tampabay.com

Grief, rage engulf girl's hometown

By ABBIE VANSICKLE
Published March 20, 2005


HOMOSASSA - When 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford vanished from her bedroom in late February, Homosassa snapped to life.

Retirees joined young families and business owners to scour this rural patch of southwest Citrus, desperate for clues.

"I don't think there's a person in Citrus who didn't drive by an empty field and look, just to be sure she wasn't there," said one of the searchers, Kimberly Chancey, 26.

Now that authorities say a suspect has confessed, the panic and desperation have subsided. In their place is quiet grief for Jessica and her family, and rage - against John Couey, the convicted sex offender who reportedly told investigators he killed Jessica; and against other sex offenders in the area.

"Everybody in this area has been really aware of what's going on," said Warren Hill, general manager of Harley-Davidson of Crystal River. "I think that obviously there's a lot of sadness and a lot of anger.

"I'm just like everyone else," he said. "I would love a few minutes alone with (Couey). Obviously, he's a really sick man."

For the most part, it seemed many Homosassa residents' lives were returning to normal Saturday - that is, to a quiet routine that doesn't involve TV news cameras. Though it's locally known as a hotbed for quirky news, Homosassa usually doesn't make national headlines.

Many businesses took down signs that had begged for Jessica's safe return. The Harley-Davidson shop's sign displayed a message of sorrow: "Jessica, God bless your soul."

Dozens of people left flowers and gifts at a makeshift roadside memorial of flowers, stuffed animals and candles.

Shirley Keen, 37, who has lived most of her life in Homosassa, stopped by the memorial just after noon Saturday. Standing in front of stacks of flowers and stuffed animals, she said she remembered a time when children played outside without parents worrying about their safety.

"When I grew up, you left your door unlocked," she said.

Now, Keen said, she and her husband sleep on opposite ends of their home in hopes that one would hear an intruder.

When she saw Couey's photograph on television, she recognized him. She recently stood in line with him at a local gas station, she said. She said she's furious that Couey was able to avoid detection for so long.

"I think this is the worst thing that's ever happened here," Keen said. "It's sick. I don't understand how it slipped through the cracks."

The most visible reminder of the tragedy came rumbling up U.S. 19 from Pasco County. Just after 1 p.m. Saturday, more than 300 motorcyclists arrived in Citrus County in a memorial ride led by the Florida Southern Cruisers, Chapter 311. Jessica's father, Mark, led the pack on a shiny bike.

"Honk for Jessica," read posters mounted to a few of the bikes.

"It was just to bring the community in Tampa Bay together," said organizer Nicholas Cusimano.

Karen Taylor, 44, a Homosassa resident, heard about the ride on the radio. She joined the riders once they reached Citrus. Taylor said the ride helped her deal with her anger that a sex offender like Couey could live so close to a child without anyone's knowledge.

"I'm glad they got him," she said. "I'm glad he's caught. And I'm glad Florida's got the death penalty."

The riders briefly turned off the highway to drive by the Lunsford home, in a wooded area of mobile homes and single-family houses just east of U.S. 19.

Three young boys stood in a driveway a few houses north of the Lunsfords', giving the riders thumbs-ups as they passed.

Another neighbor, Cynthia Hartmann, 53, came outside to watch after the bike engines awakened her family's Chihuahua, Buddy. She said she didn't know Jessica well, but said she was shocked at her death and that the girl's body was found in the neighborhood.

Chancey and Rohde also watched the procession, as did Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy, who waved as the riders' passed.

As the bikes filled the street, the sound of their engines swelling, Rohde handed flowers to Dawsy to give to the family.

At Emily's Family Restaurant, not far from the Lunsford home, the community's rage was on full display.

In the early 1990s, Couey worked there as a dishwasher before owner George Kanaris fired him for writing a love letter to a 14-year-old girl who worked there. "I want people to go out and get on the Internet and see where these people are," Kanaris said, referencing the state's list of registered sexual offenders. "They made Martha Stewart wear an ankle bracelet and this guy was 150 yards away? We need a new system."

Staff writer Justin George contributed to this report.