Mark Lunsford received a wealth of goodwill as the bereaved father traveled the country telling the heartbreaking story of his daughter's disappearance and death.
Attitudes appeared to change last month after he announced his intention to sue the law enforcement officers who came to his aid in those trying times. It prompted those same neighbors who helped Lunsford search, mourn and advocate for his 9-year-old daughter to turn a skeptical eye toward his every move and question whether his motives were financial.
Lunsford withdrew his planned lawsuit Friday, but the controversy could still hurt the Jessica Marie Lunsford Foundation Inc., the nonprofit organization Lunsford created in 2005 to help increase public awareness and push for tougher laws against sex offenders like the one who killed his daughter.
Supporters believe the whole episode, no matter how out-of-context, could still cripple the foundation's reputation and future.
Spurred by a local radio shock jock's inflammatory remarks about the foundation, many became skeptical about its finances and spread wild accusations about misspent money, luxury car purchases and exorbitant salaries.
A St. Petersburg Times review of the foundation's publicly available tax forms found most of the claims are unsubstantiated. But the analysis, in combination with interviews with experts and board members, revealed a troubled nonprofit plagued by flawed management and insufficient record-keeping.
"I think if things had been done better, we would not have had some issues," acknowledged Mark Kloeppel, the foundation's attorney.
At the head of the organization is Lunsford, a high school-educated truck driver with no prior leadership experience. He was a single father who lived in a mobile home with his parents and leaned on them to help care for his daughter. He wore tattoos, a long ponytail of wiry hair and had a roughneck past.
His life changed after Jessica's death three years ago. Almost overnight, he became a powerful crusader for children, a frequent television commentator, and in many ways, famous.
Lunsford is consumed by his mission to pass Jessica's Law in every state. More than 30 already have. But as foundation president he struggles to fulfill his role managing the day-to-day affairs, and the board of directors provides minimal oversight.
"He's sort of a one-man show," said board member Jude Hagin, an Ocala film commissioner, who said she hasn't talked to Lunsford in months. "We have little role in it because he is always traveling and trying to save one little child at a time."
To fill the leadership vacuum, Lunsford hired directors and staff to help manage the organization. But bad choices plagued the process from the start.
Board member Joseph Boles was fired after he trashed a Sarasota hotel room, causing $4,800 in damage, while attending a foundation event. In 2006, Kansas state Rep. Patricia Kilpatrick — hired as legislative director — was terminated after Lunsford learned she faced civil lawsuits for passing bad checks, criminal charges for shoplifting and state sanctions for campaign finance violations. And in 2007, Lunsford hired Carey Sanders, the son of a former board member, as director only to show him the door months later because he couldn't do the job.
The foundation still lacks a leader who can steer the organization and bring in the big dollars needed to keep it strong.
"I think what Mark's interested in is changing policy and not raising money," Hagin said.
The foundation relies entirely on public support, so fundraising is key.
Initially, the money came easy. Lunsford received $50,000 in the 24 days after his daughter disappeared. Supporters held motorcycle rallies, races and festivals in Jessica's name.
But financial documents filed by the foundation show it remains a relatively small operation. In its first two years ending July 2007, the foundation received about $285,000 in donations. The organization's most recent assets were reported at $102,000.
The Internal Revenue Service records show growing signs of financial trouble. In the 2006 fiscal year, the latest figures available, contributions grew 10 percent while fundraising costs grew 170 percent. The bulk of the foundation's money went to pay salary and travel costs for Lunsford.
In the 2006 fiscal year, he earned $54,800, which is more than double his salary the previous year, records show. In addition, he received health insurance and charged the foundation for most of his expenses. In a recent interview at his parents' home in Homosassa, Lunsford deflected criticism, saying the board sets his salary.
It's not uncommon for foundation leaders to earn salaries — some make much more — but many smaller organizations often don't pay staff.
Lunsford couldn't clarify other questionable expenses in the documents without going through receipts, including a two-year travel bill totaling more than $40,000 and a one-year expense of nearly $14,000 for "entertainment." Amid this recent scrutiny, he acknowledged that he fired his treasurer and hired a professional accounting firm from Jacksonville.
The bookkeeping change meant Lunsford also couldn't explain why a number of big-ticket items weren't shown in the foundation's public tax forms. Among the known transactions missing:
• The $15,000 in early donations Lunsford used to buy a 2002 Chevy truck.
• The custom motorcycle with Jessica's image, worth an estimated $80,000, that was made by Santiago Chopper and donated to the foundation. (Lunsford said it was never donated, but Santiago owner Alan Bernard said the opposite.)
• A tour bus of undetermined value donated by a California company that now rests behind the home of Lunsford's parents in Homosassa.
By contrast, the financial records show relatively few dollars — about $10,000 in two years — provided direct assistance to child support groups, which is another tenet of the foundation's mission.
Lunsford said the books don't show all the good things the foundation has done in recent years, including the $100,000 it raised for a playground at Homosassa Elementary and the $11,000 it donated to a Citrus County child advocacy center.
Lunsford is defensive about criticism of the foundation, but also willing to admit his shortcomings.
"All I wanted to do was advocate for kids, and then I find out that in order to do that you had to be able to run an organization," he said. "So it's been a really big, big learning experience."
Nonprofit management experts attest to his difficult journey and explain that any criticism of management is largely subjective. "There are no hard and fast rules about how a foundation operates," said Joan Pynes, a professor at the University of South Florida. "It's typically people who have some kind of cash who start foundations. I don't think there are many truck drivers."
Other parents of victims have made a similar transition by dedicating their lives to a cause, and even those with advanced degrees and business management experience attest to adversity.
"You're building a corporation in a day, and if you don't have any experience with that … it's not an easy thing to do," said Marc Klaas, a former business owner who is now the president of Klaas Kids and Beyond Missing, two nonprofits launched in memory of his 12-year-old daughter Polly who was murdered in 1993.
These parents also walk a fine line as they try to create change. Klaas said he considered suing the authorities who botched his daughter's investigation, but instead decided to work with them to improve policies. Even so, Klaas supported Lunsford's now-withdrawn lawsuit threat, but not all parent-advocates felt the same.
"We don't like a lot of the things (Lunsford's) doing," said Claudine Ryce, who manages a Florida nonprofit in the memory of her son Jimmy Ryce. "We don't think that's the way to fund the nonprofit."
Foundation board members acknowledge they expect a drop in donations going forward, but it could be negated by an unexpected influx of cash in 2007: Gov. Charlie Crist gave a $63,750 check last year from his unspent inaugural ball account.
Lunsford appears content to continue his focus on advocacy. In January, he formed a 501(c)(4) nonprofit corporation, called Support Jessie's Law Inc., to handle lobbying. The original foundation, as a tax-deductible organization, could not explicitly engage in political activities, said lawyer Kloeppel, who added he has already talked with two lobbyists, at the state and federal level.
"I just have goals I want to reach and then I'm done," Lunsford said. "I'm telling you I'd much rather drive a truck. And if someone can please tell me how to get back my daughter, you can have this and I'll drive a truck. But until I get back my daughter, this is the way it's going to be."
John Frank can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6114.