Johnston admits killing, dismembering Aloha mom


Jeremiah Johnston changed his plea and was sentenced Wednesday

HILLSBORO, Ore. (KOIN) — The man charged with the brutal 2018 murder of an Aloha mother and aspiring model changed his plea in a Washington County courtroom Wednesday and admitted he kidnapped and killed her.

Jeremiah Johnston pleaded guilty to kidnapping, killing and dismembering 28-year-old Sara Zghoul. He was convicted of 1st-degree murder, 2nd-degree kidnapping, abuse of a corpse and conspiracy to commit murder.

Johnston was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. But he must serve at least 30 years before becoming eligible.

Zghoul’s remains were found stuffed into two suitcases in the back of a black BMW in January 2018.

“Sara loved her family very dearly,” her sister Eman Noble said outside of court. “We’re missing a big part of us now. But mostly she loved her son. Her 8-year-old son who will face the rest of his life without his mom by his side.”

She said Johnston didn’t think about Zghoul’s son.

The family of Sara Zghoul spoke after her killer admitted his crimes in a Washington County courtroom, December 4, 2019 (KOIN)

“Most importantly he did not think about the little boy who would face life ahead of him motherless,” Noble said. “As I stand here today, no worldly punishment will ever suffice for these crimes.”

At the time of her death, Zghoul and Johnston were both living near each other with family members. They knew each other through the drug world.

The prosecutor said Zghoul was trying to go into treatment the day she was murdered but ended up at Johnston’s. When she refused to pay a drug debt, he killed her.

After the killing, Johnston called a friend with a boat and intended to get rid of her body. But that person contacted law enforcement, the prosecutor said.

Johnston was arrested and charged with several counts, including aggravated murder. He’s also charged with trying to hire a hitman from jail to kill a witness who heard him talking about the crime.

In November, court documents revealed new details about what prosecutors think Johnston did after she was killed to throw them off the trail.

Supporters of Sara Zghoul’s family in the hallway outside a Washington County court where her killer admitted to the crimes, December 4, 2019 (KOIN)

Court records indicate that investigators believed Johnston used Zghoul’s cell phone to post on social media that she was away at the coast. Her cell phone was missing for nearly a year until an informant told them where to find it.

Detectives are still trying to get Johnston to give them information about how to access the passcode on Zghoul’s phone he took, as well as the location of the rest of her remains.

Later, he was also charged with trying to hire a hit man from jail to kill a witness who heard him talking about the crime.

According to court documents, the hit man he tried to hire was Daniel Kerbs, who became an informant. Not only did Kerbs tell investigators about the alleged “murder-for-hire” plot, he also told them where Zghoul’s cell phone was.

“Included in Kerb’s statement was that the defendant’s (Johnston’s) attorneys were in possession of Sara Zghoul’s cellular phone,” records showed.

The change of plea

The case is one of several being affected by recent changes to Oregon state law.

In November, Johnston’s defense attorneys filed a motion to dismiss seven of the 10 counts against him “because the definition of ‘aggravated murder’ has been altered by Senate Bill 1013.”

Johnston’s trial was set to begin in January 2021.

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