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Search yields kidnapping arrest

After seizing a Jeep and searching a house, deputies charge a Gainesville man with abducting a 10-year-old Gilchrist County girl.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2000


After Jessica Rodriguez was dropped off at a Gainesville Wal-Mart a week ago, the 10-year-old told police about the stranger who had kept her for three days.

photo
[AP]
James Paul Johnson, left, is led into the Alachua County Jail by Gilchrist County Sheriff David Turner late Wednesday night in Gainesville.
She described his green sport utility vehicle and its tan seats, and his house with its metal shed in the back yard.

On Wednesday, authorities seized a metal shed and a green Jeep Cherokee Laredo after searching a house near Gainesville. Late Wednesday, they arrested a suspect in Jessica's abduction.

James Paul Johnson, 38, of Gainesville was charged with one count of kidnapping and one count of kidnapping with special circumstances. The special circumstances are lewd and lascivious acts against a child under the age of 13. Johnson also was charged with sexual battery on a child under the age of 11.

Johnson was picked up at an Alachua County mental health center, where he had checked himself in.

"This was a long investigation. We had close to 400 leads," said Alachua County Sheriff Stephen Oelrich.

The sheriff said a woman came forward Wednesday, saying she recognized Johnson's house and Jeep from Jessica's description of her captor.

State Attorney Rod Smith said Jessica identified Johnson from a lineup of photographs earlier Wednesday.

"With this arrest, the community can rest a little easier tonight," said Ken Tucker, regional director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Johnson was being held in jail in lieu of $1-million bail, pending a court appearance at 9 a.m. today.

On March 6, Jessica was snatched from her long, shady driveway after getting off a school bus with her sisters in rural Gilchrist County west of Gainesville.

Last Thursday she was released outside a Wal-Mart 25 miles from her home.

The crime got nationwide attention, but the search for the kidnapper centered around Gainesville.

On Wednesday, detectives searched Johnson's home in a middle-class neighborhood north of the University of Florida, taking away mattresses, sheets, boxes and framed pictures. They towed away his Jeep so crime lab technicians could go through it.

Aja Peters, a UF student who lives next door, said the house was occupied by a single man and his three young daughters. The family moved in last summer, but she hasn't seen the girls for weeks. She said the girls usually played in their family's backyard pool.

"I have only met him once, when they lost their dog and were bringing it back," Peters said.

She said she and her roommates were away on spring break last week during the time Jessica was missing.

Investigators think Jessica was kept at her kidnapper's home for at least part of the abduction. The girl said the house had a wooden privacy fence, an in-ground swimming pool in the back yard, a shed and a small barking dog.

Five days before the stranger snatched Jessica, a man fitting his description approached a 9-year-old girl in Putnam County, east of Gainesville, and tried to lure her with a story about a lost dog.

Police think it was the same man. Both incidents occurred after school bus drop-offs in rural areas. Each girl gave a similar description of the man and his car.

As the Putnam County girl walked home from her bus stop on March 1, a man got out of a green Jeep Cherokee and said he was looking for a lost dog. He offered to give her a piece of paper with his phone number, but she backed away. Another car approached, and the stranger got back in his Jeep and drove off.

Nancy Nobles, Jessica's aunt who lives next door, said police called her about noon Wednesday and told her to make sure the front gate to the family's property was shut and that a deputy would be posted there. Nobles said the sheriff's office told her there had been developments in the case and that extra security was needed.

She said the family had been anxiously awaiting an arrest in the case.

"It's kind of flip-flop emotions -- the happiness of having Jessica back and the worrying about where he is."

-- Times correspondent Beth Kassab contributed to this report, which also used information from the Associated Press.

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