JACKSONVILLE — Jessica Lunsford didn't have to die, and she wouldn't have if the Citrus County Sheriff's Office had done its job, her father and his attorneys said Tuesday in a news conference here.
Mark Lunsford and attorneys Eric Block and Mark Gelman provided more details about their pending negligence lawsuit against the Sheriff's Office. It essentially asks for a new look at old information.
It asks for belief in the idea that the 9-year-old Homosassa girl was alive for several days after she was taken in February 2005.
It asks, ultimately, for belief in the words of John Couey, drifter, drug user, admitted pedophile, Jessica's killer.
Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy, visibly agitated in a news conference of his own Tuesday in Inverness, called the pending suit "baseless" and "absurd."
"Without a doubt in my mind," he said, "I can sleep well at night knowing that I did not let Jessica down or the Lunsford family down."
Key claims in the pending suit:
• The Citrus investigation during the first two days focused too much on Mark Lunsford, and in particular on Archie Lunsford, Jessie's grandfather. Mark Lunsford said Tuesday that detectives even told him they had found his daughter's blood on his father's underwear and asked him to confront his father. "They lied to me," he said.
• Deputies went four times to the trailer where Couey was staying with other housemates, according to records, and searched the yard but never asked to search inside. It wasn't until Feb. 28, 2005, the fifth day the girl was missing, that they asked to go in. By then — if Couey is to be believed — it was too late.
• The medical examiner who did the autopsy has said Jessica probably died at least 24 hours after she last ate. If she had been killed that first night, Lunsford's attorneys argue, there would have been food in her stomach from dinner. "There's absolutely no evidence he killed her the first night," Gelman said. "None."
A month into the investigation, Couey, 49, a sex offender, confessed to taking the girl from her trailer and back to his trailer, raping her on a filthy mattress and then burying her alive in two trash bags in the back yard. He was found guilty last year and sentenced to death.
Lunsford and his attorneys gave the Sheriff's Office notice of their intent to sue last week. They now have six months to file suit.
• • •
The call about the missing girl came in at 6:45 a.m. Feb. 24, 2005.
Deputies began going door to door, knocking on Couey's trailer — which could be seen from the Lunsford home — at 8:15 a.m.
One of the housemates answered the door. Couey says he was in his back bedroom. The housemate told the deputies he hadn't seen anything strange. They left.
Their report says they searched "the perimeter of the residence."
"Everything appeared to be fine."
On a visit the next day, someone was peeking through the blinds when detectives showed up. One of the housemates hurried out a back door and then back in, and his hands were trembling when he was questioned.
But it wasn't until the fifth visit, on Feb. 28, that detectives went inside. According to their report, "nothing was found."
The Sheriff's Office started to target Couey after some tips came in. They found him on March 17 in Georgia. He confessed the next day. Investigators dug up the girl's body March 19. Couey was charged March 20.
That day, at the Citrus County Jail, he talked more with two detectives, again telling them that he did it, and how he did it — and that he kept the girl in his closet for days, until the wee hours of the day of the fifth visit, Feb. 28.
He said he kept her in the closet during the day and took her out at night.
He said she never made noise, never screamed, never tried to leave. He said she was polite.
He said he didn't rape her until that last night.
The two of them, he said, heard the investigators show up Feb. 24.
"She said, 'Are they in here now?' " Couey told the detectives. "And I said, 'Yeah, they're at the front door right now, so you sit here and be quiet. Don't say a word.' She said okay. That's what she said."
About Feb. 28, Couey told the detectives this: "See that day, y'all came in, sir … and you weren't going to find nothing in there.
"She, she was — already I done did what I did."
Times staff writer Logan Neill contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4617.