Early pain set Couey on path of perversion

Long before John Couey was accused in Jessica Lunsford's death, he was a mistreated, misunderstood boy, relatives say.

Published February 11, 2007

The early years of John Couey's life are an untold story - buried, if not erased, by a poor yet proud Southern family with many secrets to hide, and ignored by the system designed to help him and protect us.

What people know is that Couey is accused of kidnapping, raping and burying alive a 9-year-old Homosassa girl who wore a cute pink hat.

The stain of the Jessica Lunsford tragedy has made Couey notorious. And his silence, aside from veiled confessions of remorse in jail, has cemented the judgments against him.

But on the eve of one of the most-watched trials in Florida history, a more complex story is emerging. Relatives and friends say Couey suffered a dysfunctional childhood, marred by abuse and neglect, that led to a warped mind unaware of right and wrong.

"He was beat and shuffled around. ... He didn't even have a home; he had to sleep on the streets or in old cars and eat out of people's garbage cans to keep from starving to death," his grandmother wrote in 1979. "It's a wonder that he hasn't done worse."

Scarred childhood

Couey was "brought up the hard way," relatives said.

Born two months premature on Aug. 19, 1958, at the Florida Sanitarium and Hospital in Orlando, Couey was his frail mother's second child. She was 16.

Betty Irene Harris was 14 or 15 when she married 21-year-old John William Couey in a small ceremony at his parents' house in Orlando.

The young family didn't last long. Corrupted by alleged domestic abuse, Harris left her husband when their son was a year old. She moved to her parents' house in Bell, a rural farming community 40 miles west of Gainesville.

No arrangement lasted long for Couey and his sister, Dorothy Marie. Their mother soon remarried, this time to a man who worked the graveyard shift at an all-night truck stop. The children moved with her but two months later their maternal grandparents took them back.

"Johnny" started attending school. His mind was a little slow and he was put in special education classes. His shy demeanor and little ears, which stuck out like wings from his head, made him an easy target for a browbeating.

"I always wanted to sit with Couey and his sister because the bunch of bullies on that bus just wanted to run over them," said uncle Sammy Harris, who was in high school at the time.

Couey's stepfather, Bobby Lindsey, picked on him, too. Harris remembers the man nearly drowning Couey in a pond "to teach him a lesson." Then there was the time Couey was beaten black and blue.

Couey didn't talk much about the abuse, though he did tell officials about one particularly vivid incident when he wet the bed. As punishment, Lindsey smashed his head between the wall and the door.

His mother and stepfather deny all the stories.

Soon Couey and his sister were shuffled to his father's people, who lived near Orlando. Here the abuse continued, relatives said, until it got so bad they were moved again, this time to an aunt's house.

Looking back on it now, Couey's uncle says he sees what everyone missed. "Bless his heart, he was reaching out for help and nobody ever give him that help he needed."

Abused to abuser

Things began to turn around for Couey in a stable environment. His older cousin, Linda Susan Arnett, remembers her mother teaching him how to speak plainly. She also somehow managed to fix his ears closer to his head.

But inside Couey, the demons were stirring and the abused soon became the abuser.

Foggy memories recall the first time it happened. Couey was about 8. Arnett fell asleep watching television on the couch in their home near Orlando. Now 48 and living in Phoenix, she remembers waking up to find Couey on top of her. He was trying to quietly pull down her underwear.

She jumped up and ran to tell her mother. But instead of calling the authorities, her mother's remedy was the model for years to come: Send him elsewhere.

Couey lived with a few more relatives and many years in the middle are lost in faded memories.

Family members covered for Couey's vices but he was on his own when he dropped out of school at age 16. He went from job to job, enduring a hard life infused with drugs and alcohol. He always appeared older but never grew much physically.

At age 18, he stood 5 foot 4 and weighed a measly 120 pounds. On his right forearm was a tattoo of a star and on his left forearm was Leo, his zodiac sign. Above his right eye was a 3-inch scar representing his turbulent upbringing.

Couey's first significant run-in with the law came at age 19. He broke in the bedroom window of a young girl and clamped his hand over her mouth when she awoke. She managed to break free and run screaming to her mother.

Confronted by police, he acknowledged his problems. In neat cursive, he wrote a letter to his attorney asking for help with his personal demons. "I believe that I have a mental problem," he wrote. "When I was young, I saw a doctor of the mind. I saw many psychiatrists, and they confirmed I have a mental disease."

A judge gave him 10 years in prison and ordered an evaluation. The state psychologist measured his IQ in the borderline range, just a fraction above mild mental retardation.

The 1978 case marks the beginning of what most people know about Couey's life. His arrests stand as landmarks in a timeline. But between the jail time, family members reveal even more trouble.

About two years into the sentence, the parole board let him out on good behavior, relatives said. With nowhere to go, Couey moved back in with his estranged mother and stepfather in Wilcox, not far from where he grew up.

One night he crept into his stepsisters' room and approached a sleeping 5-year-old Melody. He was kissing her legs when her older sister, Terri, woke up.

"He tried to rape her," Couey's mother said. "And if our daughter next to her hadn't woke up, he would have succeeded."

The next morning they took him to the parole officer in Gainesville.

Couey didn't realize he had done anything wrong. "Well, I weren't going to hurt them," he told the officer. "Me and my daddy does this all the time."

The officer didn't make a report, just arranged to send the 21-year-old off to live with relatives in Orlando.

Before he left, his mother looked him straight in the eye. "I said, 'Johnny, you forget you've got a mama because your mama is dead,' " she remembered years later. "That's the way it's been ever since."

Branded for life

Couey married Karen Joan Goshe in 1985. He got her pregnant the night they met. The marriage - already on the rocks for years - dissolved in 1990 when she discovered he sexually abused her older daughter. Again, no one called the police.

About a year later, Couey committed that crime that, at age 33, officially branded him as a sex offender. He was found guilty of lewd behavior with a 5-year-old girl who lived a few doors away from his place in Kissimmee.

Facing significant jail time, Couey again asked for help. "Personally, I feel prison ain't gonna help me," he told police. "I don't want to go to prison, I want help for myself."

In a few years he was out of prison. At one point parole officials lost his criminal history file. Couey also skipped sex offender treatment sessions and eventually he disappeared from authorities' radar.

That is, until Jessica Lunsford disappeared.

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



About this story

This story is based on months of researching the approximately 5,000 pages of court documents, state records, evidence, police reports and sworn statements collected as a part of the Jessica Lunsford case. It is inherently imperfect because it relies on memories of events many years ago, but represents the best information to date.

The tales of Couey's abuse were mentioned by multiple relatives but denied by others. No charges were ever filed. The story of Couey's alleged first sexual indiscretion with his young cousin is told through the eyes of Linda Susan Arnett. The incident involving his stepsisters was told in the voice of his mother and stepfather.

Numerous requests for interviews with Couey were denied by his attorneys.