Grief gives way to anger

Community residents say Jessica Lunsford's death could have been prevented and think the court system is to blame.

Published March 20, 2005

HOMOSASSA - About a mile from Jessica Lunsford's home, a sign at the median of U.S. 19 and Cardinal Street had been up for weeks, calling for people to help bring the missing 9-year-old home. It stood there diligently Friday but was gone a day later.

Anger took its place, standing not far away.

"Here's a man who should have never been let out of prison!" said Charlie Kimbrough, just across the street, talking about John Evander Couey, the convicted sex offender who authorities say confessed to killing the 9-year-old.

A mile away, near her home, Jessica Lunsford's body had been discovered early Saturday.

Couey's admission Friday, ended a search that had pressed the community into action. Every store had put up fliers of the missing girl on their glass doors. Winston Sharp, a man who lives across the street from the Lunsfords, had used his ice cream trucks to pass out hundreds more fliers. Bernie Smith, a Homosassa resident and former Pasco County Sheriff's Office employee, had brought his friend's bloodhound to the scene early on to help search. He came to the scene of the crime again Saturday, as he had done so nearly every day since Jessica disappeared.

No one in the community expected the search to end so close to the Lunsford home.

Couey, who has been convicted of attacking two children in the past, had lived within 100 yards of Jessica's home.

"Something's got to happen to lock these perverts up," said Kimbrough, a traveling pastor who was dressed in a suit, on his way to a church service after eating at a nearby restaurant. "It's ridiculous. America's going to hell in a hand basket.

"Jesus Christ of Nazareth has to return to this earth and clear up problems!"

Others expressed sadness by placing teddy bears, cards and handwritten notes at the intersection of Cardinal Street and Sonata Avenue, which is the street Jessica lived on.

"I was horribly disappointed," said 66-year-old Joe Davis of Homosassa, who flicked ash off his cigarette not far away. "I was one of the people searching for her."

For two days, he said, he joined hundreds of others who went out into the surrounding neighborhood and woods hopeful only to come back home each night frustrated and empty.

"It takes a little something out of all of us," he said of the tragic conclusion.

He said he is not upset the sheriff and more than 100 law enforcement searchers didn't discover Jessica Lunsford sooner, since her body was found so close to her home. At least, he said, there is closure.

"Most people still held out some hope but we were expecting the worst," Davis said.

"It's sad," said Terry O'Brien, a patron of Emily's Restaurant of Homosassa. "It brought tears to my eyes. Oh. It was a beautiful little girl."

Along with her husband, Bill, Terry O'Brien was on her way to Connecticut Saturday from their Spring Hill winter home. They said they choked up Friday when they saw Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy do the same, when he told television cameras that Jessica was dead during a news conference.

A day later, though, the couple said shock and sadness is beginning to turn into burning anger. A string of sentences came out from their mouths, one right after the other.

"There's something wrong with the judicial system to let a guy out and walk around," Bill O'Brien said about Couey.

"How come they didn't suspect him in the beginning?" Terry said. "They got to keep tabs on these sex offenders. You almost wish they didn't let them out."

"There's too much plea bargaining in the courts," Bill said.

They ate breakfast at the Homosassa restaurant and left, saying they were looking forward to spending Easter, a holiday celebrating resurrection after tragedy, with their family in Georgia.

Justin George can be reached at 352 860-7309 or jgeorge@sptimes.com