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Ramsey Suspect Abruptly Cleared

Times Staff Writers

Prosecutors on Monday abruptly dropped their case against John Mark Karr, the itinerant schoolteacher arrested in the decade-old killing of JonBenet Ramsey, saying his DNA did not match blood recovered from the crime scene.

Less than two weeks after flying Karr from Thailand to face charges -- an event that set off an international media circus -- Boulder County Dist. Atty. Mary Lacy closed the case against him, acknowledging that she could find no evidence he was in Boulder on the night the 6-year-old beauty queen was sexually assaulted and strangled in her family home.

The state “would not be able to establish that Mr. Karr committed this crime despite his repeated insistence that he did,” Lacy wrote in a five-page motion to dismiss the case.

Karr’s repeated confessions -- by e-mail, on the phone and in a televised news conference in Thailand -- met with skepticism from the start, both from investigators with knowledge of the case and from armchair psychologists who debated every twist and turn online. But he did reveal an intimate knowledge of the slaying, raising enough suspicion that the district attorney sent an investigator to Bangkok this month to follow Karr and stand outside his apartment door, trying to listen in on his phone calls.

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Karr, 41, still faces five misdemeanor counts of possessing child pornography in California in a Sonoma County case that dates to 2001. An extradition hearing is scheduled for this afternoon.

If convicted on all five counts, Karr could face a one-year sentence. But he could also walk free on time served if he got credit for the six months he spent in jail in California after his arrest. For now, Karr remains in the Boulder County jail -- no longer a murder suspect but still under intense public scrutiny. Hundreds of pages of his e-mails and transcripts of his phone conversations have been posted online by prosecutors, disclosing his thoughts on bland topics such as the state of public education and also his fantasies and boasts about sex with 6-year-old girls.

Lacy suggested in her court filing that those fantasies were a key reason she moved against Karr so quickly, before investigating his alibi, testing his DNA or interviewing his friends and family. She had learned, she wrote, that he was about to begin teaching young girls at a Thai school, and in his e-mails he discussed sexual fantasies about some of his students, using phrases that he had also used to describe his “love” for his “princess,” JonBenet.

But even given the potential threat to the Thai students, some experts questioned why Lacy had to arrest Karr with such fanfare and publicly name him a murder suspect.

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They suggested that she would have been better off asking California authorities to arrest him on the outstanding warrant there, which would have to kept him in custody -- and away from the girls -- while she completed an investigation.

“The Boulder district attorney’s office has bungled this case many times over, but never as badly as this,” said Craig Silverman, former chief deputy district attorney in Denver.

“It was a serious mistake,” agreed Trip DeMuth, a former senior deputy district attorney for Boulder County.

DeMuth, who worked the Ramsey case for several years, said he also found it “odd” that Lacy would post all of Karr’s e-mails online within hours of clearing him. “There are filing cabinets full of similar evidence about other suspects. We collect that evidence, index it, and maybe some day we’ll go back to it. It’s not good police technique to arrest a guy, release him and then disclose the evidence to the public.”

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The case against Karr leaned heavily on his extensive e-mail correspondence with a University of Colorado journalism professor, Michael Tracey, who has produced documentaries about the case.

Using the code names “D,” “Daxis” or “December1996" (the month and year of the homicide), Karr wrote Tracey regularly beginning in 2002, using an e-mail account that masked his identity and his location.

They discussed many subjects, as mundane as Karr’s new mountain bike and the palm trees outside his window at the Thai school. Always, though, they returned to JonBenet, whose body was found in the basement of her family home Dec. 26, 1996, ligatures around her wrists, a garrote around her throat and duct tape over her mouth. A three-page handwritten ransom note was found in the house; it demanded $118,000 -- the amount JonBenet’s father, John Ramsey, had recently received as a bonus.

Police investigated the Ramseys at length but a grand jury convened in September 1998 declined to return an indictment.

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Early in their correspondence, Karr told Tracey that he knew JonBenet’s killers. Later, he confessed, both by e-mail and in several long phone conversations that were monitored by law enforcement. He knew a great many details about the case, describing JonBenet’s gold bracelet, the hair bands on her ponytails and a red ink mark on her left hand. All that information, however, was contained in an autopsy report made public in 1997.

Frustrated that everything he said about the case had previously been reported, Karr at one point said that JonBenet had a runny nose the night she died -- and asked if that tidbit had been in the papers.

“It was an intimate love affair for me,” Karr wrote, explaining his anger with the incessant coverage of the killing. “I don’t want to share her with the media. I hate them and how they sell my darling little girl like a commodity.”

In a rambling, self-important tone, Karr also spoke more generally about his sexual attractions to other young girls -- his “young Loves,” he called them. He spoke of putting one “lovely little girl” in his care to bed one night, of calming her through an illness and making sure the night light in her room was adjusted just so. “I am a man who cherishes little girls and protects them with all that is in him,” he wrote in an e-mail received Jan. 12, 2003.

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Prosecutors apparently learned of the correspondence early on, but deemed the e-mails “not of substantial interest” because they seemed to be from someone obsessed with the case, not from a possible suspect, according to documents released Monday.

In April, however, Tracey’s anonymous correspondent began to write in more detail about JonBenet, claiming that he accidentally killed her while trying to make her black out to enhance his sexual satisfaction. He also said he kissed her all over -- and tasted the blood she spilled during his sexual assault.

Prosecutors hoped to confirm that claim by matching DNA from the suspect’s saliva to the droplets of blood found on JonBenet’s underwear.

But they still didn’t know the identity of Tracey’s correspondent.

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On Aug. 3, investigators met with Tracey and arranged for him to mail “Daxis” a photograph of JonBenet. Thai authorities kept the Mail Boxes Etc. in Bangkok under surveillance and saw Karr riding his mountain bike to pick up the package. They tracked him to his apartment and later inspected his passport under the ruse of a “spot check” of foreigners.

The following week, the district attorney sent investigator Mark Spray to resume the surveillance. He rented a room in Karr’s building and tried to listen in on telephone calls between Karr and Tracey, though with limited success. Once, two strangers, apparently Thai citizens, chased him away with an admonition: “Don’t come down here.” At other times, he simply couldn’t hear clearly through the walls of the apartment.

Thai investigators made several attempts to obtain Karr’s DNA surreptitiously, by collecting items he had touched. But Boulder’s DNA expert, Greggory LaBerge, told them they would need a clean swab of DNA from Karr’s mouth to make a solid comparison with the DNA found mingled with JonBenet’s blood at the crime scene.

“There was no way to obtain [this] swab without alerting to Mr. Karr to the fact that he was being investigated, creating an unacceptable risk that he would flee unless detained,” Lacy wrote. A Boulder County judge approved the arrest warrant based on a 98-page affidavit outlining the e-mail correspondence.

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Shortly after he was detained, Karr told reporters in Thailand that he had been with JonBenet when she died. “It’s very important for me that everyone knows that I love her very much, that her death was unintentional,” he said in a soft, measured voice.

Even after that televised confession, however, Lacy took pains to remind the public that the investigation was still very much open. “Do not jump to conclusion,” she warned. JonBenet’s father, John Ramsey, also cautioned against a rush to judgment.

Within days, the case began to unravel. Karr’s ex-wife and other family members insisted that he was with them in the South during the Christmas holidays in 1996. JonBenet’s body was found the day after Christmas.

Others who knew him said he was obsessed with the Ramsey case and with the 1993 kidnapping and killing of 12-year-old Polly Klaas in Petaluma, Calif. Karr spoke with “apparent fascination” of the Klaas murder case, said Sonoma County Sheriff’s Lt. Dave Edmonds.

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His conversations about Klaas with a Petaluma resident were suspicious enough that authorities briefly considered Karr a potential suspect in the 1997 slaying of another local girl, 12-year-old Georgia Moses. He was cleared, and authorities do not plan to reopen that line of investigation. Karr’s release as a suspect in the Ramsey slaying came just an hour before his first scheduled court appearance in Boulder County.

Court spokeswoman Karen Salaz strode out of the Boulder County Justice Center flanked by police officers and holding a fat stack of statements for the reporters camped out in the parking lot.

Brusquely, she said: “There’s no case.”

*

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Times staff writer Lee Romney in San Francisco and researcher Lynn Marshall in Seattle contributed to this report.


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