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Child's kidnapper gets maximum term

By MATTHEW BOEDY

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 18, 2000


TRENTON -- The Gainesville man who kidnapped a 10-year-old Gilchrist County girl in March received the maximum penalty for his crime in a Trenton courtroom Friday.

James Paul Johnson, 39, was sentenced to life in prison without parole by Circuit Judge Martha Ann Lott for kidnapping the girl and holding her for three days while authorities desperately searched for her.

Johnson, called mentally ill by his family, sat motionless throughout much of Friday's hearing as his lawyers argued for 30 years in prison and for the possibility he would be able to see his three daughters while incarcerated.

Johnson had been pleaded no contest in August to seven charges. The charges were kidnapping a child under the age of 13 with aggravating circumstances, lewd and lascivious molestation, three counts of lewd and lascivious battery and two counts of lewd and lascivious conduct.

"A haunting question remains in a case like this," Lott said. "Who could have done something like this? How could a person do such a thing? The defense has provided some answers today."

The defense argued because of Johnson's multiple mental illnesses -- he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder -- and his pedophilia he should be allowed specialized state treatment facility.

Johnson's lawyers called four psychiatrists to the witness stand to describe what they heard in interviews with Johnson as delusion and hallucinations. One of those delusions Johnson admitted to doctors was a "marital fantasy" he had with the girl. Johnson went so far as to have an arm-in-arm champagne toast with the girl during her abduction.

"He said, "My wife left so I didn't want this wife to leave,' " Maryland psychiatrist Dr. Susan Fiester said.

Lott's order will not prevent Johnson from seeing his children in prison. She said she was moved by Johnson's brother's court statement that "he lives for his children."

Michael Johnson, who led police to his brother, apologized for his brother's 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 near the University of Florida campus 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.

He released the girl at a Gainesville Wal-Mart after 68 hours. Johnson's brother called the incident "a bizarre occurrence in an otherwise good life."

"It is bizarre and unexpected to us as if the sun rose in the west one morning," he said.

Assistant State Attorney Rod Smith, who recently resigned from his top prosecutor position because he is a state senator-elect, said the sentence was just and the only recourse to protect the community from someone such as Johnson.

"There is no assurance that he will never act out again except if he is imprisoned for the rest of his life," Smith said.

Lott said it will be up to doctors and another judge to decide which prison Johnson will be sent to. Thomas Kurrus, Johnson's lead attorney, said the sentence was disheartening but allowed hope.

"We are disappointed," he said. "I don't think this sentence sends the right message."

The girl's mother, who has since moved out of the area with her daughter, cried through many portions of the hearing and could not read a statement she had prepared. A friend read her words.

"The defendant didn't take (the girl's) physical life," the statement read. "But (she) has been sentenced to life in a different kind of prison. She has to live with the life the defendant gave her."

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