Newcomers to this blog are advised to begin with the first two posts, Just the Facts, Ma'am and Case Solved, which explain in very general terms why I believe I've solved this case. Some important questions are answered in the following post, Misunderstandings, Misconceptions, Misdirections. After that feel free to browse whatever topics might interest you (see blog archive).

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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Has the Author of the Ransom Note Been Unmasked?

In a comment dated August 30, we were directed by "Anonymous" to a web page titled Unmasking the JonBenet Ransom Note with Linguistic Analysis. The author has employed computer software, based on the science of "stylometry," to identify the writer of the Ramsey ransom note -- and lo and behold, as you might expect, the culprit turns out to be everyone's favorite villain: Patsy Ramsey.


I've already had occasion to deal with an online claim that Patsy "must have" written the note, based on something called "statement analysis." The findings presented on that website were easy to debunk, since the author was focused on Patsy and only Patsy, cherry picking certain words or phrases of hers that were, supposedly, sure "signs of deception," and ignoring the need to query other statements by other suspects, whose utterances might have been similarly questionable. Nor was it ever clear exactly why certain phrases or modes of expression were necessarily deceptive, outside the author's own personal notion of how a guilty person would express himself. This sort of thing is confirmation bias writ large and can easily be dismissed.

But this new finding, posted by a very interesting, intelligent and well-informed fellow named Tom Berger, is something else entirely. Berger's finding was based on a computer program called Jstylo, developed at Drexel University specifically for the purpose of identifying the authors of anonymous texts, using algorithmic methods based strictly on statistical analysis, with no room for the sort of subjective judgments we've seen so often coming from people claiming to have solved this case. Berger entered statements and documents produced by both Patsy and John Ramsey into the Jstylo program, along with a large set of documents from the "Enron Email Corpus," a large body of texts dating from the Enron scandal, now archived at Carnegie Mellon University for use as a reference text for research purposes. The Enron texts, along with a few others selected by Berger, function as what he called "placebos," i.e., controls to provide a sufficiently large body of documents for the software to sift through.The Ramsey ransom note was entered as the unknown text, to be compared with all the others in the search for the closest match, stylistically.

According to Berger, the software "took the ransom note and asked--which text does this ransom note look most like? Result--Patsy Ramsey at 75%. I ran it again with different emails and text, and then different data mining algorithms, same result." Berger then goes on to quote from one of Patsy's Christmas messages included in his sample: "Had there been no birth of Christ, there would be no hope of eternal life, and, hence, no hope of ever being with our loved ones again," observing that "the ransom note also has the same unusual and grammatically incorrect "and hence" which looks highly suspicious, but once the software runs, it creates much more than this--Wordprint creates 800 variables per text, creating sliding window analysis and a broad range of things that are tested."

Naturally my eyebrows went up when I read that conclusion. Unlike so many dubious efforts to "prove" that Patsy wrote the ransom note, based largely on confirmation bias, this result looked solid. The computer can't be accused of bias, and the method employed by this software is supported by years of serious linguistic research.

Now anyone familiar with this blog realizes that, for me, the notion that Patsy wrote the ransom note makes no sense, and anyone who insists she wrote it has to be mistaken. Not a popular view, admittedly. My analysis is not based on a close examination of the note itself, either from a handwriting or a content perspective, because as I see it, such efforts can never be conclusive, but on a very different approach, based primarily on a careful consideration of both the facts and the logic of the case, too often ignored during the course of the investigation.

So! In all the years I've followed this case, I've never encountered what I would regard as a definitive challenge to my interpretation -- until now. If in fact this software is truly accurate in matching an unknown text to its author, then it looks very much as though Patsy has, for the first time, been conclusively identified as the author of the notorious ransom note -- and the case, finally, has been solved.

Or has it? Obviously, the next thing to do was get hold of Jstylo myself, and do some testing of my own, to learn more about what Berger's results actually meant and make sure they could be replicated. I went to the Jstylo website, downloaded the software, figured out, after a bit of a struggle, how to get it running (it's a Java-based program, which makes things a bit tricky) and entered some samples of my own from both Patsy and John -- only mine were different from the ones Berger used, and I was wondering if different exemplars might produce a different result.

One cause of skepticism was his use of the Christmas message with the notorious "and hence," usually assumed to have been written by Patsy, but actually composed by both Patsy and John. As reported in my blog post Johnisms, John actually uttered that phrase during an interview originally posted at the "Newseum" website. I've never been able to find a single instance of Patsy using "and hence" in any interview, letter, or other document known to have been produced by her. In fact the phrase is much more John's style, which tends to be rather formal, than Patsy's, which is often rather breezy, mostly informal and generally much more colloquial than John's rather stilted language.

If we can assume, and I think we can, that the "and hence" in the Christmas message emanated from John, then we can also assume that many other things in that message might also have originated with him. Yet Berger included this text in his Patsy sample. Would the results look different if it were removed? I compiled samples of my own from Patsy and John's police interviews, as well as some other texts, both spoken and written, and entered them into the appropriate slots in Jstylo. I also included some other items, such as the Leopold-Loeb ransom note, a letter by John's lawyer, Hal Haddon and Steve Thomas's rather verbose introduction to his 1997 interview with Patsy. I then proceeded to the next page in Jstylo, where I accepted certain default features, and then to the next page, where I was prompted to select a "Classifier." And at that point, the program stalled. No matter what I selected I got the same error message. The program refused to let me continue, and no matter what I did, including beefing up the Java memory heap, re-installing the software, and reverting to an earlier version, nothing worked. And nothing has worked since. Very frustrating.

Fortunately Mr. Berger has turned out to be a remarkably sympathetic and cooperative fellow and when I emailed him with a request to help me out, he more than complied. I sent him copies of my samples and asked him to enter them into Jstylo himself, which he willingly did. Shortly afterward, I received an email message reflecting his latest finding:
Don't give up your theory just yet.
I couldn't get a result.

The output has enron at 100%.

I tried various classifiers until I got to the one with the highest hit rate and least error,
and the highest Kappa value. Using that classifier, the bayesian one I have used a lot, the results were enron.
There's a lot more to the story, as you might imagine, which I'll try to summarize in my next post.

To be continued . . . 

22 comments:

  1. I heard him say "and hence" in an interview and that has always stuck in my mind. Fascinating!

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  2. I wouldn't put it past Enron. Lots of shady characters in that organization. They didn't care who got hurt in their pursuit of money.

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  3. Enron? How would they know jr ? Why would they commit this crime?

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    1. I'm assuming that's intended as a joke. Though you never know. :-)

      What it tells me is that the Jstylo program may not be what it's cracked up to be. A different set of inputs from the same people should produce the same result. Instead it zeroed in on someone who once worked for Enron, whose linguistic preferences were apparently similar, in some way, to the ransom note.

      And this seems to be at least part of the problem. But I don't want to be getting ahead of myself . . . More on this issue in my next post.

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  4. I saw a video recently where he actually used the words, "and hence". He caught himself and kind of lost track of what he was talking about for a moment. Anyone know where I can find that interview? I didn't pay attention but it really spoke volumes.

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    1. You can find a transcript here: http://www.forumsforjustice.org/forums/showthread.php?10314-Newseum-Ramsey-Interview-(J-and-P-interview-transcripts-from-Journalism-Class-visit)

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  5. I keep thinking about the interview John gave where he said that the BPD tried to blackmail him and Patsy by not turning over JBP's body to them to take to Atlanta. And he used the language like "tried to deny us proper burial" - same language as in the RN!

    And did anyone else see the interview with Anderson Cooper where John is asked if John still thinks about it all the time and his reply is: "Not all the time. No, it, you've got to move on with your life. Every now and then something stimulates my thoughts and you go back to it." Seriously?!! Every now and then? If I lost a child to a savage murderer, there would not be one day I would not wake up and think about them. You know Patsy thought of her daughter every day of her short time left on earth. KDinVA

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  6. I recently heard a man use the phrase "fat cat". It was someone completely unrelated to the crime/investigation. I found it odd because I always felt that was something a woman would say. It doesn't matter though. Even if John DID write it, Patsy could have helped come up with the wording. They probably came up with the wording together and John wrote it. Why does it have to be one or the other who wrote it? The wording is a mix of male and female influence.

    Really, the ransom note leaves little room for the family to get JBR back. Patsy completely disregarded the multiple warnings in the letter and did NOT notify 911 that the letter stated to NOT call authorities. She completely left that part out of the call. I think someone normal in that situation would explain to 911 that they found a note and it said to not call authorities or their daughter will be killed, but they don't know what else to do and they are scared so they felt it best to call 911. A normal person would also probably tell 911 about the ransom note warnings so that the cops could park away from the home or so they could not come to the house all together in the event that the kidnappers who were watching the home. Didn't the note say that authorities were "under constant scruteny"? Patsy calling 911 would mean numerous cop cars would in minutes be swarming around their home. Exactly what the note said NOT to do.

    They both knew JBR was dead and knew calling the cops wouldn't matter. Neither Patsy nor John made any kind of comment when the ransom call didn't arrive. They KNEW their daughter was dead.

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    1. I try very hard not to make assumptions, especially when they reflect my own personal feeling about what a certain person or persons might do under certain circumstances. I just don't see this sort of thing as a reliable method for dealing with a case such as this.

      You seem to be forgetting that, if the note said NOT to do something, and Patsy was involved in the writing of that note, then why would she then decide to go against the warnings she herself placed in that note? Just because she did something you disapprove of is neither here nor there.

      I go by the logic of the case and as I see it, Patsy calling 911 while staging a kidnapping and knowing that JBR's body is still in the house, that just makes no sense at all. Would I have called 911 under those circumstances? I really can't say. And neither can you-- until you've been in that sort of situation yourself.

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    2. If she was involved in writing the note, which stated numerous times to not call the police, her reasoning for calling the police was because she came up with the excuse that she didn't read the entire note. She and John might have argued over staging or timing on when to call the police. We don't know and never will. But a lot doesn't make sense. She didn't read the entire note and/or neither did John? John had no involvement in the 911 call? Was he notified or did she just make the call all on her own when he was out of the room? Soo much information is missing. The 911 call is crucial. Crucial. And we do not know one thing about it from their perspective except that Patsy claimed she found the note on the stairs, read some of it, then immediately called 911.

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    3. No, we don't know what transpired between them prior to the call. What we do know, however, is the fact that there are at least two conflicting versions of what happened, which tells us that the generally accepted story that he told her to make the call is questionable.

      The next step comes when we ask ourselves why two people conspiring to stage a kidnapping would want to call the police while the body of their victim is still in their house? Especially when the threats in the note they've produced give them an excellent reason not to call until they've managed to get said body out of the house. Well, of course, they wouldn't.

      So: 1. they could not have been in it together. One must be innocent and the other guilty. Assuming of course that there was no intruder.

      2. Patsy is the one who made the call. THAT we do know -- for sure.

      3. If Patsy is guilty then why would she meekly go along with John's request for HER to make that call? That's the last thing she would have wanted to do. And if she balked at his request, as she certainly would have, there was nothing in the world to prevent him from picking up the phone and making the call himself.

      So yes. Combining the facts with the logic of the case, we CAN reconstruct what happened -- and why.

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    4. Perhaps Patty made the 911 call before the note was written, before she realized what had happened to JBR....Maybe JR already knew what had happened and that JBR's body was already in the basement and was JR was planning on using the suitcase to conceal the body and get it out of the house....who knows if Burke attacked her or was assualting her in the basement near the train room and that's how the marks that looked like dots got on her body...anyway one thing lead to another and before JR could finish staging Patty called 911....when they both realized what this would mean for them and for Burke, John dictated the note to PR and they concocted the rest of the story including calling friends over to contaminate the scene. Maybe JR walked in on BR and JBR saw that JB was hit in the head and then used the rope as part of the staging.

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  7. Also, was it ever determined where John was when Patsy was making the 911 call? Was he in the room with her? Because if he were, why was he not yelling at her to not call the authorities because JBR could be killed if they did? How come this never was addressed thoroughly by jounrnalists/detectives/police? The ransom note put the authorities in the hot seat, since the ransom note writer claimed they were being scrutinized. Responsibility was shifted from Patsy and John to the police. If the police make a wrong move, JBR gets killed. Wouldn't the police be kind of upset that they were not notified from the getgo about the ransom note warnings? They could have handled things over the phone. They could have sent someone in disguise to the home. Nope. Patsy ruined it all and nothing was mentioned of it. Not a big deal. Oh well, the house is full of friends and the police even though the note said not to call anyone or JBR dies and yet they (friends/police/detectives) are all hanging out in the home as if no warning was ever given. Very ODD!

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    1. Very good points. Minnesota Linda

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    2. What you've said is one good reason to wonder why John didn't make the call himself, since he must have known Patsy was hysterical and might neglect to warn the police NOT to appear in squad cars and uniforms.
      It seems clear to me that he didn't make the call because he didn't want it made.

      And no it wasn't determined where John was because all we have to go on is their testimony, which is contradictory. See the third post on this blog.

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    1. Hello, Troy. If you read this post and the one following you'll see some of the problems associated with this type of author attribution, especially where certain key samples are small. If we eliminate external elements from the ransom note, we come up with only 304 words, which, from a statistical standpoint mean little. Also as I noted above, the 1997 Christmas message may well be by John and not Patsy, so including it in your Patsy sample would obviously be a problem. You'll note that it contains the phrase "we, as a family." I've traced that phrase to two statements by John and haven't found any example by Patsy. Same with "and hence," which was pronounce by John in any interview, but never by Patsy, to my knowledge. The fact that you find something meaningful in the fact that both the ransom note and the Xmas message look forward to 1997 and contain the word "see" or "seeing" strikes me as a clear case of confirmation bias. You are obviously looking for anything you can find to tie Patsy to the ransom note. That sort of finding striked me as the mark of an amateur, not a serious researcher. I'd advise you to stick with statistics -- based on the law of large numbers.

      If you read the following blog post, by the way, you'll see that the Jstylo software, which I presume uses methods very similar to your own, was unable to match two different samples from the same person, i.e., Patsy. REsearch of this kind is potentially very valuable, but it must first be replicated under stringent conditions before it can be taken seriously.

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    2. P.S. I was unable to find any reference to the Ramsey case on your (very interesting) blog. If you can share with me your samplings of Patsy's and John's writings or utterances I'd appreciate it. Also I'd be very interested in working with the software you've been using, assuming it's in a relatively non-technical format (I'm not a statistician).

      I'm sorry if I came down hard on you, but I get very tired of seeing all the many "proofs" that Patsy wrote the ransom note, based on a wide variety of unproven and in many cases untested methods. If you read much in this blog you'll learn why she could not have written it. Any more than St. John could have written the Song of Solomon -- regardless of what some statistics might tell you.

      And just because two texts use the same "function word" in similar proportions does not necessarily mean they were written by the same person. That neverthless remains to be established.

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  9. To me it's the pineapple. Who does a little girl sit with in her kitchen in the middle of the night and eat pineapple with ?

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    1. Who's to say it wasn't Burke, who had snuck down to play with his Christmas gift? Minnesota Linda

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