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8/18/2006

John Karr: ‘I was with JonBenet when she died’

Catherine Tsai and Jon Sarche
The Associated Press

BOULDER — If John Mark Karr is telling the truth, he picked up 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey at school, took her home to drug and rape her, and then accidentally killed her nearly 10 years ago.

But schools were closed for the Christmas break when JonBenet died, and an autopsy found no evidence of drugs in the little girl’s body and was inconclusive about sexual assault. And few experts believe that a girl who was slowly strangled with a garrote was killed by accident. There are even questions whether Karr was in Colorado at the time of the slaying.

The doubts have led some to wonder whether the 41-year-old Karr is the answer to the long-unsolved slaying of the child beauty queen or a disturbed wannabe trying to insert himself into a high-profile case.

“We should all heed the poignant advice of John Ramsey,” said Boulder County District Attorney Mary Lacy, quoting the girl’s father. “Do not jump to conclusions, do not rush to judgment, do not speculate. Let the justice system take its course.”

Experts said the questions surrounding Karr’s story put more pressure on corroborating evidence such as DNA.

“They either have a miss or a match on the DNA,” former Denver prosecutor Craig Silverman said. “If it’s a miss, the prosecution has serious problems. If it’s a match, then it’s game, set and match for this case. Couple the DNA with the kooky confession and it’s enough for most people to convict.”

That confession came Thursday when the sullen Karr was paraded before a raucous crush of reporters in Bangkok, Thailand. Karr told how he loved JonBenet was with her when she died but that her death was an accident. And while vague on the details — “it would take several hours” — he answered flatly when asked if he was innocent: “No.”

“The bottom line is that they now have a confession and until and unless they can corroborate that confession with either physical evidence or strong circumstantial evidence, that’s all they have,” said Scott Robinson, a Denver attorney who has followed the case from the beginning.

Karr told investigators he drugged and sexually assaulted the little girl before accidentally killing her in her Boulder home, according to a senior Thai police officer who was briefed about the interview with U.S. authorities.

Yet JonBenet’s autopsy report found no evidence of drugs, saying her death was caused by strangulation after a beating that included a fractured skull. And while it describes vaginal injuries, it makes no conclusions about whether she was raped. Investigators later concluded there was no semen on JonBenet’s body.

According to Thai police, Karr also said he picked JonBenet up at school and took her back to her home. But the slaying came during the holiday vacation season.

Karr’s ex-wife told TV reporters she cannot defend him, then insisted he was with her in Alabama during Christmas 1996, when JonBenet’s battered body was found in the basement of her home. And authorities have not said whether Karr could have written the detailed ransom note found in the Ramsey home, with its demand for $118,000 (the bonus that had recently been awarded to the girl’s father, John Ramsey).

Even the Colorado professor who swapped four years’ worth of e-mails with Karr and brought him to the attention of prosecutors in May refused to characterize the suspect either as killer or kook.

“I don’t know that he’s guilty,” said Michael Tracey, who teaches journalism at the University of Colorado. “Obviously, I went to the district attorney for a reason, but let him have his day in court and let JonBenet have her day in court, and let’s see how it plays out.”

Karr himself added to the mystery, telling The Associated Press in Bangkok that JonBenet’s death was “not what it seems to be.”

Asked what happened when JonBenet died, he said: “It would take several hours to describe that. It’s a very involved series of events that would involve a lot of time. It’s very painful for me to talk about it.”

Also unclear is whether Karr — whose record includes a 2001 arrest on misdemeanor counts of possession of child pornography — had any previous relationship with the Ramsey family, though both have ties to suburban Atlanta.

District Attorney Lacy refused to discuss the case during a brief news conference and suggested Karr’s arrest may have been forced by concern over public safety and fears the suspect might flee.

“There are circumstances that exist in any case that mandate an arrest before an investigation is complete,” Lacy said.

Karr, 41, was arrested at a Bangkok apartment Wednesday.

He had just begun to teach at Bangkok Christian College, Thailand’s oldest private school, which was established by American Presbyterian missionaries in 1852, school officials said. The school, which has about 5,000 male students in 12 grades, employs several foreign teachers for its English courses.

Hours after Karr’s arrest, Thai authorities sat him before a crowded room of news crews. Karr stunned reporters by admitting: “I was with JonBenet when she died. Her death was an accident.”

“I am so very sorry for what happened to JonBenet,” Karr told the AP.

DNA was found beneath JonBenet’s fingernails and inside her underwear, and authorities have never said whether it matches anyone in an FBI database. U.S. and Thai officials did not directly answer a question at a news conference about whether there was DNA evidence connecting Karr to the crime.

Karr will be taken within the week to Colorado, where he will face charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping and child sexual assault, Ann Hurst of the Department of Homeland Security told reporters in Bangkok.