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Why Did John Mark Karr Confess Murder In Thailand?

Why Did John Mark Karr Confess Murder In Thailand?

by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- When John Mark Karr stepped out of his grungy room on Si Bamphen street, delicious scents of grilled food wafted in Bangkok's sweaty air, while coquettish male and female prostitutes vogued on the sidewalk and taxis offered rides towards greater sleaze, inexpensive ease, and shopping malls' air-conditioned breeze.

Before his shock revelations on Thursday (August 17) claiming he was with JonBenet Ramsey in her parents' basement where her six-year-old body was found beaten and strangled, Karr would have attracted little attention with his wan, metrosexual demeanor, slight build, blue eyes and high hairline.

The gritty, decadent ambiance of Si Bamphen was recently upgraded to include trendy venues for Thai and foreign homosexuals and yuppies who delight in its smattering of upmarket gay clubs, polished hotels and elegant restaurants, alongside cheap outdoor cafes, crummy one-room accommodation such as Karr's, and budget travel agencies.

Bangkok offers its seedy and opulent charms with a blush and snicker, promising the best and worst amid pampered-to-the-max comfort, gorgeous decor, and only the occasional sound of a threatening slit.

Karr repeatedly came to Thailand where he enjoyed this Southeast Asian nation's relatively low cost of living for Americans and others from wealthier countries, and its don't-ask-don't-tell "never mind" social etiquette which allows plenty of privacy and vice, especially if no harm is done and discretion is kept.

Bangkok also offers pleasurable ways for fugitives such as Karr to cool their heels, including some of world's finest cuisine, priced from one U.S. dollar on up.

But Bangkok is both naughty and nice, and attracts millions of clean living, fun-loving families, honeymooners, students, and others drawn by Thailand's temples and cultural fare, tropical beaches and mountain tribes.

In contrast to some Asian, African and Middle East holiday zones where males dominate the streets and service industries, Thailand's public face appears overwhelmingly female because girls and women are allowed in this tolerant, hedonistic, Buddhist society to play key roles in the bustling economy.

Amid the glitz, countless tourists target Bangkok for its raucous sex, drugs and techno music, which starts pulsating when taxi drivers offer colorful brochures of scantily clad masseuses.

Foreign men are so enthusiastic about bedding Thai females that Lyle Walter, a self-described "white woman," lamented in her Bangkok Post column on August 11 that when males, including professionals, go out in the evening, "it frequently does mean, 'I'm going to have some beers with Jim while naked vixens are writhing about on the glass ceiling above us.'

"There aren't too many bars with that feature back home in the States. Makes pole-dancing look downright quaint, doesn't it?" she noted.

That sometimes ends with police barging into strip-tease bars and nightclubs, demanding tourists and Thais perform immediate urine tests for drugs.

Nevertheless, Bangkok's cheap thrills distort social norms, something criminals and law-abiding citizens exploit.

People also receive help reinventing themselves here.

Thousands of male Thais, and an increasing number of foreign men, have undergone sex change operations over the past several years in Bangkok, often to compete as prostitutes, but also including transsexuals who are accepted among surprisingly blase Thais in offices and other work places.

Karr and those who dwell in the criminal underworld can depend on popular street markets where counterfeit identification cards -- including fake drivers licenses, press cards, and student i.d.s -- are openly sold by yelping touts.

Backroom deals offer false or stolen passports, visas, university degrees, bank statements and other documentation.

Karr's U.S. passport was valid, and he was granted a Thai tourist visa.

But when Thai police busted a counterfeit gang on June 16 in Bangkok, the documents they recovered included 82 fake U.S. visas, an American embassy official said.

"Bangkok is among top forgery sites due to a variety of reasons: availability of experts, international transportation links, and a comparatively friendly operating environment," the embassy official said in response to e-mailed questions about the raid, while asking not to be named.

"We routinely see the seizure of forged -- photo substituted -- U.S. passports in Bangkok in small numbers by individuals of different nationalities seeking to enter the U.S.

"In total, there has been a combined seizure of 15 to 20 photo-substituted U.S. passports in several police raids over the past two years," the American embassy official said.

Bangkok has suffered several international murderers wallowing under its pleasure domes.

In the 1970s, "Bikini Killer" Charles Sobhraj, a French citizen, lured foreign backpackers into his apartment near Sri Bamphen, and to Pattaya beach, to allegedly drug, rob and sometimes kill, during his serial murder spree across Asia.

Sobhraj now languishes in a Kathmandu, Nepal prison for murdering two foreigners in that Himalayan nation.

Three Saudi hijackers, who died in the September 11, 2001 attack on the Pentagon, escaped CIA surveillance by traveling to an al Qaeda meeting in Bangkok before flying to America, according to the U.S. government's 9/11 Commission Report.

The CIA's failure to continue following the suspects in and out of Bangkok in 2000 was described in the 585-page report under a section titled: "A Lost Trail in Southeast Asia".

Karr flew into town to teach children at some of Bangkok's most prestigious schools, and briefly worked in an elementary school at Bangkok Christian College, and St. Joseph's Convent, but was rejected for permanent hire.

Karr knew teaching English is one of the easiest ways for tourists from America, England, Australia and other English-speaking countries to finance and extend their stay.

Some foreign English teachers live in Bangkok for years working illegally, dodging Thai income tax and work permit regulations, while traveling in and out of Thailand every 90 days to renew their tourist visas.

Thailand's education system is so ill-funded and poorly staffed, that parents are pleased when schools or tutors include English-speakers such as Karr, and turn a blind eye to their qualifications.

Karr's murder confession did not answer key questions, and may instead be a dumb plot by a would-be author obsessed with Ramsey.

Ironic twists and false claims are typical of Bangkok, where public displays of lies and corruption are rife, and even Thailand's prime minister was deemed to have presided over an "illegal" nationwide election in April, which now has to be sorted out through fresh polls.

Illusion and theatrics are all part of people's behavior in this city of six million.

Some claim prostitution is so popular here because Thai bar girls pretend to be romantic girl friends for their customers, who are eager to enter fantasy relationships -- including tours to the girls' rural villages -- activities sometimes more valuable to clients than sex.

When things go wrong, unscrupulous foreigners who pursue pedophilia, extortion, gangland slayings, human trafficking and other taboos are not the only ones to blame.

Thais also commit horrendous crimes, including murder, against each other and against foreigners, including a slew of recent East-killed-West cases.

The body of Englishman Toby Charnaud, 41, was recently hacked up and roasted on charcoal in a Thai national park, and then scattered for animals to devour after he divorced his Thai wife who accrued gambling debts, a Bangkok court heard during a trial earlier this month.

In July, a jealous Thai man in Bangkok allegedly stabbed to death a New Zealand teacher, Leonard Timothy Healey, 32, over a dispute involving Healey's 19-year-old Thai girlfriend.


Copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich, who has reported news from Asia for the past 28 years, 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. His web page is

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