Prosecutor: Kidnap Suspect Did Homework

Posted: December 08, 1990

The man accused of kidnapping the teenage son of an Atlantic City businessman in May was so methodical in his planning that he researched the

average prison sentence for convicted kidnappers before deciding to proceed with the crime, a federal prosecutor said yesterday in Camden.

James A. Howard, 39, of Linwood, N.J., told investigators in a written statement that he went to a local library to do research and calculated the

average sentence at seven years.

Balancing that with a $500,000 anticipated ransom, Howard apparently concluded that the crime was worth risking the potential punishment, federal Prosecutor Rocco C. Cipparone Jr. said.

Howard is accused in the kidnapping of Matthew Traa, 16, whose father, Richard, has nine McDonald's franchises in the Atlantic City area. Richard Traa contacted police immediately after learning of the abduction and, under the watchful eyes of FBI agents, arranged to pay Howard. Matthew Traa was released unharmed after two days of captivity.

Howard was held without bail for seven months pending a psychiatric evaluation, which was received earlier this week. At a hearing yesterday, U.S. Magistrate Jerome Simandle ruled that Howard should remain in prison without bail, pending the outcome of the case.

The psychiatric report showed that Howard was a pathological gambler but was competent to stand trial. He has no arrest record.

Attorney Richard Coughlin said Howard was married with three children and had a $450,000 debt to the Internal Revenue Service in connection with a failed business. One of Howard's sons was a high school classmate of Matthew Traa's.

Howard, who worked at Merv Griffin's Resorts Casino Hotel, concocted the kidnapping scheme after reading a newspaper article about Richard Traa's

financial success, according to his statement.

In a series of phone conversations with Matthew Traa, Howard convinced the youth that he was a representative of the McDonald's corporation, which he said had selected the Traa family for a corporate recognition award.

Howard told the youth not to tell his parents of their conversations and eventually persuaded Matthew to meet him. At that meeting, Howard threatened Matthew with a stun gun and abducted him, investigators said.

In a series of six telephone calls during the next two days, Howard and Richard Traa negotiated for the youth's release.

Howard eventually agreed to accept $165,000 instead of $500,000. Acting in conjunction with FBI agents, Richard Traa dropped the money at an agreed-upon location in an isolated section of woods near Somers Point.

However, Howard became suspicious and did not pick up the money.

Agents followed Howard to his home in the 1200 block of Wabash Avenue, where he confessed and led agents to a Lincoln Continental in his driveway. Matthew Traa sat inside, bound and gagged, with a canvas bag over his head.

Howard faces extortion charges in federal court as well as kidnapping charges in Atlantic County Superior Court.

Cipparone said Howard's library research could prove faulty. If convicted, Howard could serve a lot more than seven years - the maximum sentence is 20 years.

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