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Looking for the Mark Lunsford we once knew

He was this long-haired working man who smoked unfiltered Camels and made his living driving a dump truck.

When we first saw Mark Lunsford in the news, he looked desperate, then grieving, then fiercely resolved — everything the rest of us might have felt if, God forbid, we had to spend a minute in his shoes.

After the murder of his 9-year-old daughter Jessica at the hands of the sex offender who lived across the street, Lunsford seemed like this everyman, this everyfather. The motorcycle man went to Tallahassee and stood near the governor as he signed sex offender legislation called the Jessica Lunsford Act into law. He took his crusade nationwide. Last year, Gov. Charlie Crist encouraged him to run for the state House.

Imperfect, rough around the edges, Lunsford seemed a man who had channeled grief and anger into trying to change things.

Once, he said he blamed no one for Jessie's murder save for John Couey, the pedophile druggie who awaits his fate on death row.

And then, nearly three years to the day that his daughter disappeared, the news broke that Lunsford plans to sue the Citrus County sheriff, a man he once said was like a brother, as well as the county and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Why did we find this so distasteful, so disappointing?

Maybe we're lawsuit-weary. Maybe we're tired of people who expect a payoff, who lay blame for big bucks, who want to turn tragedy into profit.

But is that Mark Lunsford?

Not all lawsuits are about the gratuitous lining of pockets.

Sometimes, that kind of money can help a wronged person get as close as possible to what life was like before —maybe paying for long-term care, or replacing someone's ability to earn a living. (Which wouldn't seem to fit this case, since a girl in third grade is obviously not a family breadwinner.)

An even better reason: big money damages can tell governments or companies they can't take advantage of people, can't carelessly ignore them, can't behave so irresponsibly that people get hurt or even die.

Or at the least, a successful lawsuit sends the message that it's going to cost them, big time.

The most noble reason of all: change for those who come after.

Lunsford's lawyers contend that Jessie did not have to die, that she was alive for days, that investigators went to Couey's trailer four times before they asked to go inside on the fifth day she was missing. They also say investigators wrongly focused on Lunsford's father.

Officials have said they believe she died within hours of being kidnapped. The sheriff has vehemently refuted Lunsford's claims and defended his investigation.

Time will tell how all this will shake out.

It's interesting to note that Lunsford's lawyer, Eric Block, says his client "agreed to drop the lawsuit if the sheriff will admit that he messed up, that he made mistakes, and then work with us to come up with a comprehensive plan" for when a child goes missing. Lunsford has said suing is the only way he can get policies and procedures changed, and that he would give money beyond lawyers' fees to charity.

That at least starts to sound like the Mark Lunsford we thought we knew.

Looking for the Mark Lunsford we once knew 02/29/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 25, 2008 3:58pm]

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