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Did New Jersey Kidnap Suspect Lure Victims by Pretending to Be an Imperiled Former SEAL?

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by Susan Katz Keating

James Parrillo Jr. came on my radar years ago as a man who allegedly claimed that he was a SEAL, and that the U.S. Navy was chasing him – claims he supposedly used as part of a ploy to earn sympathy from women he preyed on along the nation’s hiking trails. Now, the man who detractors say has made false claims about military service is behind bars, after being charged with kidnap and other crimes.

James Parrillo Jr., 57, was arrested on Feb. 7 in Burlington County, New Jersey after a terrified woman burst into a gas station, begging for help. The woman said Parrillo had held her captive for nearly a year, and had beaten and strangled her, and taken away her phone and bank cards.

News of Parrillo’s arrest was met with anger and relief by trail community members who warned as early as 2018 that the self proclaimed veteran was a predator hunting the outdoor byways.

“My base weight just got lighter,” one hiker wrote on “Missing From the Pacific Crest Trail,” a Facebook page. “No need for a bazooka anymore in case I ran into him.”

Hiking community member Andrea Lankford on Friday tweeted an update to her 2018 notice that hikers should avoid the man who “professes stolen valor as a veteran.”

Members of the trail and treasure hunting communities contacted me about Parrillo four years ago, hoping I could spread the word that a predator was on the loose. At the time, I was involved with a group that supported veterans who hike the trails, and I sounded the alert. My contacts already knew about the man who went by “Medic” and other trail names; the warnings had been circulating through the close knit hiking world. 

“Medic” apparently claimed to be a wealthy retired Navy SEAL who was being chased by the service for long-ago offenses that seemed to change with each telling. The Navy at the time told me they had no record of Parrillo serving; and no, they were not chasing him.

Parrillo apparently used versions of the story for quite some time.

One woman said he wooed her in 1993 after telling her he was wounded in action while serving as a SEAL during the Persian Gulf War, and that he had received a Purple Heart and the Navy Cross. He grew abusive, she said, and she escaped him in fear of her life.

Parrillo in 1994 allegedly wore military clothing and claimed to be a SEAL when he was arrested in Florida after capturing a yacht and its crew. A woman who said Parrillo held her captive in the days leading up to the yacht episode told a reporter Carrillo wanted the boat in order to escape the Navy and flee to the Caymans. 

Following the 1994 arrest, Parrillo briefly recanted his claim of being a SEAL.

“I was in the Navy but got thrown out because I didn’t tell them I had a conviction for assault,” he said in a jailhouse interview.

Parrillo reportedly pleaded insanity on all charges connected to seizing the yacht. He was acquitted and released.

Hiking trails

A writer for Backpacker magazine looked into Parrillo in 2019, and wrote that the man had roamed the country for some 30 years using various aliases, “leaving fear and wreckage in his wake.”

Among the alleged victims was California hiker Kira Moon.

“He struck me as solicitous,” Moon told journalist Bill Donahue about meeting Parrillo at a group house for hikers near the Pacific Crest Trail. “A giving, caring person. You got the impression he was service-oriented.” Moon said that Parrillo presented himself as a wealthy retired Navy SEAL who had been a deep-sea diver for Greenpeace. 

Hiker Sara Dhooma got a bad vibe from the man known as Medic, and was alarmed to see Moon connect with him. But Moon trusted Medic enough that she agreed to hike with him.

After the new pals set out together along the PCT, Moon later said, Parrillo turned unexpectedly violent and domineering.

The Backpacker article describes a litany of similar stories from others who said Parrillo claimed he was being chased by the Navy, or that he was a disabled Gulf War combat veteran, or a military field doctor. The women also said that he threatened to kill their families.

At least seven women have accused Parrillo of kidnapping and rape, and two said they were held prisoner for more than a year, and that he “sired a child with them,” Donahue wrote.

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Moon escaped Parrillo in 2018, when she seized an opportunity to race into an urgent care center and beg for help. Parrillo was arrested and spent one night in jail. The case against him appears to have evaporated for lack of proof. According to Donahue and others, he returned to the trails.

The following year, after Moon died in a house fire, Sara Dhooma posted a video to warn other hikers that a predator was back among them.

Kira Moon’s story sounds remarkably similar to that of the woman who fled this month to the New Jersey gas station.

According to New Jersey law enforcement officials, the woman said she first met Parrillo — whom she knew as Brett Parker — in February 2022 at a gas station in New Mexico. She agreed to give him a ride to Arizona. 

“The woman said she was in a voluntary relationship with the defendant for about a month when he physically assaulted her while the two were in California, at which point she felt unable to leave the relationship,” according to the New Jersey Attorney General’s office. “During their time together, Parrillo allegedly took away the woman’s phone, confiscated and utilized her debit cards, and isolated her from her family.”

Video by Sara Dhooma

The two arrived in New Jersey sometime in December and were staying in a rented room in Bass River for about two weeks when she managed to escape following an argument with Parrillo, during which he allegedly beat and choked her, authorities said. The woman ran from the house wearing only shorts and a shirt in the 42-degree weather. Once inside the gas station, the woman bolted the door behind her. 

“Footage from the station’s security camera shows Parrillo following the woman to the gas station and attempting to open the door, then leaving when he found it locked,” the AG said. Police arrested Parrillo a short time later. 

Officials now are looking into what the trail community and others have said for years.

Parrillo may have performed “similar predatory conduct” in other states based on social media and information provided by the woman, prosecutors said.

“This is a deeply disturbing case in which the defendant allegedly held a woman against her will for nearly a year, while traveling with her throughout the country,” Attorney General Matt Platkin said. “We are reaching out to law enforcement across jurisdictions to identify other people who may have additional information on the defendant.”

Kira Moon, sadly, will not be able to help directly. Her family, though, has contacted New Jersey police.

Meanwhile, New Jersey’s Assistant Attorney General Theresa Hilton requested that in the interest of public safety, Parrillo be held without bail.

“I’m glad he got busted,” one hiker-veteran told me. The hiker is enraged over the alleged violence against women, and is filled with contempt over the apparent claims of having served in the military.

The veteran is galled at alleged claims about the Purple Heart and Navy Cross, and over serving in an elite unit. “Let’s see how far his so-called SEAL training gets him in prison.”

James Parrillo currently is listed as incarcerated in the Burlington County jail, inmate number 117506.

Susan Katz Keating is the publisher and editor in chief of Soldier of Fortune.

About Susan Katz Keating

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