Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Onetime JonBenet murder suspect began gender transition


John Mark Karr after his arrest last year.
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The former suspect in the 1996 murder of 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey told the Bay Area Reporter that he had sought gender reassignment surgery, not because of any driving desire to become a woman, but to help him avoid capture by police.

He also said that a buried "gothic box" exists and that if uncovered, would result in his re-arrest for JonBenet's killing.

"I had one reason and one reason only to change my sex," John Mark Karr said last week in his only Bay Area media interview. "I saw it as an opportunity to change my identity and further evade law enforcement."

Karr, 42, was in Bangkok when he was arrested a year ago this month and extradited to Colorado. The Boulder County district attorney decided not to file murder charges against him after his DNA did not match DNA found at the murder scene. Karr revealed to the B.A.R. that before the DA dropped charges, he agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for avoiding the death penalty. The deal became moot when the DA declined to proceed with the case.

Karr was then extradited to Sonoma County to face 2001 child pornography charges, but those charges were dismissed after prosecutors conceded that they lost Karr's computer that they say had contained child pornography.

At the time of his arrest, Karr said that he had been undergoing hormone replacement therapy and laser treatments to permanently remove facial hair. He had been on track, he said, to get all the surgeries to completely transform into a woman by this summer.

Karr said he had not considered changing his gender until late 2005, after arriving in Thailand where the surgery is common.

Karr explained that he researched laws that apply to transgender people in the United States and learned that it would be impossible for him to change the name on his passport without first legally changing his name. He said that he couldn't change his name abroad and would have to return to the U.S., something he couldn't do because of his status as a fugitive.

Despite the obstacles he found in his research, Karr said that he was optimistic that he would find a way to legally change his identity to be female.

"I was optimistic," he said, "I just didn't know how."

He said that he chose a female name but declined to disclose it.

Karr said he had yet to meet with a psychological professional in Bangkok as part of the perquisite for surgery. He told the B.A.R. that he planned to tell that professional that he simply wanted to live as a woman. Karr explained that the process for gender reassignment surgery is much faster in Thailand.

When asked whether he considered other ways to change his identity and why he chose to change his sex, Karr replied, "[A sex change] was the most extensive way. I would not only be changing my name but my sex."

To further obscure his identity, Karr also planned some light facial plastic surgery to change the appearance of his face.

Karr said that he strongly supports people who want to change their gender but that he didn't anticipate that he would get much support from the transgender community.

Chris Daley, director of the Transgender Law Center, said that Karr's story likely would resonate neither with community members nor the general public as being a transgender person's story.

"Obviously, Karr has seen too many cheesy movies to assume that this strategy would protect him from being accountable from any criminal inquiry," Daley said, when asked to respond to Karr's comments.

"Frankly, I think it's well-known that he's a person with mental health challenges and that his story isn't going to be understood by the average person as a transgender person's story," Daley added. "It's going to be understood that this person is deceitful and that people can separate out this troubled person."

Carol Queen, the founder and executive director of the Center for Sex and Culture, told the B.A.R. that Karr's disclosure of why he wanted to change his gender could unfairly play into the stereotype that transgender people are "deceivers."

Queen suggested that most transgender people would want to distance themselves from Karr. She added that she hoped most people would look at Karr as a disturbed person rather than a representative of the transgender community.

"This is an unusual person. He's not like the majority of anyone," Queen said.

Now engaged

Karr, however, has since dropped his gender transition plans. He is engaged to be married to Brooke Simmons, 23. Simmons has a 3-year-old daughter. They both live in Atlanta.

The pair met after Simmons wrote a card of support to his family. Karr said Simmons trusts him completely around her daughter.

During a series of telephone interviews, Karr was defensive over any suggestion by others that he was not involved in the Ramsey case. He said he was concerned about what he considered to be baseless challenges to his credibility, reiterating his belief that the evidence clearly shows that he is responsible for JonBenet's death.

Karr was tied to the Ramsey case through University of Colorado at Boulder journalism professor Michael Tracey. Tracey told the B.A.R . that Karr has attempted to get back in touch with him following a recent interview Karr did with Fox News' Greta Van Susteren, but that he has declined to resume his communication with him. Tracey said that Karr was seriously considered a suspect because his details of what happened on the night of JonBenet's death matched the evidence.

"No one said, 'Hey, he is a nutcase,'" Tracey said of the investigators' reaction to Karr's description of the crime.

When asked whether he believes Karr killed Ramsey, Tracey replied, "I honestly don't know," but he added, "I never believed he did."

Tracey noted that Karr's statements on the case and matters unrelated to the case have been consistent. Tracey said that he also checked out statements Karr made about his background and people he's come in contact with and they have matched.

"He never misses a beat," Tracey said. "I don't know what to make of this guy."

Tracey said that Karr told him he buried a gothic box containing the original panties JonBenet wore along with other materials that could tie him to the case.

Karr confirmed the existence of the box and told the B.A.R. that if law enforcement ever found that box it would result in his re-arrest. Karr said that he believes that Boulder County District Attorney Mary Lacy dismissed the case against him likely based on her misunderstanding of his description of the circumstances surrounding JonBenet's death. Karr said that the DNA left on JonBenet's second pair of underwear could have come from a number of sources and may have been left by someone packing the underwear before it ever even came in touch with JonBenet.

Karr said he first learned of the reason that Lacy dismissed the evidence against him during an interview with MSNBC's Dan Abrams earlier this month. Karr said the network played an excerpt of a press conference Lacy held after she dropped the charges last year. Lacy said she had to throw out the charges because Karr's description of the crime did not match where his DNA should have been.

Karr told the B.A.R. that he wrote the ransom note that was left in the Ramsey home and noted that a number of handwriting experts believe his handwriting was a match. Karr also pointed out that he used the phrase "Shall Be The Conqueror," with the initials SBTC capitalized, in a high school yearbook inscription. The ransom note was signed with those initials. One of Karr's former mothers-in-law told reporters that she recalls Karr signing his letters with those initials when he knew her daughter in the 1980s.

Handwriting experts quoted in media reports after Karr's arrest were not unanimous on whether Karr's handwriting matched. Curt Baggett, of the Texas-based School of Forensic Document Examination, said he was 99.9 percent certain that Karr's handwriting matched, while others were more skeptical. Honolulu document examiner and the author of a textbook on handwriting analysis, Reed Hayes, told the Rocky Mountain News last year that while he saw similarities, he leaned toward Karr not being the writer.

Doubts about story

Thomas Streed, Ph.D., doesn't buy any of Karr's story. Streed is an internationally recognized behavior scientist, a former San Diego homicide detective, and he lectures part-time at San Jose State University. He was once asked by the Boulder County District Attorney's office to work on the Ramsey case but he declined. He currently heads his consulting firm, Forensic Consultation International.

Streed has interviewed a number of criminals, including serial killers Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy. He said that when a criminal confesses to a crime that they really committed, they don't want to keep revisiting their confession over and over again.

Streed said that Karr's motive at this point is to continue his 15 minutes of fame by keeping his name in the media.

"Someone should ask this guy, why are you talking to me about this?" Streed said.

"It's almost hilarious," Streed added. "When you see a guy like that, can you think of a person more pathetic looking?"

Streed said that in his 43 years in law enforcement, he's never come across a case in which someone sought gender reassignment to avoid capture from police.

Streed added that Karr was "anonymous and irrelevant" before he was connected with the Ramsey case and his recent contact with the media is part of an effort to keep himself in the public eye. Karr has given a handful of interviews in recent weeks around the one-year anniversary of his arrest.

When asked to respond to Streed, Karr said, "Doesn't he think I have the right to speak? Does he think I should be silenced?"

Karr explained that aside from a CNN Larry King interview in which he did not discuss the case in any detail, he waited a year before talking to the press.

Bay Area ties

In July 2000, Karr moved to Petaluma. Karr said his then-wife got a job in Santa Rosa and he got a job at the Convent of the Sacred Heart elementary school in San Francisco.

The couple has since divorced, and Karr's ex-wife told KGO-TV that he was with her in Alabama on the night JonBenet was killed in Colorado.

Karr told the B.A.R. that she might have said that to protect their three children. Tracey noted that no photographs surfaced that prove that Karr was in Alabama when JonBenet was killed.

Karr said that although he was charged with possessing child pornography that depicts a child under 14, Sonoma County authorities could not prove that the children in the photos were under 14. Karr added that he had a lot of old computers lying around his house and that he often fixed old computers for various people.

"I detest child pornography," Karr said. "I absolutely deny in any way having child pornography in my home or on any computer I have ever owned."

The Sonoma County District Attorney's office did not comment on the case.

After his 2001 arrest, Karr served six months in jail in Sonoma County and became a fugitive after he was released on his own recognizance and failed to show up for a hearing on the pornography case. Karr said that he knew the pornography case against him was weak but he fled because his lawyer told him that police suspected him in three child murders.

Karr said that he left the Bay Area on November 21, 2001. He traveled the world, he said, making stops in Central America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. He said he first arrived in Thailand in October 2005. Except for a brief visit to Korea where he applied for a job, he remained in Thailand until his arrest last year.

Karr insisted that he is more than paying the price for JonBenet's death.

"I dealt with the guilt for 10 years," he told the B.A.R. "We are punished for our sins in various ways. The guilt is beyond expression. To make amends seems futile but it's something I've tried to do in my work with children. I've tried to give back. At the same time, there's an emptiness in my life."

Karr, who lives in Atlanta, said he visits JonBenet's grave in nearby Marietta about once a week.

Karr said that discussing JonBenet's death in detail would be too painful, but he said, "She did not suffer. She felt no pain and she was not afraid."

Karr confirmed that his description to Tracey of how Ramsey died was correct; that she died accidentally after being asphyxiated with a garrote during sexual activity. Karr said he hit Ramsey in the head as a merciful act to ensure that she would not have to live in a vegetative state.

When asked how she could have gone through being asphyxiated and not suffered, Karr said that she was unconscious.

Karr said he revealed more details about the case to the B.A.R . than he has to any other media outlet.

The Boulder County District Attorney's office told the B.A.R . that it would not comment on Karr's recent statements to the media.

When asked about the public perception of him, Karr replied, "You can't expect to be accepted by everyone. I know I am accepted by hardly anyone. I accept that."

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