NEW BERN, N.C. (WNCN) – A Fort Bragg soldier was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison for staging a kidnapping and taking his 12-year-old “girlfriend” across state lines in a fake kidnapping, and engaging in sexual activity, the Department of Justice announced on Tuesday.
A New Bern woman found that her 12-year-old granddaughter was missing from her bedroom on the morning of Oct. 21, 2018. The window was left open and there was a hand-written ransom note demanding $20,000 for her return, the DOJ said.
Investigators looked at the 12-year-old’s Facebook account and found a page that identified James Murdoch Peele as her boyfriend. Authorities interviewed a friend of Peele’s, who was also a soldier at Fort Bragg. According to the friend, Peele had asked for a ride to his “girlfriend’s house” in New Bern, a news release said.
Peele, then 19 years old, showed his friend a photo of the girl, who he claimed was 18 years old. The friend said they arrived at the house and Peele had him park at a vacant house nearby. Peele then entered the house through a window, the release said.
“The friend also entered the room and became concerned about the girl’s age after noticing childlike décor, including middle school photographs and a hamster,” the release said.
The friend said he became disgusted and left when Peele and the child began kissing.
According to investigators, Peele and the girl left New Bern and he drove her to his parents’ home in South Carolina. He introduced her as his girlfriend and claimed she worked at a sewing shop. They stayed for less than 30 minutes before Peele’s sergeant called and told him to return to base, the release said.
Peele brought the 12-year-old with him back to his barracks, according to a roommate. He returned from meeting with his sergeant and asked the roommate to “turn up his music, which the roommate understood to mean that Peele planned to have sex with the girl behind a sheet that had been hung across the room for privacy,” the release said.
The roommate left and the FBI arrived shortly after. Peele, who was a private 2nd class in the 82nd Airborne, was charged with statutory rape, first-degree kidnapping, and burglary.
The girl told investigators that she and Peele had a sexual relationship. She also said she had told Peele her true age, “and he responded that age is just a number,” the release said.
The girl also admitted she hadn’t been kidnapped but denied coming up with the idea to stage it, the DOJ said.
In a taped confession, Peele admitted to having sex with the child. He also admitted to writing the ransom note, but said the girl asked to leave with him and came up with the idea of staging a kidnapping, the release said.
“Peele 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,” the DOJ said.
Peele was convicted of a charge of transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity and sentenced to 151 months in federal prison.