Who Killed JonBenet Ramsey? 8 Possible Suspects - Rolling Stone
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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.

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.

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