BOULDER, Colo. -- Whoever killed JonBenet Ramsey, the 6-year-old beauty queen found beaten and strangled in her home here nearly three years ago, has escaped for now: A grand jury investigating the case concluded its work yesterday without any charges being filed in the killing.
Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter, among several officials here who have been criticized for failing to solve the case, called a quick news conference yesterday afternoon after the 12-member jury that had been meeting for 13 months decided to disband with no action taken.
"The Boulder grand jury has completed its work and will not return. No charges have been filed," said Hunter, standing across the street from the Boulder County Justice Center, as scores of reporters and more than a few curiosity seekers clustered around him.
"I must report to you that I and my prosecution task force believe we do not have sufficient evidence to warrant the filing of charges against anyone who has been investigated at the present time."
Primary among those investigated have been JonBenet's parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, who called police on Dec. 26, 1996, saying that their daughter was missing from her bedroom and that they had found a ransom note demanding $118,000 for her return.
Later that afternoon, as police waited in the house for the alleged kidnapper to call, John Ramsey was told to continue searching the house -- contrary to accepted police procedures -- and ran up from the basement with the lifeless body of his daughter.
An autopsy concluded that JonBenet had suffered a skull fracture, had been strangled and beaten, and might have been sexually assaulted.
The Ramseys, who now live in suburban Atlanta, have repeatedly denied any involvement in the crime. They offered a $100,000 reward and hired a team of attorneys to deal with investigators.
"We take no satisfaction in this result because a child killer remains free and undetected," the Ramseys said in a statement yesterday. "The Ramsey family lives in a nightmare. There has been no end to the public lynching and speculation which marred this case from the beginning."
The family asked that the investigation continue.
Yesterday, Hunter declined to take questions and said he will hold a news conference today.
Some legal analysts speculate that the grand jury could have found probable cause to warrant criminal charges, but unless the district attorney signs the true bill, there is no indictment.
"What's interesting is that today there was no discussion by Alex [Hunter] of what the grand jury did," CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen said. "That is the big gap in the story.
"We only have a statement of the DA [prosecutor]. We understand what he decided, not what the grand jury did."
"There are so many unanswered questions," said another Denver-based legal analyst, Craig Silverman, among Hunter's harshest critics.
"We don't know what standard of proof the grand jury was asked to use in deciding whether to indict. Probable cause? Proof beyond a reasonable doubt? Proof beyond Alex Hunter's reasonable doubt?" he said.
While the grand jury only needed to find probable cause to charge anyone, Silverman said he is concerned that the jurors might have been used to rubber-stamp what the district attorney has wanted to do all along.
"Alex Hunter has always had trouble making decisions in murder cases," Silverman said. "He has been on a nonstop public relations mission to buttress his decision not to charge anybody. He has surrounded himself with political allies and now a grand jury to support his decision."
Almost immediately, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens said he will review the case and decide whether to appoint a special prosecutor.
"While I am not presently in a position to comment on the work of this grand jury, I do know one fact: A little girl was brutally murdered in Boulder, Colo., and the killer or killers remain free today," he said.
Yesterday's announcement was met with a range of reactions from Boulder residents, who since the killing have seen their town dragged through the tabloids: sadness that a little girl's killer has to date gotten away with killing her, cynicism at the legal system, anger at what many have considered a case that was mishandled from the start. One reaction missing, however, was surprise: After three years in which the killer has eluded justice, some asked why should that change now?
"STUMPED," blared the headline of an extra edition of the Boulder Camera newspaper shortly after the grand jury's decision.
Though the police, the district attorney and the grand jury investigation have not produced an arrest, many have no doubt who killed JonBenet.
"I think it's totally ridiculous. I think there was enough evidence to lead to charges. It's the parents, Patsy," said Annie Raykov, 21, a University of Colorado student who grew up here. "Everyone thinks this is this perfect little town. I think this town is built on money, and it's really corrupt. Nothing here ever gets solved."
Raykov and her friend Lindsay Porzak, also 21 and a Boulder resident who attends the university, stopped by the news conference to hear for themselves the outcome of the investigation.
"You kind of figured they weren't going to do anything anyway," Porzak said with a disgusted shake of her head.
The killing of the child drew international attention. The prominence of the family -- John Ramsey, the millionaire president of Access Graphics, and Patsy, a former Miss West Virginia -- ensured coverage. JonBenet's face became famous worldwide as television stations repeatedly aired footage of her as a heavily made-up and costumed pageant queen.
The case took its toll on Boulder. Taxpayers have paid nearly $2 million for the investigation. As the pressure to solve the case mounted, the police chief resigned, as did several investigators. The police and the district attorney's office were often at odds, and a variety of lawsuits -- including one by a newspaper against one of its reporters -- were filed in relation to the case.
Web sites, such as one maintained by Sue Bennett, 47, a housewife in North Carolina, scrutinized every rumor and theory and launched their own investigations. Bennett, who believed John and Patsy Ramsey were innocent, greeted yesterday's news with joy.
"The evidence isn't there. I have been saying that all along," she said.