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Suspect’s ‘Lonely’ Bangkok Life

Times Staff Writer

The mystery of John Mark Karr grows as he sits in a cell, out of view behind the green chain-link fence of Bangkok’s stark Immigration Detention Center, awaiting deportation in connection with the slaying of JonBenet Ramsey.

Some details have emerged, however, of the apparently lonely, anonymous life he had cobbled together in this frenetic city.

Karr, 41, lived a cliche. Like hundreds of foreigners who reside in or pass through Bangkok every year, he made a living off of students eager to learn his language.

This spring, one of Thailand’s most prestigious private schools, Bangkok Christian College, posted an ad online and in the city’s English-language newspaper seeking a teacher for its English immersion program. Karr applied, impressing the program’s director, Banchong Chompoowong, with his English skills and resume.

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“He was just a nice man -- good manners,” Chompoowong said in an interview Friday.

Chompoowong said he checked Karr’s claim that he had taught recently at St. Joseph’s Convent School, an elite private school for girls in Bangkok, and learned that Karr had taught at the school but had been fired for being too strict with his students.

Nonetheless, amid Bangkok schools’ fierce competition for native English speakers, Chompoowong said, Karr’s language skills were badly needed and he was hired.

How long Karr taught at Bangkok Christian is a matter of debate. Chompoowong says the soft-spoken American started in early June, about a month after the semester began. But several parents of Karr’s first-graders say Karr was there when classes started May 10.

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When asked about the conflicting accounts, Chompoowong said the parents were mistaken, but he declined to release Karr’s employment records.

What is certain is that Karr ran into trouble quickly. Students complained about his rigid manner and harsh discipline. He gained a reputation among parents as being too strict and ill at ease.

“He was very, very tense. He’d yell and smack the table,” said a 37-year-old mother, who spoke on condition of anonymity, saying she feared for her son’s safety. “My son finally said he didn’t want to go to school anymore.”

Students were so intimidated by Karr, the mother said, that they would not ask to go to the bathroom, often wetting their pants in class.

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Chompoowong acknowledged the bathroom problem and the complaints from parents, though he said Karr’s teaching style did not strike him as excessive.

But he quickly bowed to pressure from parents, firing Karr in mid-June.

“I told him he was too strict. He accepted it; he just took it and walked away,” Chompoowong said. “Parents had started to complain, and one complaint is too many.”

The mother said that shortly before his departure, a dejected Karr approached her at school, confiding that he was lonely and believed that “he didn’t have any friends -- that no one liked him.”

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“He said, ‘Everyone calls me “foreigner,” ’ " said the mother, an English speaker. “I told him to relax.”

What Karr did after he was sent away from Bangkok Christian is largely unknown. Lt. Gen. Suwat Tumrongsiskul, head of Thailand’s immigration police, said in an earlier interview that Karr eventually gained another teaching post. But U.S. and Thai authorities were trailing Karr and arrested him last week after his first day in the classroom. Officials have refused to name the school.

Karr evidently spent much of his time in the dreary, claustrophobic room he rented at the Blooms Residences, one of the city’s countless low-end boarding houses that target both budget travelers and long-term guests.

Situated on a quiet, narrow street in the city’s bustling Sathon District, the building has a drab, salmon-colored exterior. Its facade is a honeycomb of small balconies and dirty windows, each with a small air conditioner jutting out of it. Guests can rent rooms for three hours, by the day or by the month. Only cash is accepted.

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Karr paid about $225 a month for Room 1927, on the ninth floor. Little sunlight would have filtered through his window, which looks out onto another wing of the complex. From his tiny, rusted balcony, Karr could crane his neck to the right and watch Bangkok’s choked traffic snake along a highway.

Whatever the details, Karr’s unremarkable life in Bangkok is near its end. Immigration police chief Tumrongsiskul said Friday that U.S. officials were free to take Karr whenever they were ready.


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