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The Jessica Lunsford tragedy

The picture of innocence

Some images just stick with you, especially when they're of lost children. JonBenet. Adam Walsh. The girl in the pink hat.

Published February 11, 2007

[AP photo]
The photo of the little girl in the pink hat has been the singular, iconic image of Jessica Marie Lunsford.


It was taken high in the sky on a ride at the state fair in Tampa the Sunday night before she was kidnapped, raped and killed. It was used by authorities to try to find her, it was used by newspapers, Web sites and TV stations to cover the story, and it was used by politicians to toughen the state's sex offender laws. It will be used by prosecutors in Miami in the criminal case against John Evander Couey.

Since Feb. 24, 2005, the picture of the little girl in the pink hat has been the singular, iconic image of Jessica Marie Lunsford.

"Everywhere I go, that's the picture they have. Everywhere," Mark Lunsford said not long ago in the double-wide mobile home in Citrus County where he lived with his daughter and his parents.

"That's the picture you see."

What the picture captured - what lingers - was a shared moment that was then shared with everybody else. The image is at once intimate and thoroughly public. It shows innocence just before evil and life even after death.

"It made you like that kid," said Bob Thompson, a professor at the Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University in New York. "It's that great American toothy innocent smile that evokes so many utopian ideas of childhood."

Some images just stick. Especially of children who get stolen and hurt.

JonBenet. Adam Walsh and his missing front teeth and the baseball bat.

Now this one.

Jessie on the sky ride

The life of the picture with the pink hat began on Feb. 20, 2005, when Mark Lunsford bought a small digital camera at Wal-Mart on the way to the fair and then won the pink Kangol bucket hat for his daughter by shooting BBs at a target. He took a lot of pictures: Jessie riding a mechanical bull, Jessie climbing a rock wall, Jessie sitting in the driver's seat of a shiny red convertible. The ones from later in the evening show her mugging for her dad with the lights of the Ferris wheel off in the distance.

The picture everybody still sees was taken on what's called the sky ride.

"We were sitting in the same seat," Mark Lunsford said a year and a half later, "and she kind of turned sideways, and I kind of turned sideways. And I took the picture."

Three days later, after a 911 call shortly after 6 a.m., deputies showed up at the doublewide and asked for photos to help find her. They were given two shots.

There was the picture with the pink hat.

There also was what Jessie called her "driver's license" photo. Her grandmother had taken her to the Department of Motor Vehicles two and a half weeks earlier to get her a state ID card so she could put it in her just-bought billfold and feel like a grownup. The smile she has in that photo is smaller, even bashful, which friends and family members say is the way she was around strangers.

It's everywhere

Early in the search, that "driver's license" photo was put on telephone poles and in windows of homes and businesses and on stands on the side of the road in Citrus, Pasco, Hernando, Sumter, Levy and even Pinellas counties.

And then it wasn't.

Then it was pretty much just the pink hat.

Susan Candiotti on CNN called Jessica the "little girl with a fuzzy pink hat and a brilliant smile." Nancy Grace on Headline News called her "the third grade girl under the pink hat." Oprah called her "the adorable girl in the pretty pink hat."

The picture was sent by the Citrus County Sheriff's Office to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and also to the media around the state and the nation. Sheriff's spokeswoman Gail Tierney says she distributed the picture with the pink hat just because it was the more recent of the two. No real conscious decision.

It was on the front of the program at the memorial service in March at the church in Lecanto. It was the first image and the last image in the slide show there.

It was on Mark Lunsford's tie in May in Tallahassee when then-Gov. Jeb Bush signed "Jessie's Law," mandating a prison sentence of 25 years to life for people who do these things to kids younger than 11.

Later, that first summer, Mark Lunsford put it on his own skin. Tattoo artist Michelle Gallo at Pleasure Points in Spring Hill inked it onto his lower right rib cage over several sittings and 16 hours. Gallo, usually mellow, says she cried the night before she started it, then again that morning on the way to work.

A picture of . . .

Different people see different things when they look at the picture with the pink hat.

"An innocent little kid," said Linda Foster, owner of the Saloon on U.S. 19, where Jessie sometimes went with her dad to sing Saturday night karaoke.

"Nine years old," said Cheryl Puterbaugh, event coordinator at Harley-Davidson of Crystal River, the end point of the annual Jessie's memorial ride.

"I see her radiance," said the Rev. William LaVerle Coats, the pastor of her church, Faith Baptist of Homosassa Springs. "I see her joy."

Jimmy Brown sees her hat.

"That's what makes that image unique," the Brooksville lawyer said.

Susan Mango Curtis sees her eyes.

"Her eyes are so crystal clear," said Curtis, a professor of visual journalism at the Medill School at Northwestern University.

"It's an intimate photograph," she said, "that could only be created in a moment shared between two people who cared deeply for each other."

Jessie told her family friend and tutor the last night she was alive that she had had such a good time that day and night at the fair with her dad. It had been just her and him. And that was important to her.

"That was their day," said Ruth Lunsford, her grandmother.

The beauty of the image is that it shows a side of Jessica Lunsford she didn't show to just anybody. She was happy and friendly but also timid around those she didn't know well, say the people who knew her, and typically was more like she looked in the "driver's license" photo. Now, though, everybody gets to see the part of her personality she saved only for those to whom she felt the closest.

One more irony: Most of those people who were close never even saw the pink hat. That day and night at the fair is the only time she wore it. Mark Lunsford says he has the hat, and that it's in a safe place, and he won't say any more than that.

"When I look at that picture," said Sharon Armstrong, her friend and tutor, "I think of her being gone. It doesn't represent life to me."

A silent witness

For so many others, though, all the people who knew her name only after she was dead, the picture with the pink hat does just the opposite: It keeps her alive.

Someone from Canada even wrote a poem about it. Angels in Pink Hats is posted on

You shall see me

I will smile and light up the world again

You will know it is me

Because I am the one in the pink hat

The picture is on Mark Lunsford's business cards for the foundation. It is on the fliers for the third annual memorial ride coming up Feb. 24. It is at the Harley place in Crystal River and at her favorite restaurant, Luigi's on U.S. 19, and at the Museum Cafe in Old Homosassa.

It's on a stone memorial behind Faith Baptist. It's in a frame in the foyer by the sanctuary.

It's in the doublewide, on a big white candle, by the TV in the family room.

It's on the wall above the couch.

It's in the window of her room looking outside into the yard.

And it almost certainly will be in the courtroom in Miami. A trial, some say, is a competition for the emotions of the members of the jury, and the picture with the pink hat will be important over these next few weeks for the same reason it has resonated over the past two years.

Look at it.

The picture with the pink hat says what needs to be said.

Michael Kruse can be reached at or 352 848-1434.

[Last modified February 10, 2007, 19:03:18]

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