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10.13.08

John Ramsey's Lingering Suspicions

Finally exonerated in the murder of his daughter, JonBenet, Ramsey talks about the loss of his wife and his wealth—and the suspicions that still haunt him

In his first in-depth interview since being exonerated in the murder of his daughter, Jonbenet, John Ramsey speaks to The Daily Beast about the crime that shattered his life. Twelve years after finding the six-year-old beauty queen strangled in the basement of their Boulder, Colorado home, Ramsey this summer received a letter from the local District Attorney explaining that a new type of DNA test shows that a stranger killed his daughter.

The letter also apologized for the “ongoing, living hell” the Ramseys endured as prime suspects in the case, although Patsy Ramsey, who died of ovarian cancer in 2006, did not live to receive this courtesy.

Once wealthy, Ramsey has shed his plane, his boats and his cars, stopped golfing, stopped sailing. Now he is exhausting his IRAs.

Revisiting the case that tore Boulder apart, reporter Lucinda Franks reveals:

  • Despite the new evidence, Ramsey is still haunted by suspicions that a close friend with access to the house had some role in the murder, and he questions this person’s alibi.
  • Michael Archuleta, who was the pilot of John’s King Air Jet, and his wife, Pam—also speaking publicly for the first time—share Ramsey’s suspicions.
  • Contrary to what most people imagine, Ramsey is no longer a rich man, and he describes his family’s long fall from wealth and privilege after the murder. "It takes four or five years for you to begin, just begin to get over it. Fear almost paralyzes you,” he says. “You contemplate suicide because you have no desire to live. I was afraid to cross the street. I made bad decisions.”
  • Ramsey recounts how he sold the billion-dollar company he had built from scratch, then started another that failed. He shed the family’s three big homes, the plane, the boat and the luxury cars, then found that he was virtually unemployable because of negative press attention. Now, drawing down his savings, he jokes ruefully that he may end up in a trailer.
  • Ramsey also describes his wife’s last years, stricken by a recurrence of ovarian cancer, and occasionally beset, as they both were, by terrible guilt that Jonbenet’s murder could have been prevented. Patsy, "wondered if the beauty contests she had put her in had drawn some pedophile," he says.
  • Pam Archuleta describes an alcove outside the Ramseys’ bedroom in Boulder where Patsy displayed the photos, trophies, and crowns from her own days as a Miss West Virginia.
  • Pam Archuleta also talks about hiding the Ramseys from the press as they awaited a grand jury ruling, and watching Patsy "shrivel up before my eyes.” Yet even then, Patsy could occasionally rally to make a joke about how horizontal prison stripes would make her look fat.
  • Ramsey says the new evidence can “never bring back my life. Once your reputation is tarnished, it stays tarnished.” But he now campaigns to expand the national DNA registry by requiring all states to take a sample from anyone charged with a felony in the hope that “one day I will get a call from somewhere in the country and a voice will say, “We know who killed your daughter.’”

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John Ramsey, who was recently exonerated in the murder of his 6-year-old daughter, JonBenet, by a new, more sensitive type of DNA testing, hopes this technological advance can eventually ease his mind as well as clear his name.

After the child beauty queen was found strangled in the basement of her Boulder, Colorado home in 1996, Ramsey watched the grief, and the stress of being falsely accused, slowly kill his wife, Patsy, who died of cancer in 2006. A grand jury that sat for 13 months refused to indict the Ramseys, yet the Boulder District Attorney announced they were “still under an umbrella of suspicion,” and they spent the next decade shunned by friends and hounded by the press.

Then, in July, a new Boulder DA, citing fresh DNA samples, officially cleared the Ramseys and apologized, in a letter, for the “ongoing, living hell” of their ordeal. In his first in-depth interview since receiving that letter, John Ramsey describes those painful years to The Daily Beast.

After the murder, Ramsey, who had built a billion-dollar computer company up from nothing, fell precipitously from the peak of wealth and prominence, losing not only his daughter, but also his career and his home. "The fact I'm no longer under suspicion will never bring back my life,” he says. “Once your reputation is tarnished, it stays tarnished."

But Ramsey hopes that the new "touch" DNA evidence can eventually release him from the mental torment of not knowing who murdered his child, and from a haunting suspicion that it was someone in the family’s inner circle. He and a few allies from Boulder suspect one particular friend who was familiar with the Ramseys’ home and details of their life. However, District Attorney Mary Lacy, who took over the case in 2005, says that this individual "has been thoroughly vetted and cleared through the new DNA."

The discovery of DNA from an "unidentified male" in three places on JonBenet's long johns allowed investigators to rule out the possibility that a single sample of this DNA found earlier belonged to a worker at a clothing factory (this was the original police theory). They also concluded that this stranger—not any of the people in the Ramseys’ circle, who were previously tested—was the murderer.

Yet Ramsey’s suspicions persist. Asked directly if he thinks this acquaintance killed JonBenet, Ramsey says, "Oh, I don't think so, But then he proceeds to poke holes in the man’s alibi and describe how the Boulder police botched the investigation from the beginning. Moreover, Pam and Michael Archuleta, who remained close to the Ramseys and are also speaking publicly for the first time, tick off circumstantial evidence that they believe points to this man. Asked about the new samples of “stranger” DNA, Michael, who was the pilot of John Ramsey’s King Air jet, adds, “perhaps this person's DNA was not found because he hired someone to do it for him."

As both a public service and a personal crusade, Ramsey now spends much of his time promoting state laws that mandate the lifting of a DNA sample from anyone accused of a felony, which would substantially expand the national DNA registry. (His website is DNAFINGERPRINTLAW.COM.)

At age 64, Ramsey still has the gloss of wealth about him. He greets me in a wine-colored cashmere sweater and yellow-checked shirt, his wavy hair the color of cornstalks in winter; he is smooth and genial, even debonair.

Ramsey now lives in remote Charlevoix, Michigan, cloistered in a modest mustard-colored house in the shadow of the mansion where he once spent summers. Driving by that grand Victorian house, he proudly shows me how he stripped off the original façade to put in a huge picture window so that his wife could sit in the parlor and gaze down at Lake Michigan. Now he is slowly repainting his small dwelling to prepare it for sale. Passing an old station wagon pulling a motor home, he says ruefully, "That's where I'll be living soon." It is not entirely a joke.

Since the murder, Ramsey has sold three big homes, in Atlanta, Boulder, and Charlevoix. He has shed his plane, his boats and his cars, stopped golfing, stopped sailing. Now he is exhausting his IRAs. No one will hire him because he invites negative press. Ramsey says he still does "just a bit of consulting. But the last job I did, I didn't even get paid for."

The next thing to go will be Patsy's oversized antiques—a Louis XV divan, Romantic paintings in thick rococo frames, sofas with throws draped over them, just the way his wife left them. A sunroom that Ramsey built to the dimensions of Patsy's big round floral rug is filled with wing chairs that you can disappear in. They surround an inlaid coffee table of Bunyanesque proportions. "That's Patsy," Ramsey says with a little smile, spreading his hands apart. "Larger than life." Scattered around the room are the paintings that his wife did, in a burst of creativity, during the last months of her life.

As we talk, it becomes clear that John is, in a sense, only partly present, his deepest feelings hidden behind a scrim where no one, least of all himself, can see anything but shadows.

Only in rare moments does a glimpse of vulnerability slip through his guard. I ask him how his losses have affected him. "These things tear something out of your heart, and nothing can ever repair it," he says almost inaudibly, his thumb supporting his chin, middle finger over his mouth.

"It takes four or five years for you to begin, just begin to get over it. Fear almost paralyzes you. You contemplate suicide because you have no desire to live. I was afraid to cross the street. I made bad decisions, like starting a computer software outfit a while after I was let go by General Electric, which had purchased my company, Access Graphics. We couldn't sell our house in Boulder and our attorneys finally took it off our hands for half the price we paid for it. I was in a daze. I would take benedryl and go to bed at 6 pm."

Then he sits up and in a stronger voice says: "As for Burke, I don't let anybody I don't know get near him." JonBenet's brother was nine years old at the time of the murder and is now a senior in college. "If anything happened to him, I wouldn't survive it.”

"Sometimes, in a crowd, I will see the flash of a little coat that looks like JonBenet's… I can't stand to hear children cry, I really cannot bear it."

For solace, he goes every Sunday to a small church nearby, just as he did with Patsy. He obsessively reads the theology books that line the sunroom: Max Lucado, C.S Lewis, even Billy Graham. Having seen true evil, he is trying to find "an intellectual rather than an emotional basis for believing in God."

"Do you still feel married to Patsy?" I ask, "Do you think about her a lot?"

"No, no," he says, his face relaxed but his eyes miserable. "Just occasionally, when a pleasant memory comes back."

"You talk of her in the present tense," I say.

"Do I? Oh well, just an accident."

Four years before he lost JonBenet, Ramsey’s daughter Beth from his first marriage was killed in a car crash. Shortly afterwards, Patsy was told she had Stage Four ovarian cancer, but delayed telling John so as not to add to his grief. She was hospitalized for a year while she endured intense but successful chemotherapy. Then, on the morning after Christmas in 1996, John found JonBenet crumpled in the wine cellar with a garrote sunk round her neck.

Such a flood of tragedy defies any normal reaction, and John Ramsey's responses have been often judged abnormal. It was his bizarre poise on the morning of the murder that first raised police suspicions about him. "They wanted me to wail and cry in front of them,” he says. “It somehow escaped them that how people really feel is not always apparent."

John was also criticized for immediately getting a lawyer. "I got a call from someone in the law enforcement system on the second day. They told me I better do it, because the police were already considering me the prime suspect."

"It started when our frantic call brought a single rookie cop who was so inexperienced she didn't seal off the house or collect evidence. She even had to send out for a book on kidnapping," John says. "Then, later, they took 200 DNA samples and one by one they purportedly eliminated our friends and acquaintances so they could investigate the only people they really thought had done it—us. And our DNA wasn't even found on our child's body!"

Patsy became a suspect because of the similarity of her writing to that of the ransom note, "But no expert would say that the handwriting absolutely matched," John says. The police floated false rumors—such as the fact that no footprints had been found in the snow around the house, when there was no snow there that day—hoping to smoke out family members.

The tabloid press followed them everywhere. "They banged on our car and, called us child killers. They printed garbage. A Japanese camera crew even broke into Burke's school," John says. "We worried. We didn't know who was out there. Someone had killed our daughter. All we wanted to do was protect Burke and give him a normal childhood."

After Geraldo Rivera broadcast a mock trial of the Ramseys, Patsy went to bed for two days. They took all of the TV sets out of the house and cancelled the newspapers. One day, Patsy was in a supermarket checkout line with her son. "The headlines from a tabloid screamed out that Burke had done it,” John says. “She dropped her produce and rushed Burke out, but the damage had been done." Burke saw a child psychologist for two years.

Ramsey admits, for the first time, that both he and Patsy suffered waves of guilt about the murder. "I kicked myself for not getting more sophisticated house security. We left it off that night because it would go off like a siren and catapult us out of bed."

Patsy, he says, “wondered who she had enticed by putting JonBenet in beauty contests.” And both parents lamented that the videos of JonBenet vamping in these competitions—released by the pageant organizations—became the only thing most people knew about their daughter.

"But she was a born performer, she and Burke would put on all these plays,” Ramsey says. The pageants were only an occasional fun thing."

Yet Pam Archuleta, over coffee and then wine at the Boulderado Hotel, said Patsy was “obsessed” by the contests, and she describes the alcove just outside the master bedroom in Boulder where Patsy displayed all the photos, trophies, ribbons and tiaras from her own days as Miss West Virginia. JonBenet’s pageant costumes were “handmade in New York, much finer than the other contestants,” says another family friend. "Her hair was highlighted, her makeup applied thickly and designed to make her look older. Besides, she had to take piano and singing lessons, she had a coach. Does that sound like fun?”

John Ramsey had misgivings about the cost of the costumes and the atmosphere of the pageant circuit: "I hated the 'I won, I won,' attitude of the other families,” he says. Sometimes, according to Pam, he and Patsy argued about it: "He came from a well-bred background and things like that were not done.”

Even Patsy expressed occasional doubts about the effect of the circuit on her daughter: "She is too friendly, just too friendly with people," she told Michael and Pam. “She flirts with people.”

Patsy’s Southern style was considered ostentatious by the understated citizens of Boulder. She coiffed her hair and wore high heels to run errands; she matched her kitchen wallpaper to her China pattern. But she was generous, civic-minded, and bountiful in her caring for other people. According to John, she even ended befriended the press pack.

“I would yell at them ‘Get the hell out of here, bottom feeder!’’ he says. “But she would sometimes go up to one outside the house and give him a hug and a kiss.”

Pam and others recall a rawer side of Patsy: "She talked disparagingly about the people of Boulder, calling them ‘aging hippies’ with their long dresses, natural hair and Birkenstock shoes. She was quite nasty about the way they dressed.”

Some friends saw JonBenet's bedwetting and other problems with toilet training as a protest against the pressure of the pageants. They believe she might have soldiered on to please her mother after Patsy’s harrowing battle with cancer.

When JonBenet was two years old, Patsy was essentially absent for a year during her treatment. "JonBenet just stuck to me," John said, with a rare smile. "I was upset because Beth had just been killed in the accident and JonBenet would tell me 'Dad I don't like that face.' I would smile and she would say 'That's better.'"

But when Patsy recovered, her three-year-old daughter was all hers. They embarked on the grueling pageant circuit and JonBenet proceeded to act like a little adult for half of her childhood. She won more than two dozen trophies and lost more.

Pam Archuleta saw a fatigue in JonBenet during the last months of her life. "She had this haunted, defeated look. She looked frozen when she got that beauty queen attitude on. I think she was just plain worn out.”

The last time the Ramsey family went to Boulder was two years after the murder, when the grand jury was ready to announce its verdict. They had decided that if they were indicted they would turn themselves in, but the press got wind of their plan and they had to hide at the Archuleta’s inconspicuous ranch house.

"It was a real cloak and dagger operation," Pam recounts. "They were in Atlanta and they flew their plane not to Colorado but to Chattanooga, Tennessee and then to the tiny Erie Air Park outside Boulder. It was mainly for small private planes and when this big jet flew in, the mechanics couldn't believe it. I borrowed my friend's battered Volvo—the press would never guess they would be in there—and we speeded to my eye doctor's parking lot where I switched to my Audi. They lay down in the back seat. I was shaking the whole time I drove to my house."

John, and Patsy slept in a double bed squeezed into Mike's office and Burke slept with the Archuleta's son. "I was so nervous. I mean they were used to the highest luxury, double sinks, walk in closets, plasma TVs that dropped from the ceiling above their bed. But they were just so grateful and gracious about it."

The first night, Pam heard Patsy sobbing. "I went in and gathered her up in my arms. She had gotten so small and limp, like a rag doll.” Pam could see the toll the enduring trauma had taken on Patsy. "She seemed shriveled and pale and I knew then that the cancer was coming back."

The next day Patsy put up a brave front. "We even joked,” Pam remembers, and Patsy wished prison uniforms “had vertical stripes instead of horizontal so she wouldn’t look fat.”

"When we heard the verdict was coming in, we turned on the television and Patsy asked us all to hold hands and kneel down and pray. Then we heard "no indictment" and we jumped up and down and Patsy was shouting ‘Praise God, Praise God!’ And suddenly she wasn't this pathetic person but back to the strong friend I knew."

Still, the Ramseys were no longer welcome in Boulder, a quiet university community known for its relaxed, New Age flavor and progressive politics. They fled back to Atlanta, leaving behind a string of ruined friendships and damaged lives. Even a couple who had been among the Ramseys’ very best friends turned against them when the wife began to suspect Patsy. Local radio announcers broadcast virulent accusations. "If they could have lynched us, they would have," John says.

People lost jobs for coming to the Ramseys’ aid; two families went into seclusion; one woman seemed to simply disappear from sight. A famous restaurant owner went to jail for wielding a pipe at a reporter. Another couple quit their jobs and followed the Ramseys to Atlanta, only to end up unemployed when John Ramsey’s new business failed. As for Pam Archuleta, "I lost my marriage," she says, beginning to weep. "Michael would go off in his plane and leave me to deal with hiding the Ramseys. I couldn't take it."

In his campaign for a larger DNA database, John Ramsey points out that thousands of rapes and murders can be prevented, for such criminals often strike many times. “DNA can, of course, exonerate people as well," he says wryly.

Because the new, more sensitive, “touch" DNA test can recover tiny samples from surfaces that the old DNA could not,more and more states are requiring that samples be taken on arrest.

“The last hope I have,” he says, is that “one day I will get a call from somewhere in the country and a voice will say, 'We know who killed your daughter.'"