In a new interview with Barbara Walters, John Ramsey, the father of JonBenet, talks about how he and his wife shielded their son, Burke, from the headlines when the boy was being publicly accused of murdering his sister.
JonBenet Ramsey, who would have been 25 this year, was just 6 when she was killed in her Boulder, Colo., home in 1996. She went missing on Christmas morning, and her parents found a ransom note, indicating she was kidnapped. A few hours later, her father found her dead in their basement. During the ensuing investigation, which played out publicly over the course of more than a decade, her parents got the majority of the attention from police and the media. But her brother, Burke, who was 9 at the time of JonBenet’s death, was also in the spotlight. For years, his name was in headlines and his photo was splashed on the covers of tabloids, along with accusations that he killed JonBenet. But the Ramseys always claimed that Burke slept through the entire gruesome incident, not waking up until after the police had arrived at their house.
None of JonBenet’s family members were ever charged, and in 2008, they were completely cleared and no longer considered suspects. The Boulder district attorney even apologized to the family. To date, no one has been charged with the little girl’s murder.
The Ramsey family in 1993. (Photo: ZUMA Press)
While John Ramsey and his wife, Patsy — who died of ovarian cancer in 2006 — have given a number of interviews over the years, Burke, who is now a 28-year-old computer software developer, has never spoken publicly.
In this Monday night’s interview on Barbara Walters Presents American Scandals, John says he and Patsy tried to keep Burke from learning that tabloids were accusing him of the violent crime. “We tried to shield him from that,” John said. “Friends would ask us, ‘What can we do to help?’ We said, ‘Next time you go in the supermarket, call the manager over when you see our child’s photo on the front cover, and ask him to remove it.’ A lot of them did that.”
But in a 2008 interview with the Daily Beast, John says his son did see at least one paper while he was at the supermarket with his mother. “The headlines from a tabloid screamed out that Burke had done it,” John told the website. “She dropped her produce and rushed Burke out, but the damage had been done.”
In that interview, John admitted that he and Patsy were especially protective of Burke after their family tragedy. “We worried. We didn’t know who was out there. Someone had killed our daughter. All we wanted to do was protect Burke and give him a normal childhood,” he said. “I don’t let anybody I don’t know get near him. If anything happened to him, I wouldn’t survive it.”
Burke Ramsey, JonBenet’s brother, in 2005. (Photo: ZUMA Press)
Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills-based child and family psychotherapist, says it was appropriate of the Ramseys to be protective of their son, who was a minor at the time of JonBenet’s murder. “Of course they would be protective, particularly when you only have one child left,” Walfish tells Yahoo Parenting. “Any child would need therapy and would likely be plagued with nightmares and fears, clingy-ness, and separation anxiety. The parents would require psychotherapy as well, in order to allow the healthy separation process to occur for the surviving child. Come college age, Burke had to move away, and he had to do it in a way that was healthy and doesn’t facilitate more guilt or suffering.”
Heidi Horsley, a New York-based psychologist and grief expert, says that the accusations against their son likely made it even harder for the Ramseys to move forward. “When parents have had a child die, they are very afraid that another one will be taken from them. They sometimes become overprotective because in their reality, children die,” Horsley tells Yahoo Parenting. “If their son is being accused of something he didn’t do and being torn apart in the media, he could end up in jail, and they could lose him too, to some extent. It’s terrifying to think, ‘I’ve lost one child — will I lose another?’”
John has confirmed to both the Daily Beast and People that he, his wife, and Burke all got therapy after JonBenet’s death. In a 2012 interview, John described Burke as a “pretty quiet” 25-year-old. “He’s certainly matured,” John told People. “He’s got a 401(k) plan and an IRA, and he did it all on his own.”
Neither Walfish nor Horsley is surprised that Burke has never spoken publicly about his sister’s death. Walfish says the young boy probably had feelings of anger and guilt, along with sorrow, about his sister’s death and the accusations made against him. “He probably thought, ‘How dare they falsely accuse me?’ Anyone who has ever been falsely accused of anything — even as small as if your brother or sister did something and Mom and Dad accidentally blamed you — understands that feeling of anger — of, ‘I didn’t do it, and there’s nothing I can do to be heard because they don’t believe me.’ That must have been horrible,” Walfish says. “I think that boy must have also felt so much guilt, even though he was innocent and did nothing. He probably felt guilty about having normal natural ambivalent sibling rivalry feelings that all of us feel toward a younger sibling.”
Horsley says Burke probably feels misunderstood, as sibling loss is often not given proper attention in the media. “There is no doubt in my mind he has suffered tremendously. His sister was supposed to be in his life for 80 to 100 percent of his life,” she says. “But when kids lose a sibling, the message they get is, ‘Be strong for your parents.’ The focus is on parents, not on siblings, so a sibling’s loss is often unacknowledged and minimized and overlooked, but it’s just as hard for them.”
We may never know what Burke has gone through in the years since his sister died. “He probably doesn’t want to talk — and good for him,” says Walfish. “He’s an adult and it should be up to him.”
But Horsley says she commends John Ramsey, who has gotten remarried since Patsy’s death, for continuing to speak publicly about his loss. “This is him saying, ‘We have nothing to hide. I have no problems talking about it, because I didn’t do anything and my son didn’t do anything,’” she says. “Society has this idea that grief begins and ends somewhere. We are not tolerant of grieving going on too long. John Ramsey is not only grieving his family, but the future he thought he was going to have. He’s saying, ‘I’ve had so many losses, I have survived, I have gone on to find hope and you can, too.’ I commend him for being out there and telling his story over and over.”
(Top photo: ZUMA Press)