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North Port frightened by child's death

Neighbors of the 6-year-old's family are terrified. Nothing like this has ever happened there.

Published September 19, 2006

NORTH PORT - One neighbor wants to install security cameras around her house. Another won't allow his 3-year-old son to sleep alone. Yet another was too frightened to let her kids walk to the bus stop Monday morning.

Fear gripped this small city north of Port Charlotte as police investigated the suspicious death of yet another young child in Florida. Coralrose Fullwood, a 6-year-old girl with a toothy smile who liked to play outdoors, was found dead in the woods Sunday afternoon just two blocks from her house.

Dale Fullwood, Coralrose's father, told police he saw her sleeping in her bed around 2 a.m. Sunday, after he came home from his job at a Motorsports Cafe in north Fort Myers. But when her family discovered her missing Sunday morning around 7 a.m., they called police, and dozens of people began searching the neighborhood.

A man walking his dog discovered Coralrose's body Sunday afternoon, and the anxiety in North Port gave way to sadness and fear.

Police Chief Terry Lewis called the death "suspicious" at a press conference Monday and said police were pursuing "20 leads," though they didn't anticipate any immediate arrests and have no suspects. They were waiting for the results of an autopsy before classifying the investigation as a homicide.

On Monday evening, the Department of Children and Families took four of Coralrose's siblings into state custody to interview them, according to the Lee County Sheriff's Office, which provided backup for the agency.

"It's absolutely terrifying when something like this happens in your own back yard," said Lynn Hewitt, 49, a hostess with a son in middle school and two daughters in high school.

Hewitt usually lets her kids walk to a bus stop by themselves. Not on Monday. She drove her son to middle school and her daughters to the bus stop. Then she waited until the bus came to pick up her girls.

"We thought it was safe here," she said. "Now something like this."

Dale Fullwood, 46, and his wife, Ellen, 40, lived with five children in a beige three-bedroom, 2,219-square-foot home. They moved there just over a month ago, after Ellen got a new job as a speech therapist, according to a family friend. The house was sold for $175,900 last year, according to property records, but it was unclear if the Fullwoods were the buyers.

Coralrose's mother has never been charged with a crime, and her father has never been charged with a serious one, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement records.

Several neighbors said the Fullwoods had tried to move a local bus stop in recent weeks because they worried about their kids walking to a busy street in the neighborhood.

"They thought it was too dangerous because of all the cars going down the street," said Richard Rourke, 33, a manager at a local Domino's pizza.

The family previously lived in Cape Coral. The Fullwoods have two older children who don't live with them.

The Fullwoods are among a horde of newcomers in a neighborhood where many houses are still under construction.

As a result of the recent influx, many neighbors met the Fullwoods for the first time Sunday afternoon as the family was searching for their daughter. They quickly learned that Coralrose had disappeared Sunday, along with her flower print black comforter. Many quickly assumed the worst, that a little girl had been stolen from her house and killed while her parents slept.

Mike Bayar, a 23-year-old student and assistant manager at a convenience store, said he won't let his 3-year-old son, Khuslen, sleep alone anymore. He lives just down the street from the Fullwoods and was horrified after learning about Coralrose Sunday afternoon.

"We've all been sleeping in the same bed," Bayar said. "It just makes you sick."

Capt. Robert Estrada of the North Port Police Department said any type of homicide is unusual in the city; two or three a year is the norm, but several years go by without a single murder.

"We've never seen something like this, something involving a child," Estrada said.

Doreen Vanderwoude, 63, Coralrose's grandmother, said in a brief interview Monday that the family was "too shaken" to talk. A person who answered Vanderwoude's telephone later Monday declined to comment about the children's placement into DCF custody.

Coralrose's is the latest in a series of high-profile child deaths in Florida. Carlie Brucia was raped and murdered after being kidnapped at a Sarasota car wash in 2004. Jessica Lunsford was raped and murdered last year in Homosassa.

Also, 2-year-old Trenton Duckett disappeared from his room in a Leesburg apartment Aug. 27, and is still missing.

At Toledo Blade Elementary School, where Coralrose attended first grade, grief counselors helped students cope. Principal Chris Renouf placed the school on lockdown Monday and conducted recess indoors.

The fear spread beyond North Port, a city of about 35,000. Laura Rivera, 40, a family friend and former neighbor of the Fullwoods in Cape Coral, said the news of the death had left her grieving and nervous about other children.

"They're not living here anymore and it didn't happen here, but when something happens to a child it just brings it home," she said.

Times staff writer Jorge Sanchez and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

[Last modified September 19, 2006, 15:25:35]

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