Could the same person who murdered JonBenét Ramsey in 1996 have murdered two other girls in Colorado and Hawaii? That’s one theory retired police investigator James Benish has suggested in A&E’s “Hunting JonBenét’s Killer: The Untold Story,” regarding a possible link to the murders of Tracy Marie Neef in 1984 and Aleisea “Lacey” Woolsey Ruff in 1993. Benish is the author of the book Closed Eyes: Who’s Killing Our Children?
Benish suspects that there may be a connection between Lacey’s murder in Hawaii and the Colorado murders of Tracy and JonBenét. Here, we break down the basic facts of each case and why Benish thinks they may be connected.
Victim 1: Tracy Marie Neef
Hometown: Thornton, Colorado
Age: 7 years old
Location of body: In the foothills of the Rocky Mountains near Boulder, Colorado
Cause of death: Asphyxiation
Case status: Open
Circumstances of death: On March 16, 1984, Susan Neef dropped her daughter Tracy off at her school in Thornton and watched her enter the chain-link fence surrounding the building. At some point between the fence and the school doors, a person abducted Tracy. Later that day, a couple discovered the girl’s body lying 30 feet from a road near Boulder. There was evidence of sexual assault, and she had marks on her wrists indicating someone had tied her with a rope or cord. Her school supplies were scattered near her body and her backpack was found about 100 feet away.
Suspects and convictions: Police ruled out all of the school’s employees as suspects, and no one was ever convicted for Tracy’s abduction and murder. A coroner discovered two hairs on Tracy’s body that could have come from her murderer; but because handlers later lost one hair and contaminated the other, investigators can no longer test them for a DNA match.
Benish learned that five years after Tracy’s death, Aaron Schonlau, who lived two blocks from Tracy’s school, was charged with sexual assaulting a minor, but that the person now says Schonlau’s relative was the person who actually assaulted her.
Possible connection to other murders: Benish suggests Tracy’s murder may be linked to the unsolved murder of JonBenét Ramsey that took place about 25 miles from Tracy’s school, as well as the murder of Aleisea “Lacey” Woolsey Ruff in Hawaii. All three victims were girls between the ages of four and seven who were sexually assaulted and asphyxiated by strangulation or suffocation.
Victim 2: Aleisea ‘Lacey’ Woolsey Ruff
Hometown: Anini Beach in Kauai, Hawaii
Age: 4 years old
Location of body: Underwater, about 300 feet from the shore of Anini Beach
Cause of death: Asphyxiation and drowning
Case status: Closed, but prosecutors have considered reopening the case
Circumstances of death: On July 27, 1993, Lacey wandered off from the tent where her family was living on Anini Beach after surviving the destruction of Hurricane Iniki the year before. Police and volunteers formed a search party to look for her. Early the next morning, a fireman found her underwear near the water, and her father Timothy Woolsey swam out to find her. He says he found her about 40 feet underwater, and carried her back to the shore. The coroner reported someone had sexually assaulted Lacey and then drowned her in the ocean.
Suspects and convictions: Brothers Aaron and Todd Schonlau moved to Kauai about a week before Lacey’s murder, according to a KGMB TV news report about his arrest. Aaron had previously been in juvenile detention for sexual assault that he allegedly committed as a minor in Thornton. After Lacey’s father discovered her body, Todd called the police and said Aaron had abducted, sexually assaulted and killed Lacey. Aaron was convicted for abducting, sexually assaulting and killing Lacey, and sentenced to life in prison.
Possible connection to other murders: Benish spoke with the person Aaron had gone to juvenile detention for assaulting, and she alleged that it was actually someone else, Schonlau’s relative, who had assaulted her. Benish believes Aaron’s conviction may now be called into question, and suspects that the actual culprit may also be involved in the murders of Tracy and JonBenet.
Victim 3: JonBenét Ramsey
Hometown: Boulder, Colorado
Age: 6 years old
Location of body: The basement of her parents’ house in Boulder
Cause of death: Asphyxia by strangulation associated with craniocerebral trauma
Case status: Open
Circumstances of death: Early in the morning on December 26, 1996, JonBenét’s mother Patsy discovered a two-and-a-half-page ransom letter on the stairs claiming her daughter had been kidnapped. JonBenét wasn’t in her room, and Patsy called the police to report that her daughter had been abducted. Several hours later, after the police had unsuccessfully searched the house for JonBenét, the girl’s father John discovered her body underneath a blanket in the basement. One or more attackers had wrapped a cord around JonBenét’s neck and wrists, duct-taped her mouth, hit her on the head and sexually assaulted her. Nearby, there was a broken window and an empty suitcase beneath it.
Suspects and convictions: There have been hundreds of suspects but no convictions. Police initially suspected JonBenét’s parents and her 9-year-old brother of staging the crime. The family members remained suspects until 2008, two years after Patsy’s death, when new DNA technology facilitated the discovery of DNA on JonBenét’s body that didn’t match the family’s. Since then, investigators have focused on intruder theories. In 2006, police thought they may have finally solved the case when former teacher John Mark Karr confessed to the killing. However, the confession turned out to be false—police could not verify he was in Boulder on the night JonBenét died or match him to the DNA found on her.
Possible connection to other murders: Members of the Schonlau family lived near Tracy in Thornton when she was abducted in 1984, just as they lived near Lacey in Kauai when she was abducted in 1993. It’s not clear where they lived when JonBenét died in December 1996; but in May of that year, a male member of the family was arrested for assault and domestic violence in a county bordering Boulder County. This means he could have still been living in JonBenét’s area seven and a half months later when someone broke into her house and killed her. DNA testing is currently underway in Oregon to see if it matches the evidence found on JonBenét’s body.