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No Neat Endings for the JonBenet Case

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PAULA BRONSTEIN / GETTY

John Mark Karr, 41, suspected in the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, is presented to the media in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday

A confession as unequivocal as the one offered up by John Mark Karr on Thursday would probably be enough to close almost any tough case. But the mystery surrounding the 1996 murder of 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey simply will not succumb to easy explanations. Within a day of the reclusive, expatriate teacher's admission in Bangkok — that he "accidentally" killed the girl a decade ago, when his plot to kidnap her went awry — questions about his claims have only multiplied.

Even as he confessed, Karr was suspiciously evasive when asked about the details. And doubts were later raised about whether he was even in Colorado when JonBenet was murdered. He has, of course, not yet been convicted or even charged with the crime. Boulder County district attorney Mary Lacy stressed in a news conference Thursday that her office, despite the confession, is still sifting through the evidence and proceeding with exceptional caution. "There have been no charges filed at this time," Lacy pointed out. "There is a presumption of innocence." She also seemed to suggest that the arrest may not have been prompted by a certainty about Karr's guilt so much as concern that he might flee, or that he poses a danger to the public.

Her caution was welcome, in a case in which the spotlight of suspicion initially fell, and has lingered for most of a decade despite little evidence, on JonBenetĺs parents. "It's terribly important," warns Dr. Fred Berlin, founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic in Baltimore, Md., "not to have the same rush to judgment in this case."

But then, suspicion is one thing; a suspected killer's confession, quite another.

Or is it? The sketchy portrait of Karr emerging from documents and accounts of his former acquaintances and family suggests that this peripatetic grade-school instructor is, at the very least, a complicated man who clearly takes a keen interest in crimes against children. That in itself says nothing about his guilt or innocence. Karr' s ex-wife Lara told a California television station that he was as obsessed with the murder of Polly Klaas — a 12-year-old girl who was abducted from her home in Petaluma, Calif., in 1993 — as he was with the JonBenet murder. But she also insists he could not have murdered JonBenet because she was with him in Alabama when it happened.

Meanwhile, Karr's brother Nate, who hasn't spoken with him in five years, told Fox News that his brother's fascination with pedophiles and predators stemmed not from pathological obsession, but from an intent to write a book about men who commit crimes against children. Nate has also said that he thinks his brother wrote to Polly's convicted killer in prison. Karr also said he wrote several letters to JonBenet's mother Patricia, who died of cancer two months ago, expressing remorse for having murdered her daughter.

Marc Klaas, Polly's father, says that the name "John Karr never crossed my path in any way, shape or form" until Wednesday. He admits, however, that he gets a lot of e-mail from cranks, and might have deleted Karr 's missives. Still, he says, his experience with followers of sensational crimes leads him to doubt that Karr has anything to do with JonBenet 's murder. "With Karr, you're dealing with a guy who seems to be obsessed with little dead girls," says Klaas, pointing out that aside from the admission of guilt, Karr appears to have "no connection" to the crime itself. It isn't yet clear how — or if — Colorado police established that Karr was in their state when JonBenet was murdered. Ramsey family attorney H. Lin Wood, however, says he doubts prosecutors would make such a high-profile arrest without being sure of Karr's whereabouts on the day of the crime.

Karr's past does raise suspicions. When he was arrested in Bangkok, he was living in a dormitory-like guesthouse in a neighborhood frequented by sex tourists. Before that, in 2001, soon after he moved to California, the Sonoma county district attorney issued an arrest warrant for one John Mark Karr on five counts of child pornography, after the suspect failed to appear in court. (It isn't yet certain that warrant was for the same John Mark Karr, but it seems likely.) The name John Karr is also associated with the online domain PowerWurks.com, apparently launched in 1996, whose owner claimed to be running a child-friendly company but also seemed to be using the e-mail address to trawl for young girls on the Internet.

Of course, Karr's putative pedophilia would not make him guilty of murder. Nor would it explain why Karr might have killed JonBenet. "A child molester who abducts and kills his victim is the rarest kind of molester," says Ken Lanning, a former FBI agent who has spent more than three decades studying crimes against children, and currently operates his own consulting company. Questions and inconsistencies in Karr's story make Lanning cautious about believing Karr's claims. "My reaction to all of this is that until [the police] independently corroborate what he's confessing to, it doesn't mean anything. "

So it's possible that Mark Karr is delusional or that he is — more incomprehensibly — simply lying. At least one former acquaintance of Karr's considers this a distinct possibility. Janice Myhan, a professor of education at the University of North Alabama, says Karr was prone to telling outlandish lies. Myhan taught and advised Karr when he attended UNA from 1998 to 2000, where he majored in early childhood education. Karr was diminutive and intense, Myhan recalls, and frequently peppered her with questions from the front row, stopping her in mid-sentence to get her to repeat her words, so he could copy them in his notes. He carried a briefcase to class and seemed to be far more computer-savvy than his peers. Yet Karr was a sloppy liar, says Myhan. His tales and explanations were often so inconsistent that Myhan eventually stopped believing much of what he said. Myhan says he once told her, for instance, that he couldnĺt go to the infirmary when he was sick because he could not afford insurance. Yet he tooled around in a Porsche. He would say he lived one place one day, and claim he lived elsewhere on the next. "I would not be surprised if his confession is just another one of his stories," says Myhan.

But that too is something the police, and possibly a jury, will ultimately have to decide.

Reported by Verna Gates/Birmingham, Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles, Elizabeth Coady/Chicago and Greg Fulton/Atlanta