Going for the Girls?

John Mark Karr, who says he “loved” but killed JonBenet Ramsey in 1996, gets nabbed in Bangkok, a popular destination for pedophiles. That connection sounds a little too pat

john-mark-karrSlouched in a black armchair at a rancorous Bangkok press briefing, John Mark Karr looks feeble and spineless. The 41-year-old American wears pleated belt-less khakis pulled up nearly to his rib cage and a tucked-in Aqua-blue golf shirt. Though reporters are shouting questions from a few feet away, he says little. He wants to talk to the press, then he doesn’t, then he changes his mind again. He opens his mouth and then just looks at the reporters. When he finally does talk, he stammers: "I ... I loved JonBenet, and she died accidentally."

When I've seen other pedophiles being dragged out by the police, they often look down and try to cover their faces. Not John Mark Karr. I shouted to him: "Did you kill JonBenet Ramsey?" His eyes darted in my direction, and met mine with a cold, penetrating stare. Whether he’s guilty or not, this guy's certainly not someone you want lurking around the playground.

I remember the last time I heard an old guy say he was in love with a little girl. That was in Phnom Penh two years ago, when a Cambodian court acquitted a 73-year-old Austrian man of raping a little girl since she was 9 years old. The reason? He said he loved her and wanted to marry her. Sicker still, the girl's parents drove her to meet him frequently because he bought them a new house.

Shocking? Hell yeah. That's an extreme case, but creepy guys are crawling all over Southeast Asia. It's no secret as to why: sex is cheap, readily available and relatively low risk. Guys who can't get girls in their home countries can shell out a few bucks and suddenly be loved by a hottie half his age—or a lot younger—over here. For sicker types who get caught, the justice systems are malleable.

At the same time, a lot of decent expats are walking around Southeast Asia too. And some of them, like myself, sometimes end up with decent Asian girls. Unfortunately, it’s hard for foreigners who haven’t lived here to tell the difference. When I first started dating my Thai girlfriend more than a year ago, a female American colleague new to Asia told me I had "the white man's disease." Yeah, it's sick to fall for a gorgeous, intelligent, interesting Asian woman.

But why shouldn't she believe that a white man attracted to an Asian represents some sort of fetish? Media outlets are salivating for anything that even remotely links Karr to Thailand’s sex industry. Did he indulge in the sex trade? Did he leer at students? Did he visit Pat Pong or Soi Cowboy or any of Bangkok’s other lurid sex districts? As the AP wrote in a story yesterday from Bangkok titled “Povery Enables Child Sex Exploitation,” the proverbial “spotlight” now shines on Thailand.

Most Thais are unaware that Karr’s arrest is bad for the country’s image. In fact, many thought it might look good that Thai police nabbed him. To them, Karr is just another “crazy farang” who makes them shudder with disgust. The immigration police chief, thrilled that he landed such a big fish, told Thai reporters that schools should be more careful when they hire foreigners.

On the other side of the world, millions of Americans who probably couldn’t locate Thailand on a map are watching the news and thinking: Bangkok is where child sex offenders go to live. Never mind that Karr was not charged with a crime here. Never mind that he did nothing to arouse suspicion here. Never mind that US officials said he “traveled extensively” across the world and had also recently visited Malaysia. He was caught here, so the world wants to know about Bangkok’s seedy side.

For sure, there is much to tell. Thailand’s sex industry employs tens of thousands of sex workers and brings in billions of dollars a year. Whether it be ping pong shows or dart shooters, ladyboys or blow job bars, Pattaya or Patong Beach—sex is for sale nearly everywhere. And though most of the entertainment is geared for Thai men, foreigners looking for younger girls can also get their fix.

The place to go in Asia for underage girls used to be Svay Pak, a village outside of Phnom Penh known to sex-pats as K11 for its 11-kilometer distance from Cambodia’s capital. Before Cambodian officials finally shut it down last year, visitors could easily pick up girls as young as 10. Khmers justified it because the girls were mostly trafficked from Vietnam. Periodic raids typically yielded some arrests, but the notorious brothels were always open for business the next day.

Moreover, Cambodia has plenty of middle-aged men who just look like pedophiles. What does a child molester look like? You know it when you see it. I remember flying to remote Ratanakkiri in Cambodia’s northwest with a Khmer colleague a few years back when we suddenly spotted a hulking bearded man wearing a large hat fashioned out of stuffed toy lion. While that would’ve been weird enough, he was traveling with two young boys. The obvious first thought? Pedophile. But then I scolded myself for making a flash judgement: maybe he was an NGO worker. A few weeks later, my colleague ran into the newsroom holding a newspaper with a front-page picture and of the man and his memorable hat: he had been nabbed. He was indeed a pedophile.

Although it takes a lot to shock someone who lives here, it’s never comfortable watching the fat 50-year-old German guy sitting at the end of the bar suck down a Tiger with one hand while the other is firmly implanted on the ass of some younger girl. It still sickens me. But go to any red light district in Western countries and you will likely find a variation of the same thing.

Many first-time visitors to Phnom Penh are repulsed by the large number of prostitutes. But the story isn’t so black and white. What Westerners usually don’t realize is that many girls choose prostitution because they have no other way to make money. Tourists also don’t know that their tax dollars helped bring AIDS to Cambodia. Back in the early 1990s, the United Nations stuffed millions of dollars into the pockets of “peace-keeping” soldiers from countries all over the world. What did those foreigners buy with all that cash? Tons of sex.

Just as foreigners buy sex in Southeast Asa in droves, stories about sex sell, which journalists know all too well. To many, John Mark Karr represents a huge cash register. The story already had everything the tabloids love: six-year-old beauty queen, 10-year investigation, possible child rape. Then, miraculously, Karr shows up in Bangkok, telling reporters that he loved JonBenet and her death was an accident. Ka-ching!

And possibly too good to be true. Holes have started appearing in Karr’s story. His former wife said the two spent Christmas together in Alabama in 1996, which would make it nearly impossible for him to be in Colorado at the time of the murder. Reports also claim that Karr said he drugged the girl, even though investigators found no evidence to support that. The Boulder Country DA is urging everyone to not “jump to conclusions.”

Too late. Conclusions—about John Mark Karr, about Bangkok’s lurid sex industry, about child sex in Asia—were made even before the suspect said anything. Americans will express moral outrage about pedophilia—as well they should—while rewarding those who come up with the most sensational stories available. Context can wait. Just as with the sex industry, when Western newspapers hand out easy cash, it’s hard not to give ‘em what they want.

DNA evidence should tell soon enough whether John Mark Karr killed JonBenet Ramsey. He’ll leave Thailand soon, and the spotlight will shift to Boulder. Journalists here will eat a little better, the girls will still dance naked, and I’ll have a lot more explaining to do about my life in Thailand when I see my family and friends at Christmas.

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