New Clues in JonBenet Ramsey Murder

A mysterious cobweb. A child’s toy. These and other clues from the crime scene are detailed in a new book by a former lead investigator in the pageant queen’s still-unsolved murder. Carol McKinley reports.

Robin Nelson / Zuma Press

JonBenet Ramsey’s life was short: just six-and-a-half years. But the mystery of the kindergartner’s bizarre murder in 1996 has survived for more than twice that time. Now one of the lead detectives who investigated the killing for the Boulder district attorney’s office is breaking his silence.

Former detective Jim Kolar says it has taken him months of introspection and much of his retirement savings to launch his self-published book, Foreign Faction: Who Really Kidnapped JonBenet Ramsey? The book reads like a Ramsey case encyclopedia, detailing conversations and clues that Kolar believes have been overlooked, including an intact cobweb in the basement window and a toy that may have been responsible for some of the abrasions on JonBenet’s body.

Kolar had access to 60,000 pages of evidence, including interviews, forensic reports, grand-jury records, crime-scene photos and video. He says he’s now sharing everything but the grand-jury information (which he swore an oath to keep secret) because he “wants the truth out there.”

No one has ever been charged with JonBenet’s murder, and the case is still open. Boulder Police Chief Mark Beckner says there are no new leads and the murder isn’t being actively investigated. “It’s safe to say this is a cold case.”

Kolar was hired by Boulder D.A. Mary Keenan Lacy in the spring of 2004 and stepped into the lead investigator role a year later. It was around that time that scientists at a Denver crime lab found a 10th marker from a DNA sample taken from JonBenet’s underwear. The tiny sample, which couldn’t be identified earlier in the investigation, was likely saliva from a cough or sneeze, according to reports, and didn’t match DNA from anyone in the immediate Ramsey family. Nor did it match any of the other 160 possible suspects looked into by authorities. Lacy was the second district attorney to oversee the case after the original top prosecutor, Alex Hunter, retired. She promised to attack the case with fresh eyes, and people who worked with her say she leaned toward the theory that an outsider murdered JonBenet.

But one of her own chief investigators eventually came to believe, based on his review of the evidence, that there was the possibility that someone in JonBenet’s family was involved in her death. “By the time I parted company with the D.A.’s office, I was convinced that there was no significant possibility that an intruder had been involved in the death of JonBenet,” writes Kolar in his book.

Kolar says he left the D.A.’s office in March 2006 because he was discouraged and frustrated. He returned to the job he had before, as chief marshal of the resort mountain hamlet of Telluride, Colo., where he still works. In 2008, a few months before she left office, Lacy apologized to the Ramseys, saying, “I believe it is important and appropriate to provide you with our opinion that your family was not responsible for this crime.” She cited the “unknown” male DNA found in JonBenet’s underwear, consistent with that found on the waistband of her leggings. “The match of male DNA on two separate items of clothing worn by the victim at the time of the murder makes it clear to us that an unknown male handled these items,” she wrote. “Based on the DNA results and our serious consideration of all the other evidence, we are comfortable that the profile now in CODIS (the Combined DNA Index System) is the profile of the perpetrator of this murder.”

It was a moment that stunned some prosecutors and police officers who continued to believe that there was enough other evidence to suggest there was no intruder.

In an interview, Lacy reaffirmed her statement that the Ramseys weren’t involved. "The DNA directs the evidence in this case. If the DNA on the underwear were the Ramseys, I would have thought it was them who killed JonBenet,” she said. "It didn't match the Ramseys, police, friends, babysitters. It doesn't match anybody."

She said she hired Kolar because “he was a good chief and I was pretty surprised when he came up with this because it wasn't consistent with his other work." Lacy said, "I think it's unprofessional for him to be writing a book based on conjecture."

Ramsey family attorney Lin Wood said he had not read Kolar’s book and declined to comment on the detective’s theories. "I firmly believe this murder will be solved by the DNA evidence,” he says. “It was the DNA evidence that led to the public exoneration of the Ramsey family by the district attorney's office, and it will be DNA that one day identifies the killer of this child."

After he left the D.A.'s office, Kolar said he spent many sleepless nights conflicted about his desire to solve the case and his sense that he should shut up about it. When John Mark Karr was arrested in the summer of 2006 for JonBenet’s murder and later let go for lack of evidence, Kolar says he had had enough.

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“As I watched that unfold,” he said in an interview, “I became frustrated that the taxpayers had funded this wild goose chase again and thought, ‘It’s time to come back and center and focus and get attention focused on where I think it needed to go.’”

Kolar dedicates Foreign Faction to the men and women of the Boulder Police Department, who he says were humiliated in the press as bumbling cops. In fact, says Kolar, these people spent thousands of hours and millions of taxpayer dollars investigating a case that seemed doomed from the first hysterical 911 phone call from JonBenet’s mom, Patsy, at 5:52 a.m., the day after Christmas.

After years of waiting for fresh leads in a case that has seemingly dried up, Ramsey watchers will either rejoice or be repelled by Kolar’s book, depending on who they think killed her. It puts forth a supposed trove of investigative leads Kolar says undermines the theory that there was an intruder the night of the murder. He details his theory that a child’s toy, rather than a stun gun, was the possible source of two marks on JonBenet’s back. He discusses other DNA evidence found at the crime scene, including on the murder weapon, a garrote made from cord and used to strangle her. And then there’s the cobweb.

The Daily Beast has reviewed a portion of a basement crime-scene video taken around midnight, just hours after JonBenet’s body was found by her father. In macabre footage filmed on an ancient police video camera, the white-beamed circle of a police flashlight travels the path Ramsey investigators theorized an intruder took to sneak into the house. Hitchcock-like, the illuminated circle moves through what’s known as the “train room,” into closets where wrapping paper is stored, past an abandoned rocking horse, and finally focuses on what could be a clue in the very window frame through which intruder theorists say JonBenet’s killer entered the house: a triangle of cobweb blows softly in the breeze, undisturbed. Kolar believes the intact web is evidence that no one from the outside entered the Ramseys’ house.

This is the same window John Ramsey told police was unlatched the morning JonBenet went missing. It was also the window he told police he broke when he got locked out the summer before. The white light pans to a shard of glass lying on the sill, which Kolar theorizes would have been wiped away along with the cobweb if anyone had tried to squirm through.

The Boulder County Coroner also found two abrasions on JonBenet’s lower back, and these injuries have been a point of many heated arguments. Ramsey investigators said the marks could have been made by a jolt from a certain kind of stun gun. But when Kolar looked at the evidence, he didn’t see exact measurements comparing the abrasions to the two electronic leads—points of a stun gun where electricity flows through—on that gun model. So he asked the police to do an overlay, which, he says, revealed that the marks on JonBenet’s back didn’t match the weapon’s leads. He says the marks instead matched a piece of a toy similar to one found in the basement.

Kolar detailed this evidence in a nearly eight-hour presentation to Lacy and her team in January 2006, and outlined his theory that the murderer couldn’t have been an intruder. He says Lacy dismissed it. In a letter Lacy sent him months after he left the department, she told him his evidence wasn’t based on facts. “Your theory,” she wrote, “is based on conjecture, which at times approaches pure flights of fantasy.”

In an interview, Lacy says she remembered the presentation. "Several of us watched [it] and we just rolled our eyes,” she says. “This was a person who had gotten to the point that he was obsessed."

In his book, Kolar writes about disagreements over whether JonBenet had been sexually assaulted prior to her murder. Her pediatrician has said in media reports that the frequency of JonBenet’s visits—police reports at the time said she had visited 27 times in the last three years of her life—wasn’t “excessive.” He said he had seen no signs of sexual abuse and “had no suspicion of it.” In Kolar’s book, he says he reviewed transcripts of police intervews with at least five physicians and forensic pathologists from around the country who were shown photographs of injuries taken from JonBenet’s autopsy report. Their conclusion, writes Kolar, was that JonBenet had been “subjected to sexual intrusion” some time before her death, and that “digital penetration was consistent with this type of injury.”

Ramsey family lawyer Lin Wood says, “The Ramseys had no knowledge of any such abuse. John and Patsy Ramsey thought that this was another example of the Boulder police department’s prejudice in trying to make accusations against the family.”

Stan Garnett, the current Boulder district attorney, assembled a “Cold Case Task Force” in 2009 to take a fresh look at the JonBenet case. Kolar was among those asked to present evidence, and says he included the video of the cobweb and the theory about the toy, among other things.

Garnett declined to comment on the investigation, saying, “I returned the case to the Boulder police three and a half years ago, and I am completely confident that they’re following up on appropriate leads."

Boulder police chief Beckner says some suggestions from the task force were followed up on, but that “if there was a smoking gun in this case, we would have gone to trial."

Kolar says he doesn’t want to compromise an open murder investigation by revealing facts of the case. He’s only doing so, he says, because he doesn’t believe it will ever be prosecuted. “I think I have a reputation for wanting to see things solved,” he says. “If you want to call that obsessed, I guess you could. I think it’s being thorough, and I wanted to see that justice is served.”