Parents watch birth of law to spare others their agony

A law enacted with unusual speed tightens the way Florida will deal with sexual offenders and sexual predators.

Published May 3, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - Two months ago, Mark Lunsford and Kelly May were strangers - single parents raising kids in quiet, rural communities in Central Florida.

On Monday, they were together in the office of Gov. Jeb Bush, a father and a mother who have lived the nightmare of having a child brutally slain.

They stood a few feet behind the governor as he signed a bill intended to reshape the way the state deals with sex offenders, particularly those who prey on young children such as Jessica Lunsford and Sarah Lunde.

"Well, it was just an honor to be there, you know," said Lunsford, who removed his familiar ball cap for the ceremony. "Every time I asked for something, from the beginning to now, people did it and they did it quickly."

In an office packed with reporters and cameras, Bush signed the Jessica Lunsford Act, a piece of legislation aimed at patching holes in the state's sex offender and predator laws. The law takes effect Sept. 1.

"Florida has some of the toughest laws in the country as it relates to sexual predators and sexual offenders, and this bill will make our laws even tougher," Bush said. "I think it is right and just that that is the case."

The suspects in both slayings are convicted sex offenders who were on probation at the time of the murders. Shortly after Jessica's body was found March 19, state legislators drafted proposals dealing with sex offender laws.

The Lunsford Act includes provisions such as electronic tracking of sex offenders on probation, increased prison time for child molestation and mandatory use of the state's sex offender database by local probation officials.

Lawmakers set aside more than $11-million for the law, including $3.9-million for electronic monitoring and $3.6-million for new prison beds.

Jessica's death occurred near the start of the legislative session, making it possible for legislators to propose the Lunsford Act and get it to the governor's desk by the final week of the session.

The original House bill was less sweeping than the Senate version, focusing only on electronic monitoring instead of tougher prison sentences. But after meeting with Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, her House colleague, Rep. Charles Dean, R-Inverness, agreed to changes.

The proposal moved through the Legislature with astonishing speed. The House gave its approval April 19.

Argenziano said the Lunsford Act is just the beginning. The act calls for several studies by state agencies, and the senator hopes to use the information to sponsor legislation next year.

Her first target: the state's probation system.

"How come we have people selling drugs who are nonviolent taking up prison space while the violent people are being let out on probation?" Argenziano asked. "There has to be a real hard look at the probation system, as well as the registry.

Jessica's body was found March 19, buried in the back yard of a mobile home in sight of her family's home. John Couey, a 46-year-old sex offender, has been accused of her murder. Law enforcement authorities say he confessed to killing her.

Would the new law have saved Jessica or Sarah?

Had the Lunsford Act been in place, Couey would not have been able to dodge law enforcement. He would have been on an electronic monitoring device alerting local authorities to every move.

The case of David Onstott, the 36-year-old sex offender authorities say confessed to killing Sarah Lunde, is murkier. Onstott was on probation for a 1995 rape conviction. But he had already completed his probation by 2005, so he likely wouldn't have worn a device at the time of Sarah's disappearance.

Lunsford sees no point in dwelling on what-ifs.

"There's not much sense in going backward and being mad at somebody for what should have been done or what could have been done," he said. "It's done. If we get mad and go backward it's not going to bring none of these kids back."

Lunsford, a dump truck driver in the small community of Homosassa, was thrust out of his quiet life as a divorced single parent Feb. 23, when his daughter vanished from her bedroom.

Since then, he has become used to the glare of the cameras and reporters' questions. He has spent time with state and national lawmakers and appeared on CNN and the Fox News Channel.

He hired an attorney, Herbert Cohen of Fort Lauderdale, who called Lunsford "an incredibly ... stable, honest character."

And he has had to deal with situations he never imagined.

Friday night, he lodged a complaint with the Tampa Police Department after seeing a collection box at the Kwik Gas convenience store at 900 W Kennedy Blvd. It had pictures of Jessica and her accused killer, Couey.

Lunsford told police he had not authorized her image on collection boxes for Protect and Serve USA, a Pennsylvania-based charity that raises money for police.

The collection box, seized by Tampa investigators, urged people to donate $1 to "help stop sexual predators." An explanation in fine print said the charity was formed to provide police with "desperately needed equipment."

Volunteers made amends, getting Lunsford's approval Monday to use Jessica's photograph, spokesman said Steve Allen.

"His daughter's picture is helping us substantially to raise money," Allen said.

Tampa police Detective Paul Mumford said Protect and Serve "appears to be a legitimate organization."

Lunsford said the chaotic pace has kept him from mourning his daughter's death.

At Monday's signing, he stood outside Bush's office, wearing a tie with Jessica's photograph on it. He made it clear he's pleased with the law and is optimistic that it will save other children. But he was less hopeful for himself.

"I'm still lost, you know," he said. "I haven't really dealt with it. I've got a funny feeling it's all going to happen after I leave here - now it's time for me to either find something else to do or, you know, lay down and deal with my grief."

--Times staff writers Carrie Johnson and Shannon Colavecchio-VanSickler contributed to this report.