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City recoils in horror at child's death

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

By ABHI RAGHUNATHAN
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 Caf 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 near a construction site 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 morning and said police were pursuing "20 leads," though they didn't anticipate any immediate arrests. Authorities were waiting for the results of an autopsy before classifying the investigation as a homicide.

"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, one-story, 2,219-square-foot home next to a weedy patch of palmetto and scrub. They moved into the three-bedroom house 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.

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 other 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, and others abut clumps of woods or lots overgrown by weeds and palmettos. Real estate "For Sale" signs are tacked on palm trees.

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 missing 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 he said several years go by without a single murder.

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

Doreen Vanderwouode, 63, Coralrose's grandmother, said in a brief interview Monday that the family was "too shaken" to talk.

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 bedroom in a Leesburg apartment Aug. 27. He 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. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.