updated 09/04/2006 AT 4:00 PM ET
•originally published 08/24/2006 AT 12:00 PM ET
It started with a stunning phone call: There was a new suspect in the case. Patsy Ramsey – her cancer spreading, her strength sapped – boarded a plane to Colorado last February and, with her husband, John, went to see Boulder County District Attorney Mary Lacy. There had been other suspects, and even a number of false confessions, but this time was different: This suspect seemed to know undisclosed details of the crime scene. The Ramseys – who for many years had lived with widespread public perception that they might have been involved in or knew more than they were saying about the crime – left the meeting with Lacy feeling hopeful.
“That trip to Boulder was very hard for Patsy physically,” says her close friend Suzanne Goebel. “She came back, and the tumors in her brain were diagnosed, and it went downhill from there. But somehow she talked her body into not dying until she was pretty sure they had the killer. I think she concluded in her head and heart that this time they have the right one.”
Yet almost immediately there were troubling questions about Karr’s strange confession. Not long after he was detained U.S. investigators took a saliva swab from Karr to compare his DNA with that found in JonBenét’s underwear and under her fingernails; the results of those tests were not available at press time. “Even as kooky as his confession was, if you pair it up with a DNA match, then it’s game, set and match for the state,” says former Denver prosecutor turned talk show host Craig Silverman, an expert on the case. But without that, investigators will need to tie up a number of puzzling loose ends before one of the most infamous unsolved murders can, at last, be solved. John Karr “isn’t normal, and he may even be a child molester,” says well-known Denver defense attorney Scott Robinson, who has followed the case from the beginning. “But at this point it’s pretty hard to believe that he’s a murderer who committed this particular murder.”
Perhaps most puzzling of all is that Karr, the twice-married father of three teenage boys, has no apparent connection to the Ramsey family. Neither John nor Patsy had ever heard of him, and Boulder investigators did not have him on their radar until earlier this year, and then only after a University of Colorado journalism teacher who was corresponding with Karr brought him to their attention. What’s more, Karr’s second wife, Lara Knutson, 33, says Karr spent Christmas Day, 1996 – the day before JonBenét’s body was found – with her and their sons either at home in Alabama or with his family in Georgia.
So far there is no proof to back that up, but “we’ve got a picture of his three children that was taken in his father’s house on Christmas Day of 1996,” says Georgia attorney Gary Harris, a spokesman for the Karr family. “The fact that his kids were there tells me he was there. His wife would not have come to the Christmas party without him.” Karr was also known to be obsessed with the Ramsey case, reveling in its every detail, and was similarly fascinated by the 1993 murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, even moving his family to her hometown of Petaluma, Calif. Could he have confessed to a crime he didn’t commit just to link himself to JonBenét? The idea that Karr killed her is “ridiculous,” his brother Nate Karr, 34, told PEOPLE. “We have no hidden skeletons; there’s nothing brutal in his background, nothing like that.” Now the pressure is on Boulder officials to sort out fact from fiction in what in the past has been a horribly flawed investigation.
Boulder D.A. Mary Lacy, who took over the case in 2002, admitted her investigation into Karr wasn’t complete at the time he was picked up. So far, it’s not clear if she has lined up basic evidence such as handwriting samples to match against the ransom note or proof that Karr was even in Boulder at the time of the killing. At a press conference Lacy suggested that Karr – who in 2001 was charged with possessing child pornography but had still recently managed to land three teaching jobs in Thailand – posed a serious safety risk, which would explain his sudden arrest.
The key evidence so far seems to be hundreds of e-mails Karr sent to journalism professor Michael Tracey, who produced three documentaries about the Ramsey case. In the e-mails, the Ramseys were told, Karr showed he knew things that “only people in the house or the killer would know,” says Suzanne Goebel. “One was about a bracelet JonBenét had on and that Patsy evidently purchased and gave to her earlier in December.” Boulder officials won’t comment further, and the arrest warrant is under seal, but “I would be shocked if Mary Lacy made the decision to arrest this man on anything other than substantial evidence,” says the Ramseys’ friend and attorney Lin Wood. “The [arrest] document is 80 or 90 pages.”
So is Karr a cold-blooded killer or just delusional? What’s clear is that throughout his life he has struck many people as strange. His parents, Wexford and Patricia Karr, raised him in Georgia and divorced when Karr was 9. His mother, Karr once said, tended to raise him like a girl. Smaller and quieter than most boys, Karr went to live with his grandparents in Hamilton, Ala., where “he was the neighborhood kid who wouldn’t play with the rest of us,” says Brenda Perham, who lived nearby. “We’d be in someone’s yard and he’d come and sit with a book.” The flip side to his shyness was an urge to stand out: When he was old enough to drive, Karr made the rounds in a DeLorean he painted fire-engine red. “He said, ‘I don’t want to blend in with everyone else,’ ” says Perham. When he was 19, Karr married Quientana Shotts, then only 13; the marriage was soon annulled. Four years later Karr took another young bride: Lara Marie Knutson, who was 16 and pregnant with twins when she wed Karr in 1989. Karr insisted on delivering the twins himself in their home; the babies, named Angel and Innocence, died shortly after birth. In the next four years, the couple had three sons, John, Damon and Seven Exodus.
In 1996 Karr began working as a substitute teacher at his alma mater, Hamilton High School – the first of more than a dozen teaching jobs in several states and at least three different countries, many of which ended with Karr being dismissed for erratic behavior. “He was scary,” says one former student. “He had a very nice side, and if you forgot your lunch money he’d give you a dollar. But he was always yelling and he had a short fuse.” At another school “there were reports that students were terrified of him,” says a teacher. “One kid got so scared he wet himself.”
After moving his family to Petaluma, Calif., in 2000 – apparently to get closer to the Polly Klaas case – Karr worked as a substitute teacher at a half-dozen elementary schools in the Bay Area. In April 2001 Napa County sheriffs summoned him from his classroom at Pueblo Vista Elementary School. He was arrested for possessing child pornography and served six months in jail before being released. “He was in correspondence with Richard Allen Davis [the man who murdered Polly Klaas] and that was disturbing,” says Julia Freis, the former Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney who prosecuted Karr. “The whole case was strange and kind of twisted.”
Karr lost his teaching credentials and his wife filed for divorce and asked a judge to suspend Karr’s visitation privileges. Karr soon skipped town, missing a court date relating to the child-porn charges and becoming a fugitive. But he wasn’t done teaching young children. By 2004 he had turned up in Honduras, where he worked at two schools; in 2006 he taught at three schools in Thailand. A colleague at Bangkok Christian College says Karr “was famous for kicking chairs in class because the kids weren’t picking up English fast enough.” A lax screening process for foreign teachers apparently wasn’t the only thing that drew Karr to Thailand. Earlier this year he visited the Pruksa Laser Center to have his beard and sideburn hair removed. “He told me he was on medication to prepare for a sex change,” says the Center’s Dr. Setthakarn Attakonpan. “He said, ‘Don’t take all of the hair – leave what a woman would have.’ ”
It was while he was out of the U.S. that Karr began his anonymous correspondence with journalism professor Michael Tracey, whom he knew to be a strong advocate of the theory that an intruder killed JonBenét. According to the Rocky Mountain News, in one e-mail about JonBenét, Karr wrote, “I love you and shall forever love you. If there is to be a life for me after this one, I pray that it will be with you.”
Earlier this year Tracey grew alarmed enough by something in an e-mail to contact the Boulder D.A.’s office. Police then fooled Karr into thinking he was exchanging e-mails with Patsy Ramsey. On Aug. 16, just a day after Karr began teaching at the New Sathorn International School in Bangkok, Thai police, acting on behalf of U.S. federal officials, picked him up in his apartment. During his interrogation U.S. investigators brought up the Ramsey case, and Karr quickly confessed. According to Thai police, Karr admitted to having sex with JonBenét, but later insinuated he may have just kissed her.
On Aug. 20 U.S. officials whisked Karr out of Bangkok on a commercial flight; during the 15-hour trip to Los Angeles, Karr ate the standard business-class meal of prawns and pâté and even sipped champagne. But once in L.A. he was locked in a 6-by-9-ft. cell, where he awaited extradition to Colorado and formal charges in JonBenét’s murder.
Ten years ago the Ramseys themselves were under an “umbrella of suspicion,” as one law enforcement official put it, for the murder of JonBenét. Investigators made them the chief suspects after they quickly hired lawyers, refused police interviews for four months and even engaged a publicist. Many saw their evasiveness as evidence they were involved, and they have never been officially cleared as suspects.
But in 2003 Mary Lacy said, “the weight of the evidence is more consistent with the theory that an intruder murdered JonBenét.” John Ramsey, in a statement, urged that Karr be spared “the type of media speculation that my wife and I were subjected to for so many years” until forensic tests are done. “John isn’t getting all revved up about the arrest,” says his friend Barney Way in Charlevoix, Mich. “He’s keeping level-headed, as always.” But with Karr’s arrest, both John and his son Burke, 19, will have to relive the horror of JonBenét’s murder. Burke, a computer-programming major at Purdue University and a skateboarding whiz, was also once a suspect, particularly in the tabloids (he was officially cleared by the D.A. of any involvement). Today, if his sister’s murder “does haunt him, he doesn’t let it show,” says a friend. “He tries to live like everybody else.” Burke has been dating a college student he met in high school for a few years. “I asked him if he was excited [about Karr’s arrest] and he said yes,” says his friend. “But he didn’t mention anything specific. He’s learned not to say a whole lot.”
Patsy Ramsey’s sister Pamela Paugh says the accusations against the family have taken a heavy toll on them. “At one point or another, we all considered suicide,” says Paugh. “Of course John and Patsy thought about it at some point. But having a strong faith means you can stand in the fire.” What the Ramseys need now, she says, is DNA evidence linking Karr to the murder: “JonBenét fought like a banshee. She tried to get that rope off her neck. She had somebody’s DNA under her fingernails. And I’m 100 percent certain that it belongs to the killer.” But even if Karr’s DNA isn’t a match, says Paugh, “it doesn’t mean he doesn’t have intimate knowledge of the crime. Does he know who was there?”
A preliminary hearing, at which more details about Karr’s arrest might be revealed, could be a month away. Like so much about the murder of JonBenét Ramsey, the question of Karr’s guilt or innocence may not be resolved quickly. “Closure in this case doesn’t come with someone being arrested,” says Lin Wood. “Closure for John and his family is when someone is found guilty in a court of law.”
By Alex Tresniowski. Karen Emmons in Bangkok, Lori Rozsa in Atlanta, Vickie Bane in Boulder, Ken Lee in Petaluma, Barbara Sandler in Charlevoix, Hilary Shenfeld and Lauren Comander in Chicago, Steve Helling and John Anderson in Hamilton, Michaele Ballard in Charlotte, N.C. and Lorenzo Benet and Johnny Dodin Los Angeles