Killing JonBenet was an accident, says suspect arrested in Thailand

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A former schoolteacher arrested in Thailand for the long-unsolved murder of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey - a wide-eyed, blond-haired girl found strangled in her family's basement in Colorado almost 10 years ago - confessed to the crime yesterday, telling reporters that he loved the child very much and that her killing was "an accident".

According to Thai police, John Mark Karr also admitted drugging the girl and raping her before killing her. As he was paraded before reporters in Bangkok following his arrest by Thai police and members of the US Department of Homeland Security, he stuttered and stammered as he made just a few brief statements.

"I was with JonBenet when she died," he said. "Her death was an accident." Asked if he meant he was innocent of the crime, Mr Karr responded: "No."

The 41-year-old American citizen - who moved to south-east Asia several years ago to avoid facing trial on unrelated child pornography charges - said he had meant to abduct her and demand a ransom from her parents, but that something had gone wrong. JonBenet was found beaten and strangled with duct tape over her mouth.

Mr Karr's arrest is the first big break in a case that captured headlines and American magazine covers for much of the mid-1990s - partly because of the endless photos of JonBenet as a dolled up, almost unbearably cute beauty pageant contestant, and partly because of the shocking manner of her killing, on Boxing Day in 1996.

For years, the girl's own parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, were under what investigators characterised as an "umbrella of suspicion" - eventually pushing them to leave Colorado for their home state of Georgia.

Patsy Ramsey died of ovarian cancer just two months ago, insisting, as she always had, that her daughter was murdered by an unknown intruder.

The biggest stumbling block to making an arrest was the police's inability to find a match for male DNA found under JonBenet's fingernails and inside her underwear.

It was not immediately clear what evidence the authorities have gathered against Mr Karr other than his own confession, but police and prosecutors in Boulder, Colorado, indicated that they had been building their case against him for several months.

Several questions remained unresolved following the first rush of information about the case yesterday. First, it was not clear that Mr Karr had ever lived in Colorado, or how he might have come into contact with the Ramsey family in the first place.

Second, his ex-wife told reporters he was with her in Alabama over the Christmas holidays in 1996 and so could not have committed the murder. Several of Mr Karr's family members indicated that he was obsessed with the JonBenet case, along with a second child murder, that of Polly Klaas, which took place in the same California town - Petaluma - where he lived for much of the 1990s. Mr Karr's 85-year-old father, Wexford Karr, told reporters yesterday that his son had never been to Colorado, but that his detailed knowledge of the case had proved his undoing.

The key figure who led investigators to Mr Karr was a University of Colorado journalism professor called Michael Tracey, who has followed the JonBenet case very closely and made a documentary a few years ago arguing strongly that the parents were innocent of the murder. That documentary, in turn, caused Mr Karr to strike up an e-mail correspondence with Mr Tracey.

Something in the e-mails - it was not made explicit what - prompted Mr Tracey to turn them over to investigators. They, in turn, tracked Mr Karr to Thailand through his e-mail address.

Mr Karr is expected to be extradited back to Boulder in the next week.

News of the former teacher's arrest prompted a renewed surge of public interest in the crime in the college town, with crowds thronging to the Ramseys' old house on 15th Street, as they have many times over the past decade.