Jessica Lunsford was born on the 6th of October, 1995. She was a top student who loved to sing, play with her stuffed animals, attend church and ride with her father on his motorcycle. While she excelled in school, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to be when she grew up – maybe a fashion designer or singer, she said.
When she was just 9-years-old, she was abducted from her home in Homosassa, Florida.
It was the 24th of February, 2005, when her father, Mark Lunsford, discovered that Jessica was missing from her bedroom when he went in to turn her alarm off. He searched around the house to see if she was already awake and had maybe just forgot to turn the alarm off. She was nowhere to be found. Nothing appeared to be missing from her bedroom other than her pink nightgown and white shorts that she went to sleep in the night beforehand and her favourite toy – a stuffed dolphin. Her school clothes were neatly laid out ready for the upcoming day. As Mark was searching the home, he discovered that the front door was unlocked…
Dread washed over Mark and he reported her missing.
Jessica was last seen the night before at approximately 10PM when her paternal grandparents put her to bed at their home in Homosassa, just south of Crystal River. Mark and Jessica shared a mobile home with Mark’s parents. The night before she disappeared, Mark had been at his girlfriend’s house and had come home that morning at around 6AM to get ready for work. It was now that he discovered Jessica to be missing.
Mark and Jessica’s mother, Angie, split up when Jessica was just one-year-old and Angie moved to Ohio where she eventually remarried and had a son. Mark moved to Homosassa to be near his ageing parents and to provide Jessica with adequate child care while he worked as a dump truck driver. Angie saw Jessica infrequently. When Angie learnt of Jessica’s disappearance, she said she hadn’t seen Jessica in four years.
A nationwide missing children’s alert was issued which described Jessica as 4 feet 11 inches tall with brown hair and brown eyes. Unfortunately an Amber Alert was not issued because it requires law enforcement to describe what vehicle might have been used in an abduction or provide some evidence of danger. Almost immediately after Jessica was reported missing, authorities and volunteers alike scoured the area in search of her. Bloodhounds were called in in the hopes that they could pick up a scent. Jessica’s neighbour, Alvin Harris, even brought along his own bloodhound, Buford, to aid in the search. The search also included volunteers and officers on horseback while a police helicopter could be heard buzzing from above all throughout the day. A dive team was assembled to search all nearby bodies of water. The search initially focused on the dense wooded area surrounding the family home. Despite the exhaustive search, it turned up no clues as to where Jessica could have gone.
“I have some grave concerns about the welfare of this child. We’re working something that is a step up from a missing person” declared Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy the day after Jessica disappeared. It was evident from this statement that they were considering Jessica’s disappearance an abduction almost immediately. Authorities also announced that they didn’t suspect that either her parents or grandparents were responsible.1
Jessica’s family automatically assumed that something sinister had taken. Jessica wasn’t the kind of girl who would just up and leave on her own, particularly not in the middle of the night… In fact, Jessica was scared of the dark and would even sleep with a flashlight. “I want my daughter home,” said Mark. “If there is anything anybody knows, there are a lot of numbers you can call. Help me find me daughter and bring her home.”2
The first lead came on the 27th of February, when investigators released a surveillance camera picture of a man with two children that was captured just hours after Jessica vanished. Jessica’s family said that the girl with the man didn’t look like Jessica but the picture was released nevertheless. The man came forward and he was ruled out as a suspect. Investigators were back to square one and by now, fog and rain had hindered the search. By the beginning of March, the full-scale search for Jessica ended and police turned to child abduction experts for help. The new phase used experts in a tightly controlled area and focused on the quarter-mile area around Jessica’s home. “They’re able to give a higher degree of accuracy,” said Kevin Rolfe, program manager of Alachua Country Fire Rescue.3
The Florida Department Law Enforcement listed 208 sex offenders and predators at Citrus County, with more than 50 in the ZIP codes surrounding Jessica’s home. As is protocol in all missing children cases, sex offenders in the area were checked out by investigators. On the 15th of March, they disclosed that these routine checks led them to “a person of interest” who was acquainted with Jessica from “family, social, school, church,” circles. Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy said that the man has ties to the local area and that he was a registered sex offender. This person of interest, police announced, had been gone from Citrus County for about two weeks and that if he did not come back for an interview within 48 hours, his identity would be publicly released.4
When the person of interest didn’t come forward for questioning and couldn’t be located, police released his name to the public: John Evander Couey, 46. He lived two miles north of Jessica’s home and often stayed with his half-sister who lived within “eyeshot” of Jessica’s home. He was apprehended in Georgia on the 17th of March. Mark Lunsford said that the family didn’t know Couey, adding “I know my daughter doesn’t go with strangers. So I just don’t see it…” Couey was a career criminal that had been arrested 24 times in a 30-year period. His crimes ranged from burglary, carrying a concealed weapon, disorderly intoxication and driving under the influence to indecent exposure, disorderly conduct, fraud, insufficient funds and larceny. He had spent time in prison and had his driver’s license suspended for 99 years, but as his drug addiction to crack cocaine became more extreme, his crimes escalated into sexually assaulting two young children…5
By the following day, however, the Lunsford family’s greatest fears were confirmed when Couey confessed to abducting, raping and murdering Jessica. After taking a lie-detector test, Couey said: “You don’t need to tell me the results. I already know what they are. Could I have the investigators come back in?” When the investigators re-entered the room, he apologised for wasting their time and directed them to where they could find Jessica’s body. Investigators rushed to the scene of where they could find Jessica’s body, cordoning off an area surrounding the home of Couey’s half-sister. At some point between 3:30 and 4:30AM, the body of Jessica was unearthed from a shallow grave. All this time, she had been less than 200 yards from her own home. Jessica’s father, Mark, visited the scene shortly after sunrise. “Every heard me say, time after time, that she would be home… She’s home now,” he said.6
After Couey’s arrest, three people living in his half-sisters mobile home were also charged with obstructing police for failing to notify authorities when Couey allegedly told them he had committed a crime. These people were Dorothy Dixon, 47, who is Couey’s half-sister, Madie Secord, 27, and Matthew Dittrich, 31. Police did announce that they didn’t think the housemates knew that he had abducted and murdered Jessica.
Couey confessed that he had abducted Jessica at around 3AM. He said he entered the house and woke her up and told her “Don’t tell or nothing…” He then took her to his half-sister’s mobile home where he kept Jessica alive for the weekend where he raped her over and over again. In a cruel twist of fate, investigators had come to their mobile home during an initial door-to-door search while Jessica was still alive. “For some reason, they came to my house but they didn’t come in and search; but I wish they would have because they would have found her, but they didn’t,” he said. In addition to the sexual assaults, Couey kept Jessica hidden in a closet and mentally tortured her by showing her the news reports on her disappearance. When Couey was done with Jessica, he told her to climb into a garbage bag and that he would take her home. He told her she needed to be in the garbage bag so that nobody saw him dropping her home… Believing her captor, she did what he said. Instead, however, Couey took her to a pre-dug grave and buried her alive. He would later attempt to justify his actions by saying that Jessica didn’t try to fight back…
When Jessica was unearthed, she was tightly clutching her stuffed dolphin. She had managed to rip two small holes in the garbage bag but her attempt to escape was unfruitful. “There in the dark, alone with the dolphin, she suffocated,” said Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway during Couey’s trial.7 This piece of evidence said a lot about the innocence of Jessica.
The evidence against Couey was damning. Other than his confession, investigators found a bloodstain containing Jessica’s DNA on his bed. They also found Couey’s DNA in semen which was mixed with the bloodstain. In the closet where he kept Jessica, a pizza box containing Jessica’s fingerprints were found. Her fingerprints were also found on a glass table in Couey’s bedroom. Couey was found guilty and sentenced to death. He died in prison of natural causes in 2009.
In a true testament that something positive can be born out of something so horrid, following Jessica’s brutal murder, her family campaigned for states to pass “Jessica’s Law.” This law mandates a minimum sentence of 25 years and a maximum of life in prison for first-time child sex offenders. Since Jessica’s Law passed in Florida, other states have introduced their own form of Jessica’s Law. “Jessie’s Law can stop repeat offenders – the ones who never go away – we can put those guys away. We are talking about putting the worst of the worst away,” Mark said.
- Tampa Bay Times, 25 February, 2005 – “Officers Scour Parts of Citrus for Missing Girl”
- Dayton Daily News, 26 February, 2005 – “Girl Missing in Florida Has Ties to Valley”
- The Orlando Sentinel, 2 March, 2005 – “Teams Look for Details in Hunt for Missing Girl”
- The Associated Press News Service, 16 March, 2005 – “Man Sought in Florida Missing Girl Case”
- Hawaii Reporter, 12 February, 2013 – “Murdered By a Repeat Sex Offender”
- Daily Breeze, 20 March, 2005 – “Body of the Florida Girl who Vanished is Found”
- The Miami Herald, 2 March, 2007 – “Jessica Lunsford Case Begins”