At 9 o'clock yesterday morning, Paul Johnson III got the news: Saudi Arabian security forces had recovered his father's head. It was in a freezer at a villa in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
Johnson was silent.
When he finally spoke, he was calm, according to Nail al-Jubeir, a spokesman for the Saudi Arabian Embassy who broke the news to him. After weeks of not knowing the fate of his father's remains, he finally had an answer, albeit only a partial one. He asked al-Jubeir if this would help Saudi officials locate the rest of his father's body and al-Jubeir said, "there's a better chance of that now."
Since Paul M. Johnson Jr., an employee of Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp., was reported missing June 12, his family had frantically sought assistance from government officials. Johnson's son had come to Washington on Tuesday from Florida to meet with officials at the FBI, the State Department, the embassy and with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).
He was seeking closure through the recovery of his father's body. The day after his family reported Johnson missing, Islamic radicals allied with al Qaeda claimed to have abducted him. Six days later, al Qaeda militants decapitated Johnson, then posted photos of his remains on the Internet.
Though a witness told police in Riyadh that Johnson's body was dumped by his killers, that report turned out to be false. Last week, Saudi and U.S. authorities announced they had called off the search for the elder Johnson's remains. But in a letter to Nelson dated July 20, James P. Terry, the acting assistant secretary for legislative affairs, assured the senator: "We continue to urge the government of Saudi Arabia, at the highest levels, to do everything within their power to investigate this crime, recover Mr. Johnson's remains, and bring the perpetrators to justice."
Johnson III planned to meet with both the FBI's Office of Victim Assistance and the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs during his short visit here. Spokesmen from both organizations confirmed he had sought information and counsel from them but, at Johnson's request, would not speak about his case specifically. He also had scheduled a half-hour meeting with Nelson yesterday, but canceled it after hearing about the discovery.
Yesterday afternoon, Nelson taped a statement. "Our hearts continue to go out to the family of Paul Johnson Jr.," he said to a camera in the Senate office building, a copy of the speech on the floor at his feet. "We must win this war against his terrorist murderers."
Afterward, Nelson returned to his office, which is decorated with images of the space shuttles Lockheed Martin helps build. The senator, a former astronaut, expressed his frustration with Saudi investigators. "To put it politely," he said, "I have been raising Cain with the Saudi government to continue the search."
More than 100 law enforcement vehicles and five busloads of security forces converged on the King Fahd district in the Saudi capital about 11 p.m. Tuesday, and discovered weapons, chemicals, video cameras and cash after a gun battle with local militants. Johnson's head was recovered then. The Saudi interior minister announced the findings on local television. During the raid, the minister said, officials arrested the wife of Saleh Awfi, the fifth most wanted man in Saudi Arabia, and detained three of his children.
The discovery came only hours after Johnson III met with officials at the Saudi Embassy in Washington. Accompanied by a Lockheed Martin escort, he slipped into the embassy through an underground garage to avoid reporters camped out in front. Johnson wore a dark suit and appeared anguished but composed, according to al-Jubeir. He spoke about how his father had loved Saudi Arabia, where he lived for more than a decade, most recently working on Apache helicopters. He grew up in New Jersey, his son told them. That's where his family held a memorial service in his honor, a week after receiving news of his beheading.
On June 19 a video was posted on the Internet showing a blindfolded Johnson seated before a group of hooded men who then beheaded him. Saudi forces later killed Abdulaziz Muqrin, the al Qaeda chief in Saudi Arabia who they believe orchestrated Johnson's kidnapping, and two other suspected militants.
Yesterday, al-Jubeir sat at the embassy with photos of Johnson's suspected killers -- images requested by the younger Johnson. Two of them, Muqrin and Faisal Dakheel, the man believed to be al Qaeda's second in command in Saudi Arabia, are dead, their bodies riddled with bullets in the photographs. His phone call with Johnson yesterday lasted less than five minutes, he said, but it may have been the most difficult conversation he's ever had.
"Telling of the gruesomeness of this whole thing," al-Jubeir said, "is just not something anybody's prepared to do."