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Scared, hungry captive
noted her surroundings

photo
[AP photo: photo]
James Paul Johnson, lower right, makes a video appearance at the Alachua County Courthouse Thursday morning in Gainesville. Johnson is charged in the kidnapping of Jessica Rodriguez, 10. 

A 10-year-old girl carefully records the details - a storage shed, a pool - and helps lead authorities to a suspect in her abduction.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD and JAMIE MALERNEE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2000


GAINESVILLE -- During her three days in captivity, 10-year-old Jessica Rodriguez was locked in a room where she could hear her kidnapper's young daughters talking elsewhere in the house, unaware that she was there.

She also was kept in a backyard storage shed, tied up and with tape over her mouth.

That's what investigators and relatives are saying now that the man charged with Jessica's abduction is in jail under a suicide watch.

Throughout last week's ordeal, Jessica took note of her surroundings. When she was released, hungry and frightened, she recalled details that led police to their suspect.

"She wasn't blindfolded. She just laid there and absorbed everything around her," said Jessica's aunt, Pam Nobles of New Port Richey. "When she saw her mom, she was starving. She said she ate Tic Tacs and gum."

The man accused of kidnapping Jessica is James Paul Johnson, 36, a divorced father of three daughters, ages 7, 8 and 9.

The girls lived with him in a neighborhood north of the University of Florida. But their father told them not to go near the room where he was keeping Jessica, said Terry Thomas, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent who interviewed the girls.

photo
[Times photo: Pam Royal]
His neighbors say James Paul Johnson seemed like a nice man whose three children often played in the back yard, which includes a swimming pool and a swing set.
Johnson was being held Thursday in the Alachua County Jail in lieu of $1-million bail. He appeared before a judge on a charge of kidnapping a person under 13 for the purpose of committing lewd and lascivious or sexual acts.

In most cases, the St. Petersburg Times does not identify victims or alleged victims of sexual assault. In this case, the name of the girl already had been in wide use because of the circumstances of her abduction.

FDLE Agent Thomas said Jessica was locked in a room similar to a mother-in-law apartment, with its own bathroom, on the other end of the house from where family members spent most of their time. He said Jessica's captor told her to be quiet, and she complied out of fear.

All of this seems inconceivable to Johnson's neighbors, who say he seemed like a nice man whose children often played cheerfully in the back yard, equipped with an in-ground swimming pool and swing set.

"That's what freaks me out," said Carol Duran, a mother of two whose house is behind Johnson's. "The thought that she could have been there while we were asleep in our house. Could we have heard her?"

Investigators can't reconcile the two different pictures of Johnson: He faces charges of kidnapping and sexual battery, yet he won primary custody of his daughters after a messy 1994 divorce, when he accused his now-ex-wife of being an abusive, unfit mother.

Court records show social workers have investigated allegations of abuse against Johnson's children before, but the focus of the inquiry was on their mother, not Johnson.

Johnson has no prior criminal record. But Jessica's relatives wonder if this was the first time Jessica's captor had done this. They said the kidnapper made sure he left no fingerprints or physical evidence on the girl or her clothing.

"He cleaned her from top to bottom before he dropped her off," Nobles said. "He was thorough. He scrubbed her shoes, everything."

Johnson was arrested Wednesday at a mental health facility at Shands Hospital at UF, where he checked himself in earlier this week. He is unemployed, but records show he was once a production manager at Tucker-Davis Technologies in Gainesville, where he made about $24,000 a year.

Johnson was arrested after a woman walked up to deputies eating lunch at a Gainesville Grandy's restaurant Tuesday and said she knew a man whose car and back yard fit the description of the kidnapper. Investigators got search warrants for Johnson's home and Jeep Cherokee the next day.

Johnson's daughters are staying with a grandmother and aunt out of town. Linda White, spokeswoman for the Alachua County Sheriff's Office, said investigators planned to ask them whether their father had ever abused them.

Police and neighbors say the biggest mystery is what motivated Johnson to kidnap Jessica -- and then release her. White said police don't know whether Johnson checked himself into Shands because he needs mental help or because he was simply trying to hide.

Johnson said only, "Good morning, your honor" in court Thursday morning. His defense attorney asked a judge to order him held at the mental health center and not in jail. The judge denied the request but ordered jailers to keep Johnson in a cell by himself under a 24-hour suicide watch.

"He is in isolation," White said. "When I went to the jail, he was just lying down. He looked pretty pitiful, actually."

Neighbor Tommy Maple has a theory about why Johnson might have targeted Jessica outside her rural home about 30 miles west of Gainesville.

Johnson has a boat, and his Jeep has scuba-diving stickers and a front decorative plate saying he's a diving enthusiast. Jessica's home is near popular diving spots like Blue Springs and Ginnie Springs.

"Those are some of the best places in the world to dive," Maple said. "It makes sense. Maybe he just saw her coming home from school."

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report, which contains information from the Associated Press.

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