The most important witness in Mark Lunsford's pending wrongful death lawsuit against the Citrus County Sheriff's Office is the man who killed his daughter.
Lunsford and his attorneys say Jessica Lunsford could have been saved if the Sheriff's Office had done its job. To accept that, we have to believe that the 9-year-old girl from Homosassa was alive for at least a few days after she disappeared in February 2005 — and to believe that, we have to believe John Couey, who had a loveless, unsettled childhood and a drifting, drug-doing adulthood. Now 49, he is the archetype of the prowling, pedophilic bogeyman.
He was found guilty, he was sentenced to death, and we didn't want to think about him anymore, or what he did.
But here he is, again — thanks to, of all people, Mark Lunsford.
• • •
Couey is on death row and hasn't talked publicly since his sentencing last summer. But from March 17 to March 20, 2005, he spoke to Citrus detectives three times — twice in Georgia, where they tracked him down, and once more at the county jail back in Lecanto, for a total of four hours, 48 minutes. The transcripts run 198 pages long.
"The first time they came around," he tells detective Scott Grace in his confession, "if they would have come in, they would have caught her in my closet. They didn't search."
"Was she alive or dead at that time?" Grace asks.
"She was still alive."
"She was hiding in your closet? Was she tied up or something?"
"No. I just told her to stay in the closet and she stayed in there."
"That first day?"
"Yeah. It was like . . ."
"We already showed up?"
Almost audible in the transcript of the exchange is the incredulousness in Grace's words. Is it that he doesn't believe Couey? Or that he doesn't want to?
If we believe John Couey, we have to believe Jessica Lunsford was alive, in that trailer, in that closet, when detectives were there.
"I don't have her," Couey tells Grace and fellow detective Gary Atchison.
"Don't think you got her," Atchison says. "But I think you know where she's at."
"Think you do."
"It's not in your words," Atchison says. "It's in your face when you say, when you say certain things to me."
"And it . . . don't make you proud," Grace says. "It don't make you happy. . . ."
"Right," Couey says.
"I know you're not some demonized monster because you're having trouble saying those words," Grace says. "I really feel for you, all right, 'cause I don't think you're out there preying. I just think you f----- up. You've had a s--- life, and that's all you really did, okay? And I'm not trying to say I'm advocating for you. I'm just saying that's all you know, that's all you know."
"If you grew up in a sex environment, and you saw that your whole life, drugs, what else can we expect?"
" . . . I just don't want you to be afraid to tell me."
• • •
The next day, Couey does. He wavers in his statements on the exact number of days he kept Jessica Lunsford. Could have been three, could have been six, but he never says it was just one.
What he says:
Whiskey. Crack. Fight with his sister. Lonely, sad, feeling alone. Went from his trailer to the Lunsfords' around 3 a.m. Slept with her in his bed that first night. Kept her in his closet after that. Fed her pizza, chicken nuggets, hamburgers. Didn't actually rape her until the last night, in the evening, then set an alarm for 2 a.m., dug a shallow hole, put her in trash bags, covered her with wet sand. Back to bed.
What the Sheriff's Office says:
No way he had her there for days.
The autopsy showed no food in her stomach.
How could the four other adults in that trailer where Couey was staying not have known?
And how could he have buried her, even in the middle of the night, after the sheriff's command post was set up practically across the street?
The first two days, when detectives knocked on the door of the Couey trailer four times, according to documents, before they knew he was staying there, they checked the "perimeter" of the residence. Found nothing. Mark Lunsford and his attorneys now say that's because there was nothing to find outside — yet.
Also, Couey says he used bleach to clean up his room the morning after he buried her. Lunsford and his attorneys point to the sheriff's reports that say detectives noted an overwhelming chemical smell in the air when they searched the inside of the trailer for the first time on Feb. 28.
"She was being nice to you, wasn't she?" Grace says.
"That's right," Couey says. "It don't make no sense."
"Yes sir and no sir to you?"
"Right. Mean, she wasn't, she just wasn't mouthy or nothing."
"Didn't sass back?"
"No. She wasn't."
"Did everything you told her to do, didn't she?"
"Yeah, but I can't understand why she did that."
"It seemed like she was almost comfortable with you."
"Yes. . . . She was so polite, you know, she was a polite girl. It hurts me. I mean, I, you know, I, I was going to let her go, too, man. I told her, I said, 'I'm going to let you go, I'm going to let you go.' And why I didn't . . ."
"So she probably believed you. She just figured if she was just being nice to you, stayed nice to you, you wouldn't hurt her, I'll bet."
"Yes," Couey says. "I imagine she did believe me."
And if we believe him, we have to accept the awful idea that Jessica died at least in part because of her obedience and her sweetness.
"I need my life taken 'cause I took her life," Couey says.
"Do you think you deserve to die for this?" Grace says.
"I think I do 'cause I took her life, you know? I think one life deserves another, you know? . . . I just, whatever God wants, you know? I mean, I know God forgives no matter what you do . . ."
"No. You're right."
"Paul," Couey says. "Paul was a killer. He'd kill people, you know? Christian people and children and people."
"How do you know so much about the Bible, John?"
" 'Cause I study the Bible."
"When you were . . . ?"
"When I done time in prison and stuff like that, I'd study the Bible."
"Did you ever talk about the Bible to Jessica?" Grace asks.
"No. I don't really talk about it unless somebody asks me about it. Because I feel that, uh, I done turned away from it so bad that I don't have that right to talk about it, you know? . . . "
"That makes sense. . . . "
"I, I don't have the right to talk about the holy word when, when I'm over here sitting doing the devil's work, you know? . . . "
"Let me ask you this. Do you believe that Bible? Do you believe everything in that Bible?"
"There's certain words."
"What religion do you claim?"
"Yes sir. I believe that Bible 100 percent in my heart. I don't live it. I know I should do it, but I don't do it. Just like, I think Paul says to Romans: Why had you think to do it. I don't really want to do them, but I do them anyway, you know? I don't know if you have ever read that script or not, but that's what Paul says. He says I do things I don't want to do, and then I do them anyway, and that's 'cause the sinful nature in you. You're going to sin. 'Cause we ain't perfect."
"If you believe in that book, then, you know, the day you got to heaven, you may be forgiven for . . . you know. How does the Bible put it? You know, confess your sins, or something like that."
"Yeah, you have to confess your sins, but you've got to be able to forgive yourself before God will forgive you."
"Do you forgive yourself?"
"Not really. No."
"Maybe some day?"
"Maybe some day."
Michael Kruse can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4617.