'JonBenet Ramsey: What Really Happened': How did the 6-year-old American beauty pageant star die?

A new documentary from Discovery+, Discovery Channel's streaming platform, will take a fresh look at what happened in the case

                            'JonBenet Ramsey: What Really Happened': How did the 6-year-old American beauty pageant star die?
John and Patsy Ramsey (Getty Images)

One of the most chilling murders of the 20th century is perhaps the death of the six-year-old beauty pageant star in 1996, JonBenet Ramsey, who was first reported missing by her parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, and was then found dead in the family's basement. Many details have since emerged but to date, a killer has not been found for the murder. While there have been many suspects in the case including a teacher who falsely confessed to the crime, JonBenet Ramsey's murder remains unsolved.

It could be why even decades after it occurred, the case still manages to capture everyone's attention. A new documentary from Discovery+, Discovery Channel's streaming platform, will take a fresh look at what happened in the case. 'JonBenet Ramsey: What Really Happened' is set to be released soon on the platform. Ahead of its release, let's revisit the circumstances around JonBenet's disappearance and death.

Reported missing

According to her statements to the authorities on December 26, 1996, Patsy realized that her daughter was missing after she found a two-and-a-half page handwritten ransom note on the kitchen staircase. The note was purportedly written by a "foreign faction" and demanded $118,000 for JonBenet's safe return. The ransom note warned the Ramseys not to talk to the authorities and ended with "You and your family are under constant scrutiny as well as the authorities. Don't try to grow a brain John. You are not the only fat cat around so don't think that killing will be difficult. Don't underestimate us John. Use that good southern common sense of yours. It is up to you now John!"

John told the police that the amount was roughly identical to the Christmas bonus he received the previous year, which suggested that someone privy to that information could be involved. As such, John's colleagues at Access Graphics were investigated, although, authorities also considered that the amount could be a reference to Psalm 18 and spoke to religious sources to determine relevance.

Police believed that the ransom note was staged because it was very long and had no fingerprints except for Patsy's and the authorities who handled it. The note was written with a pen and paper pad from the Ramsey home which were then placed back in their original location. A Colorado Bureau of Investigation report suggested that Patsy could be the author of the ransom note, however, the evidence was not enough for a definitive conclusion, and a federal court later ruled that it was highly unlikely that Patsy wrote the note.

Initial search for JonBenet

Once a ransom note was found, Patsy phoned the police and also called family and friends, in spite of the ransom note's instructions to not inform anyone, including the authorities. Responding police officers arrived within three months and on doing a cursory search, did not find any signs of forced entry. One of the officers, Rick French, went to the basement and came to a door that was secured by a wooden latch but walked away without opening it. French explained that at the time he was looking for an escape route used by the kidnapper. JonBenet's body was later found behind the door.

JonBenet's room was the only room that was cordoned off to prevent contamination of evidence, with no precautions being taken in the rest of the house to do the same. Friends and the family's minister arrived at the home to support the Ramseys, as well as victim advocates. Visitors picked up and cleaned surfaces in the kitchen, potentially destroying evidence. Following this, there was never any attempt by anyone to claim the ransom money.

Finding the body

Later that day, when John was asked to search the house to see if they could find anything else, he opened the latched door that was overlooked by Officer French and found JonBenet's body in one of the rooms. Her mouth was covered with duct tape, a nylon cord was wrapped around her wrists and neck, and her torso was covered with a white blanket. John picked up the body and took it upstairs, further contaminating the crime scene and disturbing critical forensic evidence. In the weeks following JonBenet's death, John, Patsy, and their son, Burke Ramsey provided handwriting, blood, and hair samples to the police and were also interviewed by the police.

The autopsy of JonBenet's body showed that she had been killed by strangulation and a skull fracture. The official cause of death was listed as "asphyxia by strangulation associated with craniocerebral trauma." The autopsy did not show any signs of conventional rape, however, sexual assault was not ruled out. Although there was no semen found, there was evidence of a vaginal injury. The pathologist also noted that it appeared her vaginal area had been wiped with a cloth.

In December 2003, foreign investigators extracted enough material from a mixed blood sample found on JonBenet's underwear to establish the DNA profile of an unknown male person. This DNA profile was then used to rule out JonBenet's parents as suspects in the murder. To date, the DNA sample has not been matched with any profile in the FBI's CODIS.


Over the years, many possibilities of suspects for JonBenet's murder have cropped up. Significant among these is former school teacher John Mark Karr, who randomly owned up to the murder in 2006. However, he was cleared when the DNA analysis did not match his to the profile found on the scene.

'JonBenet Ramsey: What Really Happened' will premiere on Discovery+ on Monday, January 4, 2021.

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