Three years later, Jessica Lunsford's parents plan lawsuit

The parents of the slain girl plan to sue the sheriff, the county and FDLE.

By John Frank, Times Staff Writer
Published February 22, 2008

HOMOSASSA -- Three years ago, Mark Lunsford cried as he thanked Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy for capturing his daughter's killer and finding her body. At Jessica's funeral, he called the sheriff "his older brother." The two appeared close throughout the case.

On Thursday, Lunsford stood outside his Homosassa home, the same spot as those tearful news conferences three years ago. But this time he planned to sue the Sheriff's Office, the county and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The agencies' negligence "directly and indirectly led to the death of Jessica Lunsford," read the intent-to-sue letter sent a day earlier by Lunsford and his ex-wife, Angela Wright.

At the news conference, Lunsford deflected questions about his motivations for suing. In an interview afterward, he offered only a veiled criticism of the sheriff's handling of the case.

"We thank people everyday of our lives for the things they've done for us," he said. But "then we learn ... and we make more changes because sometimes we learn more than we need to know."

Lunsford did not explain what he had learned that turned him against law enforcement.

On Feb. 18, he and Wright filed estate documents in Citrus County for the distribution of Jessica's assets. But the papers indicate that she had no money at the time of her death. The estate was opened solely "to pursue a claim for wrongful death," according to documents obtained by the St. Petersburg Times.

The third-grader disappeared sometime after she went to sleep Feb. 23, 2005. Three weeks later, after a massive search, authorities found her body in a shallow grave about 150 yards from her home. She had been kidnapped, raped and buried alive. Last year, a jury convicted John Couey, and a judge sentenced him to death.

Standing on the steps of the Sheriff's Office in Inverness on Thursday, Dawsy appeared betrayed. "I am deeply disappointed and actually very surprised," he said.

On the day that Dawsy received the litigation letter, he had confirmed plans to appear Saturday with Lunsford at Jessie's Ride, a motorcycle ride that raises money for a child advocacy center in Citrus County. Dawsy said he still intends to participate.

The sheriff vigorously defended his agency's investigation, saying he has no regrets.

"We truly believe this litigation is baseless," he said. "Jessie was already dead before I hit the street looking for her. ... I don't believe they have anything."

He also directed his anger at the man on death row. "There's only one person in this world that should be held responsible for Jessica's death. That's John Couey," he said. "Don't try to turn and point the finger that we in any manner caused Jessica Lunsford's death because that is not what happened."

Lunsford's attorney, Eric Block of Jacksonville, said he wouldn't comment on the evidence behind the claim until a news conference tentatively scheduled for Tuesday.

Those close to the case believe the potential lawsuit will likely hinge on two issues: whether authorities adequately tracked Couey, a convicted sex offender, before Jessica disappeared and how they missed her if she was alive at his residence for days while investigators scoured the neighborhood.

In conflicting statements to authorities and jail guards, Couey said he hid Jessica in his bedroom closet for at least three days but possibly as long as six days. He said he gave her water and food.

Sheriff's deputies knocked on the door at Couey's residence within three days of Jessica disappearance. Couey said he hid out back as they talked to one of his housemates.

Couey said if authorities had searched closely they would have found Jessica inside. But his housemate disputes this claim. "There's no way, there's no way," said Madie Secord, Couey's niece, in court documents. "We had to have heard that little girl if she was in there."

Prosecutors say they think Jessica was killed just hours after she vanished. They point to the medical examiner's report that found no evidence of food in Jessica's digestive system. Also, expert testimony at the trial indicated that she died within two to six hours after being raped.

"I don't think he held her for a number of days before he raped her," State Attorney Brad King said Thursday. "What we proved in Miami I believe stands on its own."

The potential lawsuit sparked heated reactions in the community where the gruesome case began. Hundreds of neighbors participated in a massive manhunt and then rallied around her father, a truck driver turned crusader, who advocated nationwide for tougher laws against sex offenders.

Inverness resident Calvin Sutliff, who said he participated in the search, called the lawsuit a "slap in the face." He believes Lunsford is just interested in the money from a lawsuit. "The sheriff has done the best they can," the 59-year-old retiree said. "They got a conviction. They don't deserve this."

At one point, years ago, Lunsford probably would have agreed.

He once fired his attorney for criticizing the Sheriff's Office on national television and repeatedly refused to criticize investigators.

"There's not a person to blame," he told the Times in 2005. "It was the system, you know what I mean? We created it, we did, all of us. So it's not like it's an individual's fault. If we were going to blame anybody for the system, we'd have to blame all of us."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.