In Bangkok, suspect led quiet, lonely life

August 20, 2006|By JOEL RUBIN | JOEL RUBIN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The mystery of John Mark Karr grows as he awaits his extradition to the United States in connection with the killing of JonBenet Ramsey.

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

Like hundreds of other foreigners who reside in or pass through Bangkok every year, Karr, 41, taught students eager to learn English.

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

"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 Saint Joseph's, an elite private school for girls in Bangkok. Saint Joseph's officials told Chompoowong that Karr had taught at the school but had been fired for being too strict with his students.

Nonetheless, amid fierce competition between Bangkok's schools 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 debatable. Chompoowong claims the soft-spoken American started in early June - about a month after the semester began. But several parents of Karr's first-grade pupils insist that Karr had already arrived when classes started May 10. 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. Pupils complained about his rigid manner and harsh discipline. He soon 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 the condition that her name not be used because of fear 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.

Chompoowong acknowledged the bathroom problem and the complaints from parents, but said Karr's teaching style did not strike him as excessive. Regardless, 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."

What Karr did with his days after he was sent away from Bangkok Christian largely remains unknown. Lt. Gen. Suwat Tumrongsiskul, head of Thailand's immigration police, said in an earlier interview that Karr eventually got another teaching post. When he started that job last week, however, U.S. and Thai authorities, who were already trailing Karr, arrested him 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.

Two and a half months ago, Lu Yi, a 28-year-old animator from China, moved into the apartment across from Karr. The two passed each other frequently in the hall but never exchanged words, Yi said. Karr was quiet. Yi could recall only one time Karr had guests in his apartment - two other Western foreigners.

Several employees at the apartment building, nervous about discussing Karr, quietly echoed Yi, saying that Karr was an unremarkable man who did not draw attention to himself.

Joel Rubin writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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