In the short time the suspect in the JonBenet Ramsey murder case lived in this bucolic town, he faced child pornography charges, went through a messy divorce and developed a keen interest in Petaluma's highest profile homicide.
John Mark Karr, 41, told detectives in Northern California five years ago that he had a letter from the convicted killer of Polly Klaas, who was kidnapped from her Petaluma home in 1993, according to court papers. Karr also claimed to have a copy of the 12-year-old girl's death certificate.
A substitute teacher and father of three, Karr said he was researching a book on Richard Allen Davis, who is on death row for killing Klaas. He offered to show the materials to the sheriff's deputies then investigating him for child porn, according to a court transcript.
Authorities already had searched Karr's home, however, and found pictures on his computer of children engaged in or simulating sex acts. Karr, who moved to Petaluma with his wife and children in the summer of 2000, was arrested on five misdemeanor counts of possession of child pornography on April 13, 2001.
Eight months later, he was released from jail and quickly disappeared. Even Karr's his own father says he assumed his son was dead. But the expatriate school teacher surfaced dramatically in Thailand on Wednesday after implicating himself in another infamous child murder.
Karr told authorities he drugged and sexually assaulted Jonbenet, the child beauty queen who was found beaten and strangled in the basement of her family's Colorado home on Dec. 26, 1996. Thai authorities said Karr told them he killed the 6-year-old girl accidentally.
His ex-wife, Lara Karr, who filed for divorce two days after Karr's 2001 arrest, told KGO-TV that her husband spent a lot of time studying the Ramsey case, as well as Polly Klaas' murder.
Lara Karr said in a sworn statement she submitted in an application for a restraining order after the couple's divorce that during 12 years of marriage John insisted she cut off ties with her family and friends.
As a "16-year-old bride I didn't know any better than to give into his demands," she said, adding that Karr "purposely set about to get me pregnant so we could marry without parental consent."
‘Too affectionate with children’
Lara Karr said that until his arrest she had no idea her husband was interested in "kiddy porn." But he "was told by one school in or about '97 or '98 that he would not be asked to continue to serve as a substitute teacher because he had a tendency to be too affectionate with children," she wrote.
Karr taught children in Georgia and Alabama before his family moved to California, where he was granted a temporary substitute teaching permit. He passed a background check through Sonoma State University that included submitting his fingerprints to the Department of Justice to make sure he did not have a criminal record, Sonoma and Napa County school officials said.
From Feb. 1 to April 4, 2001, he worked as a student teacher in a fourth grade class at Pueblo Vista Elementary School in Napa. On his last day on the job, Karr was escorted off campus by the sheriff's deputies investigating him for child pornography, Sharyn Lindsey, an assistant superintendent, said in a statement.
During the same period, Karr also substitute taught at Wilson Elementary School outside Petaluma. After observing him in the classroom, principal Bob Raines said he concluded Karr did not know what he was doing.
‘Makes my skin crawl’
"He just seemed like somebody who thought he wanted to be a teacher," Raines said. "After a few days, I could see it just wasn't for him."
Raines said he instructed his secretary not to call Karr again unless the school was desperate. A couple months later, the sheriff's department notified the Sonoma County school district of Karr's arrest, said superintendent Carl Wong.
Polly Klaas' father, Marc, who has campaigned for laws to protect children from repeat sex offenders like his daughter's killer, was asked Thursday about Karr's connection to Petaluma and Polly's case.
"It makes my skin crawl," Klaas said. "I can't believe that he moved there for any other reason than to be close to my daughter's situation. Give me another reason for someone to move to a sleepy little town in Northern California."
John and Lara Karr's former Petaluma neighbor, Sylvia Ross, said he occasionally fixed her computer.
"Personality-wise, I think there was a little kink that I saw," said Ross, a retired teacher and real estate agent. Karr was "too friendly, too talkative, too inquisitive," she said.
After a series of court hearings, Karr was released from jail Oct. 5, 2001. He was ordered to report to a probation officer and to keep away from children and places where children congregate, such as schools, beaches and parks.
In November of that year, a judge issued a restraining order for Karr to stay at least 100 yards away from his ex-wife and three sons -- then ages 8, 9 and 10 -- for three years.
Karr apparently left the country shortly after that. A warrant was issued for his arrest in December.
According to a resume posted online with his name and picture, Karr worked as a private teacher and caregiver in Germany, the Netherlands, South Korea, Costa Rica and Honduras in 2001.
While Sonoma County school officials said they removed Karr from the district's list of approved substitute teachers after they were alerted of his arrest on child pornography charges, the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing did not suspend his teaching permit until a year later.
The permit would have allowed Karr to continue teaching in other districts where school officials did not know of his arrest.