Lunsford's potential lawsuit triggers a backlash

People respond with shock, anger to his plan to sue the Citrus County Sheriff's Office.

By Barbara Behrendt and Logan Neill, Times Staff Writers
Published February 23, 2008

HOMOSASSA -- Moments after news broke Thursday that Mark Lunsford intends to sue the Citrus County Sheriff's Office over the 2005 abduction and murder of his daughter Jessica, the calls and e-mails began pouring into the agency.

Overwhelmingly, the message expressed was shock and anger at the man whose tragic loss had galvanized this community and the nation.

"The sympathy I had for Mark Lunsford went out the back door when the intent-to-sue letter came through the front door," read an e-mail from John McNeilly of Crystal River.

Michael Kaczmarek of Crystal River sent this to Lunsford, with a copy to Sheriff Jeff Dawsy:

"These are the same agencies that you have been giving accolades to for four years. What, sir, has changed your view? Is it that the Jessie fund is broke? I find it despicable that you have and continue to profit from the tragedy of the kidnapping and subsequent murder of your daughter."

Lunsford's lawyer, Eric Block of Jacksonville said Friday he was not surprised by the reactions. But he blamed Dawsy's comments at a Thursday afternoon news conference, not his client, for the backlash.

"It's unbelievable that the sheriff would come out and make a public statement that the lawsuit was meritless and baseless," Block said. "There hasn't been a lawsuit even filed, and he hasn't even heard the allegations."

Block has declined to give details of those allegations until a news conference scheduled for noon Tuesday. The notice of intent to sue, filed this week by Lunsford and his ex-wife, Angela Wright, against the sheriff, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Citrus County Commission, alleges only that the agencies' negligence led to Jessica Lunsford's death.

Block said that several new witnesses have come forward who were at the scene of the abduction on the first day "when Jessica was still alive" and they have reported harsh treatment by Dawsy's deputies.

For those who have been critical of Lunsford's motives, Block said they would feel differently if their child had been abducted and "law enforcement hadn't done its job."

Once the allegations are revealed, he said, "a lot of people are going to have egg on their face. ... Facts are going to come out that are indefensible."

Block insisted that the threatened suit is not about money.

Dawsy could not be reached for comment on Friday. Richard Wesch, general counsel for the Sheriff's Office, said the accusation of negligence by Dawsy and his staff "is sufficient for the sheriff to respond in the manner in which he responded."

"These people lived and breathed it," he said. "This was the most significant case this agency has ever experienced. It left lasting memories."

In a television interview on Friday, Lunsford said that he heard Dawsy refer to his investigation as "textbook" and that he would do the investigation the same way again. "If we do things the same way, we have another dead child," Lunsford said. "So we have to change everything every time we learn something, and we learn something every time we lose a child."

Jessica Lunsford's brutal death made national news, but nowhere was the impact felt stronger than in the quiet community of Homosassa. Even now, with John Couey on death row after being convicted of the crimes against the 9-year-old Homosassa Elementary third-grader, passions run deep.

"Let her rest in peace," said Diane Toto, president of the Homosassa Civic Club. "Why reopen old wounds. Healing needs to take place. Suing the sheriff now will accomplish nothing."

Stacy Cooke, a vendor at Howard's Flea Market in Homosassa, said the lawsuit idea was an "outrage" toward deputies who spent countless hours searching for Jessica. "What's done is done," she said. "This isn't going to bring his daughter back."

"I don't see the point in it," said Cecil Bartolini, a patron at Emily's Family Restaurant where John Couey once worked. "It looked to me like they had every person in the department looking for Jessica. Just because they didn't find her until she was dead wasn't their fault."

"We really pray that he will reconsider the lawsuit," said Art Alt, a Hernando County resident who has watched the drama and has supported Lunsford throughout. "I just wish he was talking to his pastor instead of talking to his attorney.'

On Friday, as sheriff's spokeswoman Gail Tierney dealt with media requests about the controversy, she reminded reporters about "Jessie's Ride," a fundraising motorcycle rally scheduled to run today from New Port Richey to Crystal River.

It's a separate issue from Lunsford's potential lawsuit, Tierney said. "We didn't want to see Jessie's Place suffer due to this thing," noting that several e-mails were from bikers who said they were backing out of the ride because of the threatened lawsuit.

Jessie's Place is a child advocacy center named for Jessica Lunsford and planned for school property in Crystal River. Dawsy has been key in getting the project off the ground. He said on Thursday that while his personal relationship with the Lunsford family ended with the threat of the lawsuit, he would not let it affect his support for the center.

The biker run, expected to draw thousands of riders, will conclude at the Harley-Davidson of Crystal River store on U.S. 19. The guest speaker at the rally, arranged earlier this week by Lunsford, is Sheriff Dawsy.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.