If the underlying crime hadn’t been so grotesque, the strange odyssey of John Mark Karr might be more amusing than it is. But today, after the 8,000-mile flight, after the endless talk about shrimp cocktails in business class, after all the speculative ink spilled and blathering television hours filled, it turns out Karr didn’t kill JonBenet Ramsey after all. Instead he’s just another degenerate with a wild imagination. The news of his elimination as a suspect was described in some media outlets as a “shocking development.” I wasn’t shocked, were you?
An unsolved murder, most especially that of a child, is a burden heavily borne by the investigating detectives. Not even the passing of ten years lightens that burden, so one can hardly fault the authorities in Boulder for leaping into action when they learned of the email exchanges between Karr and Michael Tracey, a journalism professor at the University of Colorado. Karr, writing under the cryptic pseudonym “DAXIS” and others, sent long, rambling missives to Tracey in which he professed his love for JonBenet but also admitted being present when she died. If you were a detective on one of the most infamous crimes in fifty years and this bit of news came floating over your transom, you too would be on the next plane to Bangkok if you thought you’d be bringing your man home in handcuffs.
But before you left, you’d probably want to answer such questions as, say, was your man in Boulder on the night of the murder? For that matter, was he ever in Boulder? Karr, his phantasmagoric imagination notwithstanding, apparently wasn’t, but it wasn’t until Monday, when investigators learned that his DNA did not match that found in blood spots on JonBenet’s underwear, that Karr was officially dropped as a suspect. Karr remains in custody and will now be returned to California to face misdemeanor charges of possessing child pornography. Those charges were filed in 2001, before Karr left for Thailand.
The warrant for Karr’s arrest is rich in detail but very thin, as we say in the trade, in probable cause. Boulder County district attorney Mary Lacy put great stock in the fact that Karr seemed to know details about the case that had not been made public, and if you trouble yourself to read through Karr’s e-mail messages (warning: disturbing references contained therein), you will see that he indeed had some knowledge of the crime scene and JonBenet’s manner of death. Making an arrest based on thin probable cause is a time-honored practice in police work, but it’s usually done with the expectation that corroborative evidence will be produced before charges are filed. And, needless to say, seldom do such arrests involve a journey halfway around the world. Bringing Karr all the way from Thailand with the entire case hanging on an unlikely DNA match verges on irresponsibility.
But even if the police and prosecutors did act irresponsibly, their behavior was positively heroic when compared to that displayed by some in the media since the day Karr was detained in Bangkok. There were hours of programming to fill on the cable news stations, so the usual cohort of ex-cops, former prosecutors, law professors, and the like were trotted out to trade theories in the absence of any real news. But even if it wasn’t news in the traditional sense of the word, it got people to watch, which is all that really matters these days, right? The Mel Gibson drunk-driving case may have ended in a whimper, disappointing all those who had hoped to cover an extended trial in the sunny and star-studded enclave of Malibu, but the sudden and unexpected resurrection of the JonBenet Ramsey case would have been a welcome second-place diversion to take us through the dog days. And now, pfffft, just like that, it’s gone too.
But they milked it for all it was worth while they could, didn’t they? It was my misfortune that my duties took me to the Criminal Courts Building in downtown Los Angeles on the day Karr was making his appearance there. As courthouse carnivals go, it was not on a par with the O. J. Simpson trial, the one against which all such legal bacchanalia must forever be compared. Until Brad and Angelina smoke somebody in a drive-by there will never be anything like it, for which we can only be grateful.
While the Simpson trial lasted for months and starred a famous man who said he didn’t do it but did, Karr’s hearing lasted a mere four minutes and featured an obscure man who said he did do it but didn’t. But the brevity of the proceedings did not deter a full-scale assault by our friends in the media, who were camped out on Temple Street all day and long into the night, doing their stand-ups with the courthouse as backdrop when only the cleaning crews remained inside. Navigating downtown L.A. is no picnic on the best of days, but when you add the commotion created by a battalion of reporters and all their attendants, not to mention all their accompanying vans and trucks and gear and tackle, well, the streets and sidewalks near the courthouse were all but impassable.
As it happened, both the parking lots the cops usually use were full that morning, so I parked up in Chinatown and walked the five blocks to the courthouse. That wouldn’t have been so bad if the sidewalks hadn’t been blocked here and there by a news van or some immense satellite truck, forcing me and all the others making their way to the courthouse to walk in the bus lane on Spring Street. Neither I nor anyone in my little cluster of pedestrians was flattened, but if someone had been you can be assured the event would have been well covered.
Those sidewalks are clear once again, as soon will be those near the courthouse in Boulder, Colorado. John Mark Karr’s fifteen minutes of Warholian fame have ticked past, and he is once again nothing more than the sick little twitch he was three weeks ago. But even if he is convicted of the charges facing him in California the most he faces is a year in jail. He will be free again soon enough. In the media blitz that launched him into our collective conscience we learned this about him above all else: he is consumed by thoughts of hurting little girls. We have not heard the last of him.
– Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.