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Was Jessica Lunsford a captive for 3 days?

John Couey reportedly told investigators and a niece that the 9-year-old was in his closet during the initial search.

Published May 27, 2005

HOMOSASSA - John Couey told investigators he kept Jessica Lunsford bound inside his bedroom closet for at least three days and hid inside his bedroom when detectives came to his mobile home to ask about her, according to documents released Thursday.

Couey, 46, also told his niece he kept Jessica alive for days before burying her alive, according to a law enforcement interview with the woman's stepdaughter.

But investigators have discredited Couey's time line, and so has Sheriff Jeff Dawsy, who has repeatedly said Couey was in a "drug haze."

The new information emerged from 1,400 additional pages of documents and photos that included transcripts of interviews with Couey's housemates.

Jessica, 9, a third-grader at Homosassa Elementary School, vanished from her family's mobile home late Feb. 23 or early Feb. 24.

After intense scrutiny of her father and her grandparents, Archie and Ruth Lunsford, the investigation turned to Couey, a convicted sex offender who lived within sight of her family's home.

Couey was arrested March 17 in Augusta, Ga., where authorities say he confessed to kidnapping, raping and murdering Jessica. He has pleaded not guilty and is at the Citrus County jail awaiting trial.

"She was alive for three days," Special Agent Edie Neal of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement told Couey's sister and housemate, Dorothy Dixon, 47. "They (law officers) were at y'all's house within three days. There was police officers standing in your house and that little girl was in your closet and she was alive."

"I can't believe that," Dixon said.

"Well, let me tell you something," Neal said, according to a transcript of the interview. "If it's a lie, your brother's telling it."

Three of Couey's housemates were arrested in connection with the slaying, but prosecutors decided not to file charges.

The 15-year-old stepdaughter of another housemate, Madie Secord, 28, told investigators that Couey told Secord he kept Jessica alive for days inside the mobile home.

In a March 29 interview, the teenager said Secord, who is Couey's niece, told her Couey kept Jessica alive in the mobile home.

"Um, I went over to (Secord's) house to see if she was okay, and she was telling me how Uncle Johnnie had the girl Jessica in the closet for four days and then he buried . . . he raped her and buried her alive," the teenager said.

"And how did she get that information?" Citrus sheriff's Detective Christopher Prus asked.

"Uncle Johnnie told her," she said.

Couey told investigators that the night Jessica disappeared, he, Dixon and Dixon's boyfriend, Matthew Dittrich, bought $20 worth of cocaine.

The trio then returned to their home on Snowbird Court, just yards from the Lunsford home, and used the drugs. When Dixon and Dittrich went to bed about 1 a.m., Couey's bedroom television was still on, Dixon said.

Sometime later, Couey slipped out of the house unnoticed and into Jessica's unlocked home, investigators say he told them.

"Johnny left y'all's house that night and what I'm telling you come from his mouth," the FDLE's Neal told Dixon, according to the transcript. "He went into that little girl's room. He went into their house, he put his hand over her mouth and he told her, "You're going with me.' "

Jessica may have asked to bring a stuffed purple dolphin from her room, Neal said, because Couey let her grab it before he sneaked the girl back into his mobile home across the street.

The girl's blood was found on Couey's mattress, the agent said. Dixon maintained she didn't hear a thing.

"I don't know," Dixon replied. "Like I said, we didn't hear it."

Matthew Dittrich, Dixon's boyfriend, who also lived at the home, told investigators he saw no sign of the girl. Couey told investigators Dittrich came into the bedroom and sat on Couey's bed while Jessica was in the closet. He also told investigators he doubted Dittrich would remember that, because Dittrich was high at the time.

"That's bull----," Dittrich, 31, said, when detectives told him he had been there.

The housemates learned of Jessica's disappearance later that morning, when dozens of law enforcement officers swarmed around the Lunsford home. Couey didn't leave the house for several days because he was worried deputies would find out he hadn't shown for a probation meeting, she said, adding that her brother usually stayed inside his bedroom with the door closed.

[Last modified May 27, 2005, 00:39:13]

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