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The search for Jessica Lunsford
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As pleas go out, hunt for Citrus girl goes on

Despite her family's emotional call for her return, searchers again found no sign of Jessica Marie Lunsford.

Published February 26, 2005

[Times photo: Stephen J. Coddington]
Volunteers Eleanor Phillips, Kathleen Brooks, Debra White, Luell Presgrove and Marge Paris search a field a few blocks from the Homosassa home of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford on Friday. Officials called off the search for the night at 6 p.m.

[Times photo: Stephen J. Coddington]
Mark Lunsford pleads for the safe return of his missing daughter, Jessica Lunsford, at a morning press conference held by the family in Homosassa on Friday. The girl's grandmother, Ruth Lunsford is at left.
Jessica Lunsford was reported missing Thursday. She was last seen wearing a nightgown and shorts.

CRYSTAL RIVER - Too weary to walk, the father and grandparents of a missing 9-year-old girl drove the 50 yards from their home to a bank of microphones and TV cameras.

"I really ... I really need as much help as I can right now," Mark Lunsford said between sobs. "I need my daughter home."

Jessica Marie Lunsford was reported missing Thursday morning. She was still missing when Lunsford, 41, and his parents addressed the media for the first time at 9 a.m. Friday. And she was still missing long after darkness fell and well-wishers held candles and prayed.

For the second straight day, searchers scoured the woods near the Lunsford home. The clues investigators did discover Friday led nowhere.

At 6 p.m., with rain spitting at volunteers and more than 100 worn-out local, state and national law officers, Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy called off the search for the night.

"Very frustrating," Dawsy said while a search helicopter buzzed overhead. "It's not because we haven't tried, as you can tell."

There were some developments Friday. The FBI found Jessica's mother, Angela Bryant, in Ohio, where she lives. Agents interviewed her and determined she was not a suspect, Dawsy said.

Law officers also said a doll was missing from Jessica's room. Dawsy didn't provide any more details.

Jessica stands 4 foot 11 and weighs 70 pounds. She is a Homosassa Elementary School third-grader.

She was last seen about 10 p.m., when her grandparents tucked her in to bed inside their mobile home in Homosassa, a small village south of Crystal River. Jessica lives there with her father and his parents, Archie and Ruth Lunsford.

Jessica wore a pink nightgown and white shorts.

"Come on, mama," Ruth Lunsford, 73, recalled Jessica telling her Wednesday night. "You got to put me to bed."

She told her grandmother, "I love you," and Ruth and Archie Lunsford retired in their room, which is near the front door.

They didn't hear any sounds all night, Ruth Lunsford said.

Mark Lunsford spent Wednesday night at a girlfriend's house. He came home sometime before 6 a.m. and heard his daughter's alarm going off. He changed his clothes to get ready for work, and checked to see why Jessica hadn't turned it off.

She was gone. The front door was unlocked and there were no signs of forced entry.

The sheriff couldn't call the case an abduction, because there have been no real clues. But he said he does not think the girl wandered off alone, and a national missing child alert has been issued.

"She wouldn't go anywhere without telling us," Ruth Lunsford said. "When God made Jessie, he made an angel. We always called her princess. I know she's out there."

Searchers with bloodhounds and riders on horseback crisscrossed the mossy oaks, pines and sugar-sand mounds Friday looking for clues the rain didn't dissolve.

Divers, meanwhile, began searching area ponds.

"We're looking for anything right now," Dawsy said when asked if he was looking for a body.

ATV riders combed the area. More than 30 members from a state Child Abduction Response Team also helped.

Convicted sex offenders living in the county were checked, sheriff's spokeswoman Gail Tierney said. The family's home computer was taken into evidence in case a predator had contacted Jessica online.

Faith Baptist Church, Jessica's small congregation, organized a candlelight vigil in the night and helped the Sheriff's Office hand out fliers in Homosassa neighborhoods in the day. The church's white vans drove members to different blocks. When volunteers stumbled on anything suspicious, like a shovel or toys in a truck, they contacted deputies, who marked the sites. One elderly volunteer walked into barbed wire and needed medical treatment.

"We just want to help any way we can," said Arnold West, who saw Jessica Wednesday, before she went missing. "This seems the only way to do it."

A crew from America's Most Wanted received special access to detectives and the family. The show plans to air a segment on Jessica tonight. More than 11 local and national television crews crowded the area, which was guarded by police tape. Residents came in a steady stream asking for fliers to hand out.

The afternoon was mostly a lull until Hillsborough County's sheriff called Dawsy, setting the media abuzz. Deputies had found a body in a lake there. Dawsy braced Mark Lunsford for the news. He did not tell the elderly Ruth.

The body was a young woman's. It turned out not to be Jessica.

"We went through a bit of an emotional roller coaster," Dawsy told reporters. "We have confirmed it is not our girl."

Justin George can be reached at 352 860-7309 or

[Last modified March 1, 2005, 04:46:11]

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