Two suspects arrested in kidnapping of girl

Friday, July 26, 2002

PHILADELPHIA -- Acting a tip, police Thursday arrested two men wanted in the kidnapping-for-ransom of Erica Pratt, the 7-year-old girl who authorities say escaped from her captors by gnawing through duct tape.

Both men have long criminal records, and police said they were investigating whether the kidnapping was the work of a violent drug gang.

James Burns, 29, and Edward Johnson, 23, were captured before dawn just blocks from where Erica was abducted Monday night while playing with her 5-year-old sister in front of their grandmother's rowhouse.

The alleged kidnappers apparently knew the Pratt family. The connection was unclear, but court records show that the family had at least one violent run-in with one of the suspects.

Investigators continued to hunt for other suspects. "I suspect that we will have additional arrests within a week," said Lt. Michael Chitwood.

Soon after she girl was kidnapped, her captors called her grandmother and demanded $150,000 to spare her life. Bound and blindfolded with duct tape in the squalid basement of an empty building, Erica clawed loose Tuesday, broke open a door and yelled for help, police said. Two neighborhood children helped her break through a window to safety, police said.

Police would not say why the Pratt family was singled out, but they said they were investigating whether the kidnappers believed false neighborhood rumors that the Pratts, who live in a blighted block in a poor neighborhood, had come into money.

In December, Burns was charged with trying to shoot Erica's uncle Derrick Pratt by spraying his West Philadelphia home with bullets. Burns was released on bail and failed to show up for a court appearance. He was still wanted in that case at the time of the kidnapping.

Derrick Pratt was acquitted in a double-murder in the 1990s. In February, he was wounded with three other people in a drive-by shooting outside a downtown hotel. Another Pratt uncle was killed in March in what police described as a gangland murder.

Johnson had been arrested on drug charges in 1998 and 1999.

Members of the Pratt family would not talk about their past history with the kidnapping suspects Wednesday, other than to acknowledge that they had known both men from the neighborhood for many years.

Police would not discuss the evidence they said links the two men to the crime, but said Erica had picked Johnson's picture out of a photo array and identified him as the man who dragged her away kicking and screaming.

Investigators had been tracking Burns and Johnson for days, first by tracing cell phone calls, then by asking the public's help. Detectives said they received call after call from tipsters warning that the suspects were in the neighborhood trying to raise money to flee the city.

Acting on a tip, police spotted the men in a car just blocks from the Pratt home. The men bolted but were captured after a foot chase, police said. Johnson tried to hid by lying on the roof of a parking garage.

Burns and Johnson were treated at a hospital for minor injuries and then taken to jail.


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