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James's mother, Debra A. Johnson, and her live-in boyfriend of one year, Maurice Marcell Martin, reported him missing at 8:30 a.m. on July 28, 1991. Martin stated he left the child in the car while he went into the Giant Food supermarket in the 300 block of north Reservoir Street in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. When he came out a few minutes later, James was gone. He has never been heard from again and an extensive search turned up no sign of him.
Authorities eventually determined Martin's story about James's disappearance was untrue, and he was charged with criminal homicide in October 1991. Johnson testified against Martin at his trial, stating he severely abused James on a regular basis, forcing him to stand in a corner for hours at a time and whipping him with various objects, and that he abused her as well. At one point, as a joke, he allegedly gave James a soda spiked with hot sauce. Neighbors had also saw Martin harshly disciplining the boy, kicking him and striking him with a tree branch. Numerous witnesses testified that James appeared terrified of Martin. Martin also contacted James's preschool teacher and told her she should hit him if he misbehaved.
Martin's attorney admitted his client had abused James but said that didn't mean he was responsible for the child's disappearance. Two witnesses who testified for the defense said they saw James alive after he was reported missing. Martin was convicted of third-degree murder in May 1992. The jury decided he had unintentionally killed James while abusing him and invented the abduction story to cover up his crime. He served twenty years in prison and was released in 2012.
Most of James's family, including his mother, have moved away from the area. His body has never been found.