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Published on August 27, 2006
© 2006- The Press Democrat




In the summer of 2000, after moving across the country from Alabama to Petaluma, John Mark Karr told acquaintances that he stopped in Boulder, Colo., to visit the house where JonBenet Ramsey had been discovered slain four years earlier.
``He said his wife and kids got mad because he diverted the trip,'' said Dennis Melfa, who got to know Karr in Petaluma at a class for adults joining the Catholic church.

Karr said his family had been upset because he parked them in a motel for a full day ``while he went out and walked around the grounds of JonBenet's house, and touched the house and felt things, and got a feel for the place,'' said Melfa, 59.
``He said it was for research for his book,'' Melfa said. Today, Karr, who was briefly a substitute teacher in Petaluma and a student teacher and substitute in Napa, sits in Boulder County Jail, about 5 miles from the former Ramsey home, facing charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping and sexual assault in connection with the 1996 killing. Arrested in Thailand, Karr has said he was with the former child beauty queen when she died at age 6, but that her death was an accident. People including Karr's family members and his estranged ex-wife, still a Petaluma resident, have publicly doubted his confession. The recollections of Melfa and others who knew Karr locally shed no new light on whether the 41-year-old Georgia native killed Ramsey. But they further illustrate the depths of his apparent obsession with young girls and their murders, and they also fill in a few more blanks in the portrait of an enigmatic figure. Melfa and Karr met in August 2000 in a Rite of Christian Initiation class they attended once a week at the St. Vincent De Paul Catholic Church.

During introductions at the group's first meeting, Melfa mentioned his involvement with a San Francisco barbershop chorus. Karr said he was a singer, too, and not long after Melfa took him to a tryout. Karr, a tenor, did well and was asked to return. The way Karr presented himself impressed the group, the San Francisco Cable Car Chorus, as much as his voice. ``He was the kind of guy who was always, like, on a performance, so they loved him,'' Melfa said. ``He wanted to be the center of attention,'' said Camilla Edwards, 74, a former nun and teacher who led the church class. ``In the group, he did a lot of talking. He wanted to make himself known,'' Edwards said. Occasionally, she said, Karr would visit her in her church office to talk, ``about life in general.'' Topics covered his marriage, his children, his work as a substitute teacher in Petaluma and his students, but offered no indications of darker fixations. ``He was very dependent,'' she said. ``He had a lot of needs that didn't seem to be fulfilled. And that isn't the case with most of the people I work with. We may help them, but we don't necessarily find them that dependent on us.'' Karr drove a Jaguar, Melfa said, a fairly new model, and dressed ``like he had money.'' However, court records of the Karrs' 2001 divorce show his wife brought in the bulk of the family's earnings. Melfa is a real estate broker, and Karr soon asked for his help getting information about a particular house near Wickersham Park in Petaluma. The Fourth Street Victorian wasn't on the market, but Karr told Melfa that ``he really liked the house and maybe they'd be interested in selling.'' Melfa gave Karr details about the home's square footage and its owners. It was the house where Polly Klaas was abducted in 1993 by Richard Allen Davis, who later murdered her. Davis now sits on Death Row for the crime and as Melfa only later discovered, Karr was as fascinated by Polly Klaas' murder as he was with the Ramsey case. Karr's interest in Davis spurred his contacts with Wendy Hutchens, whose e-mail records and taped recordings of their exchanges were part of an investigation that led to Karr's Sonoma County arrest, on April 3, 2001, on charges of possessing child pornography. Karr spent about six months in Sonoma County Jail, a time when he challenged the legality of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department search of his two-story home on Addison Drive that turned up a computer containing images of child pornography.

His arrest turned most of the church group against Karr, said Melfa and Edwards, who both visited him behind bars. Melfa visited twice, once bringing novels to Karr. ``I wanted to try and figure out whether he was guilty or not, and I couldn't really tell,'' Melfa said. He recalled that Karr ``was frightened'' and insistent that he had been set up by Hutchens because he had been pressuring her to put him in touch with Davis. Edwards said she visited Karr to help him complete the class work that was required in order to be baptized. He had missed the group's baptism ceremony, which took place after he was jailed, she said. ``He was very disappointed by that,'' Edwards said. Karr was baptized in a room that Edwards recalled as serving as a jail chapel. After Karr was released from jail in October, he began attending the 5 p.m. Saturday Mass at St. Vincent De Paul's. He hitchhiked or took a bus from Santa Rosa, where he had arranged to trade labor for rent, Melfa said. Karr stayed at the Bennett Valley home of Herb Willsmore, 60. Willsmore said a friend at the church had referred Karr to him. ``He crawled under the house and put in a water line; it was pretty good work,'' said Willsmore, who is disabled. ``He was always wanting to talk. ``One of my attendants said she thought he was a really strange person,'' he recalled. In Petaluma, Melfa, at Edwards' urging, once took Karr home for dinner. Karr said he preferred chardonnay -- a taste he also displayed this week in his flight from Thailand to Los Angeles -- and ``he drank the whole bottle,'' Melfa said. That was when Melfa learned of Karr's obsession with JonBenet, and when Karr related the story of stopping in Boulder to visit the Ramsey home. At dinner, Melfa said, Karr also said he was thinking about starting a church in San Francisco fashioned after ``one those Jim Bakker, great big revival type things.'' ``He figured with all those homeless, and all those lost souls in San Francisco, that he could lead them and really become something big doing that,'' Melfa said. Melfa didn't go to the next Saturday Mass because ``I didn't want to have to deal with him,'' he said. He met up with Karr once more, though, when Karr showed up at his front door at dinnertime. Soon after, Karr told Willsmore -- with whom he'd discussed getting a passport, perhaps to travel to Ireland -- that he was going to visit a friend in Rohnert Park.

He failed to appear at a December court hearing on the child pornography charges. He was never seen again in Sonoma County. You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or

PHOTO: mug: John Mark Karr


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