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Losing Jessica: A crime awful beyond belief

The abduction and killing of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford drew widespread horror and grief to Citrus County and brought changes to the state's sex offender laws.

By ABBIE VANSICKLE
Published January 1, 2006


HOMOSASSA - In January 2005, it seemed Citrus County already had found its top story of the year.

The national manhunt for John and Linda Dollar, the Pine Ridge couple accused of torturing their children, brought unwelcome notoriety to the area.

Who would have thought the news would soon become even more gruesome?

Jessica Lunsford's death stunned residents of Citrus County and far beyond, prompting changes in sex offender legislation at the state level.

By now, most everyone knows the facts of the case.

On Feb. 24, Jessica, a 9-year-old third-grader at Homosassa Elementary School, vanished from her bed.

Jessica, known by her family and friends as Jessie, lived with her paternal grandparents, Archie and Ruth, and her father, Mark, in a mobile home on Sonata Avenue.

For days, searchers combed the neighborhood. Police dogs sniffed for any trace of the girl. Deputies interviewed neighbors and members of Jessica's church.

No luck.

As the search continued, reporters from national networks, including CNN, Fox News Channel and ABC, set up camp near Jessica's home. Mark, always in dark sunglasses and an Orange County Choppers ball cap, became a familiar face on the news. Sheriff's deputies repeatedly said they believed Jessica was still in the area.

They were right.

On March 16, investigators announced they had found a person of interest in the case: 46-year-old sex offender John Evander Couey. When two detectives questioned him in Augusta, Ga., Couey told them he had snatched Jessica, kept her alive for days inside his closet and then buried her alive behind his home.

The most heartbreaking part: Couey lived in a mobile home in sight of the Lunsford house. Jessica may have been alive and nearby as law enforcement searched for her.

"She's home now," her father told reporters after learning of his daughter's slaying. "Now we have a new struggle. I need people to support me to help change things."

Couey was arrested and accused of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing Jessica. He was brought back to Florida under heavy security. He arrived at the Citrus County jail in the middle of the night. Law enforcement officers stood guard at the jail to ensure his safety.

Couey pleaded not guilty in Jessica's death. Prosecutors announced they'd seek the death penalty.

"He's a crackhead," Sheriff Jeff Dawsy told reporters after learning of Couey's statements to detectives. "He's truly a piece of trash."

In the meantime, deputies also arrested four of Couey's housemates - Couey's half-sister, Dorothy Marie Dixon, 47; her daughter, Madie Catherine Secord, 27; her daughter's husband, Gene Allan Secord, 35; and Dixon's boyfriend, Matthew Oley Dittrich, 31.

Dixon, Madie Secord and Dittrich were accused of obstructing the investigation. Gene Secord was accused of an unrelated charge of failing to pay child support.

Their arrests raised questions about whether anyone other than Couey knew of Jessica's whereabouts. Not long after, prosecutors decided not to file charges against Dixon, Dittrich and Madie Secord, saying there was nothing in Florida statutes that made it a crime to harbor a missing sex offender.

The prosecutors decision wasn't a popular one with many, including Fox News Channel pundit Bill O'Reilly, who criticized State Attorney Brad King for weeks.

The decision also infuriated state Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, and state Rep. Charles Dean, R-Inverness, who led state legislators to pass the Jessica Lunsford Act, a bill to change the way the state deals with sex offenders.

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.

Another component included mandatory background checks for contract workers, including construction workers, who work on school campuses. This move came after it was revealed that Couey worked as a mason's helper at Jessica's school, Homosassa Elementary.

A mason on the job said Couey had no direct contact with students and teachers while working at the school.

Parts of a national bill created by U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Crystal River, were incorporated into the Children's Safety Act of 2005, which includes provisions to strengthen reporting requirements for offenders, increases penalties for repeat offenders and requires probation officers to be notified of sexual offenses committed by their parolees.

In the fall, community members completed a new playground in Jessica's honor at her school. Sparkling new playsets, swings and a fitness course were erected for the children.

Now, as a new year begins, the criminal case is again the main focus. Prosecutors have released thousands of pages of discovery documents, detailing everything from Couey's conversations with investigators to the evidence gathered from his home to Jessica's school grades.

Circuit Judge Ric Howard set a trial date for July 10. He discarded the tentative date in February, telling the attorneys, "This is not a sprint. It's a marathon."

Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 860-7312 or vansickle@sptimes.com