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After Pleas and Prayers, Community Joins Family in Mourning

June 19, 2004|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

LITTLE EGG HARBOR, N.J. — The family of Paul M. Johnson Jr., the New Jersey helicopter engineer beheaded by terrorists in Saudi Arabia, mourned in seclusion Friday after spending the previous three days pleading with his captors to let him live.

The small frame house of Johnson's sister, Donna Mayeux, was still festooned with yellow ribbons and an American flag. She had made a final appeal to the kidnappers Friday morning in an interview with CNN.

"We just ask that they treat him with the dignity and respect that he's often talked about, that they have in their culture," Mayeux said. "Just please, please don't murder him."

After residents of this remote community in the sandy flats of the Pine Barrens region learned that images of Johnson's decapitated body and head had been shown on a website, a Little Egg Harbor police officer kept a stream of TV crews and photographers away from Mayeux's house.

Across the street, neighbors had fastened 13 yellow ribbons and two American flags to a series of wooden poles, which also held a handmade sign that read: "Our prayers and thoughts are with Paul Johnson II and his family. Bring him home safe!"

After Johnson's Muslim kidnappers released a video of him Tuesday, residents of this middle-class community about 20 miles north of Atlantic City spent the days wrapping yellow ribbons around trees, telephone poles and porch railings. Among the many signs of support was a digital bulletin board at Southern Regional High School that read: "Our prayers are with the family of Paul Johnson, Class of 1973."

Residents held a candlelight vigil Thursday night. But when they learned, with confirmation from Saudi Arabia, that Johnson had been killed, they knew their prayers had gone unanswered.

The kidnappers threatened to execute Johnson if the Saudi government did not release Al Qaeda members from prison by Friday, the Muslim holy day. The Saudis refused to negotiate.

Friends and acquaintances of Johnson, who worked in Saudi Arabia for a decade, reacted with horror and anger at news of his death.

"It's just unbelievable," said John Hayes, a childhood friend in nearby Eagleswood Township. "He didn't deserve that. This man wasn't even fighting a war over there."

Johnson, 49, repaired and maintained Apache attack helicopters for Lockheed Martin Corp.

"Paul was a valued and respected employee who bravely carried out his duties," the company said in a statement from Bethesda, Md.

Rep. James Saxton, a Republican who represents the district that includes Little Egg Harbor, said he grieved for Johnson's family.

"They've gone through three days of incomprehensible pain and hardship. Now they have to cope with the worst news," he said.

Johnson's son, Paul Johnson III, a Florida resident, joined family members in New Jersey on Friday, the Little Egg Harbor police said. On Thursday, the younger Johnson pleaded for his father's release.

"I just want to ask the president of the United States and the Saudi officials to please make this happen," he said on NBC's "Today" show. "Father's Day is right here. Bring my father home for Father's Day."

Aref Assaf, president of the New Jersey chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said of Johnson's slaying: "Implicating the name of religion to justify such acts is most abhorrent and does a great disservice to Islam and Muslims worldwide."

Jack Kelly, a boyhood friend of the elder Johnson, said that after days of praying for the hostage's life, "today, we can only pray for his soul."

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