A HAUNTING phone call made by a convicted pedophile hours before the news of JonBenét Ramsey’s murder would make headlines across the country is the key to finally solving the infamous cold case, claims the man who received the call.
Michael Vail, now 60, was relaxing in his living room late on December 26, 1996, watching television under the warm glow of his Christmas tree lights when suddenly the phone rang sometime around midnight.
Startled by the sound of the ringing, he apprehensively lifted the receiver to hear a familiar yet distressed-sounding voice greeting him on the other end of the line.
It was his old high school classmate, Gary Oliva, who, through sharp and panicked exhales of breath, gasped out the words: “I…hurt…a…little…girl!”
“Holy s**t,” responded Vail, who hadn’t heard from Oliva in several years. “What do you mean? Where are you,” he pried.
While struggling to catch his breath, Oliva apparently informed Vail he was calling from a payphone in Boulder, where he had been living on a ranch.
Vail tried to push him for more information, asking for his phone number, the address of the ranch, or the name of someone he was staying with.
But Oliva hung up the phone, leaving Vail alone with his thoughts as he attempted to make sense of the conversation he’d just shared.
“It was a very disturbing phone call,” Oliva told The U.S. Sun during a sit-down interview inside his home.
“I couldn’t make sense of it […] I don’t know how the hell I got any sleep that night.
This story is the first in an upcoming series investigating Gary Oliva’s potential ties to the murder of JonBenét Ramsey.
“But then I got up in the morning, around 7am, stepped out onto my front porch to pick up the L.A. Times […] and there it was right on the page, ‘Girl, 6, found slain in Boulder, Colorado.'”
In the early morning hours of Dec. 26, 1996, six-year-old pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey was reported missing from her family’s ritzy Boulder, CO, home.
Her parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, had put her to bed late the night prior and awoken to find the girl missing from her bed and a three-page ransom note at the foot of a staircase close to her room.
The bizarre note, which was addressed to John, said the girl had been taken and her abductors demanded $118,000 in cash in exchange for her safe return.
What began as a suspected kidnapping case would soon evolve into a murder investigation when JonBenét’s body was discovered by John in the basement of the home later that day.
Found wrapped in a white blanket, JonBenét had been strangled with a garrotte fashioned from white rope and a broken paintbrush handle taken from a box of Patsy’s art supplies.
Her wrists were tied and black duct tape covered her mouth, while her favorite Barbie nightgown lay on the concrete floor nearby.
There was also a fracture to her skull, and her cause of death was ruled asphyxiation and blunt trauma to the head. There were also signs of sexual assault.
As Vail read about the early details of the case in the L.A. Times that morning he stood rooted to the spot, a sharp chill running up his spine.
He immediately informed his wife of the disturbing call he’d received from Oliva the night before and then dialed the number for the Boulder Police Department’s tip line that was printed at the foot of the article.
“I called that number as fast as I could and reported it right away,” he said.
“I told them, ‘Hey. This guy called me and told me he’d hurt a little girl in Boulder’ and then told them everything I know.
“And then I sat back and waited, thinking I’ll soon be reading in the newspaper that Gary had been arrested.
“But day after day went by and I was like, ‘Why hasn’t Gary been arrested yet?'”
MEETING ‘SCARY GARY’
Vail met Oliva at the small high school they attended together in Irvine, California.
He said he never considered Oliva – who was often referred to by the nickname “Scary Gary” – to be one of his friends, though he did latch onto Vail’s friendship group, which was mostly comprised of artists, musicians, and creatives.
“Well, I hate to use the word friends because when you’re in a small school, maybe 75-100 kids, you pretty much know everybody and you get into your little cliques, right?
“But Gary is what I would call an orbiter. He would orbit around our group and people would call him Scary Gary because he was so unpredictable. He was a very disturbed kid.
“Sometimes he’d have a spasm and start burning his arm with something, or just go running screaming down the street.
“He also used to joke about necrophilia and stuff […] he would commit all these petty crimes like breaking and entering and he’d always steal weird things like art supplies.
“He just had a very messed up, dysfunctional childhood. One of the worst you can imagine […] but I had a fantastic childhood, so I think that’s why he gravitated towards me because he was seeking out some sense of normalcy.”
After leaving high school, Vail went off and got married and had a child. Before long, he says he started receiving mail from Oliva with a return address in Oregon.
Over the next 16 years or so the two men exchanged letters back and forth.
In the beginning, the notes consisted of typical correspondences, catching one another up on the latest ongoings in their lives.
But as the years went on, the content of Oliva’s letters grew stranger and more disturbing, according to Vail.
Sometimes he would send cassette tapes filled with odd, rambling monologues about blood and murder. Other times, Oliva would send him a poster of a missing girl in a different state along with a lock of hair.
Unbeknown to Vail at the time, in the years preceding the call he received on Dec. 26, 1996, Oliva had committed a string of crimes, one of which – like the death of JonBenét – involved strangulation.
In May 1991, Oliva was arrested after attempting to strangle his mother with a telephone cord in Pass, Oregon.
At the time of the incident, Oliva was serving three-years probation for molesting a seven-year-old girl in 1990.
According to police records obtained by The U.S. Sun, during the course of the attack, Oliva threatened his mom, warning: “‘I should have killed you a long time ago.”
He also stated: “When the sheriff arrives, they will find you dead.”
“Oliva removed a butcher knife from the drawer and had it in his possession,” reads the report. “Oliva also pulled a telephone cord loose from a telephone and wrapped it around his mother’s neck and began tightening it.”
Oliva fled the scene before police arrived but was later apprehended and jailed for 17 months.
Still, Oliva continued to write Vail.
It was only after the murder of JonBenét that all correspondence ceased for a time.
After reporting Oliva’s call to Boulder PD (BPD) on December 27, 1996, Michael Vail waited patiently for an update from investigators.
However, three months would pass and, still, the phone didn’t ring.
Taking matters into his own hands, Vail once again called BPD to report Oliva’s call for a second time.
“I said, ‘Hey, I need to talk to you guys because I’m wondering why haven’t you arrested Gary yet?’ And they just put me through to a recorded line and I left a message but, again, nothing happened.
“I was just baffled. How can this guy call me and tell me he’s hurt a little girl before it’s even in the newspaper and the police don’t do anything?
“I always just assumed the police knew what the f**k they were doing.
“But there’s no understanding not following up on that lead. I was convinced Gary did it because never in my life have I heard a grown man sobbing like that – ever.
“I wasn’t there, obviously, but I have my theories as to what happened.”
I was just baffled. How can this guy call me and tell me he’s hurt a little girl before it’s even in the newspaper and the police don’t do anything?
At the time of Vail’s second call to BPD, Patsy and John Ramsey had already been designated the key persons of interest in the case by investigators.
Vail wouldn’t hear from investigators until 2002 when the District Attorney took a fresh look over the case.
In a previous interview with The U.S. Sun, John Ramsey said BPD’s “incompetent” investigators were so fixated on him and Patsy being responsible for JonBenét’s death that they overlooked glaring leads and potentially vital pieces of evidence in the immediate aftermath of her death.
John and Patsy were eventually exonerated of any wrongdoing in 2008 thanks to DNA evidence.
OLIVA NAMED KEY SUSPECT
The couple long maintained an intruder had broken into their home and killed the beauty queen in a kidnapping gone wrong.
The theory was championed by veteran Colorado detective Lou Smit, who came out of retirement to investigate the case for the District Attorney’s office in early 1997.
Smit, after a week of working on the case, came to the conclusion that the Ramseys were innocent and an unknown assailant had broken into the home, likely while they were out celebrating on Christmas Day.
In the years that followed, Smit compiled a huge database of evidence, potential suspects, and other information, seeking to identify the apparent intruder.
Named high on Smit’s list was Oliva, who was living at an address near the Ramsey home at the time of the murder and also attended a candlelight vigil after her death.
Evidencing his belief, Smit pointed to Oliva’s arrest on December 12, 2000, on the University of Colorado campus on charges of criminal trespass, drug possession, and possession of a weapon by a prior criminal offender.
At the time of his arrest, Oliva was found with a stun gun in his possession, in addition to a photograph of JonBenét and a poem he’d written about her, titled “Ode to JonBenét.”
The discovery of the stun gun was a particularly interesting development for Smit, who had long theorized a stun gun was used on JonBenét to subdue her in the moments before her death.
Smith told CBS’ 48 Hours in 2002 that Oliva may have been a part of a group of several men that broke into the Ramsey home.
John Ramsey told The U.S. Sun he believes his family was being watched for several weeks or even months before JonBenét’s murder, suggesting also that the culprit – or culprits – had been in or broken into the home previously.
Describing Oliva as a “creeper” with an apparent penchant for breaking and entering, Vail believes his former classmate – who was staying 13 houses away at the time – may have crossed paths with JonBenét at some stage and developed a fascination with her.
“Gary’s proximity to the Ramseys is one of the things that most alarms me. Where he was getting his mail, 13 houses away, was accessible via an alleyway that also ran behind the Ramsey home.
“I can’t imagine he hadn’t seen JonBenét […] And since I know Gary used to creep into homes and buildings and steal art supplies, I think he could’ve been inside that house numerous times.
“He was a creeper and expert at sneaking in and doing things without anyone ever knowing he was there.”
After his arrest in 2000, Boulder PD took Oliva’s DNA which was not found to be a match for the traces of unknown male DNA found on JonBenét’s clothes and under her fingernails.
However, very little DNA exists in the case. Over the years, BPD has been accused of failing to properly secure the crime scene after JonBenét was found dead, which destroyed or contaminated potentially crucial DNA evidence in the process.
Oliva has never been charged in connection with the case.
He was arrested in 2016 for child pornography possession and sentenced to 10 years behind bars.
Police accused Oliva in an affidavit of uploading images of prepubescent girls – one believed to be between the age of 4 and 7 – to his Gmail account.
In total, he uploaded 10 files that included 22 different sexually explicit images of children to the account using a public WiFi connection from various IP addresses across Boulder.
Oliva was also found to have hundreds of photos of JonBenét on his cellphone when it was seized by cops, according to the affidavit.
Vail – determined to get to the bottom of the odd phone call from 20 years prior – reached out to Oliva at Limon Correctional Facility, in Colorado, a short while later in an attempt to illicit a confession from him.
I never loved anyone like I did JonBenét and yet I let her slip and her head bashed in half and I watched her die.
In the years since, Vail says Oliva has confessed to carrying out JonBenét’s murder “countless” times throughout the hundreds of letters he’s sent him.
In one of the letters, which Vail shared with The U.S. Sun, Oliva wrote: “I never loved anyone like I did JonBenét and yet I let her slip and her head bashed in half and I watched her die. It was an accident. Please believe me. She was not like the other kids.”
In other, he claimed: “JonBenét completely changed me and removed all evil from me. Just one look at her beautiful face, her glowing beautiful skin, and her divine God-body, I realized I was wrong to kill other kids. Yet by accident, she died and it was my fault.”
In other letters penned by Oliva, the sexual predator claims to have a “disorder” for killing children.
“Please don’t hate me. I’m sorry I turned scumb [sic] but even when you first met me I told you how I wanted to kill children.
“When I met JonBenét she took away that horrible craving to kill kids that you know me for.
“She changed me into a new person. But it’s okay. I’ve killed so many children I’ve lost track.”
Vail forwarded Oliva’s apparent confessions to BPD in 2019. The letters were first published by DailyMailTV.
In a statement at the time, a spokesperson for the department said: “The Boulder Police Department is aware of Mr. Oliva and has investigated his potential involvement in this case, including several previous confessions.”
The department went on to state that they “routinely receive information” on the Ramsey investigation and that information “is reviewed along with other tips and theories.”
The department refused to comment further, citing an active and ongoing investigation.
The lack of progress in the case after almost 27 years weighs heavy on Vail, who says he’s convinced that Oliva was in some way involved in the killing of JonBenét.
“I wouldn’t be talking about this right now if I hadn’t got that phone call,” he said.
“That damn phone call convinces me that Gary’s involved. I got a phone call six hours before it was in the newspaper from someone in Boulder 13 houses away, telling me they’d hurt a little girl.
“I didn’t want to be involved with this s**t but Gary pulled me in.
“It’s been a really stressful part of my life and it’s really affected me.
“The emotional burden of this all has been like carrying a backpack of rocks. I feel like the moment I received the phone call I was robbed of my innocence.
“And Gary needs to stay in jail […] society would not be safe with him out. Period.
“He’s a menace to society.”
Oliva is due to be released in 2025.