Lifetime’s ‘Who Killed JonBenet?’: 10 WTF Moments, Fact-Checked
On December 26th, 1996, six-year-old pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey was found dead in the basement of her family home. Her killer has never been found. The unsolved mystery of her tragic death has captivated the attention of even the most casual crime watcher who want to know, was it the parents? A pageant-loving pedophile? A family friend? There have been many theories, but no answers.
As the 20th anniversary of JonBenét’s death approaches, the case is back in the spotlight – and, of course, on television. Several TV specials have revisited the tragedy, including ID’s three-night event JonBenét: An American Murder Mystery, CBS’s investigative mini-series The Case Of: Jon Benét Ramsey, which culminated in essentially naming Burke Ramsey, JonBenét’s then nine-year-old brother, as her killer and, naturally, a Lifetime movie, Who Killed JonBenét?
The new made-for-TV movie seems to be loosely based on Detective Steve Thomas’s behind-the-scenes look that he chronicled in his book, JonBenét: Inside the Ramsey Murder Investigation. The movie certainly paints Thomas (played in the film by Eion Bailey) in a flattering light and shows his spiral from first-time murder detective on a tough case, to an obsessive talking to a photo of the victim, to a haggard cop so frustrated with the state’s handling of the investigation that he resigns in protest.
Instead of forwarding the case, this film offers a multitude of suspects, many mistakes and frustratingly few answers. Who Killed JonBenét? is a true crime procedural with a Mother May I Sleep with Danger? twist – notably JonBenét narrating from beyond the grave. The film starts with the ghostly little voice saying, “Once upon a time there was a girl called JonBenét. She looked like a princess, but she wasn’t.” As the introduction ends and the action commences, the child-like narrator (played by JonBenét doppelganger Payton Lepinski) whisper-prays: “As I lay me down to sleep…That’s the last thing I remember.” It’s an unsettling decision, adding a nightmarish layer to an otherwise normal crime procedural. Blurring reality and fantasy, Who Killed JonBenét? is worth watching for drinking-game possibilities alone – do a shot every time a new suspect is introduced! – if not just as a fitting ending to a season full of JonBenét programming. But what is real and what’s the Lifetime treatment? Here, the 10 most WTF moments from Who Killed JonBenét?, fact-checked.
Did JonBenét really have an opinion on Fleet White’s hugs?
The decision to have JonBenét narrate was uncomfortable enough, but it gets really unsettling when she introduces family friend Fleet White, whose Christmas party the Ramseys had attended the night JonBenét died. “That’s my dad’s best friend Fleet White,” she says, adding, “He gave the best hugs.” Were the writers trying to imply that White may have had an inappropriate relationship with JonBenét? Though a woman later accused him of abusing her, those stories were quickly discredited. He’s never been named an official suspect by anyone other than Reddit users – he and his wife Pricilla have been cleared multiple times by police – so were the writers giving credence to these unverified reports? Or does White really just give good hugs? Either way, WTF.
Did Patsy peek through her fingers when she was crying?
Early in the film, when police still believe that they are dealing with a kidnapping case, we see Patsy Ramsey (Julia Campbell) sobbing into her hands. The camera catches her peeking through her fingers, though, making sure the cop sees her sobbing. This is clever in that it makes Patsy seem guilty right from the start and, in real life, many investigators (armchair and otherwise) assumed she had something to do with her daughter’s death or a possible cover up. On camera, though, it was delightfully odd behavior from a character who had barely been introduced.
Was the crime scene being destroyed even before they found JonBenét’s body?
Part of the difficulty in narrowing down a list of suspects in JonBenét’s murder is due to the fact that the crime scene at the Ramsey house was impossibly comprised. The film’s reenactment shows how that happened, and paints a sympathetic portrait of now-former police officer Linda Arndt, who was tasked with managing the crime scene the morning JonBenét went missing. The film shows the Ramseys, their friends, their pastor and assorted other people milling about the house, cleaning up and destroying possible evidence while the hapless cop stands there begging them not to. Arndt then sends John Ramsey (played by Michael Gill) and his friend White to investigate the house themselves – and Ramsey finds his daughter’s body after walking downstairs and beelining to a little-used basement room.
…And was it John Ramsey that did the most damage?
The most frustrating scene comes when Ramsey removes tape from her mouth, picks up his daughter’s body from the basement room, carries her tiny corpse through the house and places her underneath the Christmas tree. He covers her with a blanket, despite the fact that Arndt is right there telling him to leave everything exactly as it is. Of course, just because it’s far-fetched for someone raised on Law & Order episodes doesn’t mean it didn’t happen – according to all the reports, Ramsey really did completely disturb the crime scene, moved his daughter’s body and Arndt let him put a blanket over her. Arndt later points out that she didn’t see it as a murder investigation – up until that point that it was just a kidnapping scene.
Did Patsy Ramsey really beg God when she saw her daughter dead?
After John Ramsey lays his daughter under the Christmas tree, Patsy Ramsey is taken in to the room on the arm of her pastor. She immediately collapses to her knees and starts begging Jesus to raise JonBenét like he raised Lazarus. Moments later, the camera focuses in on a bottle of Diazepam, followed by a shot of Patsy passed out on the floor. While it might seem like melodramatic malarkey that is trying to wring emotion out of viewers by force – so heavy handed that it’s missing the mark entirely – her first words were, in fact, to God, asking him to raise JonBenét like Lazarus, and she did spend a great deal of the crime’s aftermath on Valium. Perhaps this Lifetime movie wrote itself.
Were there really comparisons to O.J. Simpson?
In both the film and real life, the Ramsey family buried JonBenét in Atlanta, where she was born. In the movie, after the funeral, they want to stay in Georgia instead of returning to Colorado to help in the investigation. That’s when their friends started comparing their actions to another recent cable-special phenom. “You look like O.J. in the Bronco,” says Fleet, whose wife notes that putting up a reward is “like O.J.” It may seem shoe-horned into the conversation – like a writer just watched The People v. O.J. Simpson and wanted to add some historical and on-trend flair – but it’s not just Lifetime jumping on the last big true-crime trend. According to a 2014 story in Denver alt-weekly Westword, the Whites were down in Georgia around the time of the funeral and did spend some time with the Ramseys, urging them to go back to Denver and talk to the police. When John announced that he wanted to put up a $50,000 reward, Priscilla reportedly actulally responded, “You’re going to sound like O.J.” As for a detective calling John’s actions “straight out of Johnny Cochran’s playbook,” like they do in the movie? That might have been an overzealous writer – though probably not an uncommon sentiment at the time.
Did Burke really have such a strange interview?
In keeping with the current trend in Ramsey murder theories, the film generally implies that JonBenét’s brother Burke, played by Kiefer O’Reilly, could have been involved with her death. As the real-life Burke Ramsey has filed a hefty lawsuit against forensic pathologist Werner Spitz, featured in CBS’ The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey, for making claims that Ramsey killed his sister, this movie took a subtler approach. While Burke’s parents insisted that he was asleep at the time of JonBenét’s death, the film suggests possible guilt by showing him over-reacting when a police psychologist sipped his soda and under-reacting when a cop asked him about his feelings about his sister’s death. While this behavior may seem far-fetched, but Burke did reportedly have a strange interview with police when his parents brought him to be questioned in January 1997 – even saying, like he does in the film, that if he did have a secret he wouldn’t tell the social worker “because then it wouldn’t be a secret anymore.” It’s a somewhat damning interview, though kids can have weird and even inappropriate-seeming reactions to grief – and that doesn’t necessarily make them killers.
Did Steve Thomas really quit the force?
In the movie, Detective Thomas becomes frustrated over the District Attorney’s failure to bring charges and the stonewalling by the Ramsey family – not to mention the outside investigator brought int to re-work the case, Lou Smit, who insisted that the crime was committed by a mysterious pedophile who had lain in wait for JonBenét inside her own home. So he decides he has no choice but to resign in protest and make a public statement about his decision. The move even surprises the film’s ghostly narrator. “Wait, the detective isn’t supposed to quit,” JonBenét says. “He’s supposed to solve the puzzle. This isn’t how the story is supposed to go.” Despite what the little girl thinks, this is essentially how Thomas left the force in 1998. As they detail on in the movie, he continued to try and prove the Ramsey’s involvement, releasing his book in April 2000 – though they left out how he debated JonBenét’s parents on Larry King Live a month later.
Did Linda Arndt visit Patsy on her death bed?
Years after her daughter’s death, Patsy Ramsey’s cervical cancer returned, and eventually took her life in 2006. (As ghost JonBenét says, “Lots of bad things happen in real life…at least in mine.”) While Patsy was in the hospital, lying wan and weak in her bed, former police officer Linda Arndt goes to visit her. Linda reminds Patsy that back when she was a cop, she promised to find JonBenét’s killer. She then asks Patsy for a deathbed confession, but before Patsy can admit anything, John Ramsey bursts into the room. While it doesn’t seem true that she actually was able to visit Patsy so close to her death, Arndt has stated that she had made contact with JonBenét’s mother in 2005, the year before she succumbed to cancer. The two had “a heart-to-heart” wherein Arndt told her she would keep looking for her daughter’s killer – thought it’s unclear if her intention was a deathbed confession.
Should we really all move on from this case, as JonBenét says?
As the movie draws to a close, the ghost narrator explains that her story doesn’t have a happy ending, because “it’s not a fairytale.” As the camera rests on a gravestone engraved with JonBenét Ramsey’s name, the child’s voice explains that it has, in fact, accepted that no one will solve the gruesome crime. “Maybe I can let go. Can you?” asks the ghost narrator, seeming to chide viewers for their interest in watching the movie in the first place. It’s a fitting final note from a made-for-TV movie that is trying to squeeze one more drop of sensationalistic milk from a stone.