BANGKOK, Thailand – One pedophile had plastic surgery and jumped bail to elude authorities. Another paid thousands of dollars to the families of his victims after they agreed to ask that charges be dropped.
Across Asia, pedophiles have long taken advantage of weak and corrupt law enforcement systems, endemic poverty and networks of like-minded criminals.
The announcement that authorities had arrested American John Mark Karr in Thailand as a suspect in the 1996 murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was viewed as a rare victory in the region.
Karr was arrested Wednesday, a day after he began teaching second grade in Bangkok, District Attorney Mary Lacy told reporters in Colorado. Karr told investigators he drugged and sexually assaulted the child beauty queen before accidentally killing her, according to a senior Thai police officer, who was briefed about the interview.
U.S. Ambassador John Miller, who heads the State Department’s people trafficking office, said part of the challenge of catching pedophiles is that many come across “as upstanding citizens” who are doctors, teachers and soldiers.
“This is not easy work,” Miller told The Associated Press, noting the U.S. government has extradited and convicted 29 Americans for abusing children since 2003, about half of the cases occurring in Asia. “We’ve started to make progress, but we haven’t made anywhere near enough progress.”
Hundreds of thousands of girls and boys are believed to work in the sex trade in Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries.
Sex from street children
Some of their customers — mostly older men — commit their crimes with relative impunity, walking hand-in-hand with underage girls in Bangkok or with boys in a resort hotel on the Indonesian island of Bali. The riverfront in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh also is a favorite spot, where pedophiles buy sex from street children.
“In my country, I never meet super-extra available boys,” Italian Alain Filippe Berutti said after he was convicted in 2002 of having sex with Cambodian youngsters.
Others operate more covertly, finding work as teachers, music tutors or even volunteers at orphanages where they win children’s loyalty with candy and toys.
“If they are in a country where there is a lot of poverty and appear to be developing relations with kids and doing things like organizing programs and teaching kids, people want to assume they have benevolent motives,” said Janis Wolak of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center. “I don’t think it’s mysterious that these people don’t get found out.”
Others depend on secretive pedophile rings found in cyberspace or through fellow pedophiles. The networks offer sexual predators tips on the best places to meet children or will help arrange sexual rendezvous in luxury condos or on private yachts.
Activists say Asian governments are beginning to address the problem, enacting tough laws and moving to convict pedophiles in Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia.
The United States, Britain and Australia have laws allowing the prosecution of their citizens who sexually abuse children overseas. A 2003 U.S. law mandates a sentence of up to 30 years for anyone, at home or abroad, who has sex with a minor, defined as those under 18.
Selective sexual networks
But as the legal scrutiny intensifies, the networks are going underground and being more selective about who they allow into their inner circles, experts said. Some, for example, require pedophiles to provide evidence of their misdeeds — including videos of their sexual exploits or allowing others to watch them have sex with minors.
“Because they have realized that there is a lot of investigation from the police and more and more forensic investigation of computers, it has become very, very sophisticated,” Carmen Madrinan, executive director of the Bangkok-based child protection group ECPAT International.
Some avoid scrutiny by paying police and judges to drop cases. In other cases, a victim’s family may look the other way for a significant amount of cash.
British rock star Gary Glitter, whose child molestation conviction and three-year prison sentence were upheld by an appeals court in Vietnam in June, gave $2,000 each to the families of two girls, ages 11 and 12, after they agreed to write letters to the court asking for the case to be dropped.
The case against Glitter, whose real name is Paul Francis Gadd, wasn’t dropped but he got a lighter sentence — he could have been sent to jail for up to 12 years.
Others like Eric Franklin Rosser, 49, a former concert pianist and admitted pedophile, used Asia to escape justice in the United States. He came to Thailand, got plastic surgery and bought fake passports from Britain, Norway and the Netherlands. He was arrested in 2001.
“The way that most of these individuals are getting away from it, in the eyes of the public, is that they are jurisdiction hopping,” said Mark-Erik Hecht, who co-founded an anti-trafficking organization in Canada. “They are able to leave their jurisdiction and enter another jurisdiction with a clean slate.”