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    Kidnapper accepts plea, may face life

    The man who abducted a 10-year-old girl pleads no contest to charges. The girl and her family are spared a trial.

    By MATT BOEDY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000


    TRENTON -- The man who kidnapped a 10-year-old Gilchrist County girl in March and held her for three days while authorities desperately searched for her pleaded no contest to seven charges Thursday that could put him in prison for the rest of his life.

    James Paul Johnson, 39, quietly answered his attorney Tom Kurrus with "Yes, sirs' as the lawyer explained the deal in a Gilchrist County courtroom.

    Wearing orange prison clothes and bound in shackles, Johnson solemnly listened to the charges against him and turned away any chance he would have had to defend himself by reason of insanity.

    Johnson pleaded to one count of kidnapping a child under the age of 13 with aggravating circumstances, one count of lewd and lascivious molestation, three counts of lewd and lascivious battery and two counts of lewd and lascivious conduct.

    State Attorney Rod Smith sought the plea agreement to avoid having to put the girl, now 11, on the stand during a trial.

    "I'm really pleased we didn't have to do that because to do that would force us to put out details that need not be put out in public," Smith said. He said if Johnson had not accepted the deal, which was offered to him in July, the state would have filed "more and different" charges.

    Smith said he would seek the maximum of life in prison, but Johnson's attorney is asking for 30 years. Even if that lesser sentence is laid down, Smith said Johnson still could be labeled a sexual predator and forced to remain in custody.

    Kurrus hinted during his questioning of Johnson that he would seek a mental health facility to house the defendant.

    A psychologist testified that though Johnson was competent to accept the deal, he suffers from symptoms of schizophrenia and depression.

    Circuit Judge Martha Ann Lott has not set a date for sentencing. Johnson will remain in jail until he is sentenced.

    Smith said afterward he is not surprised Johnson pleaded and said Johnson's mental state was not a factor in sentencing. "I'm sure we'll be hearing more about that at the sentencing," Smith said. "I don't care where they put him. That's not my area."

    None of the victim's family attended the hearing. They left the area, which had been home to their extended family for generations, in the months after the crime. The St. Petersburg Times is not publishing her name because of the nature of the crime.

    Johnson kidnapped the girl from her driveway as she was getting off the school bus at 3:30 p.m. on March 6. He confined her in his house and told his children to not go near the locked room where he kept the girl.

    At some point he also held the girl in a metal shed in his back yard.

    After days of emotional pleas from her family, and a massive law enforcement search across the state, Johnson dropped the girl off at a Gainesville Wal-Mart. She had been held for 68 hours.

    Smith said he had been in contact with the girl and her family and said she was recovering, though it is difficult. Gilchrist County Sheriff David Turner said the plea is a relief to his community, which is about 30 miles west of Gainesville.

    "To think anyone could perpetuate such a crime was quite devastating," he said. "I think that devastation haunted the whole community."

    Maida Hoit, a guardian ad litem in court to represent the girl's interests, said recovery has been difficult for both the girl and her sisters, who witnessed the kidnapping.

    "She's not doing great, but good," Hoit said. "It's not been easy, and you can understand that. Think of yourself as an adult in her place."

    - Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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