In an unprecedented — and apparently unintentional — online question-and-answer session, a former Colorado police chief who investigated the 1996 slaying of child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey acknowledged that officers had fumbled their initial response to the high-profile crime.
Mark Beckner, who retired last spring, spoke about the case in an “Ask Me Anything” session, or “AMA,” for a Reddit forum devoted to “Unresolved Mysteries,” unaware that the comments would be online for anyone to read.
“I didn’t know it was an open-architecture type thing, or I wouldn’t have done it,” he told Boulder newspaper the Daily Camera. Beckner’s comments have since been deleted from Reddit.
Current Boulder Police Chief Greg Testa said that the AMA didn’t reveal any information that wasn’t already public. But it takes very little to draw attention back to the Ramsey case, which has been a perennial subject for true crime TV dramas, magazine features and tabloid stories for nearly two decades.
Six-year-old JonBenet was found dead in the basement of her parents’ home the day after Christmas in 1996, duct tape covering her mouth and a cord tangled around her neck, her body bruised and swollen from an apparent sexual assault. Her mother Patsy had called the police hours earlier, saying that her daughter was missing and that she had found a ransom note demanding $180,000 in exchange for the girl — the same amount that JonBenet’s father, John Ramsey, had received as a bonus in his job as chief executive of a Lockheed Martin subsidiary. The lurid story had all the ingredients of a tabloid hit: A well-to-do family, a gruesome crime, a years-long investigation that seemed to lead nowhere. Not to mention the victim’s immaculate, doll-like appearance, seemingly designed for magazine covers.
While the nation obsessed over and speculated about the murder, Beckner (who didn’t become chief until 1998, two years after JonBenet’s death) said that police were botching their investigation of the crime.
“I wish we would have done a much better job of securing and controlling the crime scene on day one,” he said in the AMA, adding that police should have gotten separate statements from John and Patsy Ramsey the day of the crime (the couple were not formally interviewed until five months later).
“Letting them go was a big mistake, as they soon lawyered up,” he wrote.
Beckner’s AMA acknowledged allegations that the Ramseys’ “position” in Boulder society might have influenced how the investigation was handled. But the larger problem, he wrote, was a “perfect storm” scenario involving a short-staffed police department and an unfamiliar crime.
“We faced a situation as I said earlier that no one in the country had ever seen before or since, and there was confusion at the scene as people were arriving before we had enough personnel on the scene,” he wrote.
The murder cast a swirl of suspicion around both of Ramsey’s parents. Looking at the girl’s heavily made-up pageant photos, many accused the couple of exploiting their daughter — including some involved in the investigation.
“It’s impossible to look at these photos and not see a terribly exploited little girl,” Denver Chief Deputy District Attorney Karen Steinhauser told a reporter for People Magazine in 1997. “You get this uncomfortable, sad feeling that she didn’t get the chance to be a normal 6-year-old kid.”
Beckner also commented that the Ramseys’ behavior struck him as strange. He wrote on Reddit: “They rarely interacted and this did not seem normal given the circumstances. Lots of speculation as to why.”
A grand jury heard evidence on the case between 1998 and 1999, but no charges were filed. Court documents later revealed that the jury had voted to indict the Ramseys, but District Attorney Alex Hunter chose not to sign it, citing a lack of sufficient evidence.
Antagonism between the police and the district attorney’s office under Hunter was a highly publicized element of the already sensational story.
“DA involvement in this case was inappropriate,” Beckner wrote on Reddit. “They interfered in the investigation by being roadblocks to getting things done. They did not want to do a grand jury until forced to. We never allowed the DA to get that involved in a case again.”
Both John and Patsy, who died of ovarian cancer in 2006, were officially cleared of suspicion in 2008 based on DNA evidence from the crime scene. A former schoolteacher, John Mark Karr, was arrested in 2006 in connection with the case, but the charges were dropped a week later when police discovered a confession he gave claiming responsibility for the murder was riddled with inconsistencies.
Investigators reopened the case in 2010, launching a fresh round of interviews about the murder.
Speaking with the Daily Camera, Beckner maintained DNA evidence used to exonerate the Ramseys will be the key to tracking down JonBenet’s killer. But he was more skeptical in his Reddit comments.
“Do not believe anyone will ever be convicted in the Ramsey case,” he wrote.