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Searching for Sarah

Missing girl's body found in fish pond

Published April 16, 2005

TAMPA -- The body of 13-year-old Sarah Michelle Lunde was found Saturday around 10 a.m., a week after she disappeared after returning to her Ruskin home from a church youth rally.

A search dog and handler discovered the 6th grader's remains partially submerged in water on an abandoned fish farm half a mile south of her home. Crews had searched the area before, but it's likely the body had been fully submerged, said Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee.

He said it had been there "an extended period of time" and that whoever put it there "went to a great deal of effort to conceal it."

He did not release details of how authorities think the girl died or how long she had been dead.

The discovery shattered the lingering hopes of nearly 200 volunteers, many sunburned and sweating, who quietly returned from the wilderness they had help search inch by inch for five days.

Some cried and hugged. Others shook their heads in disappointment and disbelief.

"She didn't deserve this," said Aaron Cook, a 28-year-old youth pastor at the First Apostolic Church in Ruskin, which Sarah attended. "Every fiber of my being is very upset, very emotional. I hope they find whoever did it. I'll always have that question: Why?"

Cook had driven the church's youth group to Apopka last Saturday for a Christian youth conference. Sarah came along, and he dropped her at the home she shared with her mother and three brothers just after 9 p.m.

"She asked me to come pick her up for church Sunday morning," Cook said.

She never made it.

Days before searchers found Sarah's body on Saturday, suspicion for her disappearance had turned to David Lee Onstott, one of 24 sexual offenders who live or recently lived near the girl's home, according to investigators.

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.

Onstott was arrested again Tuesday night after a "heated argument" during which he threatened a man with a screwdriver, deputies said. He remains in jail without bond on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and failure to register as a sex offender, as well as an outstanding warrant for driving under the influence in Michigan, where his mother and three children live.

Despite Onstott's criminal past and the fact he was seen in Sarah's home the night she disappeared, Gee has declined to label him a suspect in the case. But indicated Saturday that Onstott clearly remains a focus for investigators.

"We are going to continue to pursue that angle," Gee said, before adding this promise. "I assure the family and public that we're going to do everything in our power to bring (to justice) the person or persons responsible."

Gee also asked late Saturday for residents in the area to be on the lookout for any articles of clothing that might have belonged to Sarah. She was last seen wearing a white T-shirt and orange and blue basketball shorts. She had a bright green half cast on her left arm from a wrist injury. The cast was still on her body, Gee said.

There will be a memorial service Sunday for Sarah Lunde at the church that had become a focal point of her life before she died, First Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ, 1820 30th St. SE, in Ruskin. The service begins at 10 a.m., and will close with a memorial to Lunde.

[Last modified April 16, 2005, 19:48:09]

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