NEW BERN, N.C. – A South Carolina man was sentenced Tuesday to 12 years and seven months in prison for transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity.
According to court documents and statements made during hearings, on the morning of Oct. 21, 2018, a New Bern woman found that her 12-year-old granddaughter was missing from the child’s bedroom. The window was open, and a hand-written ransom note demanded $20,000 for her return, according to court records.
Investigators say they found mulch from a flower bed on the granddaughter’s bed and smudges on the window but no sign of forced entry. They say they reviewed the granddaughter’s Facebook account and found a page that identified the defendant James Murdoch Peele as a boyfriend.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) determined that Peele was enlisted in the U.S. Army and stationed at Ft. Bragg. Agents say they traced him to a barracks room, where the same afternoon they found Peele together with the minor victim.
A forensic examination confirmed that Peele had recently had sexual intercourse with the minor, according to evidence presented at court hearings.
Law enforcement interviewed a friend of Peele’s, also a soldier stationed at Ft. Bragg.
The friend reportedly described how a week before the apparent kidnapping, Peele had asked for a ride to his “girlfriend’s” house in New Bern. Peele had allegedly shown a photo of the victim and claimed that she was 18 years old.
When they arrived, however, Peele instructed the friend to park at a vacant neighboring house, and Peele entered the home through a window, according to court records. The friend also entered the room and said he became concerned about the girl’s age after noticing childlike décor, including middle school photographs and a hamster. The friend told investigators that he became disgusted and left the room when Peele and the minor began kissing.
Investigators determined that on the morning of Oct. 21, after leaving New Bern, Peele drove the minor victim to his parents’ home in South Carolina, according to prosecutors.
During a brief stay, investigators say he introduced the 12-year-old to his parents as his girlfriend and claimed that she worked in a sewing shop.
They stayed for less than a half-hour before Peele’s sergeant reportedly called and Peele had to return to base.
Back at Fort Bragg, Peele’s barracks roommate was present when Peele arrived with the minor shortly before noon, according to evidence presented in court proceedings. The roommate later told investigators, the minor stayed in the room as Peele left to meet his sergeant. Later, Peele returned and reportedly asked his 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 roommate left, and the FBI arrived soon after.
During a forensic interview, the minor victim stated that she and Peele had been involved in a sexual relationship. She said she told Peele her true age, and 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.
After his arrest, Peele made a videotaped confession. Prosecutors say he admitted to having sexual intercourse with the minor victim and admitted to writing the ransom note, although he stated that the victim had asked to leave with him and had come up with the idea of staging a kidnapping.
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.
U.S. District Judge Louise W. Flanagan sentenced Peele to federal prison.
G. Norman Acker III, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina announced the sentencing Tuesday. The Craven County Sheriff’s Office and Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted the investigation.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jake D. Pugh and Erin Blondel prosecuted the case.