A former Fort Bragg soldier was sentenced to more than 12 years in federal prison on Tuesday for staging the kidnapping of a 12-year-old girl and leaving behind a ransom note to throw off authorities.
James Murdock Fletcher Peele, 21, pleaded guilty June 26, 2020, to transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, court records show. In exchange for the plea, a count of sexual abuse of a minor was dismissed. U.S. District Court Judge Louise Wood Flanagan sentenced to 151 months, or 12.5 years in prison. He will receive credit for the time he’s served since his arrest.
The case began the morning of Oct. 21, 2018, when a New Bern grandmother found a ransom note demanding $20,000 in her 12-year-old granddaughter’s empty bedroom, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
Investigators found mulch from the yard on the child’s bed and smudges on the window but no sign of forced entry. While reviewing the granddaughter’s Facebook page, they noted that Peele was listed as her boyfriend.
That same day, agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation found Peele and the girl in his barracks room on Fort Bragg. A forensic examination confirmed that Peele had recently had sexual intercourse with the girl, the release said.
During the investigation, law enforcement interviewed a friend of Peele’s, also a soldier stationed at Fort Bragg, who described how a week before the staged kidnapping, Peele had asked for a ride to his “girlfriend’s” house in New Bern. Peele had claimed the girl was 18 years old, the friend said.
When they arrived, however, Peele instructed the friend to park at a vacant house nearby, and Peele entered the home through a window. The friend said he also entered the room and became concerned about the girl’s age after noticing childlike decor, including middle school photographs and a hamster. The friend explained to investigators that he had become disgusted and left the room when Peele and the minor began kissing.
Investigators determined that after staging the kidnapping, Peele drove the minor victim to his parents’ home in South Carolina where he introduced her as his girlfriend and claimed that she worked in a sewing shop, the release said. The two stayed for less than 30 minutes before Peele’s sergeant called him back to Fort Bragg.
Upon his return to North Carolina, the girl waited in his barracks room while he met with his sergeant, Peele’s roommate told investigators.
The victim, who told investigators that she and Peele had been involved in a sexual relationship, said that when she told him her true age, he responded that age is just a number. She admitted that she had not been kidnapped but denied coming up with the idea to stage a kidnapping, the release said.
Peele made a videotaped confession during which he admitted to having sex with the minor victim and to writing the ransom note, the release said.
He claimed the victim had asked to leave with him and had come up with the idea of staging a kidnapping. Peele also claimed that he believed the victim was 18 years old, but he admitted that he saw her at a sleepover with friends who looked very young, including one girl whose age he had seen to be 12 years old, according to the release.
At the time of his arrest, Peele, originally from Chesterfield, South Carolina, was a private second class stationed with the 82nd Airborne Division.
Upon completion of his active prison term, he must serve 10 years on supervised release, court records show.
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