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Searching for Sarah

Body likely missing Ruskin girl

A body is discovered in water at an abandoned fish farm near Sarah Lunde's home. Her youth pastor asks: "Why?"

By BRADY DENNIS and JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published April 17, 2005


RUSKIN - The frantic search for Sarah Michelle Lunde ended Saturday, and the grieving began.

Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee walked to a microphone at 6 p.m. and said what everyone involved in trying to find the missing 13-year-old had dreaded. He confirmed that a body found earlier in the day, was, with near certainty, that of the sixth grader who disappeared a week ago after coming home from a church outing.

Forensic tests by the medical examiner will be necessary to make a firm identification, but Gee said there was a "high degree of certainty" that it was Sarah. And there was no doubt she met a violent end. About 10 a.m., a search dog and handler found a partially submerged body in water on an abandoned fish farm a half mile south of Lunde's family's home at 2812 30th St. SE in Ruskin.

Crews had searched the area before, but it's likely the body had been fully submerged, Gee said. 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."

Saturday's discovery shattered the lingering hopes of Sarah's family, as well as those of more than 200 volunteers and law enforcement officers from 20 agencies around the state. 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 Ruskin's First Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ, 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 April 9 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.

* * *

Investigators said Sarah asked her 17-year-old brother, Andrew Lunde, to get her something to eat that night. But instead he left and hung out with friends until 4 a.m., according to sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter.

When he returned, he found the front door open and Sarah gone. He told Ch. 10 that David Onstott, a 36-year-old sex offender who once dated Sarah's mother, Kelly May, showed up about 5 a.m. and asked to see May. Onstott left when he learned she wasn't home and took a beer bottle from the home, the brother said.

When May returned from out of town Sunday evening, she assumed her daughter was spending the night with a friend, authorities said. But when Sarah didn't showed up at Beth Shields Middle School on Monday, her mother and a member of the girl's church reported her missing.

Sarah had run away from home before, Gee said, but she usually returned after several hours. This didn't appear like "a typical runaway."

Gee said his detectives will continue the work of solving what is now a homicide case.

He would not comment on the condition of the body, but asked residents in the area to be on the lookout for 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; a similar cast was on the body found Saturday.

* * *

Soon after Sarah's disappearance, suspicion turned to 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 bail 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 he indicated Saturday that Onstott clearly remains a focus for investigators.

"We are going to continue to pursue that angle," Gee said. "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."

* * *

John Fontana stood quietly by, arms folded across his chest, taking in the activity. His daughter Leslie was close friends with Sarah and had spent much of the previous week with her. Sarah had asked to spend the night at the Fontana home April 9, but, he said, "we decided she had been with Leslie all week. We figured we would see her at Sunday school."

Now, Fontana said, the family is trying to cope with the hindsight of what might have been. He didn't expect the pain to leave easily. "You're going to have to go through the grief and let time heal."

Saturday marked the end of a long week of intense searches in this corner of southern Hillsborough County. Swarms of law enforcement officers and hundreds of volunteers fanned out each day to search the rugged terrain, which is marked by fish farms and swamps.

The effort included police dogs, horses, divers and helicopters. At night, deputies flew above the search area looking for sources of heat.

Saturday afternoon, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement crime scene team flew in and began to work the scene gingerly. Fine sugar sand surrounded the area, and the investigators had to preserve any tracks and other evidence before removing the body.

"It's just the saddest thing, sickening sad," said volunteer Diana Rigsby of Longwood.

Sarah's pastor, Johnny Cook, told reporters he felt broken inside.

"The hurt is beyond imagination," he said. "I believe she is in a better place to live for God. We're going to have to suffer now."

As the April sun fell from the sky Saturday evening, volunteers and friends shared one more round of hugs and tears, then walked away toward their cars. Rescue workers from other counties loaded up their trucks and boats and search dogs and turned onto Interstate 75, headed home. Sarah's family remained at home, mourning.

Missing posters still clung to the windows of local restaurants, with Sarah's smile looking back at each customer who came through the doors.

The sign outside of the local Wendy's remained, in big black letters, seeming just as relevant now as before.

"Pray for Sarah," it read.

Times photographer Chris Zuppa contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press.

[Last modified April 17, 2005, 00:40:46]


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