American obsession: how JonBenet Ramsey gave rise to the online detective

The killing of a six-year-old beauty queen became Americas first crowd-sourced assassination mystery, a phenomenon that continues 20 years later

In February 1997, a regular guest to the popular online deliberation forum Usenet had reached his limit. All the talking here JonBent Ramsey, the six-year-old beauty queen lately found dead in her parents cellar in Colorado, was driving him crazy. I have been lurking, and occasionally posting, on this news group for over three years, he wrote. I am at the point of abandoning it, because it is* very* difficult to situate anything that is not a Ramsey post, and frankly, I am sick of this morbid crime and speculation.

Itll all go forth in a month or so, counseled another.

JonBent
JonBent Ramsey: a puzzle whose pieces never fit together. Photograph: Sipa Press/ REX/ Shutterstock

No such luck.

Since the moment Ramseys body was detected on 26 December 1996, her murder has been fertile territory for speculators.

The case presented a confusing situate of facts. JonBents wealthy parents insisted that theyd woken up the day after Christmas to find a ransom note left by kidnappers on their kitchen staircase. You will withdraw $118,000 from your account, it informed. Her father, John, apparently made arrangements to pay the ransom and called the police, but soon after authorities arrived, his daughters body was found in the wine cellar. There was a nylon cord around her neck; her wrists were tied above her head, and her mouth was covered by duct videotape. No call to collect the ransom ever came, there was no sign of a break-in or a struggle, and JonBents mothers swore they had nothing to do with it.

It was a puzzle whose pieces never fit together. The eerie videotapes of the blonde beauty-pageant-contestant child, the big, dark-windowed mansion, the parents who insisted they were innocent, the lurid but inconclusive physical proof, the strange false confession of schoolteacher John Mark Karr: all of it was a recipe for conspiracy theories in every direction. In the 1990 s, the tabloids ruled, and they blanketed the country with the most lurid and outlandish headlines about the suit they could think of.

Continued intrigue

This year marks the 20 th anniversary of JonBents death and in the wake of the new popularity of true crime narratives, America will get no less than five new examinations of the Ramsey case. The first item, an A& E documentary called The Killing of JonBent, aired 6 September. NBC recently announced its own new Dateline special. Dr Phil will interview Burke Ramsey, JonBents older brother, on Monday. On 18 September, CBS will air its six-part docuseries called The Case Of: JonBent Ramsey, which will see experts analyse a full-scale replica of the wine cellar in which JonBents body was detected. Ultimately, should that not be enough to sate you, Lifetime has announced a movie that will air in November.

All of this promises a new detonation of interest in the yet-to-be-solved occurrence, particularly in those online spaces where obsessives congregate to discuss true crime.

The internet was a different place when the case first broke open. The World wide web, as people quaintly called the internet in 1996, was more or less made up of text. There was no YouTube. There was no Facebook. There was, however, Usenet, a loose and difficult-to-navigate assortment of message committees. And after the JonBent Ramsey case became a national preoccupation, curious minds collected online to try and solve the example themselves, much in the same way as Serial or Inducing a Murderer. They uploaded documents and traded hypothesis and contacted authorities with their findings.

Several
Several new examinations of the case are forthcoming in a year that marks two decade since her demise.
Photograph: AP

It was, in a sense, Americas first crowd-sourced slaying mystery.

Within a month of the Ramsey case going public, journalists and law enforcement in Boulder were already saying theyd been inundated by emails from across the world, people hundreds of miles away who were sure they knew who killed JonBent. By late 1997, USA Today was reporting that there were more than 2,000 webpages dedicated to solving the Ramsey case.

Digital sleuths

Factions formed rapidly. Some unequivocally believed in the Ramseys. Others unequivocally believed the Ramseys were guilty. They poured over physical evidence. They constructed elaborate scenarios that fit just about any theory of the crime. Some were convinced that a servant must have been responsible the gardener did it. Others made any number of claims about the Ramseys: their hobbies, their finances, their friends.

They argued, especially, about the ransom note. At two-and-a-half pages, it is believed by criminal justice experts to be the longest ever recorded. Whoever wrote it the lettering is shaky and awkward is believed to have been disguising their handwriting. All of the official handwriting experts who have ever opined in the case have excluded John Ramsey as the author of the note; the majority have never been able to connect it to Patsy Ramsey, either. This has not stopped anyone from theorizing about that on the internet from an armchair handwriting-analysis perspective.

The
The ransom note sent in the JonBent Ramsey case. It is believed to be the longest ever recorded. Photo: Handout

None of it ever solved the instance. Even one week after pouring over old internet postings and webpages, I wasnt able to situate a single piece of useful evidence that could definitively be said to have originated with internet users. Instead, the internet obsessives caused problems for officials working on the example, and became the the source of some of its more bizarre narratives.

Take the case of Susan Bennett who went by the alias Jameson online. Bennett theorized so prolifically online on the popular Websleuths forum and on pages she herself put up, that she objective up becoming a figure in the case herself. Despite the fact that Bennett was a housewife living in North Carolina with no legal train whatsoever, her prolific online postings established her as an authority in the case. She was quoted in innumerable newspaper article in the late 1990 s and appeared on television. Bennett was the first online amateur sleuth to be given such a prominent platform.( Attempts to reach Bennett, if she is still alive, were successful. Her website is still up, but her email address is defunct and her common name attains her difficult to locate .)

Three years after the example opened, Bennett appeared on a CBS 48 hours segment about the case to discredit a so-called handwriting experts claim that Patsy Ramsey had written the ransom note. It was a curious choice for the television producers to make, given that Bennett herself had no expertise or evidence to counter the findings. She was a civilian, like anyone else whod followed the Ramsey story but there she was on national television, presenting herself as an authority. The only discrepancies between Bennett and any other person whod been closely following the case was that shed shared her sentiments online.

A modern phenomenon

Since the epoch of Sherlock Holmes, private detectives have all along been been able to influence lawsuits on their own. But the online detective, who had no sort of professional training, or even long practice, is a purely modern phenomenon. The internet changed everything by letting anyone become a self-appointed expert on a example.

JonBents
JonBents grave. There were reportedly more than 2,000 websites dedicated to solving the suit. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Bennett is just one example. Hundreds of JonBent case obsessives scoured documents, then developed hypothesis based on any name they came across. Even though their suppositions were often deep far-fetched, they had the power to affect people lives, so much so that at least one person took the matter to a court.

One of the Ramseys friends brought suit against an anonymous internet commenter who had theorized on his remorse for the assassination. Some documents in the case are sealed but the suit appears to have been abandoned after a few filings.( The Ramseys and Wood have been involved in a number of lawsuits against tabloids and other media organizations and typically request that the documents in those proceedings be sealed, too .)

The new wave of coverage have committed themselves to re-awaken these issues. On Reddit, a JonBent subreddit is already starting to catalogue the evidence. Supposition is unfolding at a rapid pace. And should the various documentaries turn up any new proof, online detectives can be relied on to pursue it. After the recent reversal of Attaining a Murderer subject Brendan Dasseys conviction, online sleuths feel the government had more power and more cause to intervene against injustice than ever.

Patsy Ramsey died of cancer in 2006, but John Ramsey is an active participant in several of the projects coming this autumn. The supposition promises to be rampant. But at the least Ramsey can be said, at this point, to be used to that.

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