Seeking justice for Jessica

As the trial for the man accused of killing her is about to start, so is the reliving of the anguish.

Published July 9, 2006

HOMOSASSA - It was just before 6 a.m. on a mild winter morning when Mark Lunsford realized his daughter Jessica was missing.

Just eight hours earlier, he had held her in his arms for a hug and kiss, a bedtime ritual a father appreciates even more when it's gone. Then he left to spend the night at his girlfriend's house.

Mark pulled in the gravel driveway the next morning. He unlocked the back door and nothing seemed unusual as he entered the double-wide he shared with his parents and 9-year-old daughter on S Sonata Avenue.

That's when he heard the alarm.

It was a familiar sound: the incessant buzzing of Jessica's clock radio heralding the start of another school day.

He went to the bathroom, then popped his head in Jessica's doorway. All he saw were empty pink sheets.

Walking the length of the home to his parents' room, he asked, "Where's Jessica?"

Not in here, replied his father, Archie.

Mark checked her room once more. Nothing.

He went to the front door. The lock is tricky and you really have to push it before it clicks. Mark found it unlatched and the screen door unlocked.

The sweat of panic rushed over him and the questions began. Call 911, he yelled.

* * *

Just 16 months ago, Jessica Lunsford's young life wasn't described in the past tense. And her story didn't make fathers and mothers weep nationwide. Ultimately the case would lead to good: changed procedures, tougher laws, heightened awareness. But that's little consolation.

This week, the wounds will reopen as the story gets told anew. The trial of the 47-year-old sex offender accused of kidnapping, raping and killing Jessica begins with jury selection on Monday.

John Couey has pleaded not guilty. The state wants the death penalty.

Dozens of witnesses will testify, volumes of physical evidence will be presented and the whole nation will watch as major media outlets cover the biggest trial in Citrus County history.

They will hear about a girl known as Jessie to family and friends. Her favorite color was purple but her fingernails and toenails were painted peach.

She was studious, though school didn't come easy. At Bible study she memorized a verse that read: "I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me."

She liked the animated heroines the Powder Puff Girls. But Jessica was scared to sleep in the dark, so she used a night light. A stuffed tiger and dog guarded the bed, along with a plush dolphin her father won for her just days before at the state fair.

* * *

When Jessica disappeared last year - sometime in those eight hours the night of Feb. 23 and early Feb. 24 - a community came together. People from all walks of life united with a single purpose. For days, they trudged through rain, fog and foliage, searching for the missing third-grader.

It proved fruitless and investigators were stymied, with few breaks in the case. Initial speculation focused on the men of the house: her father and paternal grandfather.

Law officers had no idea that Couey lived nearby with his sister.

They had visited the house, but Couey had hidden and his housemates had lied about him living there. A few days later, investigators went back and discovered Couey had skipped town on a Greyhound bus.

He first went to Savannah, Ga., and then hitched to Augusta, where he was caught. During interrogation he confessed and led detectives to her body.

Authorities found her buried in a shallow grave behind a dirty mobile home just 150 yards from the Lunsford front porch. The proximity was heart-wrenching.

On March 18, this rural coastal village south of Crystal River again joined hands, but this time to grieve, not to search.

* * *

The details of the crime are graphic, so skip ahead if you would rather not know.

Jessica was found wrapped in two black garbage bags and duct tape, sitting with her knees to her chest and holding the stuffed purple dolphin.

Her hands were bound in front of her body with speaker wire. Two fingers poked a hole through the bags, scratching the sandy dirt that buried her alive. There were no other apparent signs of struggle.

After the community's anguish came anger and then action. Not just to fix the broken system in Florida, but to clamp down on child molesters in dozens of states and at the federal level.

Florida lawmakers were just 11 days into the legislative session when Couey was arrested in the killing. They quickly passed the Jessica Lunsford Act, which orders electronic tracking of sex offenders, increased prison sentences and background checks on contract workers at school campuses.

The timing of the session fueled the push for change; so did the national media attention.

Television satellite trucks from CNN, Fox News and others descended on Homosassa, packing the narrow wooded street with bright lights and heavily made-up newscasters.

Donning his ubiquitous baseball cap, Mark Lunsford made emotional pleas from his front yard while Citrus Sheriff Jeff Dawsy invoked the hard line of the law. They were stars, though undoubtedly would have preferred obscurity.

It helped that most major media outlets were already in the area covering a perfect storm of big-headline stories.

In early February, John and Linda Dollar of central Citrus County took off after law officers accused them of starving and torturing five of their adopted children.

The day Jessica disappeared, big news broke in the Terri Schiavo saga. A few weeks later, Debra Lafave, an attractive teacher, appeared in a Tampa court on charges she had sex with a teenage student.

Even a month after Couey's arrest, the case was in the headlines as the media fixated on the eerily similar abduction of 13-year-old Sarah Lunde by a sex offender in Hillsborough County.

Out of the attention came change, but not ultimate justice. That quest starts this week.

* * *

So many questions remain. Some may get resolved during the trial. But many more will go forever unanswered.

At this point, the limited insight into those fateful eight hours comes from Couey, who told law officers a sick and sometimes inconsistent tale.

The jury won't hear this story. A judge ruled the confession inadmissible because Couey wasn't given a lawyer when he sought one. The state will rely on physical evidence, such as Jessica's blood on Couey's mattress, to link to the crime as well as other incriminating statements he made long after his initial arrest.

It was 2:26 p.m. on March 17 and Couey sat in a interrogation room at the Richmond County Sheriff's Office in Augusta, Ga.

When two Citrus County detectives walked in, he knew why they wanted to talk.

He told them that he only knew about Jessica Lunsford from television reports and that he had never seen her in his life. But that was a lie.

The next morning detectives coaxed him into taking a polygraph test. It saw through Couey's tales and his mood turned to guilt. For years he wanted help; he was a sick man. Now he just wanted to die.

Through the haze of booze and crack, he recalled entering the Lunsford home about 3 a.m. Creeping into Jessica's room, she woke and he told her not to say anything. Couey told her to follow him and she asked to bring her toy dolphin.

They climbed into his room using a ladder at the window. He raped her.

In the morning he was going to let her go, but he got scared when he saw police cars outside her home.

At this point Couey's memory gets foggy amid the continuous questions from detectives. With the search escalating, he kept her in his closet for three days; no, no, it was six days. He fed her hamburgers, no pizza, and gave her water. And no, he didn't rape her the first night, it was the last night before he buried her.

The detectives were skeptical from the start. And their suspicions proved true when the autopsy showed no food in her system.

They say she was dead by dawn Feb. 24.

* * *

Beneath the South Sonata Avenue street sign, a makeshift Jessica memorial decorated with assorted trinkets and silk flowers still colors the ground. A few posters with Jessica's smiling face still dot the Lunsford yard.

The artillery of media satellite trucks and police command units are gone, though. It's quiet again except for the serenade of songbirds high up in the droopy live oak trees and the clatter of a young boy playing in a nearby yard.

On this muggy summer afternoon, it feels like the time before Jessica vanished in those eight dark hours.

But it won't ever be the same.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or 352 860-7312.