Amid outpouring of love, a stark reminder

Published March 20, 2005

Our collective anxiety ended abruptly Friday with a clipped sentence from a determined Sheriff Jeff Dawsy: "I've got my man."

With that, three weeks of intensive searching for clues to the whereabouts of young Jessica Lunsford came to an end. All that was left were the gruesome details, and they came soon enough.

Late Friday night, John Evander Couey went from a suspect to a confessed kidnapper and killer. By early Saturday morning, Jessica began to surface from the cold Homosassa Springs dirt, within eyesight of her home and devastated family.

The law says that Couey is an innocent man, that he will get his day in court, and that is as it should be. Even in our darkest moments, we cannot succumb to a bloodlust that would ultimately bring even more harm to our society.

But it's hard. It is all but impossible not to want to lash out at this person, this convicted sex offender who has already told authorities that yes, he did the unspeakable to an innocent, beautiful child.

Across America, millions of people shared in the revulsion Friday as they watched the accidental video of Couey enjoying a beer, a smoke and a hearty laugh at a bar in Augusta, Ga. Remember, this is a person who - if his own words are to be believed - had snatched a child from her bedroom, then killed her. And here he is, laughing and drinking like a spring-breaker, without a care in the world.

Dawsy, who has immersed himself in this case unlike any other law enforcement official in this county's history, struggled to keep his emotions in check Saturday morning as he addressed the nation. Who among us did not share his barely concealed fury and disgust as he spoke of this alleged human being, using such terms as "a crackhead, a druggie" and "a piece of trash"?

When asked what he would like to see done to Couey, Dawsy's response was lightning fast, belying his mental and physical exhaustion: "The death penalty."

There are so many questions remaining, even after the most important ones have been answered. In time, the investigation will shed light on each salient point, such as how Couey got access to Jessica, how he managed to cover his tracks from the dozens of top-notch forensic specialists and specially trained dogs scouring the area where Jessica ultimately was found.

The hundreds of volunteers who searched every inch of ground in the miles surrounding the Lunsfords' Sonata Avenue home will know that they did everything in their power to help this family. All of our thoughts now will turn to trying to help them heal.

It is likely an impossible quest. What other torture could a family possibly go through?

They have endured the horror of discovering a child missing; they have seen their entire lives laid bare before the world; they have been suspected themselves of perpetrating a crime against their own flesh and blood, due in part because of ages-old transgressions that were dragged back to the surface for total strangers to dissect.

Now, this loving family is left to try to move forward without their glowing beacon of love, a little girl whose radiant smile connected with millions of people around the globe.

Today, people around Citrus County will head to their houses of worship, and it is likely that thousands of prayers will be lifted up for Jessica and her family. Along with this flood of love, there will doubtless be questions from the heart as well.

How could a just God allow such a terrible thing to happen to an innocent child? If God indeed is all-powerful and protective, where was He when Jessica needed Him the most?

We're told that we're not supposed to ask those kinds of questions, that there is a greater purpose beyond our abilities to comprehend. If so, what is the good that will come from this?

Is it that Jessica's death will bring changes to how society handles sex offenders, tighter controls on their movements once they are released back into an unsuspecting community? Will greater barriers now be raised between these predators and their innocent prey?

Is this experience supposed to show all parents just how vulnerable their most precious possessions truly are, that your loved ones can literally be snatched away from under your noses? That we must be even more diligent in our watchfulness?

Maybe the lesson is in the tremendous outpouring of love and support from the army of strangers who traveled to Homosassa to help look for a child none had ever met. Perhaps this greater feeling of community is Jessica's gift to us.

Or maybe we're all just reaching for something to rationalize this crime, to understand the unfathomable. The most enduring lesson may be a stark reminder that just as there is so much goodness and purity in the world, there also is evil.

And sometimes, it lives next door.