American Culture

Daxis, pt. 3: snake on a plane

by Michael Tracey

There had earlier been another development that caught the attention of the local US intelligence services based in the embassy. In July Daxis had told me that he had got a job teaching in an international school and that while there for the interview he had “made some lovely new friends ~ little girls age five…” In a mail on July 13 he mentioned one in particular, adding “I lust for a little five year old at school…” He wrote to me of how he had massaged her bare foot and how she said to him, laughing, “…you’re a monster” except that because of her accent it came out as “monsta.”

DNA

The only rational conclusion was to assume the worst and that he had his next target. Some of the people in the US embassy had young daughters in international schools. Daxis now had their very serious attention since they, like everyone else, were working with the possibility that they were dealing with the person who had tortured to death a six year old girl on the other side of the world.

The new school term would begin on August 15th, and assuming that Daxis was telling the truth about the school, Mark Spray, who had flown to Bangkok as soon as news came of the pick-up, and other American and Malaysian officials put Daxis under 24-hour surveillance. They knew where he lived, having followed him from the drop to his apartment, but they still didn’t know who he was. Mark had managed to get an apartment on the same corridor as Daxis, and to find out who this person was he arranged with the Thai authorities to send two Thai police officers to do a passport check on the complex’s inhabitants, something which is not uncommon. They know which room he’s in, ask to see his passport. Daxis is John Mark Karr.

Then there were two outstanding questions: could they get his DNA and which school was he being employed at? The question of the DNA was crucial because of the “foreign” DNA in the drops of blood in JonBenet’s panties. The question of the school was important in case, in the brief period he had been there in July, a child had been harmed.

Mary Lacy would later be much criticized for not having DNA tests done in Bangkok. There would be much ballyhoo and squealing about this, usually from people who were actually massively relieved that Karr’s DNA did not match since they could then get back to their decade-long accusations against the Ramseys. The fact of the matter was that DNA was gathered in Bangkok, it was just never tested.

The DNA was gathered in two ways. Mark cleaned the door handle to Karr’s apartment so that when he returned and opened the door, with presumably sweaty hands, he would inevitably leave trace samples of DNA. Wearing latex gloves, Mark held the handle tight and, pulling his hand away, inverted the gloves to preserve whatever sweat and skin cells had attached to the door knob. Agents did the same to the handle bars of the mountain bike. There was, in short, a massive amount of DNA that could be tested. The question was, what to do with it, test it there or send it back to Boulder?

The decision on this was made not by Lacy but by the Denver Police Lab’s Greg LeBerge. He insisted that the DNA gathered in Bangkok should not be tested, but that Karr should be brought back so that the sample could be taken under proper, controlled circumstances and so that there could be no question as to how it was gathered or, crucially, about the chain of evidence. I have no way of proving it, but I suspect this was what might be called the “OJ effect.” You will recall that in the Simpson trial Barry Scheck, for the defense, demolished the prosecution’s case by raising all kinds of questions as to how DNA had been gathered, how it had been processed and raising serious doubts about the chain of evidence – that is, who had handled it and when. LeBerge did not want to be Schecked if this was going to trial.

Arrested

The other question had been, which school? From the moment he was identified the decision was made to keep Karr under surveillance until the start of the new term, which would be on August 15th, following a national holiday in the 14th. Karr rose early on the morning of the 15th. Mark, pretending to be a bum, was hanging around in the corridor outside Karr’s door. He could hear the shower. It would stop, and then start again, and again, as Karr was blow drying his hair, rewetting it and blow drying again. In fact, Mark became so frustrated that he started looking for the valve which would cut off the water supply to Karr’s apartment. Finally Karr leaves, mounts his bike and starts to wend his way through the heavy Bangkok traffic, followed by two surveillance cars, in one of which was Mark Spray and other agents and in the other an agent from the Department of Homeland Security, Gary Phillips. There came a point when it seemed they would lose Karr because of the traffic and so Spray and Phillips leapt from the cars and started to run after him. They did so for four miles, but remarkably they kept up and saw him, finally, enter the New Sathorn International School.

It was real, as I knew it would be since, to reiterate, everything about Karr that could be checked out, checked out. It was therefore reasonable to assume that the children that he had mentioned in the emails were real as well.

Karr’s classroom was exactly as he had described it, including a large window overlooking a road. The surveillance team had a clear view of him as he taught his eight students, four of whom were girls. On the evening of his first day he wrote me a long email describing how things had gone, and mentioning that “I have an unusually young girl in my class. She is six but will be seven in September. She’s very affectionate with me. She likes me. I’m not really that attracted to her but I need her badly. I showed her a photo of JonBenet today…” The following day, the 16th in Bangkok, the surveillance team could see him in his classroom with a young girl sitting on his lap. They saw another teacher enter the room and he quickly pushed the girl away.

Spray had seen enough and that night he accompanied Thai police to arrest Karr. They had the manager of the complex knock on his door on the pretext that there was a water leak. As John Mark opened the door, the police entered; one turned and put his hand on Spray’s chest, telling him to wait. When Mark did enter the room he noticed a suitcase by the door, one that turned out to be full of clothes. He asked Karr about this. Karr replied: “I always have a case packed so I can flee at a moment’s notice. That’s how I live.”

The Canker Afflicting Contemporary Journalism

August 16, Boulder. It didn’t take long for news of the arrest to break. The calls began. Not just from US television and radio but from all over the planet. My office phone’s voice mail became full in what seemed like an instant. The CU switchboard, the SJMC’s phone lines, all were under siege. Then my cell, all of this within a matter of hours.

It occurred to me later that I can’t recall giving out my cell phone number but an awful lot of people seemed to have it in an awfully short time. But then, in the bizarre intensity of today’s media, these people can find out the colour of your jockey shorts and how long you’ve been wearing them without breaking a sweat.

There were so many calls in the days following the arrest that my partner, Jen, became an unpaid, but rather good, press secretary, fielding calls on her cell as well as mine. The fact that there were so many requests for interviews came as no great surprise: JonBenet does that. One did surprise me however. It was a request from the BBC’s august ~ at least it used to be ~ Radio Four. Here, if ever, was evidence of the extent of the canker afflicting contemporary journalism.

Journalists and camera crews wandered up and down the corridors of the School. One of the film crews from Japan ( there were several) asked Dona Olivier, who has a desk outside my office, if they could film my door. Understand, it’s not even a special door – no ornamental flourishes, no unique wood, just an ordinary, utilitarian office door which they had come 12,000 miles to film.

Geraldo Rivera’s people sent a crew to film what I refer to as my down town office, The Hungry Toad. The New York Times turned up, as did the Los Angeles Times. Actually, the reporter from the LA Times, who had flown up from Texas and clearly didn’t want to be there, turned out to be someone with whom one could have an interesting conversation, in this case about the condition of newspapers ~ not good, we agreed.

Every local paper, TV channel and radio station called repeatedly. Calls came in from Australia, Canada, the UK, Germany… In fact, we lost track. For all I know Iceland could have called. I received a call from the local newspaper in the town I grew up in, the Oldham Chronicle. It is difficult to think of a major network show that didn’t request an interview. The London Times, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, various British tabloids.

One of the things we discovered was that when they really want to put the pressure on for an interview they get “the star” to call. I remember one moment in the scrum that followed Lacy’s press conference (of which more in a moment) when a young field producer slid over to Jen and handed her a cell and said, “Matt Lauer wants to talk to you…” To which Jen replied that she had zero interest in talking to Mr. Lauer.

My own personal favorite was receiving a call from Larry King, who was, as he called, picking his boys up at school. He really wanted me to go on his show; he was the only major interview show that I agreed to ~ unless you include Wolf Blitzer, who interrupted his war coverage and interviewed me from a sand dune in Iraq.

The truly fascinating figures were the field producers sent out by all the major networks and the cable news stations. Invariably young, they weren’t just hungry, they were ravenous, ruthless and determined. They would call, cajole, beg, offer money (“…we’d like to offer you a network consultancy…” She was from Fox, and so I thought, maybe not.) The CNN field producer, a nice, affable but determined man, was particularly intense in trying to persuade me to be interviewed. He had one curious habit that perplexed me for a while. We would be talking, I’d make a point, and he would say “Roger.” It happened several times and I began to think to myself, “who the hell is Roger?” It turned out he was ex-military so what he was saying in fact was “roger that.”

“You’ve been accused of writing a book…”

Mary Lacy held a press conference on August 17, outside the Justice Center. She didn’t say very much but there was a great throng of reporters, producers, camera crews. It was the kind of sight that we’ve become used to whenever OJ or Michael Jackson are put on trial (for the record, I wrote this before OJ’s arrest on armed robbery charges), or the “runaway bride” explains herself or Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan gets arrested again, or Madonna turns up with another baby, or Angelina and Brad buy Zimbabwe or the latest Christian evangelical leader turns out to be a part time drag queen.

For my sins I chose to go and watch, which on reflection was probably a mistake, since after Mary had departed, surrounded by Nagel, McGuire and Bennett, I suddenly found myself in the middle of that scrum. It is a curiously interesting experience, having questions being barked from all around you, not wanting to answer them, knowing, and regretting, that I’d become part of the spectacle.

One comment that was thrown at me was by a local attorney, former prosecutor, radio talk show host and long time Ramsey accuser. He said, “…you’ve been accused of writing a book…” It was a quite remarkably stupid comment, and in a way slightly fascist in its hint that books that would arouse hostility should not be written. I suggested that, as a professor with tenure in a research university, who has written a number of books over the years, it is not only what I do but what I’m expected to do. The subtext, the one that so many people loathed, was that they knew that the book I had been working on, essentially based on the documentaries that David Mills and I had made, would be arguing that the media got the story wrong, overdid it and that the evidence was overwhelming that an intruder killed JonBenet. Oh, how they did not want to hear this, how they wanted to continue their corrosive loathing of John and Patsy. I admit to a certain pleasure, immature perhaps, in goading them.

There was, however, a real issue of how to respond to the questions; what, if anything, to say? I’d discussed this with John Ramsey some time before, and we’d agreed on what I suppose might be described as a strategy. John, as much as anyone on the planet, understands what it is like to be accused by the media, willy-nilly, absent any meaningful evidence, year in, year out, of the most odious act, being complicit in killing your own child. He, like few others, also knows what it is like to have trashed that most precious right, allegedly guaranteed under the Constitution, to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, trashed because it is less important than the entertainment, and therefore ratings and circulation, value of the accusation.

It was quite clear that there was brewing that sense in the public mind that since he had been arrested, Karr must therefore be guilty and a deeply dangerous psychopath. When the Thai Airways flight landed in Los Angeles reporters were asking passengers whether they had felt in any danger with Karr on their flight. What exactly did they think was going to happen, did they imagine that this slight male would overcome both Mark Spray and Gary Phillips, who were returning Karr to the U.S., take it over and fly it to Cuba? The most appalling illustration, however, of how his rights were being trampled would be the New York Post’s front page photo of Karr on the flight back, with the large print caption, “snake on a plane,” taking its cue from a recent, bad movie.

I decided that the moment was perfect to make a point by not. This may sound a tad Zen, but what I mean is that the one question that I was being repeatedly asked was whether I thought Karr was guilty of the things he had claimed, specifically sexual relations with many young girls and, the most horrendous claim, that he had killed JonBenet. To each and every question I had a simple reply, that I had no comment, that he had a right to be presumed innocent, a right that had never been extended to the Ramseys. John Ramsey would say the same thing.

It was, to those asking, an infuriating response. Why can’t you just say what you think? Come on, he’s guilty, isn’t he? I was quite clear, and determined, that I would use the platform of interviews to make this simple point. I told King’s producers, Wolf Blitzer’s people, in fact anyone who wanted a interview that this was all I would say. It didn’t matter: one, because they thought that I would be pressured into saying more, and two, they just wanted to be seen doing the interview. Substance was less important.

One final thought on this. It is difficult not to like King; he is very much a gentleman, not shrill like so many other interviewers, shrewd but not full of rancor even when he didn’t get what he wanted.

The press coverage was huge and global. Some of it was shrill, some of it balanced. Karr’s every move was followed. Business class on the flight back from Bangkok was packed with journalists. Helicopters hovered over LAX as he was being transferred to the plane used by the Governor of Colorado. News copters were also over the Boulder County jail. It was an amazing, but deeply troubling spectacle.

Released

Later, after Karr had been released, on August 28th, because his DNA didn’t match that found on JonBenet, there would be the inevitable attacks on me and Lacy, particularly in two ridiculously long pieces: one in Westword, a local free paper that seems to make much of its revenue from small ads for prostitutes and gay male escort services, and the other in a Denver glossy magazine, 5280.

This latter was written by a recent graduate of the School, Cheryl Myers, and when she asked to talk to me she referenced the fact that she was an alumna. Who was I to say no, and in the end I gave her a lot of time. The piece that emerged, and that I admit I did not see coming, was an extremely aggressive attack on me, which to this day I don’t fully understand.

A colleague, who didn’t read it until August 2007 while sitting in his dentist’s waiting room, described it as reading like a piece written by a 13 year old girl who hates her father. It was in the category of what one might call uber~bitch journalism. Indeed, if one could tap in to the bile that flows through that young lady’s veins you could open a bottling plant the size of Coors brewery in Golden, Colorado.

The chair of her masters committee and a faculty member who felt that she had been a mentor to Myers let it be known to her that they were ashamed that she was one of our graduates. I have no doubt she will do very well.

Next: Meanings

INDEX

2 replies »

  1. Honestly, i didn’t think that this would be very interesting at first…but that almost certainly stems from the Jon-Benet overload that, apparently, still affects me. I was wrong. I’ve now gone back and read the whole thing (twice for a few of them) and i’m hooked.

    Of course, now i’ll never be able to watch one of those Hollywood serial killer flicks without thinking how the actual scenario would probably go.

    Thanks to S&R and Mr. Tracy

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