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Jessica's voice

Mark Lunsford was a common man - he drove a truck, lived with his parents, rode a Harley for kicks. His daughter's murder transformed him into an uncommon public figure.

By ABBIE VANSICKLE
Published January 15, 2006


HOMOSASSA - One night in April, weeks after his daughter's body was found buried in a neighbor's back yard, Mark Lunsford had a dream.

His daughter, Jessie, was walking toward him. She leaned in to give him a hug and kiss, just like she did every night before bed. But instead of a single child, there were two Jessies, like identical twins. It was so vivid. It felt like she was alive again.

"It wasn't a bad dream, by any means," he says. "It was very pleasant."

For those precious moments, he could dream that his life hadn't been forever changed by a horrific slaying that would lead to changes in sex offender laws, creating a national public database of offenders and requiring background checks for school construction workers.

When he woke up, he was again alone in his bed in his parents' house in Homosassa, a fishing village in rural Citrus County. Jessica, his 9-year-old daughter, was still dead; her room, across the hall from his, was still empty. He tried to go back to sleep, to return to that place where she was. He couldn't.

That night, he knew two things.

He wouldn't sleep in that house again. He couldn't stand the pain of waking from that dream. To wake up was to relive a bit of the night investigators found Jessica's body, wrapped in trash bags and buried under several feet of dirt and sand.

And he believed the second girl in the dream was a sign "not to stop." His Jessie wanted him to help other children, to somehow prevent future tragedies.

So that's what Lunsford knew he had to do.

This is a story of an awakening, of beginning a new life, one never asked for and never imagined.

At this time last year, Mark Allan Lunsford, 42, was an ordinary man. He was a single parent with a high school education who still lived with his parents. He made a modest living driving a dump truck for a company called Dirt Boys. He listened to Creed and Eric Clapton, chain-smoked unfiltered Camels and made his mother proud, on occasion, by reading the Bible.

Not many people - certainly not governors or television crews or Oprah - cared a whit what was on his mind.

But that was before Feb. 24, the morning he came home from a girlfriend's to the sound of Jessica's alarm clock. He found his daughter's bed empty and awoke his parents. No one had seen her. They called 911. From that moment on, his life would never be the same.

After hearing the news that John Couey, a convicted sex offender, had admitted to the murder, Lunsford stood outside his parents' home, eyes red, voice filled with unfathomable sorrow.

"She's home now," he told reporters, his voice shaky. "Now we have a new struggle. I need people to support me to help change things."

Now, nearly a year after Jessica's death, he has changed things.

He has started a foundation in his daughter's name and, so far, has used the money to build a playground at her school, to buy school supplies for needy children and to travel to other states to lobby for reforms in sex offender laws. He has gained powerful allies, including state legislators, country music stars and philanthropists.

"That's the way he's coping with Jessie's death," says his mother, Ruth. "He's on a mission."

Along with John Walsh of America's Most Wanted and Marc Klaas, the father of slain Polly Klaas, Lunsford has joined a sort of tragic band of brothers, men whose personal tragedies have become crusades on behalf of others' children.

Not all is new, though. He still wears a longish ponytail, sunglasses that hide his eyes and a black leather biker jacket almost everywhere he goes. When he's speaking to groups, he calls himself "an angel with a dirty face."

Lunsford's balancing act isn't always smooth. He's trying to remain true to himself and his daughter's memory. He doesn't want anything to tarnish his Everyman image because that would hurt his foundation. He doesn't want to put on airs or be manipulated. He wants to grieve in private.

Yet he can't help taking some enjoyment in his new life and the power that has come with his status. When he speaks now, people stop to listen.

* * *

On a dreary December afternoon, he drives through the gates of Jumbolair Aviation Estates, a ritzy Ocala community that's home to movie star John Travolta.

He's there for a photo shoot for a glossy magazine, Ocala Style, which is writing a feature about him. At a mansion near the front entrance, a photographer has set up spotlights and a beige background.

As usual, Lunsford's wearing a biker jacket and a ball cap embroidered with "Jessie's Riders," a group of bikers he started in her honor.

Nearby stands Terri Jones-Thayer, a former Revlon Charlie Girl, who built the estate with her former husband, a millionaire inventor. Jones-Thayer is slender, with long, dark brown hair and high cheekbones. She's dressed in tight-fitting jeans and high-heeled boots. Jones-Thayer met Lunsford several months ago at a fundraiser and now serves on the board of his foundation.

"He and I call each other brother and sister," she says with a delicate laugh. "He's a wonderful person. Genuine. Real. Just a person that you can trust. I don't know. He's just someone you fall in love with the moment you meet."

She turns to Lunsford.

"We need a family picture," she says. She giggles and walks over to him. "Can I do the bunny ears?"

Both laugh as she sticks up two fingers behind Lunsford's head.

"Very nice," says the photographer.

"I can see the resemblance (between herself and Lunsford)," Jones-Thayer says with a smile. She tells him she can't wait for him to meet "John" and invites him to bring his motorcycle on the next visit. The roads are lovely and clear, she says. Most of the residents prefer jets.

* * *

It's a long way from an Ocala mansion back to Lunsford's roots in Dayton, Ohio, where he was born in 1963 to Ruth and Archie Lunsford. He was the baby of the family, the youngest of three. As a child, he joined the family's traveling gospel band. He played drums.

He had aspirations of becoming a mechanic, but he finished high school without enough credits for a diploma, then spent three years in the Army. Like his father, he became a truck driver.

He married and had three children - Gerald, Elizabeth and Joshua - then divorced, then married again. This time, the bride's name was Angela Bryant. The couple followed Lunsford's parents to North Carolina, where Jessie was born in 1995. Bryant and Lunsford split a year later, and Lunsford got custody.

He took a job at a wood-waste recycling plant, working long hours and trying to adapt to single parenthood. But he was also a bit of a hell-raiser. He was arrested on charges of assault in November 1999 and May 2000 involving a woman in Gaston County, N.C., near Charlotte. Both charges were dismissed.

"If you made me mad, I'm liable to hit you," he says of that time. "That was part of the plan of coming to Florida was to slow the pace down. With big cities, you have a lot of problems with drugs and crime. I mean, don't get me wrong, Charlotte's a nice town, but there were things I wanted to change for Jessie."

He relied a lot on his mother, who stepped in as a surrogate mom for Jessie. When his parents moved to Homosassa, Lunsford sent his daughter there to start kindergarten. She briefly returned, but it wasn't long before they moved together to Florida and into Ruth and Archie's home.

"We'd always all been together," Ruth Lunsford says. "He figures, I guess, that we're getting old. He could be with Jess, and we wouldn't have all this back and forth."

Jessica grew into a girl's girl, who loved Bratz dolls and stuffed animals and all things purple. A few days before she was murdered, her father took her to the county fair. He won her a purple stuffed dolphin, which investigators found clutched in her arms.

* * *

Grief is an odd thing. The more you talk about a loved one and keep alive their memory, the easier it is to build a new, honorable life. That's according to Roy Brown. His daughter, Amanda, was 7 when she was abducted and murdered in 1998. Her body was never found.

Since her death, Brown, of Temple Terrace, has set up a foundation in her name. He joins in searches for other missing children. He came to Homosassa to console Mark when Jessica disappeared.

He has an image of Amanda's face tattooed on his shoulder in blue, yellow and brown.

"So I've got her with me all the time," he says.

Lunsford has also chosen a public way to grieve. At first, he told reporters he wasn't going to slow down his life. If he slowed, he might stop altogether, he said.

But just knowing that something good could come from his daughter's death is part of the grieving process, Brown says.

"Everywhere you go, you have to be a speaker," he says. "In my situation, nobody knew me. But the only way I can keep Amanda's name alive is through me."

He supports Lunsford's choice to do the same.

"I know he's going through hell," he says. "That's just common sense. Pardon my language, but that's what it is. The limelight, whatever you call it, is keeping his mind off of it. I hope he goes strong for a long time."

Like Brown, Lunsford had his daughter carved into his body. Jessica's smiling face is tattooed on his torso. It's on the lower right side of his chest, about the size of a small plate.

"I can still touch her face now," he says. "You're not touching paper, you're touching flesh, and it's the flesh that she came from."

Not long after Jessica's death, Lunsford started the Jessica Marie Lunsford Foundation and, later, Jessie's Angels, for out-of-state legislation. According to the foundation's Web site, its goal is "to help children in crisis."

His rough edges have served him well in his new life. He's blunt and cautious, worried people will try to take advantage of him to gain power for themselves.

He says he got rid of his first attorney, Herb Cohen, after Cohen criticized the Citrus County Sheriff's Office on Fox New Channel's The O'Reilly Factor.

He filed a police report after seeing an unauthorized donation jar with his daughter's picture on it in a convenience store. The state Attorney General's Office opened an investigation into a Citrus County bar after it held a fundraiser in Jessica's name. Lunsford told investigators the foundation didn't get part of the proceeds as promised.

"It's crazy, man," Lunsford said. "There's a lot of people out there who don't give a s--- about what I'm doing. I've seen attempts made (to take advantage)."

Cohen blamed the Sheriff's Office for not finding Jessica in time. O'Reilly blamed prosecutors for not charging Couey's housemates with a crime. But, save for Couey - "there's not any other person that I hate worse than him," Lunsford says - he blames no person or agency for the murder.

"It would get real complicated if I tried to explain it," he said. "There's not a person to blame. It was the system, you know what I mean? We created it, we did, all of us. So it's not like it's an individual's fault. If we were going to blame anybody for the system, we'd have to blame all of us."

As for Couey, Lunsford wants the death penalty. What he doesn't want is an apology.

"I ain't never been much of someone to say I'm sorry when I've done something wrong because I felt like if you done something that bad, you knew you did something wrong."

In May, Gov. Jeb Bush approved the Jessica Lunsford Act, changing the way the state punishes and monitors sex offenders. Lunsford was standing at Bush's side as it was signed into law. At the national level, he spoke on behalf of the Children's Safety Act of 2005, legislation that changed the monitoring requirements for sex offenders.

* * *

When he does need quiet time, he rides his Harley or goes to Jessica's grave.

She was buried in a small cemetery near her grandparents' home.

Lunsford's black boots crunched across the thick grass as he walked to see her on a brisk, sunny December afternoon. Her headstone is a large gray block with her name written in delicate, curving letters. Headstones for himself and his parents flank hers.

He usually visits late in the evening, when he's sure he won't run into anyone else.

"That's just for me and her," he said. "I ain't there to visit with other people. I know everybody hurts, but I don't want to hear about it there. That's where I hurt."

He knelt in front of her grave and picked up a white plastic flower that had fallen on the grass. Two small Christmas trees, one from family, one from a stranger, were propped against the stone. A small statue of swimming dolphins, a gift from her half sister, sat next to a pair of Lunsford's leather riding gloves.

Here, he can hear Jessica's voice, giving him advice.

He lit a cigarette. It dangled from his mouth, bouncing up and down as he spoke.

"It's kind of hard to explain, man," he said, adjusting his sunglasses. "Wherever I end up is where she wants me to be. It's what she's pushing me to do."

His mission dogs him everywhere he goes. It's not always an easy sell.

* * *

Just before Christmas, Lunsford was given tickets to a concert in Citrus County. Country music stars Travis Tritt and Trace Adkins were performing for a crowd of more than 7,000 at Rock Crusher Canyon, an amphitheater in a former quarry.

Lunsford had great seats, near the stage, because the Sheriff's Office was scheduled to be presented money from the ticket sales for new search dogs in Jessica's name. His girlfriend, Michelle Willis, 34, stood near him all evening. His former neighbor in North Carolina and a single parent, too, she'd moved down to be with him after Jessica's death.

She wore a cowboy hat and boots. Lunsford wore the usual: jeans, a ball cap and the jacket with "Jessie's Riders" sewn across the back.

As usual, he wasn't hard to spot.

All night, people approached him to offer condolences and support, even at the portable toilets.

He doesn't mind the attention, he says. It lets him know people haven't forgotten.

"I don't like to be recognized, but if somebody hugs me or shakes my hand or says something, it's okay because it gives me strength to go on," he says. "From the beginning, I got so much support from people. I found out how to feed off that."

Not all was going as Lunsford hoped, though.

His parents didn't get tickets until the last minute, he says. He was wounded by the oversight. His parents love country music, particularly Adkins', and so did Jessica, he said. If a charity wants to use her name, the least they can do is remember to think of her family.

"I just got my tickets two days ago," he said, obviously upset.

Also, he was hoping to get some time with Adkins to explain his goals for legislative change. He figured a country music star would be a good ally.

But as Adkins wrapped up his set, it didn't look promising. No one had contacted Lunsford about going backstage. Lunsford was frustrated, but he said he wasn't going to grovel and beg.

"I'm not going to track anyone down," he said. Instead, he got in line for a hot dog and a burger.

Adkins was belting out Metropolis, a ballad about moving to a small town, where "we won't even have to lock our door."

Lunsford bought a Sprite and had taken a sip when Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy appeared. He gave Lunsford a hug. It appeared the organizers hadn't forgotten him after all.

"Just hang here," Dawsy said. "Either I'll come get you or one of my deputies will."

A woman in a cowboy hat walked up. She introduced herself as Joyce Albritton of Sarasota. She recognized him from TV. She put her arms around him and told him she was sorry.

"I've been praying for him," she said to the people standing nearby.

As Adkins took his bows, a deputy took Lunsford backstage, where two huge RVs were parked, engines humming loudly. Floodlights gave the scene an eerie glow. Moments later, Lunsford was onstage, standing with Dawsy and Mike Hampton, a pitcher for the Atlanta Braves and a Homosassa resident. Hampton spoke first.

"Are there any rednecks in the house tonight?" Hampton asked. Cheers and screams from the crowd left no doubt of the answer.

Then it was Lunsford's turn.

Lunsford hadn't prepared anything to say. He was a little nervous. One time, he'd tried to write out a speech on note cards, but it didn't seem to fit his style. From then on, he'd ad-libbed.

"Y'all having a good time tonight?" Lunsford asked. "Let's give it up for Sheriff Dawsy. That's my older brother. I appreciate everything that everybody did for me and my family."

He pointed out Michelle in the crowd and said he loves her. He thanked her for sticking with him through his grieving. "I know it's hard, baby," he said.

The crowd cheered. He turned and walked off the stage. A few minutes later, he was in the audience again, his arms around Willis.

For the first time that night, Lunsford seemed to relax. He smiled and cracked jokes with Willis.

He'd met with Adkins, he said, and had his picture taken with Tritt's wife. But he now appeared a bit ambivalent about getting Adkins' help. He described their meeting.

"I said, "You know, dude, you have a voice, too,' " he said. " "I don't know if there's a line between the music industry and politics, but you live in a state, too.' "

Adkins told Lunsford he sympathized. He was a father, too, he said. Then, Adkins said the "same thing they all say: 'Thank you.'"

* * *

Almost from the moment he found out that the man suspected of killing his daughter was a sex offender, Lunsford started lobbying anyone who would listen. And lots of people have listened.

He had to buy a BlackBerry to keep up with his e-mails. He says he gets several hundred a month. His cell and his parents' phone ring constantly. He's not tech-savvy, though. He keeps a handwritten list of phone numbers folded in his pocket. "It's awful because I don't know nothing about computers," he said. "It's hard. I don't deliberately forget, but sometimes I forget things and I realize I've got an hour to get to the airport."

People sometimes ask him how long he'll go on like this. Until Jessica's law is passed in every state, he answers. But he also believes there's a time limit on the public's attention: Couey's life. However long that is.

"I can't shove it down their throat every day for 20 years," he said. "This is something that has to be done right now. Well, I'll either fall over dead or Jessie will give me something else to do. I've got from now until (Couey) dies. It's always going to be in the news until he dies."

Couey, 47, has pleaded not guilty to kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing Jessica. His trial is set for this summer. Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.

* * *

Before Jessica died, Lunsford hadn't traveled much. He saw some of the country as a truck driver, and every summer he went to see family in Ohio.

By January, he'd traveled to New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Utah, South Carolina and North Carolina. He'd also made four trips to Washington, D.C., and had plans to go to the state of Washington and Missouri. In mid December, he went to Kansas at the invitation of Patricia Kilpatrick, a Republican state representative.

In a Wichita State University auditorium, state Attorney General Phill Kline and a panel of 15 law enforcement and legislative officials sat behind a long banquet table. They wore dark suits and power ties.

Lunsford sat alone in a long row of auditorium seats, waiting to speak. He wore his biker jacket and jeans. A cluster of bikers from the Kansas club for Bikers Against Child Abuse sat a few rows behind him.

Everyone clapped as Lunsford walked to the podium.

His voice broke from the start, and he began to cry. Kilpatrick, who had spent the day with Lunsford, wiped her eyes with a tissue. One of the bikers was so emotional, she had to leave.

He choked on his tears. His voice was tender and higher-pitched as he talked about Jessica. The night she was abducted, she'd memorized a Bible verse for church, he said. The verse was: "I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me."

He needed that strength the night deputies found his daughter's body.

"There ain't nothing worse than watching your child being pulled out of the ground holding a stuffed animal that you bought her," he said.

When he finished, the crowd rose to its feet.

Kilpatrick, the state representative, picked up a mike.

"You're blindly going into states to fight the fight that Jessica could not fight," she said.

After a news conference, Kline discussed his impressions of Lunsford.

"Just look at him right now," he said. "He gets support from our state's highest law enforcement officials to bikers."

A few moments later, Lunsford disappeared from the crowd. Kilpatrick, who was Lunsford's ride, packed her bag and got ready for the drive to Kansas City. She looked around for Lunsford. He was nowhere to be found.

She walked toward the door and opened it, letting in the chilly night air. She could hear his voice.

He'd ducked away from the lights and cameras and politicians. He stood among a circle of bikers, joking and smiling, blending into the crowd. One woman asked if anyone had a light. He reached into his pocket, eager to help.

- Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 352 860-7312 or vansickle@sptimes.com