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So near home, body found

In sight of where she was last seen, Jessica Lunsford is found. The Citrus County sheriff calls for the death penalty for the accused.

By JUSTIN GEORGE
Published March 20, 2005


HOMOSASSA - Investigators unearthed Jessica Lunsford's body early Saturday just outside the mobile home where the man police say confessed to abducting and killing her lived with four other people.

Authorities don't think John Evander Couey's housemates knew he killed the 9-year-old girl. Still, three were arrested Saturday and accused of lying to protect Couey, a registered sex offender. The fourth was arrested on an unrelated charge.

Jessica's body was recovered shortly before 4 a.m. Saturday. Preliminary autopsy results could take a day or two, and Medical Examiner Steven Cogswell declined to release any details. Investigators on Saturday provided no details about how Jessica was killed or how they believe Couey abducted her. Meantime, authorities continued to collect evidence in and around the mobile home, which sits in sight of the Lunsford home.

Saturday evening, Couey began his journey from Augusta, Ga. - where he was arrested, questioned and eventually confessed - back to Citrus County. Citrus Sheriff Jeff Dawsy said he will urge prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

"He's a crackhead," Dawsy said. "He's truly a piece of trash."

Jessica, a Homosassa Elementary School third-grader, was last seen by her grandparents Feb. 23 after they put her to bed in the home they shared on Sonata Avenue with the girl and her father, Mark.

Mark Lunsford couldn't find his daughter in the morning. The disappearance baffled hundreds of searchers for nearly three weeks.

Couey, 46, was linked to the case last week after investigators learned he was staying in sight of Jessica's home, even though his registered address was miles away.

His abrupt and suspicious departure to Georgia around March 4 - he bought a bus ticket in someone else's name - heightened suspicion. He was arrested Thursday in Augusta on unrelated charges and confessed Friday afternoon after taking a lie-detector test, authorities said.

Saturday, Mark Lunsford made his first public comments on his daughter's death.

"She's home now," he said in a shaky voice. "Now we have a new struggle. I need people to support me to help change things."

He said he planned to lobby legislators to tighten their grasp on sex offenders.

Dawsy expressed "frustration, disappointment and failure" after learning Couey had been living near the Lunsford home. His mood quickly changed to anger as he described the four people who lived with Couey.

They are Couey's half-sister, Dorothy Marie Dixon, 47; her daughter, Madie Catherine Secord, 27; her husband, Gene Allan Secord, 35; and Dixon's boyfriend, Matthew Oley Dittrich, 31.

According to arrest records, Dixon, Dittrich and Madie Secord admitted lying to law officers who, unable to locate Couey during a check on local sex offenders, asked whether he lived with the group at 6647 Snowbird Court. Each was held on a charge of obstructing justice and taken to the Citrus County jail, where bail was set at $500 each. Dittrich and Dixon posted bail Saturday, jail officials said.

Gene Secord was arrested on an unrelated charge of failure to pay child support. His bail was set at $5,160.

"We're not going to plea bargain this if I have anything to do with it," Dawsy said of the charges. "These are a bunch of cracked-out individuals. Just a bunch of druggies."

Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show Madie Secord has sought restraining orders against her husband several times. Gene Secord, a laborer, has been arrested on charges of fraud, possession of a concealed weapon by a felon, illegal possession of drugs without a prescription, probation violation for possessing drugs and domestic battery.

Dittrich, a mechanic, has been arrested on charges of drunken driving, larceny, fraud, forgery and probation violation for possessing drug paraphernalia, state records showed.

Virginia Hill, Gene Secord's mother, said her son is a doting father to Madie Secord's 3-year-old son, though he hasn't been a model father to his four children from another marriage.

"He's not part of that trash that Jeff (Dawsy) said. He's not cocaine trash," said Hill, 58. "He has problems like the rest of us."

She said the group formed after Dixon's husband, Troy, died about a year ago. Dixon sold a home and signed a lease at the mobile home near Jessica Lunsford's home on Dec. 11.

She used an alias, Marie Dittrich, said Becky Ickstadt, whose husband, Bob, is the landlord. Couey signed as a reference.

Matthew Dittrich moved in with her. John Couey lived there sometimes, authorities said.

Secord has told his mother he never knew Couey abducted Jessica Lunsford. She met Couey after her son moved into a mobile home near her in Crystal River.

He put in tile for the Secords and in Hill's kitchen. "He didn't seem scary," she said. "He seemed like a homeless man."

The sheriff described the group as being into drugs. Their home had a broken key in its lock, trash piled up against the back door and was a mess inside, Ickstadt said.

Neighbors knew little about the group.

But they're glad they're gone, said Tony Beccia, 29, who lives two homes away. He said a woman who lived at the mobile home approached Beccia and his wife to "smoke a rock." She also told him she wanted an abortion, he said. Beccia said he is planning to move.

"I'm just disgusted," he said. "I will never look at my neighbors the same way again. I will never feel safe again. This happened 50 feet from our house."

Times staff writers Abbie VanSickle and Jamie Thompson contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at 352 860-7309 or jgeorge@sptimes.com