[cnn-photo-caption image=http://www.cnn.com/video/crime/2010/10/15/ac.ramsey.murder.panel.cnn.640×360.jpg caption="The murder of John and Patsy Ramsey's daughter JonBenet was primarily a local news item at the start, during that cold winter in 1996" width=300 height=169]
Editor's note: As part of AC360°'s month long cold cases series, Tom Foreman reports on the investigation into the murder of JonBenet Ramsey.
(CNN) - Although many people don’t seem to recall it now, the murder of JonBenet Ramsey became a national sensation through a collision of events - not because of the story in and of itself.
It was primarily a local news item at the start, during that cold winter in 1996. So small, that just days after the killing on Christmas, even though I was based in Denver for ABC News, I was dispatched to Las Vegas for a New Year’s story about construction.
“Don’t you think we ought to look into this murder up in Boulder?” my producer asked our bosses on the phone from New York. “No. Go to Vegas.”
Then John and Patsy Ramsey appeared on CNN talking about a “killer on the loose.” Between tears, Patsy said, “I don’t know if it’s a she or a he, but if I were a resident of Boulder, I would tell my friends to keep…keep your babies close to you. There’s someone out there.”
The holidays are traditionally slow news times and the distraught parents - wealthy, attractive, and crushed by a Christmas calamity - were tailor made for public interest. The mystery was tantalizing. Then the pageant pictures came out, and the news hurricane roared to life.
My bosses from New York called me on the Vegas Strip in a panic. “Get to Boulder as fast as you can!”
The story would dominate my professional life for the next year and then some. As the on-air face for an excellent team of investigators, producers, photojournalists, analysts and endless secret sources, there was a time at which I likely knew more about the Ramsey murder case than almost anyone not actually connected to the investigation. And like a lot of folks who were watching closely, I initially thought an arrest would quickly follow.
The field of potential suspects seemed small. While the then-chief of police spoke repeatedly about not rushing to judgment and seemed to dismiss every hint that the Ramseys themselves might be responsible, sources close to the investigation told us over and over that they most strongly suspected someone either in the family or close to it.
Look at the evidence, they told us: No sign of forced entry. No footprints in the snow. The supposed ransom note (remember, this was initially believed to be a kidnapping) was written on a pad of paper from inside the house. The handwriting, some analysts believed, looked like Patsy’s. The stick used to tighten the rope that strangled the girl came from a broken paintbrush, from Patsy’s hobby kit. The body was found hidden in a little used basement room that was so hidden from view even police overlooked it during earlier searches.
We kept 24-hour watch on the family so as not to miss the moment of arrest. We tracked down every stray fact and every long-lost contact with a cleaning person, a construction worker, a disgruntled employee. We looked for records of vagrant sex offenders. We talked to people all over the country who might have even a shred of knowledge about anyone in the family
But days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and the trail which had seemed scorching hot, grew icy cold. And now the evidence suggests, even to seasoned legal analysts, that an arrest will never come. The case is growing so cold that even if someone came forward with a confession (like some dying inmate picked up in some other distant state for another crime), he would essentially have to prove his own guilt. Memories of those closest to the crime have faded. Evidence has grown old. Many of those who were there at the start have moved on to other towns, other jobs. Some, such as Patsy Ramsey, have died.
The police have always been criticized for their handling of the case, and have always defended their own conduct. The district attorney’s office said two years ago that new DNA testing methods cleared the family of suspicion. They had maintained their innocence all along.
And the investigation goes on, filled with endless questions and seemingly no real answers. All we really know is what I said many times at the end of my reports back in that sad winter: A little girl was killed in her own home on Christmas. And no one has ever spent a day in jail for her death.
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