tampabay.com

Attention shifts to sex offender in Lunde case

The missing girl's brother is reported to have said that the man came to their home some hours after she disappeared.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published April 14, 2005


RUSKIN - Searchers looking for a 13-year-old girl scoured the woods and swampy riverbanks of southern Hillsborough on Wednesday as investigators turned their attention to a convicted rapist reportedly seen leaving the girl's home within hours of her disappearance.

Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee confirmed that David Onstott, a sex offender arrested Tuesday night on unrelated charges, had months ago dated Kelly May, Sarah Lunde's mother. Sarah has been missing since early Sunday morning.

Gee stopped short of calling Onstott a suspect, or even a person of interest. He gave no details about the man's interview with detectives. Onstott is in the county jail, wanted on a Michigan arrest warrant and charged with aggravated assault after an incident in Apollo Beach on Tuesday.

Gee would not comment on reports by Sarah's 17-year-old brother, Alan Lunde, that Onstott woke him inside the family trailer at 5 a.m. Sunday and asked for Sarah's mother.

Alan Lunde told WTSP-Ch. 10 that Onstott left when he learned May was not home and took a beer bottle that Lunde saw hours earlier in the family's mobile home.

"I think it's clear, he has our attention," Gee said of Onstott, 34. "I'm not going to label him at this time. We are looking at everybody thoroughly."

Dozens of law enforcement officers and volunteers fanned out Wednesday from Sarah's home at 2812 30th St. SE in a daylong search that began at 6 a.m. and included police dogs, horses, divers and helicopters in a region of fish farms and swamps.

"There probably couldn't be a more difficult area to search," Gee said.

The hunt is eerily reminiscent of one conducted last month in Homosassa, where investigators spent more than three weeks looking for 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford. They found her body March 20 and charged registered sex offender John Evander Couey with her murder.

Sarah's loved ones hope for a happier ending.

"Something's happened," said the Rev. Johnny Cook, a surrogate father to Sarah since she began attending the First Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ nearly three years ago. "She knows she can call us when she's scared or lonely. This is not normal for her."

Onstott is one of 24 sexual offenders who live or recently lived near Sarah, according to investigators. They have accounted for all but one of those offenders and believe he left the state before Sarah disappeared.

Soon after May reported her daughter missing Monday, deputies questioned Onstott, a longtime Ruskin resident with a history of violence against women, sheriff's Capt. Craig Latimer said.

Onstott got into a "heated argument" Tuesday night and threatened a man with a screwdriver, Latimer said. The man, 40-year-old Jimmy Seaton, called authorities to report the incident. A check revealed that Onstott was wanted for driving under the influence in Michigan, where his mother and three children live.

His father, David Onstott Sr., said a lawyer who represented his son in a previous assault case called this week and said "my son is suspect No. 1 in this."

Onstott was convicted in 1995 of sexual battery on a Hillsborough acquaintance. She testified that he knocked on her door, asked to use the bathroom, then threw her to the floor and raped her . Onstott served six years in prison and was ordered to serve two years of probation.

Last month, the Sheriff's Office charged him with failing to register as a sex offender. He posted $1,000 bail and was released March 7, jail records show.

His father said he doubted Onstott has anything to do with Sarah's disappearance.

"I can't believe he would hurt a young girl," Onstott Sr. said.

Church members last saw Sarah about 9 p.m. Saturday, when they dropped her off at home after a youth rally in Lake Apopka.

Matt Fontana, youth pastor, said that when young worshipers at the rally were invited to approach the altar, Sarah spent 45 minutes there, weeping and praying.

"A lot of people don't realize just what a 13-year-old girl can do for a church," he said Wednesday.

Sunday morning, Rev. Cook's son drove to her home and discovered she wasn't waiting for her usual ride to church.

"Then she didn't come that night to youth service, and that really worried us," Cook said. "That is very unlike her."

Alan Lunde told investigators he left his sister at home Saturday night to get her something to eat. But he hung out with friends until 4 a.m., according to sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter . When he returned, the front door was open and Sarah was gone. He told Ch. 10 that Onstott showed up about an hour later and woke him.

Monday morning, Cook's wife Sherry called Beth Shields Middle School, where Sarah is a sixth-grader, and learned she didn't come to school. Sarah's mother, out of town until Sunday night, also called the school Monday.

"We just want to bring Sarah home safely," May, 40, said Wednesday.

Sarah was a shy, distant girl with a history of emotional problems when she started attending Rev. Cook's church nearly three years ago, he said.

"You could tell she was from a broken home and needed support," said Cook, 56. "She felt alone, and the church showed attention to her."

Sarah had spent time in a foster home and had been placed in state custody for a mental health evaluation. Her parents, each with lengthy criminal records, divorced in 1998 after a 14-year marriage that included incidents of domestic violence.

Sheriff Gee said detectives spoke with Sarah's biological father, who lives in Zephyrhills, and do not believe he is connected to the disappearance.

Sarah wandered from home sometimes because she was afraid to be alone, Cook said. She sometimes spent the night at the Cooks' home.

"We were just as close as a Mom and Dad to her," he said.

On the many occasions when the Cooks took Sarah home, they shined the lights on her, just to make sure she got inside.

"She was left home a lot and it was so dark out there," Cook said. "We were always concerned about Sarah's safety."

--Times staff researcher Cathy Wos, staff writers Saundra Amrhein, Jeff Testerman and Kevin Graham and WTSP-Ch. 10 contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3373 or svansickler@sptimes.com