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    Southeast Asia
     Aug 19, 2006
Sex, lies and e-mail in Thailand
By Richard Ehrlich

BANGKOK - A pale, clean-cut, unsmiling American was arrested in Bangkok a decade after the beating, sexual abuse and strangulation murder in the United States of six-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey - representing a rare victory for US-Thailand law-enforcement cooperation.

On the capture of John Mark Karr, 41, in a joint US-Thai sting operation on Wednesday, the suspected pedophile told Thai authorities that he was with JonBenet when she died, that her death was accidental, and that he loved the young girl very much.

Asked by a reporter at Bangkok's immigration detention center if



he was innocent of involvement in her murder, Karr replied: "No."

The young girl's unresolved murder nearly a decade ago set off a wild media frenzy in the US. Homeland Security officials and Thai police seized Karr in his modest Bangkok apartment on Wednesday afternoon, hours after a judge in the US state of Colorado, where the girl died in 1996, issued an arrest warrant for murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault in connection with JonBenet's death.

"Upon investigation, we were able to identify that subject, and that is John Mark Karr," Ann Hurst, Homeland Security attache at the US Embassy, said at Bangkok's Department of Immigration Detention Center on Thursday.

Lieutenant-General Suwat Tumrongsiskul, head of Thailand's powerful Immigration Department - which has its own jail and interrogation techniques - gave the only official account of Karr's reaction upon arrest: "My officer said ... 'You are charged with first-degree murder.' He [Karr] said, 'No no. Not first degree. Second degree ... It was not supposed to be ... not intentionally.'"
Sex-offender haven
Lax immigration requirements and arbitrary law enforcement have long made Thailand a haven for globetrotting sex offenders - not to mention criminal gangs, human traffickers and terrorist organizations.

The country is renowned as a sex-tourism destination, and only in 1996 did the government enact legislation and launch a public-awareness campaign criminalizing the sexual abuse of children. Global sex networks still thrive in Thailand and, according to Bangkok-based child-rights groups, the country has recently emerged as a hub for the production of Web-based, sometimes live-broadcast, child pornography.

In 2003, the United States passed a law that mandates a sentence of up to 30 years for any US citizen caught having sex, including in foreign countries, with minors under the age of 18.

The US Department of Homeland Security, Interpol and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation have since all coordinated closely with Thai tourism and law-enforcement agencies to investigate and arrest suspected sex offenders. That campaign has included raising awareness among hotel and resort staff, but suspected official complicity and the wild and multitudinous maze of rent-by-the-hour cheap hotels in Thailand makes it nearly impossible to curb the trade completely.

Although there have been a few high-profile regional arrests, including that of former British rock star Gary Glitter in Vietnam, an Australian ambassador in Cambodia and a concert pianist who played at Bangkok's five-star Oriental Hotel, the underage-sex trade still thrives and is growing across Southeast Asia.

Since passing the new legislation, the US has only apprehended 25 suspected sex offenders worldwide, about half of them in Asia, according to US officials. The new law and public-awareness campaigns have, according to child-rights activists, driven more pedophiles further underground, with an increasing number of offenses being reported in rented condominiums, in apartments and even aboard yachts.

Child-rights advocates say that pedophiles and their associated global sex networks at the same time are becoming more sophisticated in their tactics. Sex offenders convicted in their home countries often easily take up residence and employment in foreign countries.

Jurisdiction hopping
Karr had a history of jurisdiction-hopping. The suspect taught as a substitute teacher at elementary schools in Petaluma, California, from December 8, 2000, until he was fired for undisclosed reasons on April 2, 2001, said Steve Bolman, Petaluma school district's superintendent of business administration, according to Bay City News Service.

Joan Risse, chief deputy district attorney in Sonoma county, California, said Karr fled that state after being charged in April 2001 in Sonoma County Superior Court with five misdemeanor counts of possession of child pornography. Child-pornography charges in the US carry a US$1,000 fine and/or a year in jail.

Karr had successfully landed a teaching job at an international elementary school in downtown Bangkok days before his arrest. He was not linked to any particular crime in Thailand, and Bangkok officials are preparing to extradite him to the US within the week.

"He has been in Thailand possibly two months this time. He has prior visits to Thailand. He has traveled extensively across the world," said Homeland Security's Hurst. "He left the country [the US] several years ago," and had not returned, she added. Using his real US passport, Karr flew into Bangkok as a regular tourist from neighboring Malaysia, according to Thai officials.

Karr was living in an apartment in an area of Bangkok popular among budget travelers and homosexuals, a somewhat seedy area of town that is now undergoing gay gentrification. His rented residence was only a short walk from the Immigration Department where he was held on Thursday. "To the best of our knowledge, he was living alone," Hurst said.

Karr's apparent mistake was maintaining contacts with the US. A University of Colorado spokesman, Barrie Hartman, said journalism professor Michael Tracey had communicated with Karr by e-mail for several months and a particular message in May prompted Tracey to contact US authorities, who eventually traced the messages to Bangkok. The contents of Karr's e-mail correspondence with Tracey have not yet been disclosed.

Tracey produced a documentary in 2004 called Who Killed JonBenet?

If she had survived, JonBenet Ramsey would today be a 16-year-old high-school student. Instead, a new media circus is gearing up around what promises to be a wild and woolly trial of the apparent murder confession of an unsmiling, well-groomed and globetrotting Karr.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California. He has reported news from Asia since 1978 and is co-author of the non-fiction book of investigative journalism, Hello My Big Big Honey! Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. He received Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism's Foreign Correspondent's Award.

(Copyright 2006 Richard S Ehrlich)

 

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