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N.J. town mourns loss of one of its own

A day after learning of the beheading of Paul Johnson Jr. by militants in Saudi Arabia, childhood friends and residents of his hometown responded with grief and fond memories of him.
Grieving family members of murdered American hostage Paul Johnson exit a house in Galloway, New Jersey, on Friday.Chip East / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

For days, childhood friends and residents had prayed for the safe return of Paul Johnson Jr. A day after learning of his beheading by militants in Saudi Arabia, residents responded with grief and fond memories of him.

“He was a good child, a good boy, a good man, “ Fred Griffin, 76, said Saturday, recalling the man who grew up a few houses away in this rural town.

Johnson’s family remained in seclusion. Relatives who had gathered since he was taken hostage a week earlier issued a statement Friday that was delivered by an FBI agent. In it, they asked for privacy and commended authorities in their failed attempts to save Johnson.

Johnson, 49, had worked on Apache helicopters for Lockheed Martin and had lived in Saudi Arabia for more than a decade.

He was kidnapped by militants who followed through on a threat to kill him by Friday if the kingdom did not release its al-Qaida prisoners. An al-Qaida group claiming responsibility posted an Internet message that showed photographs of a beheaded body.

Hours later, Saudi security forces tracked down and killed the leader of the terrorist group and three other people, according to Saudi and U.S. officials.

Johnson’s body had not been recovered, Saudi officials said Saturday.

Tinged with sadness
Saturday’s activities in the township were tinged with awareness of Johnson’s fate. Red, white and blue ribbons joined the yellow ones that had adorned utility poles through the week.

“Help pick our communities and towns up after everything that has happened to the Johnson family,” Dennis Seeley, the fire department chaplain, said in a prayer before the annual lawnmower races that took place in a field behind the local firehouse.

The roughly 20 lawnmower riders taking part in several races wore yellow ribbons. The firehouse had been the site of a candlelight vigil for Johnson on Thursday evening.

Later, Seeley said residents were beset by a mix of painful emotions, and some were expressing anti-Arab sentiments.

“A lot of people are angry, a lot of people are sad and a lot of people are hurt,” Seeley said.

In Paterson, N.J., about 100 miles to the north, Muslims gathered to condemn the killing.