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Jeremiah Johnston, 35, is charged with murder and abuse of a corpse in the death of Sara Zghoul

JohnstonA convicted felon accused of dismembering an Aloha mother pleaded not guilty to the crime in a Washington County courtroom last week.

Jeremiah Johnston, 35, is charged with murder and abuse of a corpse. He is held without bond in the Washington County Jail. Johnston is accused of killing 28-year-old Sara Zghoul, whose body was found dismembered in the trunk of a car in January.

"This is the first step in the long process of bringing justice for the family, and for the victim and her loved ones," Washington County Sheriff's Office spokesman Jeff Talbot told the Tribune's news partner, KOIN 6 News, last week.

Zghoul's body was found in the trunk of a black BMW near Southwest Sarala Street and Hargis Road in Aloha on Jan. 25.

Deputies took Johnston into custody near Murray Boulevard after a resident in the area heard screams for help in a ravine.

After his arrest, Johnston was taken to a nearby hospital with self-inflicted injuries, according to Washington County sheriff's deputies. Appearing in court on Feb. 1, Johnston was seen with lacerations to his neck.

Johnston allegedly attempted suicide before he was arrested. He was hospitalized for several days before his arraignment last week.

No motive has been released in Zghoul's death, and a Washington County judge has sealed records in the case, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.

In a statement released to The Oregonian this week, Johnston's family has called Zghoul's death "senseless."

"Our prayers are with (the) Zghoul family as they go through the worst nightmare parents can experience — the loss of a child," the letter read. "No words can relieve their pain, anger and constant wanting to know why."

Johnston has a history of trouble with the law. In 2011, he was charged with driving under the influence. In 2013, he was accused of forging a prescription for oxycodone by using a doctor's identity and was convicted of identity theft. In 2015 he was charged with delivery of cocaine and possession of heroin and methamphetamine and being a felon in possession of a firearm. In 2017, he was charged again with possession of cocaine in Multnomah County.

"While Jeremiah has had a troubled past with drug use, he never exhibited any signs of violence or wanting to hurt anyone," Johnston's family wrote. "We continue to fully cooperate with the Washington County Sheriff's Office as their investigation proceeds. Our hearts go out to Sara's family and we are deeply and emotionally saddened by her senseless death. We do not plan to attend any of Jeremiah's court appearances. Please respect our privacy while we grieve for Sara and continue to process this terrible crime."

The Zghoul family released a statement last week, thanking family, friends, neighbors, and "the entire community as a whole for the generous outpouring of love, support and prayers sent our way."

"We have lost our daughter, mother, sister and friend; (a) beautiful soul who will remain in our hearts forever," the family wrote. "Please continue to keep us in your prayers."

Johnston's next court appearance is set for Feb. 8.

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