JonBenet murder charges collapse

Prosecutors drop case against teacher, citing lack of DNA match

August 29, 2006|By Stephanie Simon and Ralph Vartabedian | Stephanie Simon and Ralph Vartabedian,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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

Less than two weeks after flying him from Thailand to face charges - an event that set off an international media circus - Boulder District Attorney Mary Lacy closed the case, acknowledging that she could find no evidence that he was in Boulder on the night of the killing.

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, 41, still faces five misdemeanor counts of possessing child pornography in California in a case that dates to 2001. An extradition hearing is scheduled for today at 4 p.m., but Sonoma County officials said he probably will remain in Colorado for several more days.

The quick - and very public - unraveling of such a high-profile case drew immediate criticism. Lacy suggested in her motion that she had to arrest Karr before investigating him extensively because he was a danger to several young girls he had met at a school in Thailand; in the past few months, she wrote, he had been communicating his sexual fantasies about those girls using phrases that he had also used to describe his "love" for JonBenet Ramsey. But critics called the investigation flimsy and the arrest premature.

"The hysterics surrounding John Mark Karr served only to distract Boulder officials from doing their job," said Colorado Gov. Bill Owens. "I find it incredible that Boulder authorities wasted thousands of taxpayer dollars to bring Karr to Colorado, given such a lack of evidence."

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 murder), Karr wrote Tracey regularly beginning in 2002.

They discussed JonBenet, the 6-year-old beauty queen whose body was found in the basement of her family home on Dec. 26, 1996. She had been sexually assaulted and strangled. 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 extensively, but a grand jury convened in September 1998 refused to return an indictment.

Karr apparently knew a great deal about the case - which was a national media phenomenon and a tabloid staple for years - and discussed details with Tracey. But when the journalism professor proved a sympathetic listener and willing correspondent, Karr also opened up about his personal life.

In a rambling, self-important tone, Karr talked 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 right, of calming her through an illness and making sure the nightlight in her room was adjusted just so.

"I am a man who cherishes little girls and protects them with all that is in them," he wrote in an e-mail received Jan. 12, 2003.

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 yesterday.

In April, however, Tracey's anonymous correspondent began to write in more detail about JonBenet. At first, he said he knew who killed her. Then he claimed to be responsible for her death. He described his "recollection" of the murder, saying he accidentally strangled JonBenet during a sexual assault. The attack was so rough that the little girl bled, he said - and he told the journalism professor that he then tasted her blood.

Prosecutors hoped to confirm that confession by matching DNA from Karr's saliva to the droplets of blood found on JonBenet's underwear.

Outsiders have heaped criticism on Lacy for publicly naming Karr a suspect in the JonBenet case without first conducting an extensive investigation. Lacy did not take questions yesterday, but the court document she filed dismissing the case offered some insight into her decision.

According to that document, Karr had begun to use his correspondence with Tracey to fantasize about several young girls who attended a school that had just hired him. He named specific girls and described his sexual interest using "much the same terms" he had used to talk about his "love" for JonBenet, Lacy wrote.

Investigators traced several phone calls Karr made to Tracey, located him in Thailand and confirmed that he was about to begin teaching second grade. They also learned that he had unspecified "personal involvement" with one of the girls named in his fantasies.

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