Monday, August 21, 2006

BOULDER, Colo. — It was shocking when authorities arrested a suspect last week in the JonBenet Ramsey killing, but in some ways, it’s more surprising that it didn’t happen years ago.

John Mark Karr, the 41-year-old schoolteacher who has said he was with JonBenet when she died in 1996, tangled with California authorities five years ago after telling an acquaintance that he broke into the Ramsey house the night of the slaying.

Wendy Hutchens of Roseville, Calif., told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and KRON-TV in San Francisco that she contacted Sonoma County authorities five years ago after Karr told her that he met JonBenet at the family’s Christmas party, then sneaked back into the house that night through a downstairs storm window.

Mrs. Hutchens said she alerted the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department and recorded her conversations with Karr as evidence. Authorities later searched Karr’s Petaluma home and found enough evidence to charge Karr with five counts of child-pornography possession. He served six months in jail before leaving the United States.

Sonoma and Boulder county authorities would not comment on the woman’s accusations, nor whether the Sonoma County office ever contacted the Boulder prosecutor about a connection to the Ramsey slaying.

Karr, who arrived in Los Angeles early yesterday morning after a 15-hour flight from Bangkok, is scheduled to appear in court today for an extradition hearing. If he waives extradition, he could be in Boulder as early as tomorrow to face charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping and sexual assault on a child.

Karr has made no secret of his obsession with JonBenet. He initiated e-mail conversations about the Ramsey case with both Mrs. Hutchens and a University of Colorado professor, and discussed the case with strangers, including a Boulder hiker who recalls meeting the suspect in Paris.

That Sonoma County officials knew about Karr’s link to the case and apparently failed to notify Boulder County prosecutors could indicate that they thought his claims had little merit, said Denver lawyer and analyst Scott Robinson.

“They must have discounted what he had to say because it doesn’t look like they ever contacted Boulder,” Mr. Robinson said. “If it does turn out he’s the guy, then they’ve got some heavy explaining to do.”

Mrs. Hutchens said Karr initially contacted her because of his interest in the case of Polly Klaas, the Petaluma girl who was killed in 1993. Mrs. Hutchens was a childhood acquaintance of the killer in that case, Richard Allen Davis, whom Karr was eager to meet.

Karr said that he sent letters to Davis, prompting officers to search the convicted murderer’s death-row cell at San Quentin over the weekend for evidence.

Mrs. Hutchens said she has 20 hours of taped phone conversations and e-mails from Karr. Her name also appears on a judge’s order granting Karr supervised release after he served his jail term.

In a recording played for a Press Democrat reporter, a man with a Southern accent called JonBenet’s death “accidental.” At last week’s press conference in Thailand, Karr said the girl’s death was “an accident.”

“How would that person apologize for such an atrocity?” the caller says. “Would that person say, ‘I strangled your daughter and it was so accidental and I was so afraid?’”

Mrs. Hutchens said she regretted that the man who could be JonBenet’s killer was set free. “Five years ago he was sitting in jail. It just breaks my heart,” she said. “I felt so bad for the Ramseys. If there was a possibility that he did it, I wanted them to investigate him.”

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