The Christmas 1996 murder of JonBenet Ramsey has riveted America for nearly a decade. This past summer, the arrest of John Mark Karr briefly made it appear as though the mystery had been solved. But that was not the case.
Correspondent Erin Moriarty takes a new look at this true crime mystery and talks to JonBenet's father John, who breaks his silence for the first time since his wife Patsy died in June and Karr was arrested several weeks later.
Last summer, as John Mark Karr was paraded in front of the press, it seemed the decade-old mystery finally had an ending. "I was with Jon Benet when she died," Karr said. "I loved JonBenet and she died accidentally."
But there's more to the story than anyone expected: JonBenet's father, John Ramsey, helped investigators catch the man he believed killed his daughter.
"I said, 'If you want me to go somewhere and meet him, I'll do it,' you know. 'Just tell me what you need me to do,'" he tells Moriarty.
But the latest development in the case would never have happened without journalism professor Michael Tracey. It was Tracey who endured receiving four years worth of e-mails and chilling phone calls, leading detectives around the globe to John Mark Karr.
"I wasn't doing this as a journalist, as a scholar, I was doing this as someone who is extremely concerned about what I was reading and extremely concerned about what might happen to some other kids," Tracey says.
Until his interview with 48 Hours, Tracey has never talked about his unexpected role in the hunt for the killer of JonBenet.
Asked what it was like to get those e-mails, Tracey says, "This is the worst experience of my life by far. It was horrible."
"You are reading and hearing a truly dark side of the human psyche. And having to pretend it's okay, that I wasn't going to sit in judgment, because otherwise the communication would have stopped," he says.
Tracey is not only a professor, he's a crusader, who has spent the last eight years trying to solve Boulder's most notorious crime. It's a killing so infamous that the victim is known simply by her first name: JonBenet. Infamous too are her parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, tainted by public perception that they were somehow involved.
"Was there ever a moment from the very beginning that you ever questioned her, or that she questioned you?" Moriarty asks John Ramsey.
"Oh, no, no. Absolutely not," he replies.
"But you didn't know what had happened to your daughter," Moriarty remarks.
"But I knew Patsy. And she loved our children dearly. She loved my children dearly. She couldn't have been a better mother. I would have believed the pope murdered JonBenet before I'd have believed Patsy did it," he says.
It's hard to believe that nearly ten years have passed since six-year-old JonBenet was murdered just after Christmas. She was initially reported missing on the morning of Dec. 26th, 1996. That same day, her body was found in the basement by her father; JonBenet had been strangled and bludgeoned to death.
"Even I was convinced in the beginning that the Ramseys, that one of the Ramseys, was most probably the person who committed this crime," says assistant district attorney Trip Demuth, who was on the case the day it began.
"The evidence that points to the Ramseys I think, you know, is the fact that they were in the house at the time of the murder," he says.
And that fueled speculation that one of them wrote the bizarre three-page note found at the scene. It was written on a pad that came from the house and demanded a ransom that was close to the bonus John Ramsey had received that year: $118,000.
"We should have just stood right up there in the beginning and said, 'Okay, charge me.You think i'm guilty? Charge me, or clear me,'" Ramsey says.
No charges were filed and investigators never even publicly called them "suspects." Instead, the Ramseys were labeled with a phrase that was both vague and damning: "They do remain under an umbrella of suspicion but we are not ready to name any suspects," an official said at the time.
John Ramsey wonders what that meant. "Do you have a lot of evidence? Do you have no evidence? Do you not like the way we part our hair? What exactly does umbrella of suspicion mean? It means nothing," he says.
"People would scream at me, say 'Of course they're involved, she looks guilty.' And I'm thinking, 'What does guilt look like? What do you mean she looks guilty?' I've had people literally frothing at the mouth, and that intrigued me. 'Cause what I could not understand was, how come everyone knows the Ramseys are guilty? On the basis of what?" Michael Tracey recalls.
And that's how his crusade began. If the Ramseys had been convicted by the press, he thought the media could also prove them innocent. In 1998, Tracey collaborated with a British documentary team and began producing films, with unprecedented access to the couple.
Asked by Tracey whether they had anything to do with their daughter's death, Patsy Ramsey said, "How do you say no any more clearly than no?"
Tracey's cameras also captured a side of the Ramseys the public never saw, private moments, like when Patsy played the last song JonBenet learned before she was killed.
For the past eight years, Michael Tracey has been a consultant to 48 Hours, giving the program access to his material.
In his interviews, Tracey gave the Ramseys a chance to explain the most controversial aspect of the case: how JonBenet ended up in beauty pageants.
"We had friends over with their kids, and the kids would disappear. And the next thing you know, they'd be coming downstairs. They'd have on costumes," John Ramsey told Tracey.
"We had a big costume trunk that was my trunk when I was growing up. And it was full of you know, it was full of hats and old dresses and scares and feather boas and old high heeled shoes and you know, just dress up things. All little girls have those little dress up trunks. And they would put on plays," Patsy Ramsey recalled.
Patsy Ramsey had once been crowned Miss West Virginia, and JonBenet wanted to be on stage, just like her mother. "She would say 'Mommy, when can I do that? I wanna do something like that,' and I said, 'No, no, no. You're too young,'" Patsy Ramsey recalled.
But the Ramseys knew that Patsy had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, so they re-considered.
No matter what the Ramseys did to explain themselves, they were still suspects in the eyes of the public and the police, who continued to focus almost exclusively on them, particularly Patsy.
The umbrella of suspicion remained for years.
"They totally focused on our family to the exclusion of other leads, real facts and real evidence," John Ramsey says.
Then in 2002, Michael Tracey got a lead that he believed might solve the case. It began with an anonymous message on his computer screen.
"The e-mail was basically 'I'd like to talk to professor Tracey.' And so I replied and I said, 'I hear you want to talk, so lets talk,'" he recalls.
The international manhunt to catch a killer began with that e-mail trail. The sender refused to identify himself, signing the e-mail, "December 25th, 1996." But it was clear he was obsessed with the murder of JonBenet Ramsey.
"There was a very interesting – and I'm using that quite carefully – imagination behind the person sending these e-mails. And the reason why that was important was, it kind of jived with my own sense of the kind of person who killed JonBenet," Tracey says.
Something about the wording of the e-mails struck a chord with Tracey: "listen carefully" the sender wrote – the very same words the kidnapper used to begin the ransom note for JonBenet.
John Ramsey tells Moriarty he knew nothing about the sender of the e-mails, other than "just very bizarre, abnormal comments about the case and JonBenet and just very strange."
Tracey shared some of the e-mails with John Ramsey. "But you now, whoever did this is a very strange person, and so we never discounted something just because it was strange," Ramsey says.
Then, as the sixth anniversary of the murder passed, a particularly eerie e-mail was sent, mentioning the nickname of Patsy's mother.
"He referred to Patsy's mother's nickname: Neddie. And that was unusual that someone would know that. I went to a book that we'd written about it. To see if we ever mentioned that in the book. And we had not," Ramsey recalls. "That added fuel to the fire in my mind."
Tracey called the mysterious e-mailer "December Man." "He clearly knew that I was trying to find out who are you. 'Did you do it? Do you know who did it? What do you know about what happened that night.' And the more I pushed, the more he began to kind of resist," he says.
Then with no explanation, the e-mails stopped.
As December Man appeared to move on, so did Michael Tracey. He was determined to explore other leads and other potential suspects. Then, after 18 months of silence, he unexpectedly got an e-mail from December Man.
"He's back. And that is when it really started to unfold," Tracey remembers.
This time, there were details – dark details of what happened to JonBenet – and the writer was saying he was there. Alarmed at what he was reading, Tracey turned to Lou Smit, a former detective and expert on the Ramsey case.
Smit has solved over 200 homicides in his career. "I encouraged Michael to try to find out as much as he could about this individual because it may lead us to the killer of JonBenet," he remembers.
But December Man, or "Daxis" as he later called himself, did not want to tell his story just to Michael Tracey: he pleaded to talk to JonBenet's mother.
"He was in love with JonBenet. And that is what he wanted to tell Patsy and ask her forgiveness. Because he wanted to say was it didn't, it wasn't meant to happen in the way in which it happened," Tracey says.
"This is one step even above a person confessing. Here's a person that wants to confess to the parents. To the mother and to the father. And being very insistent on it," Smit says.
By this time, John and Patsy Ramsey had retreated to northern Michigan, to the small town of Charlevoix. This quiet, remote place was where the couple once enjoyed vacations with all their children and Charlevoix was also the place where Patsy was fighting the return of her cancer.
"This last time that it recurred, it just was a tougher fight, you could tell that right from the beginning. And it was the first time, I guess, I started to realize that we might lose this one," John Ramsey says.
As Patsy's health declined in the spring of 2006, Daxis kept pressuring Tracey to give him the Ramsey's phone number and e-mail address.
"I'd been stalling. And in one e-mail he said, and this is May, he said, 'I'll be sitting in the living room in Charlevoix before you give me those details.' And I looked at that and I thought, 'This as a threat basically. I'm gonna go there if they won't talk to me,'" Tracey remembers.
He was so concerned, he got the e-mails to the Boulder district attorney, Mary Lacey, who launched a formal investigation.
The question now became how to find Daxis.
"They didn't know where he was. He did not want to get caught," Ramsey says.
But Daxis did want to be heard: he gave Tracey a phone number and investigators, who were now working with Tracey, a way to track him down.
Tracey made phone calls to Daxis, taping them. Slowly, he began to draw Daxis out.
But just as a killer seemed to emerge from the shadows, Patsy was losing that other fight. On June 24th, Patsy Ramsey died, at the age of 49.
Tracey called Daxis to break the news, even before the press or anyone knew Patsy Ramsey had died. Asked why, Tracey says he was asked to do that by the investigators to "give a kind of credibility."
"This is - this is so horrible! You don't understand how horrible this is! You just don't understand that I can't connect with that mom ever. I can never hear her say that she forgives me," Daxis told Tracey.
Asked if Patsy died thinking that authorities got JonBenet's killer, Jon Ramsey says, "Probably. Probably."
By July, authorities had traced the calls to southeast Asia, but Daxis was using a disposable cell phone. They were unable to pinpoint his exact location but just as it seemed like the investigation is going nowhere, Tracey got Daxis to make a full confession.
"She of course was asleep from the time that she was, that I took her from her bed and took her into the basement," he told Tracey. "Her first reaction was, 'Where am I?' And I said, 'You're in your basement.'"
His account of the crime is too graphic to describe but Daxis told Tracey he regrets leaving the body where it was found. "She wasn't in that little room to be disgraced. I would never disgrace her or dishonor her. She was there temporarily. And what really hurts me is that she stayed there. And that's where her father found her, and it's just a horrible thing," Daxis said.
By this time, the Boulder district attorney had recruited law enforcement agencies in three countries. They devised a secret plan for the mystery man to reveal himself. The bait was a photograph: the last one taken of JonBenet Ramsey.
Daxis had no idea he was about to fall into a trap.
By mid-July, Daxis' communication with Michael Tracey took a chilling new turn. He told Tracey, "Certain little girls are just so beautiful."
He was no longer just talking about JonBenet but was telling Tracey about his sexual interest in another girl, a five-year-old.
And he told Tracey something else: that he was a teacher and that the little girl attended his school. There was now tremendous pressure to track him down, quickly.
Authorities knew he was in southeast Asia and recruited British intelligence, who were able to narrow down his location to a single, highly congested neighborhood of Bangkok, Thailand.
"We reached out to the Royal Thai authorities to assist us in tracking that cell phone," explains federal agent Ann Hurst.
"We couldn't get the exact location because the phone wasn't turned on all the time," adds fellow agent Gary Phillips.
Hurst and Phillips work for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Thailand. They spoke about their role in the investigation for the first time during their interview with 48 Hours.
Authorities didn't know what Daxis looked like but they knew he had a weakness: he e-mailed Michael Tracey in April, begging for that last picture of JonBenet, taken on the day she died.
Investigators suggested Tracey send the photo; Daxis supplied an address in Bangkok, a UPS mail drop location.
The plan was to put the photo into this oversized package, a package large enough so it would stand out and couldn't be stuffed into a pocket or backpack.
The picture was sent and the mail drop was put under 24 hour surveillance.
"We were actually able to video the person known as Daxis picking up that package," says agent Hurst.
They had him! Daxis was photographed making his pick-up. He was a Caucasian man of slight build in a red shirt.
He was unrecognizable to John Ramsey. "The fact that they had located him was a huge accomplishment. I mean, it was James Bond kinda stuff that they found this guy," he says.
Royal Thai Police and American investigators followed Daxis to a Bangkok hotel. They asked Thai police to do passport checks on the hotel guests. Finally they discovered a face with a real name attached to it. "Daxis" was a man named John Mark Karr, a 41-year-old teacher and a fugitive, on the run from child pornography charges in California.
But, at this point it wasn't just about the crime against JonBenet Ramsey: authorities worried about other young victims, school children in Bangkok, whom Karr may have already harmed. But authorities didn't know who they are or where they are, so they decided to hold off on an arrest and follow him, with any luck, to the school where he teaches.
"He talked about several children that he had been teaching, and his desire to have sex with those children. In fact, he was quite explicit about one little girl that reminded him of JonBenet Ramsey," Hurst says. "We knew we were working against the clock."
Agents were able to locate the school where Karr taught and what they saw, as they observed him in his classroom, confirmed their worst fear. "The agents see him with this young girl on his lap," Tracey explains.
That's all authorities needed. He was arrested and taken out of the hotel.
Most Americans saw John Mark Karr after his arrest on television but agents Hurst and Phillips say he was a very different person in the interrogation room, especially when asked about the massive injury to JonBenet's skull.
"He said that he hit her with a flashlight. And we said, 'Well, show us, show us what you did.' 'Well, I hit her in the head like that!'" Phillips recalls, using a water bottle as a prop. "And his demeanor completely changed when he did that."
Karr refused to provide a sample of his DNA, but he agreed to leave Thailand and head back to the United States, where he was forced to provide a sample and where some media concluded that he was guilty of murdering JonBenet.
The intensity of the feeding frenzy even got to John Ramsey, who knows exactly what it feels like.
"He was so abused and vilified and convicted in the media that I started to feel sorry for the guy, which is a bizarre feeling," Ramsey says. "Having been through what we went through, I was gonna be the last guy that leaped out there and said, 'Aha! This is the guy!'"
As most Americans now know, Karr's DNA – tested back in the U.S. – was not a match with the DNA at the Ramsey crime scene. It was a devastating setback for Boulder District Attorney Mary Lacey.
So after months of intense undercover investigation, in four countries involving some of the world's most elite intelligence agencies, would this end with John Mark Karr walking free?
"This was the biggest effort to find a suspect since really your daughter was killed," Moriarty remarked to John Ramsey.
"Oh yeah," he agrees. And he acknowledges that he had his hopes up. "I mean I was grateful that the effort was going on and I was hopeful that this, in fact would be the conclusion."
The James Bond chase around the globe did not have the Hollywood ending that John Ramsey had prayed for. "I was hopeful that this in fact was the right guy. But on the other hand, it had to be the right guy, you know. We were not just out looking for somebody to hang," Ramsey says.
Ramsey and John Mark Karr share a curious link: both have been branded as suspects in the killing of six-year-old JonBenet.
The public believes that Karr walked free because of a DNA test and that begs the question: why weren't the Ramseys exonerated for the very same reason?
"The decision was made that day, the 26th of December 1996, that I was the killer. And then it became 'Okay well, then now let's look at the evidence and let's prove it.' And then of course, then it shifted to Patsy for some unknown reason," Ramsey says.
It turns out that the couple who spent a decade under the umbrella of suspicion, could have been cleared years ago.
Documents prepared by former assistant D.A. Trip Demuth years ago show what he called, the other side of the story. He believed that there were serious flaws in the case against the Ramseys.
Demuth was very surprised that 48 Hours had obtained the documents. "I'm actually, I'm shocked. I'm just shocked," he told Moriarty.
It was a lot of evidence that the public was never aware of.
"I really would appreciate it if you would mention that you came into this information from some other source than myself," Demuth said.
That's true: 48 Hours obtained the documents from another source. They include crime scene evidence, police reports, and laboratory analysis of DNA.
"That report in essence says as of January 15th, 1997, there was a strong suggestion by the DNA results that the Ramseys were not responsible for this murder," Demuth says.
"You're saying that less than a month after this murder was committed that there is DNA evidence that indicates that the Ramseys weren't involved?" Moriarty asks.
"I'm saying that there is DNA evidence that creates a strong suggestion that they may not have done it, yes," he replies.
A Colorado Bureau of Investigation report shows that tiny amounts of DNA were found under JonBenet's fingernails and in her underwear, and that this DNA did not match John, Patsy, or anyone in the Ramsey family. Police at the time were not convinced that the DNA found at the scene belonged to the killer.
Trip Demuth interpreted the evidence differently. "How likely is it that it would be anybody but the killer? I think it's highly unlikely that it would be anybody else but the killer," he says.
"I believe that when the case first started that it did look like the Ramseys did this. I even thought that initially when I was hired on board," says former detective Lou Smit.
He says at first, he wasn't convinced the Ramseys were innocent and went along with the police theory, which was that Patsy killed her daughter accidentally out of frustration; that the garrote was placed around JonBenet's neck to make it look like someone else had strangled her.
"The theory was that JonBenet was killed by Patsy over bed wetting and that all of this was staged. And that as a result of the staging that a ransom note, a very detailed ransom note was made. That the garrote was constructed for some reason to make it look like it was a kidnap killing gone bad, that was all part of the staging," Smit says.
But a closer examination of the evidence doesn't support that theory. JonBenet was still alive during the strangulation, and probably fought her attacker.
"When she was strangled, she was struggling," Demuth says.
Asked if that is more consistent with a child abduction, he says, "If my conclusions are correct, yeah. That's child abduction. She's struggling, she's breathing, and you're strangling her. That's no longer an act of staging."
"It's murder," Moriarty remarks.
"It's murder," Demuth agrees. "The conclusion of my summary of the physical evidence is, is a clear conclusion that an intruder committed this crime."
Demuth says the path of an intruder is evident in crime scene photographs: a grate that appeared to be lifted, an open basement window, scuff marks on the wall. During his investigation of the crime, Demuth also put the Ramseys character under the microscope.
"I have never seen two individuals that were more thoroughly investigated than John Ramsey and Patsy Ramsey. I don't remember one report of the type of pathology that I would expect to see for them to have committed this crime," he says.
In May of 1998, Trip Demuth presented his findings to the Boulder authorities. Four months after his presentation, Demuth says he and his entire team were removed from the case.
But his boss at the time, former Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter, says Demuth was removed because he was so focused looking outside the Ramsey family that he lost his objectivity.
Demuth regrets leaving the investigation, especially since subsequent DNA tests continued to point away from the Ramseys. But he is most sorry that he never got to treat Patsy Ramsey as a victim.
"Since I believe that the evidence shows an intruder committed this crime, as the prosecutor assigned to that case, she normally would have been my victim who I would have reached out to and held her hand through this process. But I was not given that opportunity," Demuth says.
He says he feels disappointed about that. "But that disappointment is tremendously overshadowed by the disappointment that the killer of this girl has not been brought to justice."
So ten years later, who are investigators looking at now?
"JonBenet's death needs to be solved. It needs closure, and whoever did it needs to be put away," says Michael Tracey, who spent four years tracking the man he believed was the killer, only to see him walk free.
DNA left at the Ramsey crime scene did not match Karr and child pornography charges pending against him in Sonoma County, Calif., were unexpectedly thrown out of court.
"The charges were dropped because the evidence was lost. That disturbs me," says John Ramsey.
So Karr, who talked about having sex with children, is now back on the streets.
"John be honest. He's obsessed with your daughter and your family. Are you at all concerned that he could show up here?" Moriarty asks John Ramsey.
"The thought has gone through my mind, absolutely and you know that you can't live your life in fear. But you know, we tend to be careful," he replies.
But John Ramsey may be relieved to hear this: agent Gary Phillips says the investigation is not over. "John Mark Karr is not off the hook by any stretch of the imagination," he says.
48 Hours has learned that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is still investigating Karr.
"He's said all along that he didn't act alone. So even though he may not have been physically there, he may have orchestrated something with another person," Phillips says.
The idea that more than one person could have been involved in JonBenet's death has been raised before. Remember that ransom note? It says "We have your daughter." And a careful examination of the basement reveals something eerie: two sets of unidentified footprints, where JonBenet's body was found.
Also, there could yet be additional clues: there is evidence remaining from the crime scene that has never been tested.
"In the bedroom close to JonBenet's, there was a rope left in that room that does not belong to the Ramseys," says Smit. "I know that for a fact. And that this rope has never been tested."
"The case will remain open until evidence shows that he is not part of the conspiracy or the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. We're going to keep an eye on him," says Phillips.
When 48 Hours visited John Ramsey in Michigan last month, we found him the way we've always found him: reflective in the face of incredible loss. JonBenet is not the only child the Ramseys lost: Beth, John's 22-year-old daughter from an earlier marriage, was killed in a car accident in 1992.
"John, a lot of couples after losing a child can't stay together. They split up," Moriarty says. "Did you ever come close to that with Patsy?"
"No, not in the least. But I think a lot of what we had going on you know, was kind of Patsy and I against the world for a number of years," he says. "And you know we were kind of back to back fighting off the rest of the world."
And while the family was "under an umbrella of suspicion," John Ramsey says they were trying to protect their family. "We didn't have time to wallow in our grief," he says.
Not publicly maybe, but we know that behind closed doors, there was grief, so apparent in the video of Patsy playing the piece on the piano her daughter had once mastered.
Asked how he wants Patsy to be remembered, John Ramsey says, "She was a wonderful mother. She was an incredibly wonderful mother. She was a very kind person, very caring. Never heard her say anything negative about anybody. Even through this whole chaotic mess that was in our lives. And she used to say, 'This isn't what I imagined our life was going to be.'"
Patsy's own words from an interview in 1998 describe how they coped during the decade of scrutiny, mystery, and enormous grief.
"You have no choice you have to get up and try to continue through this life for whatever purpose or the remaining portion of your life will entail, until it's over," she said. "And then, God willing, we will all be together again. And it will be wonderful. And we may know why we had to go through these horrible times of our lives."
Produced By Nancy Kramer, Douglas Longhini and Ira Sutow
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