'Normal life' is elusive for Florida abductee

Published: Monday, March 27 2000 10:22 a.m. MST

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — With her daughter safely at home after being held captive for three days, Jennifer Graham sighed with relief.

"I just want our lives to go back to normal," said the mother of Jessica Rodriguez, answering reporters' questions the day after Jessica was released.

More than two weeks have passed, but "normal" is proving elusive. In her small hometown of Trenton, 10-year-old Jessica has become the crime survivor everyone wants to celebrate, even as she grapples with the horrors of her abduction.

"Jennifer doesn't even want to go outside," said Graham's sister-in-law, Pam Nobles. "At night they usually light a campfire and sit outside. She told me that every animal in the woods, every noise, she was jumping like someone was coming at her with a knife."

Although Graham often met with reporters in the three days following Jessica's disappearance March 6, she didn't return recent telephone calls.

Jessica's extended family has lived in a fenced-in compound of trailers an hour's drive west of Gainesville for five generations. Graham shares one worn-out trailer with her three daughters, infant son and fiance, Tom Keeley.

Graham works at McDonald's and Keeley is a mechanic. They also share a job delivering newspapers to make ends meet. Yet despite their financial struggles, the family considered their rural residence a safe haven for children.

"That place was the safest place, we never worried about our kids there," said Nobles, whose has a daughter close to Jessica's age.

That changed when Jessica was kidnapped as she got off the school bus with her two younger sisters.

"There's nothing that could have prepared the family for something like this," said Carla Coarsey, a victims advocate at the state attorney's office. "I don't know if there's a Class 101 on what to do if your child gets kidnapped."

The suspected kidnapper, James Paul Johnson, 38, was being held on $1 million bail. He has been on suicide watch since March 16, when he checked in to a Gainesville mental hospital as police closed in.

"He is a man with a sick mind, but not an evil heart," said Tom Kurrus, Johnson's attorney.

Since her return home after she was set free March 9 at a Gainesville Wal-Mart, Jessica has found herself showered with attention.

Her fourth-grade class has presented her with gifts, she's received a new puppy, and the local authorities gave her a new television set and video game system.

Nobles said her niece was even offered a trip to New York to meet the boy band 'N Sync, but Graham turned down the offer because she couldn't leave her three other children and two jobs behind.

Patty Wetterling, a Minnesota mother who founded an advocacy group for kidnap victims and their families after her 11-year-old son was kidnapped in 1989, said children who survive such ordeals are often overwhelmed by such attention they get when they return home.

Wetterling, whose son Jacob has never been found, said most families are so grateful for the outpouring of support they feel bad about demanding privacy.

"I tell them you can pull back now, and you don't have to subject her to that," Wetterling said.

Family members say Jessica has begun counseling and likes to stay in her room these days, but only because she's so engrossed with her new video games. Nobles said Jessica is doing surprisingly well, mostly because she's happy to be back home.

"She's such a lovey," Nobles said. "That picture you saw of her where she's waving and smiling, that's just Jessica. She just loves everybody."


On the Net: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: www.missingkids.com

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