BOULDER, Colorado - An American schoolteacher said he was with 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey when she died, but questions surfaced over his story a day after his arrest in Thailand.
A Colorado prosecutor cautioned that more work remained in the case.
John Mark Karr, 41, who was arrested in a dramatic breakthrough in the sensational 1996 murder, spoke to reporters on Thursday while being escorted by authorities in Bangkok. Asked if he was innocent, Karr shook his head and said, "No."
Boulder County District Attorney Mary Lacy would not say what evidence her office had against Karr, who came to the attention of authorities by writing a series of emails to a Colorado journalism professor who made three documentaries about the murder.
JonBenet was found beaten and strangled in the basement of her Boulder, Colorado, home on December 26, 1996 - hours after her mother found a bizarre, three-page letter claiming the girl had been kidnapped - and the unsolved case has since fueled countless theories.
Karr was detained in Bangkok on a US warrant seeking his arrest for murder, kidnapping and sexual assault.
"I was with JonBenet when she died," Karr said. "The death was an accident."
Lacy said Karr had started teaching second grade in a Bangkok school on Tuesday. She said investigators would have preferred more time to develop evidence but public safety worries and the possibility of flight sometimes prompts an arrest in criminal cases.
"There is much more work to be done now that the suspect is in custody," she said. "John Karr is presumed innocent."
It was not yet clear if Karr's DNA had been tested to compare with fluids found in Ramsey's underwear, or whether other evidence tied him to the crime scene. An unidentified footprint and a handprint were found near the girl's body, which was discovered by her father, her mouth duct-taped and neck tightly garroted.
Lacy would not comment when asked whether Karr, who once lived near JonBenet's hometown of Atlanta, could have made a false confession. Karr fled Northern California after being charged with possession of child pornography.
Questions arose about Karr's story when his ex-wife, Lara, told KGO-TV in San Francisco that he was with her in Alabama the entire Christmas season when JonBenet was killed.
His father, Wexford Karr, told the Denver Post that his son had been deeply interested in the JonBenet Ramsey case and had researched a book on the subject. KGO said Lara Karr told it her ex-husband had also been fascinated by the case of another murdered girl, Polly Klaas, which had attracted wide publicity.
Educators in Alabama, where Karr had studied education and served a teaching internship, said his interaction with children had raised concerns and he told many contradictory stories about himself.
"I did not think he could interact with children or adults .... You never knew what was true and what wasn't," Janice Myhan, a professor of education at the University of North Alabama, told Reuters.
Lacy's chief investigator, Tom Bennett, said talks were under way with Thai authorities to have Karr returned to the United States. Officials in Washington said Karr would not require extradition from Bangkok and could simply be deported.
Slender, sandy haired and dressed in a blue polo shirt and beige trousers, Karr looked pale and dazed as he appeared briefly at a Bangkok news conference, surrounded by police.
"I loved JonBenet," Karr said in a quiet voice. Asked if he had killed the girl, he appeared to shake his head, but said again: "She died accidentally."
University of Colorado journalism professor Michael Tracey, whose correspondence with Karr attracted the interest of authorities, told Reuters that he began getting the emails after the broadcast of his documentary "Who Killed the Pageant Queen."
He said he turned the emails, which did not use Karr's real name, over to authorities, who used them to track the suspect to Thailand.
"I am convinced an intruder killed JonBenet," Tracey said. "This guy has the right to be presumed not guilty. Let him have his day in court. The Ramseys were never given the right to be presumed innocent."