America's JonBenét Ramsey Obsession Will Never Die

CBS's new documentary miniseries is the latest in a slew of TV investigations into the unsolved case of beauty contestant's death in 20 years ago.

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Sep 21 2016, 2:10pm

JonBenét Ramsey in 1996. Photo by Randall Simons/Polaris

In one scene from A&E's recent and heavily staged The Killing of JonBenét: The Truth Uncovered, a team of dour-faced experts are shown discrediting the theory that six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey's 1996 murder was a cover-up performed by someone in her own home. The voiceover tells us, twice in a single sentence, that they're not just experts—they're British experts, as if to imbue a sense of Sherlock Holmes-ian authority.

The scene serves another purpose: to undermine CBS, whose rival four-hour docu-series, The Case Of: JonBenét Ramsey, airing Sunday and Monday night, leans on a very different theory. In the first episode, an entirely different crack team of investigators enlist a child (resembling Ramsey's then-nine-year-old brother Burke) to whack a model skull with a flashlight, replicating a possible scenario for JonBenét's murder. "It could be a child that did it," one investigator suggests, describing "a make-believe type" crime scene where the killer came from within. They conclude the series in unanimous agreement that Burke killed JonBenét by accident, and their parents went to all lengths to cover it up with red herrings—a fake garrotting, a fake ransom note, and talk of a killer on the loose.

The role of the fourth estate in solving crimes has taken on a new dimension in the last two years, as the genre entered the mainstream consciousness and contributed to high-profile legal developments in a handful of cases that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. Fifteen years into a life sentence, Adnan Syed won a new trial with evidence dug up by the popular Serial and the lesser-known Undisclosed podcasts (the case became so popular, fans flew to Baltimore from California to watch the hearings). In The Jinx, Robert Durst confessed to murder by way of a wayward recorder in a bathroom. And Making a Murderer's Brendan Dassey was released from jail after the series aired.

CBS's effort on the Case Of achieves just one British investigator, but raises A&E a German one, along with a full-scale replica of the Ramsey's home, built on a 50,000 square-foot warehouse in Boulder, Colorado, the city where JonBenét was murdered. It's part of an extensive reinvestigation production that cost "many, many millions of dollars," executive producer Tom Forman told VICE. "Literally no expense was spared." Jim Clemente, a former FBI investigator on the Ramsey case and executive producer on the program, assembled a team of world-renowned experts for the project who, on location, reexamine evidence and make a compelling argument for the cover-up theory, dropping not-so-subtle hints that they'd like the Boulder police to look at what they've found. Before the show aired, they told VICE they hope to get a prosecution out of it. Whether police will act on their findings is another question entirely.

Investigators Laura Richards and Jim Clemente in the lab in 'The Case Of: JonBenét Ramsey. Photo courtesy of CBS

The dueling efforts from A&E and CBS are just two among a slew of new TV shows rehashing the unsolved murder of the six-year-old Colorado beauty queen ahead of the 20-year anniversary of her death. Others include NBC's Dateline: Who Killed JonBenét?, Investigation Discovery's JonBenét: A Murder Mystery , a Dr. Phil special, and a Lifetime movie is reportedly in the works.

So, what's the point? For its part, the CBS trailer closes with a statement of purpose: " We want to get the truth out so that JonBenét can rest in peace." Clemente feels his team is uniquely positioned to secure a conviction based on their findings, while JonBenét's case, in an official sense, remains cold. The Boulder police, Clemente says, have declined to participate in their efforts.

JonBenét's mother, Patsy Ramsey, died in 2006 of ovarian cancer, and as for her living family: "They refuse to speak to us," Clemente told VICE. A&E, whose program sides pretty clearly with the family, secured access to John Ramsey, and filmed him walking in the desert with his new wife. Clemente's team, on the other hand, includes James Kolar, an investigator who self-published a 500-page book, which questions the theory that an intruder killed JonBenét—a theory backed up by CBS's intricate reinvestigation.

Taken together, this month's "all-you-can-reveal" buffet of JonBenét content—advertised as various quests for truth—may have a placebo effect, but in large part it's a master class in manipulative editing. In one of many anti-climaxes, A&E teases a clip of a nine-year old Burke Ramsey by promising it will reveal what her brother thinks happened to her. His response, after a suspenseful commercial break? "I have no idea."

"If the cops can't solve it, why do CBS and A&E think they can?" —Dylan Howard

It was Dr. Phil who trumped everyone on the updated Burke Ramsey interview, a three-day event, which aired earlier this month, before CBS freshly implicated him in his sister's death. The TV psychologist's lawyer, L. Lin Wood, happens to also represent the Ramseys, and has filed multi-million dollar defamation suits for both parties against American Media, the parent company of the National Enquirer and Star tabloids, who've played a leading role in keeping the story alive 20 years on. The tabloids have achieved this by ponying up for sources (an absolute taboo in traditional journalistic ethics), digging up all the dirt possible, and then slapping on a sensational, truth-bending headline.

According to Clemente, who worked the case for the FBI from 1998, rampant misinformation spouted by the tabloids in the aftermath of JonBenét's murder was among the biggest obstacles to the truth getting out to the public.

"They will blast up headlines that make it appear that false scenarios actually are true," he told VICE. "Because of the exploitation of the case by the tabloids, myself and my colleagues wanted to do a reinvestigation and actually tell the world what really happened," he added. That's one of the reasons he pitched the idea for the docu-series to Forman, who jumped at the opportunity.

The 20-year anniversary of JonBenét's death has given big-budget TV productions a rare shot at telling her story anew. A weekly newspaper gets 52 chances a year, and when it comes to tabloid coverage, the National Enquirer's editor Dylan Howard, a contributor on the Investigation Discovery effort, takes a longer view.

"If the cops can't solve it, why do CBS and A&E think they can?" he asked, adding that his program does more to egg on the conversation than to try and solve the crime.

"If [the investigators] had the resources of a network television show behind them, they could make headway in the case that had never been made before." —Tom Forman

Although Howard acknowledged that his work is regarded as, "for want of a better phrase, supermarket journalism," his rag should receive credit for keeping the story alive in the public imagination, which is to say maintaining the interest that creates the insatiable demand for JonBenét's story. Beyond the intrigue of an unsolved murder, the six-year-old beauty queen's pageant life produced photos that made the story irresistible and still spurs sales. Immediately following her death, "JonBenét featured on every cover of the National Enquirer for 12–24 months," Howard said.

But there was another reason that Jim Clemente pitched the idea for the docu-series: He and other investigators who'd worked the case were really pissed off.

"They were angry," said Forman, who produced the show for CBS. "They were angry that the case hadn't been solved; they were angry that justice had not been done for a six-year-old girl who was murdered"—and crucially—"if they had the resources of a network television show behind them, they could do the tests, do the interviews, ask the questions, re-handle some of the actual evidence, and make headway in the case that had never been made before—in part because the politics of a little town like Boulder prevented them from doing it." For all their various allegiances, this is one thing all these programs seem to agree on: Back in 1996, law enforcement royally screwed up, and the investigation into JonBenét's death was botched from the start by a compromised relationship between the Boulder Police Department and the District Attorney's office.

Binders crammed with investigators' reports at the Boulder sheriff's office in 1997. Photo by Ray Ng/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

One of the first investigators on the case, Steve Thomas, recalled to CBS being hamstrung in obtaining basic evidence by a DA's office who were "intimidated" by the affluent Ramseys.

"In one corner you had the Boulder PD, which firmly believed the Ramseys were involved in their daughter's murder," explained Howard. "The DA's office had the exact opposite opinion."

In an aside toward the end of Dateline's JonBenét special earlier this month, journalist Josh Mankiewicz asked the fundamental question: "What happens when those two groups don't agree? What happens when they don't even get along?" It's a common refrain around the criminal justice system, and far more significant than "never-before-seen" tidbits of speculation from JonBenét's old acquaintances.

But the appetite for even the slightest piece of intrigue around JonBenét's murder has a unique power, and it has the dollar value to prove it.

Howard told me the kind of "dogged journalism, the wearing out boot-leather type in the finest tradition of investigation, can still be done by media outlets that are prepared to invest the resources—as in money—to be able to break these types of stories and play a demonstrable role to bring justice." In the case of JonBenét Ramsey, "It was up to the media to expose the calamity that was this law enforcement."

Investigator Dr. Werner Spitz in 'The Case Of: JonBenét Ramsey. Photo courtesy of CBS

Even so, when law enforcement bungles a case and media becomes the lead investigator, we are forced to play on their terms, as Howard makes clear. Despite the unified call for justice for a girl who could only enjoy the satisfaction from beyond the grave—there are more profits to be made still, in withholding information.

In the Investigation Discovery special, Howard delivers informed, impassioned commentary on the tragic delay of justice for JonBenét. You get the sense that, surely, in this barrage of new programming, the people who still care are giving it all they've got. But Howard insisted he's still got another trick up his sleeve.

On a recent weekend, he boarded a plane to visit the source of yet another development in the JonBenét case—one that he's saving up for an Enquirer scoop closer to the real anniversary of her death, in December.

"I have a never-before-seen piece of evidence," he said. "If you thought you'd seen the end of this case—watch this space," he cautioned.

And for anyone else who has new info on the JonBenét case? "They know where to find me, and my checkbook is open."

Follow Annalies Winny on Twitter.