The Wrong Man

updated 09/11/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/11/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Nate Karr and his dad, Wexford, waited in a Boulder hotel room, fidgeting until it was time for the hearing to start. But the court session, for JonBenét Ramsey murder suspect John Mark Karr, never took place. "The media started calling and saying, 'Turn on the TV,'" says Nate, who learned with the rest of the world on Aug. 28 that a DNA sample taken from his brother—the teacher who shockingly confessed to killing JonBenét—did not match DNA found at the crime scene. Soon after, Boulder officials dropped their case against Karr, 41. "I'm just sorry everyone had to go through this," says Nate. "An innocent party was tried and convicted before the facts were out."

So it goes in the upside-down world of the 10-year-old JonBenét murder investigation. After the spectacle of Karr's arrest in Thailand and extradition to Colorado, Boulder County District Attorney Mary Lacy admitted that "no evidence has developed, other than his own repeated admissions, to place Mr. Karr at the scene of the crime." He was suspected, it turns out, solely for his claims about JonBenét in more than 400 pages of e-mails to a journalism professor. Colorado Gov. Bill Owens ripped Lacy for wasting "thousands of taxpayer dollars" on what he called "the most ... expensive DNA test in Colorado history." And the search for JonBenét's killer? Back to square one. "I think the investigators got caught speeding," says Craig Silverman, a former Denver prosecutor. "They wanted to believe they had solved the case, and they let their emotions overrule their logic."

Friends say JonBenét's father, John, still mourning the loss of his wife, Patsy, to cancer in June, took the news in stride. "John was hopeful but shared some of my concern that Mr. Karr had not been fully investigated before the arrest," says Lin Wood, his longtime attorney. As for Karr—just the latest of a number of people to confess to killing JonBenét—he will be sent to California to face charges stemming from his 2001 arrest for possessing child porn; he could spend several months in jail on those charges. He is also being investigated in the murder of one preteen girl and the disappearance of two others in Alabama and Georgia (Karr grew up in both states). Officials admit that so far there is no evidence linking him to the crimes.

What, then, will happen to Karr, who at the very least seems to have a depraved interest in young girls? Once he settles the child-porn charges—and barring charges in any new case—he'll likely be free. "I don't know about his mental state but he's definitely going to need help," says Nate Karr, 34, an Atlanta real-estate broker. "He's not a murderer, but who knows what happened to him in the last few years to make him say these crazy things?"

Interviews with people who knew him suggest Karr's erratic behavior began long before then. His childhood was difficult: His mother, Patricia—18 when she married Karr's father, Wexford, then 37—was emotionally troubled, and that led to Karr's being raised by his grandparents. Karr's first marriage, when he was 19, was annulled; the woman who was briefly his bride, then only 13, says Karr was intensely controlling. But Karr doted on his second wife, Lara, and their three boys, says his brother, and it was only after Karr started working on a book about JonBenét and moved his family to Petaluma, Calif., where Polly Klaas was slain in another notorious child murder, that things truly unraveled. "He got too immersed in it," says Nate. "He was trying to get into the minds of people [who kill children]."

After Karr's arrest for possessing child porn, his wife divorced him. "He lost everything he had," says Nate. Before his trial Karr fled the U.S., took teaching jobs in several countries and began sending e-mails to journalism professor Michael Tracey, a friend of the Ramseys'. Karr revealed enough detailed knowledge of the JonBenét case to Tracey to convince Boulder officials to have him detained in Thailand. D.A. Lacy also claims that Karr had targeted young girls in a Thai school, prompting her to have him arrested before she could complete a less public investigation.

And what about Karr's many admissions that he was with JonBenét when she died? Classic false confessions, according to experts. "He was trying in every which way to get as close as possible to JonBenét," says Richard M. Swanson, forensic psychologist and adjunct professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver. "By confessing, it says he was actually involved with her."

If Karr is found guilty on the 2001 child-porn charges, he will be registered as a sex offender. His family, though, just wants him back in the fold. "I'm so anxious to see him after all these years," says Wexford, 85. "I love that kid with all my heart." No matter what, Karr will forever be remembered as the man who, despite the facts, insisted he killed JonBenét. "Sometimes you catch a break, and sometimes you don't," Bill Wise, a former assistant Boulder D.A. who worked on the case, says of Karr's arrest. "But I don't think this murder will ever be solved."

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