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Fire burns down trailer where Jessica Lunsford was murdered

HOMOSASSA — There are four windows on the front of the double-wide mobile home where Ruth and Archie Lunsford live. They have clear sight lines through each one to the single-wide where, four years ago, John Couey took their granddaughter, 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, and raped her, kept her and killed her.

On Sunday, around 10:30 p.m., Ruth Lunsford noticed flashing red lights through the blinds of her bedroom. She opened them and saw shooting orange flames.

She called to leave a voice mail for her son, Mark, Jessica's father. She seldom leaves long messages, she said Monday at her dining room table, and this one didn't need to be:

"The Couey place is on fire."

The dingy primer-gray single-wide at 6647 W Snowbird Court has not been just another trailer since March 19, 2005, when Jessica Lunsford was found wrapped in two black trash bags buried in a shallow sandy hole in the yard. She had gone missing from her grandparents' home in the middle of the night more than three weeks before.

Couey, 50, a drifter and pedophile, was convicted of her murder in March 2007 and sentenced to death.

Authorities called Sunday's fire suspicious from the start. No one was living there. The electricity was not on. They officially called it arson Monday, but said they don't know who started the fire, or how.

The reaction to the fire in this part of Citrus County:

Good.

"I'm glad it's gone," Mark Lunsford said from Washington, D.C., where he was working with the Surviving Parents Coalition.

"There's still a hurt in everyone's heart around here," said the Rev. William LaVerle Coats, pastor at Faith Baptist Church where Jessica Lunsford put quarters in the collection plate on Sundays.

For this community, the sadness isn't just that she was killed, or even how she was killed.

It is where she was found.

The search lasted nearly a month and involved deputies and dogs, horses and helicopters, and hundreds of volunteers — and all along she was across the street from where she had slept.

"She was right here," said Leonese Smith, a retired middle school teacher from Wisconsin who has spent her last 10 winters in Citrus. She sat in her maroon minivan parked across from the burned mobile home. She pointed a camera out the window. Her eyes got wet and she touched her hands to her chest.

"She was so close."

For the longest time after the crime, said Coats, the Faith Baptist pastor, people from all over showed up at the church asking for directions to 6647 Snowbird. They wanted to see it. He pointed them to the lot down on the left on the rutted, dusty, half-paved, dead-end street.

The structure sat empty for a while. Somebody threw a cinder block through one of the windows. People lived there for a while. It sat empty again for a while. Mark Lunsford said he drove by not long ago and the front door was hanging open.

On Monday, it was a jumble of burned-black wood planks and melted metal and plastic. The roof was gone. The air smelled like fire.

Bay News 9 came and went. So did local Fox and ABC. The local NBC chopper hovered overhead.

Ruth Lunsford said people ask why they never left. She said it's because this is where Jessica ate ice cream out of her bowl on her TV tray. This is where she did her cartwheels through the living room. This is where her wiener dog, Corky, still sits on her bed. This is where she read on the couch. This is where she rode her bike up and down the street.

"Four doors this way, four doors that way," Ruth Lunsford said at the dining room table. "Those were the rules.

"Jesse," she said, "was always nearby."

She said she never really has stopped and looked at the trailer. She can't help but see it when she pulls out of her driveway. But she said she never stopped to stare.

She said she doesn't know who set the fire. On Sunday night, though, when she saw the flames, and she saw where they were, she turned off the TV in her room. She looked out the window and stood there in the silence. For almost an hour, she said, she didn't move.

"I watched it burn."

Staff researchers Carolyn Edds and Will Short Gorham contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8751.

Fire burns down trailer where Jessica Lunsford was murdered 02/16/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 16, 2009 11:18am]
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