserted that the housekeeper led a trusting JonBenét down into the basement that night in an attempt to trick her employers into leaving money for her ransom (It's possible that she could have seen John Ramsey's pay stub for $180,000 as a holiday bonus and chosen that as her demand). Familiar with both the home and the family's schedule, Hoffman-Pugh makes a convenient suspect, and without an alibi – she was asleep in bed while her husband allegedly slept on the couch – there is room to speculate she could have been involved. So far, all evidence implicating her in the case is circumstantial at best, and she has never been formally accused of this crime. 

The Town Santa, JonBenet Ramsey, Suspect, Roundup


The Town Santa

Bill McReynolds, now deceased, was a friend of the Ramsey's who had dressed up as Santa Claus the week before JonBenét's murder to entertain the neighborhood children at one of Patsy's famous Christmas gatherings. While an older man dressed as Santa makes a pretty good perp in a sexualized child murder, the possibility that the now-deceased McReynolds had anything to do with JonBenét's death is extremely unlikely.

McReynolds was rumored to have paid a little too much attention to JonBenét, going so far as to arrange a secret visit from Santa Claus on Christmas. Supposedly, he had chosen JonBenét to be his "special friend," going so far as to bring a vial of glitter gifted to him by the six-year-old with him into heart surgery. Even stranger, he asked his wife to mix the gold glitter in with his ashes were he to die. This particular story generated buzz in the Denver Post, but failed to amount to anything more than the sensationalized character assassination of a friendly old man.