Anger, frustration, disappointment—these were among the emotions that hung thick in the air 14 years ago when lead investigators with the Boulder Police Department heard the news: John and Patsy Ramsey would not be indicted for the death of their beauty princess daughter, JonBenet.
One lead detective, gun at his hip in disbelief, pounded the table with his fists before storming out, slamming the door behind him. For 18 months this team of detectives had worked 60-hour weeks, finding witness after witness, building what they were sure was a rock solid case.
And it had all been for nothing.
Several blocks away, secluded in the home of friends, John and Patsy were down on their knees praying in front of a television, unsure if their next night would be spent in a jail cell. They jumped up when they heard District Attorney Alex Hunter announce the decision to assembled reporters. The grand jury was officially dismissed.
On Friday, one of America’s most famous unsolved mysteries was revived when portions of the grand jury’s final recommendations to the DA were released. The key revelation: the grand jury had, in fact, recommended indicting John and Patsy Ramsey with child abuse resulting in death, and with being accessories to first degree murder and child abuse resulting in death.
Specifically, the jury believed the Ramseys permitted a child to be "unreasonably placed in a situation which posed a threat of injury to the child's life or health, which resulted in the death of JonBenet Ramsey," and that they assisted a person "knowing the person being assisted has committed and was suspected of the crime of murder in the first degree and child abuse resulting in death."
In his order to release the documents, retired County Judge Robert Lowenbach noted that Hunter himself had suggested several “possible charges regarding John Ramsey and Patricia Ramsey based on the fact that the child had died and that there was evidence that a sexual assault of the child had occurred.”
Karen Steinhauser, a former Denver prosecutor who is now a defense attorney, said "this means that the grand jury itself believed there was probable cause that the Ramseys were responsible for their daughter's death." That doesn't mean the DA needed to take those recommendations, however. "The DA still has to determine he can prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt."
Yet in the end, Hunter decided not to indict anyone. That decision continues to baffle some law enforcement officials nearly two decades later.
“They’re frustrated that they didn’t get the support and cooperation they needed from the DA’s office so that they may have moved this case to its conclusion,” says A. James Kolar, a former lead investigator with the Boulder County DA’s office and author of the book “Foreign Faction”.
Indeed, police felt they had given Hunter plenty of ammunition to charge the Ramsey couple. Among the witnesses who had gone before the Grand Jury were the Ramseys’ housekeeper, the best friend with whom they’d spent Christmas, and her brother Burke. There had been handwriting and DNA testimony. (John and Patsy Ramsey were never called to testify.) But in the end, Hunter had decided it wasn’t enough to prosecute JonBenet’s parents for her death.
Hunter declined to comment for this story, saying, “I’m bound by my oath to the court and Colorado statutes governing Grand Jury proceedings.”
Since the day Hunter refused to indict, the Boulder grand jury that heard the case has been largely silent, avoiding the limelight despite the fact that their names and faces can be found with a simple Google search. The husband of one juror said in an interview that he still tries in vain to get his wife to talk about her experience: “My wife never told me anything, and I sleep with her!” Another juror declined an interview request with The Daily Beast, saying only, “This was not a case of ‘Twelve Angry Men.’ There wasn’t much argument at the end.”
One member of the jury was a Sierra Club Director. There were housewives, engineers, and nurses. The foreman was a fireworks expert and is one of three who have since passed away, taking precious information with him. Patsy Ramsey died in the summer of 2006. John Ramsey has remarried, and their son Burke has graduated from college with his own career. Life goes on.
John Ramsey declined repeated requests for comment. Through his attorneys, he told current District Attorney Stan Garnett that he opposed the release of the Grand Jury document unless the entire record was also opened to the public.
After the documents were released on Friday, one of Ramsey’s attorneys, L. Lin Wood, said they "validate John Ramsey’s position that the Boulder District Attorney should release the entire grand jury record and not just 4 pages from an 18-month investigation that produced volumes of testimony and exhibits. The grand jury's true bills on Counts 4(a) and 7 are nonsensical. They reveal nothing about the evidence reviewed by the grand jury and are clearly the result of a confused and compromised process. The Ramsey Family and the public are entitled to the benefit of the full and complete record, not just a historical footnote. Fairness dictates that result.”
He added that the grand jury didn't have "the benefit of the conclusive 2008 DNA testing that led to the unequivocal, public exoneration of the Ramsey family."
Stan Garnett, the current DA now in his second term, says he plans to write an op-ed on the mistakes a DA can make if a case of this magnitude surfaces in his or her district, including having poor relations with police.
Mark Beckner, the current Boulder police chief, said in an interview that he’s okay with the document release, and that it doesn’t change the situation. "This is officially a cold case. There are no active leads nor is this an active investigation,” he said. "We don't know exactly what happened in that house that night. No one does except? the perpetrators."
Though this will be the first official document in the case released in years, the statute of limitations for child abuse resulting in death was up years ago.
“It’s complicated,” says Kolar. “I don’t think anyone is going to be charged…. We’re past that point.”
Editor's Note: This story has been udpated to include Ramsey attorney L. Lin Wood's comment after the release of the grand jury documents on Friday.