Jessica's story: an ordinary kid
Who was this 9-year-old girl whose death led to significant legal changes in Florida and nationwide?
By MICHAEL KRUSE
Published February 9, 2007
Before Feb. 24, 2005, before she was taken from her room in her home in the dark, before she was kept and raped and buried alive in black plastic trash bags, before her name and her face conjured a crime and a law and a cause, she was just Jessie.
Jessica Marie Lunsford was born Oct. 6, 1995, at Gaston Memorial Hospital in Gastonia, N.C. Her grandmother, Ruth Lunsford, said she wasn’t “red or wrinkled or nothing like that,” and her grandfather, Archie Lunsford, said he got butterflies in his stomach “the first time I seen her.” It was 11:41 p.m.
She started crawling at 5 months old.
She started walking at just under a year.
She moved to Citrus County the first time when she was 3, then went back and forth from North Carolina for a while, but mainly she lived here with her grandparents and then also with her dad when he moved down for good in 2004.
Mark Lunsford drove a truck and got divorced when Jessie was 1. She was known as a grandma’s girl.
The photo albums in the family’s doublewide mobile home show her chest-down on the kitchen counter “helping” with soapy dishes when she was 2, being a “princess” wrapped in a white blanket when she was 3 and sleeping on the couch with Corky the wiener dog when she was 5.
They show her dressing up in her grandmother’s fur hat and white high heels when she was 8. They show her wearing the shiny red flat-heeled shoes she called her Dorothy shoes because she liked The Wizard of Oz.
She was frilly and girly.
She was curious and conscientious.
She was warm and bouncy and kind and caring and empathetic and mature for her age and had good attendance and tried real hard in her third-grade class at Homosassa Elementary School.
She was sweet but sometimes shy.
“She’s my friend,” Tiffany Powalish told attorneys later.
“What kind of things did you guys do together?” she was asked.
She nodded her head.
“Okay. Anything else?”
Jessie liked scrambled eggs with no yolks and noodles with butter and none of the parsley she called the “green stuff.”
She liked Fruit Loops and limp bacon and curly fries from Hardee’s and raw broccoli and baby carrots in baggies she took to school for lunch. She liked Bratz dolls and the Disney Channel and Winnie the Pooh. She liked the color pink and the singer Pink.
She liked to sing on the back steps she called her stage.
She liked to mop the floor and vacuum the rug.
She liked to do cartwheels. Sometimes she did them outside and sometimes she did them inside from the living room through the dining room and into the kitchen and the family room and then onto the couch near the TV.
After every one of them she would pull her shirt and her skirt back down and look around to make sure no one saw too much.
She got an allowance of a dollar a week. She once had a yard sale and sold old dolls and shoes and pocketbooks. She made $87.
She went to Faith Baptist Church a couple of streets over from where she lived and sat with her grandparents in the center section of pews in the back. She usually put a quarter in the plate when it came around.
She went to a tutor for math. Sharon Armstrong was also like a mother or an aunt.
Jessie learned some sign language from Sharon.
She liked to make scrapbooks with Sharon.
She once made a bookmark for Sharon, red crayon on yellow paper, and Sharon put it in her Bible. Sometimes, she got a church program for the pastor’s wife, who uses a wheelchair. She always took care of her grandparents when they had surgeries or got sick.
She wanted them to stop and watch when she jumped into friends’ pools.
Sometimes, said Kim Bidlack, one of her youth group teachers, she would give a hug, and hold on tight, and say nothing.
She didn’t like going barefoot.
She didn’t like the dark.
She slept with a stuffed tiger and kept a flashlight by her bed.
Her bed was thin and low, and in her room she had stuffed animal dogs and bears, and books like Beverly Cleary’s Ramona’s World, Mother Goose nursery rhymes and The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck. There was a pendant on the top of her dresser that said I Believe In Christ.
The pink Magic Marker sign on the door told people to knock to get in.
Jessie didn’t like just anybody going in her room.
She was bashful and wary around people she didn’t know. But she minded her manners, and her elders. She didn’t talk back.
She wanted to be a fashion designer or an actor or an Olympic swimmer. She was going to take lessons in the summer at the pool at a park in Crystal River.
She was going to sing in a talent show at school.
The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test was coming up.
She had started wearing a little eye shadow and blush.
She might have had a crush on a boy. “I Liked you so much,” she wrote in a note found in her desk at school. “I gave you all of my trust I tolld you I Loved you.” There were hearts drawn on the page.
On the afternoon of Feb. 23, 2005, Sharon picked her up to take her to the church for some math work before King’s Kids youth group. It was 5:30 p.m.
She said out loud at youth group her memorized Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Sharon picked her up and drove her home and waited till she walked to the front door. She turned and gave her the sign-language sign for “I love you” and then went inside. It was after 8.
She bathed and washed her hair and cleaned the bathroom. She put on her pink nightgown and told her dad she loved him. Her grandmother tucked her in and kept her door open a 6-inch crack so the light from the family room could get in. It was after 10.
Her grandfather watched the news and turned off the TV and then the light and shut the door to Jessie’s bedroom the rest of the way. It was around 11:30.
She was cat woman with a leopard-print costume and black-painted whiskers her last Halloween.
She got a watch her last Christmas.
There were eight pages left to fill in her scrapbook.
She almost never fussed.
She almost never cried.
On Feb. 24, 2005, Jessica Marie Lunsford was just about 9 1/2 years old and not quite 5 feet tall. She had on gray metal, clear-stoned earrings, and the peach-colored nail polish on her fingers matched the peach-colored nail polish on her toes. Her jeans and plain white shoes and blue and white Bratz shirt were set out for the next day for school.
And around 3 a.m. the door to her room opened in the dark.
Michael Kruse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.