Trial gives advocacy group a sense of urgency

John Couey's trial starts July 10. The foundation named for Jessica Lunsford hopes to achieve tax-exempt status by then and hire two directors.

Published June 20, 2006

Having gained traction in legal reforms in Tallahassee; Sacramento, Calif.; Topeka, Kan.; and other state capitals, as well as Washington, D.C., Mark Lunsford has shifted his attention in recent weeks to fortifying the Jessica Marie Lunsford Foundation, named for his slain daughter.

As the July 10 trial of John Couey nears, the foundation is broadening the scope of its advocacy and action. It is hiring its first employees other than Lunsford, who is the president; gearing up to become a certified public charity; and preparing to propel its philanthropic appeal.

Couey, 47, a convicted sex offender, has pleaded not guilty to kidnapping, sexually assaulting and murdering Jessica. She was 9 when she disappeared in February 2005.

The trial has instilled a sense of urgency in Lunsford and the volunteers who help him run the foundation, said treasurer Bill Carey, vice president and general manager of Tampa's ABC affiliate, WFTS-TV Ch. 28.

"We have to get the foundation well established now," the former New York CBS News reporter said. "If we don't get it up and running and in good shape before the trial, we will miss our opportunity. Once it (the case) is over and dies from the headlines, the media and people will move on to another story."

To help attract contributors, the foundation must secure tax-exempt status with the IRS and nonprofit status with the state, said University of South Florida professor Joan Pynes, who specializes in public administration issues.

"People are more likely to give," she said, "if they can deduct their contributions (on their tax returns) at the end of the year."

Earning tax-exempt status would allow the organization to take off, said board member Terri Jones-Thayer, co-owner of Ocala's Jumbolair Aviation Estates, where John Travolta lives with his family and Boeing 707.

Jones-Thayer, a former supermodel, plans to organize Jessie's Flight, a fundraiser aboard an airplane, with celebrities serving as attendants.

"The lack of 501(c)3 status (IRS tax-exemption) has been holding us back a little bit," she said.

Jessie's Flight would take off from Jumbolair's private runway and land in some of the states considering adapting versions of the Jessica Lunsford Act, which cracks down on sex offenders.

But to accomplish its ambitious goals, the foundation must raise substantially more money. It has only $40,000 in the bank, Lunsford said, and expenses are mounting.

Although applying for tax-exempt status is relatively straightforward, it requires some specific knowledge, Pynes said. "It's always helpful to have someone who's gone through the process."

Lunsford must surround himself with educated professionals, Carey said. "He needs experts at raising money, at running the day-to-day operation. Those are all things outside his expertise."

The new team members must complement Lunsford's natural leadership and unmatched passion, Carey said. "Mark was driving dirt in a dump truck when he was cast into this role and thrust into the national limelight," Carey said. "It's his directness, honesty and common sense that are really impressive. I've watched him speak. He speaks with an eloquence that a lot of polished speakers can't accomplish. He connects with people."

The foundation plans to hire two directors as soon as possible. Determining the salaries of foundation employees is far from scientific, Pynes said. "There are all kinds of nonprofits, from neighborhood associations to hospitals," she said. "Obviously, a six-figure salary wouldn't be acceptable for the head of a neighborhood association, but would be for the head of a hospital."

A few months after Jessica's murder, Lunsford left his truck driving job with Dirt Boys to focus on traveling to state capitals to effect change.

At that point, he was driving a 2002 Silverado he bought with $15,000 of the $50,000 people had sent him during the 24 days Jessica was missing, he said. He used the rest of the money for "whatever was needed," including buying food and drinks for the search volunteers.

Lunsford bought the pickup, which had 40,000 miles on it, to replace the 1993 Chrysler Imperial with nearly 200,000 miles he was borrowing from his family.

"I needed reliable transportation," he said.

Since then, he's journeyed to 13 states and three times to Washington, D.C., putting 50,000 miles on the Silverado.

Jones-Thayer urged him to draw a $500 salary from the foundation while he was working for Dirt Boys, she said. He finally agreed in August.

"He had to cover his bills," she said, noting she's glad he doubled his salary nine months later. "He's not wasteful of money. When he travels, he always opts for a less expensive room. I trust him 100 percent. He works 24/7. There's no way to measure it, but I know he saves lives."

Besides fundraising, Lunsford is also concerned about making sure the laws are enforced.

"What I say to the Corrections Department and to judges is, 'We passed legislation, read it and do what you're supposed to,' " Lunsford said. "Couey's probation officers didn't know he was a sex offender."

To help track sex offenders, and to generate funds for the foundation, Lunsford recently started endorsing AdZone Research's Online Predator Profiling System, the software used on the TV program To Catch a Predator.

Lunsford hopes to set up a task force of retired bondsmen and others to hunt down absconded sex offenders. And he plans to continue the foundation's educational and fingerprinting efforts.

But he and his volunteers realize they must put their house in order first. One of the steps they're taking is to make sure that, when they lend the foundation's name to a fundraiser, they receive their fair share.

Fore more information on the foundation, visit www.jessicamarielunsfordfoundation.com.