Review: ‘JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?,’ starring John Ramsey, Cindy Marra, Mark Smit, Paula Woodward, John Anderson, John San Agustin and Greg Walta

January 25, 2021

by Carla Hay

JonBenét Ramsey in “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” (Photo courtesy of Polaris/Discovery+)

“JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?”

Directed by Kim Duke

Culture Representation: The documentary “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” features a nearly all-white group of people (and one Asian) discussing the murder case of JonBenét Ramsey, a Colorado rich girl who was brutally killed on Christmas Day 1996, when she was 6 years old.

Culture Clash: The unsolved case has been controversial because investigators and prosecutors disagree over evidence and who might be the prime suspect or suspects.

Culture Audience: “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” will appeal primarily to people interested in this case or in true crime overall, but the documentary does not reveal any new facts that are helpful to this case.

Lou Smit in “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” (Photo courtesy of Discovery+)

Because there have already been so many news reports and documentaries about the JonBenét Ramsey case, any new ones that come along almost never have new information that can help make progress in the case. Almost every documentary about the case seems to have an agenda to push only one or two theories of who killed JonBenét Ramsey, the 6-year-old girl who was murdered on Christmas Day 1996 in her millionaire family home in Boulder, Colorado. This highly disputed case remains unsolved because there are conflicting accounts about the crime-scene evidence and numerous theories about who committed the murder.

It’s rare for a JonBenét Ramsey documentary to truly include perspectives of people who have very diverse viewpoints and theories about the case. “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” (directed by Kim Duke) is one of those “agenda” documentaries, because it seems less concerned about interviewing people with a variety of perspectives and more concerned about being a one-sided tribute to Andrew “Lou” Smit, who was a prominent investigator for the Boulder district attorney’s office on the JonBenét Ramsey case. He was also an unpaid private investigator for the case when he stopped working for the Boulder D.A.’s office.

Smit (who died of cancer in 2010, at the age of 75) firmly believed that an unknown intruder or intruders committed the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. The documentary includes interviews with people who say the same thing (including JonBenét’s father John Ramsey), but not any interviews with people who believe in other theories. Furthermore, a copious amount of time in the documentary looks like a fawning biography of Smit instead of a well-rounded investigation that looks at all sides of this contentious murder case.

The documentary pushes a narrative that Smit was a crusading and often-misunderstood investigator who constantly battled over this case with the Boulder Police Department, because the Boulder PD immediately put JonBenét Ramsey’s parents at the top of the list of suspects. The documentary (which uses a lot of the same archival footage that’s been in many other JonBenét Ramsey documentaries) includes clips from Smit’s personal diary-type audio tapes that he made during the investigation. However, these audio tapes do not reveal anything new, unless you want to hear some ranting from Smit about how he felt mistreated by the Boulder PD. An epilogue in the documentary mentions that the Boulder PD declined to participate in the film, because the Boulder PD has a policy not to comment on the JonBenét Ramsey case.

It’s repeated several times in the documentary that Smit refused to believe the Ramseys could be guilty because he thought that they seemed like nice people. In his audio tapes, Smit says that people like the Ramseys don’t kill their children, and he had a gut feeling they weren’t guilty. What happened to the crime investigator rule that even if people who appear to be “nice,” it isn’t enough of a reason to decide that they can’t commit a crime? It’s about evidence, not personality. It’s no wonder that Smit got a lot of criticism for not being objective enough in this case.

Smit often accused the Boulder PD of having tunnel vision by not properly looking into other suspects. However, Smit displayed a certain amount of tunnel vision of his own with very biased actions during his investigation, by going out of his way to show the Ramseys that he was on their side. The documentary mentions that during Smit’s investigation while he was working for the Boulder D.A., Smit would park in front of the Ramseys’ house every day to pray for them and even invited John Ramsey to pray with him too. While this praying activity with a possible suspect might be considered noble by some people, it’s actually very unprofessional for a murder investigator to act this way with a witness who’s under suspicion while the investigator is working on the case.

Although there have been very divisive opinions on who committed the murder, these are the indisputable facts, which have been widely reported and are reiterated in the documentary: JonBenét Ramsey was murdered in her home sometime during the night or early-morning hours. Her parents (businessman John Bennett Ramsey and homemaker Patricia “Patsy” Ramsey) and JonBenét’s older brother Burke, who was 9 years old at the time, were also home at the time of the murder. All of them have denied having anything to do with the murder. The Boulder D.A. Office cleared the Ramseys as suspects in 2008, mainly because the Ramseys’ DNA did not match the unknown male DNA on JonBenét’s clothing that was on her dead body.

On the morning of December 26, 1996, Patsy called 911 to report that JonBenét was kidnapped. At the crime scene was a three-page, handwritten ransom note that was written on Patsy’s notepad and using a pen that was owned by the Ramseys. When the police arrived at the Ramseys’ 11,000-square-foot, three-story house, John and Patsy had already invited several of their friends and neighbors over to the home to comfort them. The Ramseys called some of these visitors over to the house before they called the police. Unfortunately, all of these people in the house inevitably contaminated the crime scene.

Instead of securing the crime scene and telling the visitors to leave, the Boulder police officers let the visitors stay and asked John to search the house again for JonBenét. John found JonBenét’s body in a basement-like area of the house. An autopsy determined that JonBenét had blunt force trauma to her head and had been strangled with a wiry cord that was still tightly wound around her neck. There are disagreements among investigators over whether she had been hit on the head first or had been strangled first. JonBenét had also been sexually violated with one of Patsy’s broken paintbrushes that was found near JonBenét’s body.

Although a former schoolteacher named John Mark Karr (born in 1964) confessed to the murder in 2006 and was arrested for it, it was later proven that Karr gave a false confession, and he was never prosecuted for the murder. He wasn’t even in Colorado when the murder happened, and his DNA did not match the DNA found at the crime scene. Karr is now living as a transgender female named Alexis Valoran Reich.

Whatever people think about the JonBenét Ramsey case, the main theories of who committed the murder identify these four possibilities:

  • John Ramsey
  • Patsy Ramsey
  • Burke Ramsey
  • An unknown intruder or intruders

People who believe that the Ramseys were involved think that the Ramseys know more than they’re telling and that the Ramsey family is covering up the truth. (Patsy died of cancer in 2006, at the age of 49.) The severe ligature strangulation of JonBenét indicates that it was done by an adult.

Those who think Burke was the real culprit have a theory that Burke brutally hit JonBenét on the head with an unknown object during an argument, and the blow possibly left her unconscious. According to the theory, John and Patsy found out and perhaps thought JonBenét was dead, and so the parents might have panicked because they were afraid of the scandal that it would cause their prominent family.

The “Ramseys are guilty” theory usually believes that John and/or Patsy then further assaulted JonBenét to establish another cause of death and to make it look like a stranger did it, in order to confuse investigators. A kidnapping was staged to also confuse investigators, according to the “Ramseys are guilty” theory. People who believe this theory think that even if one person in the Ramsey family actually committed the physical crime, the other family members who were home at the time eventually knew about it and helped cover it up.

Most people who think the Ramseys are guilty point to clues that the killer or killers seemed comfortable taking a lot of time to commit the crime without fear of being caught in the act. There was the highly unusual and long ransom note, written on a paper and pen from the Ramsey home. Handwriting analyses ruled out John as the writer of the note, while Patsy could neither be completely identified nor completely ruled out as the writer of the ransom note.

Everyone agrees that the words of the ransom note indicate that it was written by an educated adult. The only fingerprints found on the note were those from Patsy (who said she found the note), investigators and visitors who were in the house. The intruder theory is that the intruder could have worn gloves.

Another big clue, which was not mentioned in this documentary, was that the autopsy of JonBenét found some undigested pineapple in her stomach, indicating that she died shortly after eating the pineapple. A bowl of pineapples was on the kitchen counter when the police arrived at the crime scene, but the Ramseys denied knowing anything about it and said that it was unlikely that JonBenét prepared the pineapple meal herself.

Was it an intruder? And if so, what kind of intruder would feel comfortable enough in the Ramsey home to kidnap a child but stay long enough to feed the child a pineapple meal? And why use Patsy’s notepad in the house to write the ransom note instead of writing the note somewhere else in advance?

The Ramsey family was out attending a party earlier that evening, and the intruder theory is that an intruder could have been hiding in the house for hours and written the ransom note while alone in the house. (The Ramseys did not have all of their doors locked when they were away and when they were at home.) But no one can seem to explain the sequence of events that led to JonBenét eating pineapple in the middle of the night shortly before she died.

Police found that there were no signs of a disturbance in JonBenét’s bedroom on the night of the crime. Investigators have different theories on how JonBenét could have gone from sleeping in her second-floor bedroom, to being murdered, to her body being found by her father in an area of the house that’s below ground level and was known to few people outside of the Ramsey family. John, Patsy and Burke have maintained that they were asleep when the murder happened, and that they didn’t know that something had happened to JonBenét until the next morning.

People who believe the intruder theory think that the intruder used a stun gun to subdue JonBenét, because there were marks resembling a stun gun on the side of JonBenét’s face and on her back. People who believe that John, Patsy and/or Burke were involved think that JonBenét likely went down to the kitchen for her pineapple meal voluntarily, and something happened that caused her violent death. The marks on her face and back also matched a detached section of a toy train track owned by Burke, according several news reports with details of what the police found at the crime scene.

The documentary also mentions that Smit was able to show in video evidence that an intruder could have easily entered and left the side window to the room where JonBenét’s body was found. Smit demonstrated by climbing in and out of the window himself. However, what the documentary didn’t mention is that photographic evidence at the crime scene showed that after JonBenét’s body was found, an open window in that room had undisturbed dust and cobwebs on the window sill. If there was an intruder, the undisturbed dust and cobweb evidence definitely can raise doubts that someone entered or left by that window.

A neighbor reported hearing the sound of a frightened child screaming from the Ramsey house on the night of the murder. The documentary mentions that Smit found that there was a pipe in the room where JonBenét’s body was found that can carry sound from that room to outside of the house, but the sound cannot be heard on the upper floors inside the house. It fits into the theory that John, Patsy and Burke Ramsey couldn’t hear any signs of distress during the murder, if they were asleep in their bedrooms as they claimed.

However, the documentary doesn’t question the other side of this belief: If a kidnapped child was crying out that loudly inside the house while being murdered, how did the killer know that other people in the house wouldn’t be able to hear those noises? Furthermore, several people in the documentary describe JonBenét’s murder as slow and tortuous. And yet, it’s never explained why a kidnapper/intruder would feel comfortable murdering a screaming child in her own home, in a slow and tortuous way, without any fear of being caught by other people in the house. Wouldn’t a scared intruder kill her quickly instead of slowly torturing her?

The documentary mentions the biggest evidence to support the intruder theory: unknown male DNA was found in JonBenét’s underwear and on her longjohns that she was wearing when her body was found. All of the Ramseys’ DNA did not match this unknown DNA. What the documentary didn’t mention is that police have not ruled out that this DNA could have been touch DNA, which is DNA that could have gotten there if a man, such as a store employee or factory worker, had contact with this item of clothing before it was packaged. Because John Ramsey got to JonBenét’s body before the police did, and he carried her body to another location in the house, his DNA was all over critical areas, so it did not prove either way if he killed her or not.

Because this documentary seems to have been made to convince people that the intruder theory is the only correct theory and that Smit should get the most credit for this theory, it’s an echo chamber of people who essentially agree. In addition to John Bennett Ramsey, the documentary has interviews with John Andrew Ramsey (JonBenét’s oldest brother, from John Bennett Ramsey’s first marriage); Smit’s daughter Cindy Marra; Smit’s son Mark Smit; and Smit’s attorney Greg Walta. Also interviewed are investigative journalist/author Paula Woodward, who covered the JonBenét murder case from the beginning; John Anderson, a retired sheriff of Colorado’s El Paso County; and Ramsey Family private investigator John San Agustin, a former El Paso County Sheriff’s Office commander.

The beginning of the documentary lists Smit’s impressive work credentials, including his role in helping solve the 1991 murder of 13-year-old Heather Dawn Church of Black Forest, Colorado, as if it’s proof that he could never be wrong. He spent more than 20 years working for the Colorado Springs Police Department, in addition to experience working in a coroner’s office and as an investigator for district attorneys. He later became a private investigator who refused any payment and gifts for working on the Ramsey case. John Bennett Ramsey says in the documentary that Smit even refused his offer to buy ice cream for Smit.

And yet for all this investigator experience, Smit is heard on audio saying about the Ramsey case: “I don’t think this ransom note was written by the parents. Look at all the references to death and dying.” It’s as if Smit believes that “good” parents aren’t capable of talking about their children dying. That’s Smit’s opinion, but this opinion shouldn’t be used as proof of the parents’ guilt or innocence in this case.

In another audio clip, Smit says the Ramseys should be ruled out as suspects for this reason: “There’s no bad character with the Ramseys.” Just because someone doesn’t have an arrest record or seems to have a “nice” personality isn’t proof that someone can’t commit murder. It’s an appallingly bad assumption for a murder investigator to have, because it’s based on opinion and bias, not evidence.

This documentary makes it clear that Smit had it stuck in his head that the Ramseys (who were millionaires at the time) couldn’t possibly be involved in this heinous crime. And there’s nothing wrong with believing in “innocent until proven guilty.” But time and again, in audio tapes played in the documentary, Smit makes telling comments that show a conscious or unconscious bias that appears to be based on the Ramsey’s social class. He says he thinks that the Ramseys are too “nice” or “not the kind of people” to be involved in murdering a child. It’s all really code for “I don’t think people in this income bracket should be considered likely suspects.”

One of the most noticeable flaws in this documentary is that it doesn’t offer anything substantial about what kind of person would commit this crime. If the killer was an intruder, then who else had access and intimate knowledge of the Ramseys’ home and sleeping habits to get away with this crime so easily? None of that is mentioned in the documentary, even though Smit and other investigators surely developed profiles of possible suspects.

The documentary has a brief and vague mention of a large computer database of tips from the public and other information that Smit compiled. But he also complains in his audio diaries that the police didn’t follow up on the majority of this information. Smit acknowledges what has already been widely reported: The Boulder PD was fixated on proving the Ramseys guilty, while Smit was fixated on proving the Ramseys were not guilty. The clashes were inevitable, but they show flaws and narrow-mindedness on both sides.

In 1999, a Boulder grand jury indicted John and Patsy Ramsey on two counts of child abuse related to JonBenét’s murder. However, then-Boulder D.A. Alex Hunter declined to prosecute John and Patsy Ramsey, based on lack of evidence. This secret grand jury decision wasn’t made public until 2013. John Bennett Ramsey, who gives credit to Smit for influencing Hunter to make this decision, comments in the documentary that Smit “saved our lives.”

JonBenét’s father doesn’t say anything in the documentary that he hasn’t already said in other interviews. He comments that when people ask him what he would say to JonBenét, it would be this: “I’m sorry I didn’t protect you. That’s my job as a dad.”

He also defends JonBenét’s participation in beauty pageants, by saying it was JonBenét, not he or his wife Patsy, who insisted on being in these contests. John and Patsy were vilified for allowing JonBenét to dress and act like an adult in these pageants, with critics claiming it was “proof” that John and Patsy were bad parents. There has been speculation that JonBenét could have become a murder target because of her pageant activities.

We might never know why JonBenét Ramsey was killed and who murdered her. But her father says in the documentary that the “real tragedy” is that Patsy “has been maligned as awful. She was an amazing mother.” He also says that the Ramsey family and their supporters won’t give up until JonBenét’s killer is caught. Sadly, unless there is a confession backed up with proof, this is a murder that’s unlikely to be solved.

Smit’s family members seem to be carrying on his legacy by being interviewed about the case and by making public his audio and video recordings that he made about his investigation. Smit’s granddaughters Lexi Marra and Jessa Van Der Woerd (who have a JonBenét Ramsey podcast) and his daughter Cindy Marra were prominently featured in ABC’s “20/20” episode titled “The List: Who Killed JonBenét?,” which aired on January 15, 2021.

This “20/20” news report is very similar to “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” (including interviewing some of the same people), except the “20/20” report had a variety of interviewees and at least made the effort to discuss other people (besides the Ramseys) who fell under suspicion for the murder. The “20/20” news report also had more mention of Smit’s suspicions (he kept a semi-confidential list that he shared with other investigators) about who could have been the killer. Unfortunately, whatever has been reported in JonBenét Ramsey documentaries like this one just adds up to recycled information that does nothing to make a breakthrough in the case.

Discovery+ premiered “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” on January 4, 2021.