Jessica Lunsford was a nine-year old girl from Homosassa, Florida. A quaint town on the south side of Citrus County, on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The area boasts beautiful rivers and waterways and is the winter home to the adored but vulnerable Florida Manatee. While there are tourists coming in and our of the area to relax on the water, load up on a bag full of scallops or participate in dozens of other local activities, they remain on the west side of the county close to the water. Locals have generally always felt safe from the crime that plagues big cities. Neighbors look out for neighbors and children still played in the streets until the lights came on.
Jessica lived in Homosassa with her father and grandparents. On the evening on February 23, 2005. Ruth kissed her granddaughter goodnight, never anticipating the horror that would overtake her life in the coming days. The next morning, ruth heard Jessica’s alarm going off and went to see why “jessie” as she was affectionately know, was not turning it off. Ruth found Jessie’s room undisturbed, but there was not sign of the innocent nine-year old.
There were no signs of forced entry, or any indicating as to where Jessie could have gone. Ruth called the local Sheriff’s office. The Sheriff at the time was Jeff Dawsy, a widely popular elected official who would later come under scrutiny for alleged mistakes made during the investigation.
While Ruth summoned help, Mark, drove around the neighborhood calling for his daughter. Unable to understand how she could have simply disappeared.
The sheriff responded immediately, bringing in blood hounds, helicopters and the county’s mounted posse unit to search for Jessie.
In the days that followed, in addition to the Citrus County Sheriff’s office and dozens of law enforcement personnel, the FBI and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children began to assist with the search.
The media picked up the story and immediately the community responded. Hundreds of volunteers showed up to help search for Jessie, who seemed to have disappeared into thin air. Local newspapers ran stories daily updating the progress of the search, and speculation about what happened to Jessie overtook the community.
Former Atlanta Braves pitcher and hometown hero Mike Hampton offered a $25,000 reward to help find Jessica. More donors would chip in, bringing the reward up to $115,000.
Mark Lunsford was frequently featured in newsclips, pleading for the return of his daughter. As days passed, hopes of finding Jessie alive dwindled, but the search efforts continued and hundreds of volunteers searched daily for the little girl. Fliers were posted in every business and even mailed to residents. America’s Most Wanted event featured the story in a television segment, hoping for answers. Every resource possible was used, yet there was no sign of Jessica Lunsford. Who went to bed on night, then seemingly vanished into thin air.
There was talk of stopping the search, but the community refused to give up. There was anger of the inability of the Sheriff’s office to issue an Amber Alert. With no sign of an abduction, Jessie’s disappear did not fit the criteria.
Jessica’s disappearance prompted changes throughout the once safe community. Everyone was on high alert. Parents talked to their kids about Jessie’s disappearance, to show them the stranger danger they have been taught years ago was real.
With no solid evidence, rumors flew throughout the community of what could have happened. Mark Lunsford ignored them and pressed on, pushing for help in finding his daughter. Holding on to the belief that she was still alive and could be found.
Local companies donated window and door alarms that were distributed through the school system in the wake of Jessie’s disappearance.
And the search pressed on.
Days passed, 20 to be exact, and then it happened. The long awaited break in the case. There was a suspect in the case and law enforcement was hot on his trail.
It didn’t take long before we saw the face of evil. John Evander Couey a sex offender who failed to register and lived in Homosassa. Detectives learned Couey was staying with his sister, just 100 yards from the Lunsford’s home.
Couey was questioned and fully confessed.
Jessica Lunsford was dead. Jessica was murdered her. Jessica’s autopsy report revealed she died of asphyxiation from being buried alive. Her tiny wrists were tied with speaker wire. Her body wrapped in trash bags. Couey told investigators where to find Jessica’s body on his sisters property, and that night, under blazing floodlights, they began to dig. The found her just as Couey had said. Her little fingers sticking out of the trash bag, holding her purple stuffed dolphin.
Hearts collectively broke through the community as members came together to mourn the loss of one of their children. In was an unthinking tragedy, even more so for a small town that felt safe from this level of depravity.
As more details emerged the grief turned into rage. Couey was a registered sex offender, who should not have been staying at the home across the street from the Lunsford’s. If proper procedures had been followed, notifications would have gone out about his presence in the area.
Precautions could have been taken. Children could have been warned. Four additional people were arrested as a result of the investigation. Gene Allen Secord was arrested on charges of failure to pay child support. Madie Catherine Secord was arrested after admittedly failing to inform deputies Couey lived in the home and lied to deputies to protect Couey. Dorothy Marie Dixon was charged with obstruction of justice and was accused of lying to deputies about Couey living in the home, and Matthew Dittrich was charged with obstruction of justice by failing to turn Couey in to authorities, even though he knew there was a warrant for Couey’s arrest for violating probation. These arrests did little diffuse the growing rage. No amount of justice could account for this heinous kidnapping and murder and there was outrage at those who seemingly helped him cover it up.
The local paper ran a small map illustrating where Couey was staying compared to the Lunsford home. As well as where he was supposed to be living, over five miles away. These illustrations show how close Couey was staying to the Lunsford home. Jessica was literally right across the street the entire time. So close, yet could authorities have reached her in time? So many questions surfaced. Including the fact that Couey should have been staying 5 miles away where he had registered.
Despite his confession, Couey pleaded not. When the trial finally began in 2007, it was moved to Miami due to the incredible amount of attention it got. The small local newspaper, the Citrus County Chronicle sent reports on the 5 hour trip to cover the story. There were daily reports, blogs, every step was documented for the public that was determined to see Justice served for Jessica.
Couey was found competent to stand trial, to the relief of many.
Sheriff Jeff Dawsey held a press conference near the Lunsford’s home, and ironically the place where Jessica took her last breathe and called for the death penalty for Couey.
Gawkers frequently drove by the home. Needing to see for themselves where this tragedy took place. Some went out of morbid curiosity, others, to understand. As if seeing the site in person would help them understand how something so evil could happen right next door.
Through out the trial, Couey sit drawing intricate sketches. Coloring and seeming disconnected to the retelling of his crimes. Mark Lunsford sat stoic. Listening to details no father should ever have to hear about their child.
The jury returned the verdict everyone had hoped for…Guilty on all counts.
At last, some sense of justice was had for sweet Jessica.
At a local bar and grill where locals usually mingled and watched the game, the packed crowd huddled around the televisions. The owner of the establishment grabbed a microphone and the crowd went silent. As he announced the guilty verdict, they erupted in cheers.
The impact this senseless murder had on an entire community was astounding.
Mark Lunsford did not celebrate for long. He knew this was only step one. Justice would not be truly served until John Couey was slated to suffer the same fate as Jessica. Hopefully in Old Sparky, Florida’s electric chair. Mark needed to see justice for his daughter. It was all he had left to give her.
As the penalty phase concluded John Couey sat emotionless as the verdict was read. Death. The sentence all had hoped for. The justice Jessica Lunsford deserved. Following the trial, Mark took the courthouse steps to great the throng of media covering the case. Several jurors, who usually are escorted out the back door and remain anonymous, went to the steps. Several were crying as they embraced Mark. Mark Lunsford's words to his daughters killer “Skip all the appeals and take your punishment. Be done with it.”
Couey did not listed to Mark’s advice. He filled an appeal shortly after the trial. That appeal was never heard, as in 2009, John Couey died of natural causes. The courts dismissal of the appeal due to Couey's death closed the case, but was it really justice?
The house where Couey lived and committed his heinous crime stood for some time. The mysteriously burned to the ground one evening. A relief for Jessica’s grandparents, who still lived across the street and had to look a the monstrosity daily.
During the years between Couey's arrest and trial, Mark Lunsford did not sit idly by and wait for Justice. He used his newly found name recognition to get his voice heard and advocate for a bill that would tighten the penalties on sex offenders.
Then governor Jeb Bush, son of George H.W. Bush and brother of George W. Bush signed it into law with Mark by his side. The bill was prepared quickly after the details of Jessica’s death at the hands of a sex offender became public. Lawmakers were rightfully outraged and had the ability to do something about it.
The law requires electronic monitoring for certain sexual offenders placed on supervision and will require the courts to order electronic monitoring for designated sexual offenders and predators who violate probation or community control. The Act also;
Requires a sexual predator or offender to report in person twice a year to the Sheriff's Office in the county in which he or she resides. Failure to comply with this requirement is a 3rd degree felony.
Extends the period for a petition to remove a sexual predator designation from 20 to 30 years for those designated after September 1, 2005.
Provides criminal offense for predators/offenders failing to respond to address verification.
Provides a criminal offense for those who assist, harbor or conceal a sexual predator or sexual offender in eluding law enforcement or provides false information.
Provides a criminal offense for a person who alters, tampers, damages or destroys any court-ordered electronic monitoring equipment.
Provides a life felony and 25-year mandatory minimum term of imprisonment for committing a lewd or lascivious molestation on a child under 12 when the offender is 18 or older. If not life imprisonment, provides for a split sentence for a person convicted of a life felony for a lewd and lascivious molestation on or after 09/01/05, to include electronic monitoring for the duration of the defendant's natural life.
If the probationer or offender is a registered sexual predator/offender, a court finding is required with regard to the danger the person poses to the public prior to his or her release on bail.
Adds mandatory electronic monitoring for a conditional releasee whose crime committed on or after 09/01/05 for certain offenses where the victim was 15 years or younger and the offender is 18 years or older.
Adds a designation as a sexual predator to the list of aggravating circumstances in court sentencing proceedings for the commission of a capital felony.
Requires public and private misdemeanor probation entities to search each probationer against the Florida sexual offender registry and implement procedures for accessing criminal history records of probationers.
Requires background screening for all contractual personnel who are permitted access on school grounds when students are present or have direct contact with students.
This law gave Florida one of the toughest child-sex laws in the nation. Following it’s enactment, all but 8 other states enacted similar legislation.
While Jessica’s name has become synonymous with the law and its impacts, to the community, her name is a reminder that evil does exist in the world and no matter how hard we try, sometimes it is impossible to prevent it from invading out lives.