Crime and media

Published : Sep 22, 2006 00:00 IST

IN BOULDER, COLORADO, John Mark Karr's public defender drives away from the County Justice Centre with the press trailing him. -

IN BOULDER, COLORADO, John Mark Karr's public defender drives away from the County Justice Centre with the press trailing him. -

Tabloids in London report crime with such intensity and passion that one would imagine that the city is an extremely dangerous place to live in.

AT least one of my devoted readers has been complaining to me for quite some time that I do not write often enough about crime. Also, even when I dwell on crime, I am told it is all about theories and not on actual cases that had haunted victims and unsuccessful police officers unable to track down the offenders. I am sure what I put down this fortnight will at least partially satisfy those who are looking for an Agatha Christie in me!

I am still away from home and am amused by the obsession with crime of the visual and print media, including the venerable BBC and The Times. (`Victims sob as Shoe Rapist is jailed' and `Woman of 83 tried to set fire to neighbour's house' were two prominent stories in a recent issue of The Times!) The tabloids report crime with such intensity and passion that one would imagine that London, if not the whole of Europe, is an extremely dangerous place to live. The number of afternoon papers distributed free to the more than two or three million commuters on the underground keeps rising by the day. The one titled thelondonpaper from Rupert Murdoch has just hit the city. All these papers thrive on crime and sleaze and are gobbled up by those on the tube scurrying back home after a hard day's work and need some diversion.

Two bizarre occurrences - one of March 1998 and the other of December 1996 - have suddenly sprung to life, though for different reasons. In the former, an Austrian girl kidnapped from a Vienna suburb and confined wrongfully for more than eight years managed to escape recently from her captor and tell the world of her harrowing experience. In the second episode, an unsolved murder of a Baby Beauty Queen in Boulder (Colorado) seemed for a while to have been nearly worked out with the confession and arrest of a U.S. schoolteacher in Bangkok. Intriguingly, the confession turned out to be a hoax and the product of an obsessed mind. Both cases have received extensive coverage in the media, drawing worldwide attention to the contours of modern crime. They also highlight the dimensions of child victimisation, a subject that is yet to stir the average Indian.

The Austrian girl, Nastascha Kampusch, was hardly eight years old when she was kidnapped on her way to school, dragged into a white van and whisked away to an unknown destination. Nothing was heard of her until late August this year when she managed to escape from the apartment where her aggressor, Wolfgang Priklopil, a 36-year-old technician generally described as "reclusive", had confined her. The girl is yet to recover from her trauma, having lost most of her precious childhood. As I write this, her parents are yet to meet her. There is a police version that she does not want to meet them. Can there be anything more heart rending? Some leaks, possibly from police conversations with her, and her own sober statement to the media in the form of a prepared text give glimpses of her plight.

Nastascha was kept in a dingy windowless basement in Priklopil's house in the Vienna suburb of Strasshof. She did have a few comforts such as books, a radio and a television set. She was allowed to watch a few videos. During her confinement she learnt how to knit. But her only contact with the rest of humanity was Priklopil. It is not very clear how he treated the young prisoner. It is still not known whether he abused her physically. This will be known only after her lengthy interviews with psychologists.

The Austrian Police did their best to trace her. They looked for her on all known pornographic Internet sites. From time to time they also released computer images depicting her at various stages of her life since she was kidnapped. Very recently, they dug up an animal cemetery on a tip-off from a convict that Nastascha was buried there. Interestingly, Priklopil was one of the nearly 1,000 white van drivers the police questioned because eyewitness accounts had spoken of such a van having picked up the girl. Priklopil was let off because there was nothing that incriminated him. This fact alone would indicate how chance plays a huge role in police investigations. It is not enough to be perseverant. You need to be lucky as well.

It is not clear why Nastascha was not able to contact anyone for eight years to secure her release. She managed to escape on August 23 in an unguarded moment when Priklopil moved away from the garage (where Nastascha was vacuum cleaning the interior of his BMW car) to take a telephone call. She went into a neighbour's place where she explained who she was and made the old lady there call the police. Priklopil knew his goose was cooked and within minutes of Nastascha's exit committed suicide by throwing himself before a commuter train in Vienna. Unfortunately, because of this we have to depend solely on the girl's account of the whole period during which she was held against her will. A lot will depend on the stability of her mental condition. It is a pity that we will not know what motivated Priklopil to do what he did.

I am most impressed by the analysis of various experts on the possible impact of the abnormal confinement on Nastascha's personality. According to some, it is possible that she nurses a strong grievance against her parents that they did not do anything to rescue her, a wrong impression that would be hard to erase from a fragile and wounded mind. There is one uncorroborated report that she wept on hearing of Priklopil's death. If this were true, it could be attributed to the so-called Stockholm syndrome where long association with the aggressor leads on to misplaced sympathy. There is nothing to indicate that her captor's end grieved Nastascha. But she was definitely not jubilant; something that would have been logical if one considers the deprivation she had been subjected to. Her statement to the media best summed up her reaction to Priklopil's death:

"In my eyes, his death was not necessary. It would not be the end of the world if he had simply been given a prison sentence. He has been a big part of my life, and as a result I do feel I am in a sort of mourning for him. It is true that my youth was different to the youth of others, but in principle I don't feel I missed anything. On the contrary, there are certain things I avoided, having nothing to do with smoking or drinking to start off with, and I didn't meet the wrong friends."

The exact nature of the Priklopil-Nastascha relationship will be hard to unravel. It is possible that in the years to come some imaginative movie producer will exploit the bizarre episode and come out with his own perceptions. Incidentally, there is information that a book, The Collector, written by John Fowles in the 1960s describes an incident similar to Nastascha's kidnapping. The hapless girl in that novel, Miranda, did not, however, manage to escape from custody.

Crime watchers all over the world and those for whom protecting children's right to safety and care is paramount were delighted when, on August 16, John Mark Karr, a 41-year-old schoolteacher originally from Atlanta (Georgia), confessed to have had something to do with the death of JonBenet Ramsey, a six-year-old girl of Boulder (Colorado) on Christmas Day in 1996. JonBenet was a prominent participant at local beauty pageants. Naturally, her alleged murder drew nationwide press coverage. There were several speculations surrounding the incident, including the complicity of her family.

On the morning after Christmas, JonBenet's mother Patricia Ramsey found her daughter missing from home. She stumbled on a ransom note that demanded $118,000 for the girl's release. Although the note warned the parents against going to the police, the latter were alerted. A few hours thereafter JonBenet's body, wrapped in white cloth, was found in the basement of the Ramsey residence by a friend of the Ramseys who had been permitted by the police to look for anything suspicious in the building.

An autopsy revealed that the girl had been strangled. She had also suffered a skull fracture. A nylon cord and the handle of a paint brush were suspected to have been used to commit the crime. It was probable that she had also been subjected to a sexual assault.

From the beginning the Ramseys maintained that there had been an intruder who had committed the ghastly murder. Support to this theory came from the discovery of two dissimilar footprints in the wine cellar where the body was found. These did not match any of the shoes in the household. There was also an untraced third print on the outer part of the window of the room by the cellar. Finally, there were marks on the body that suggested the use of a stun gun.

As against this, there was also evidence that weakened the intruder theory. This came primarily from a Hi-Tec boot mark near JonBenet's body on the floor of the cellar, which was traced to her brother Burke who was nine at that time. Also found was a palm print on the door leading to the cellar. This was identified as that of JonBenet's adult half-sister Melinda Ramsey, who was living in Georgia.

The police were all along sceptical of the Ramseys' assertion that the murder was the work of an outsider seeking money. They were looking at one speculation that the mother had, in a moment of anger at the girl having wetted her bed, dealt her a severe blow that caused her death. There was also the possibility that Burke may have been responsible for the brutal assault on his sister. There was information that his parents, especially his mother, neglected him and that Patricia devoted all her attention to the daughter, putting her up for beauty pageants.

According to this theory, the Ramseys, having discovered that their son was responsible for the incident, tried to cover it up in order to protect him. They even ensured some informal arrangement to guard Burke at school in the days after the murder. They also hired private detectives to go into the episode. Initially this was considered a move to get at the culprit. Later it turned out that the detectives were meant mainly to prepare them for uncomfortable questions from the police.

For all the attention the case received, it hardly made any progress for years. The Boulder Police were being criticised roundly for their incompetence despite the case being an extremely difficult one to solve. The public glare continued to nevertheless haunt the Ramseys. The father had to go on the popular TV show Larry King Live to dispel all doubts about the family's role. In particular, he queried why, if he or his family were guilty, they would hire so many detectives at considerable expense to get to the bottom of his daughter's death.

In fact, one of those engaged by him was John Douglas, a former official of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) who cleared the family of all charges. He went on to put down his thoughts in a book The Cases That Haunt Us. Interestingly, a Journalism professor at the University of Colorado, Michael Tracey, was so taken up by the case that he produced three documentaries on the subject. This is what attracted John Mark Karr, the schoolteacher arrested by the FBI in Bangkok and brought to the U.S. in connection with pornography charges pending against him for five years in California. Karr had sent several mails on the JonBenet case to Prof. Tracey, who tipped off the police.

On being questioned by the FBI, Karr said he was with the deceased girl at the time of her death and that the occurrence was an accident. Later, he went on to say that he was responsible for the death, and that he had had sex with the girl. All this turned out to be fanciful. He could not even establish convincingly how he knew the Ramseys, who disclaimed any knowledge of Karr. Then why did he implicate himself in a crime he did not commit?

Many psychologists attributed his behaviour to an obsession to be important and talked about by the public. The history of crime is, in fact, replete with instances of vagabonds and unstable characters with a record of claiming responsibility for crimes they were not connected with. Does this not make study of crime a fascinating occupation?

I have to end on a sad note. Patricia died earlier this year at the age of 49. She did not live to see the mystery being solved. This is only if she was really not in the know of things as they unfolded on that Christmas night 10 years ago! The JonBenet murder will continue to baffle those who knew her and wept for her.

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