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Lunsford's pain vivid in documentary 'Jessie's Dad'

GAINESVILLE — Mark Lunsford talks to a camera in a dimly lit hotel room.

He stumbles to explain why he broke up with his girlfriend. Even in intimate moments, he's haunted by Jessica, his 9-year-old daughter who was kidnapped, raped and buried alive in February 2005.

It's a powerful moment in a new documentary screened Friday at the University of Florida. The film offers an intimate portrait of Lunsford, who rode a wave of sympathy after Jessica's death until he threatened to sue the Citrus County Sheriff's Office earlier this year.

It shows Lunsford struggling through relationships, legislative sessions and public scorn. The film offers Lunsford a chance at redemption by casting him as a sympathetic figure.

"It's the first time that we get to see Mark Lunsford behind the scenes," said Boaz Dvir, 40, co-director of the film with Rebecca Goldman, 24. "At some point, he became very open."

The two graduate students in the University of Florida's Documentary Institute shot 130 hours of footage over a year and a half to produce the 46-minute film titled Jessie's Dad.

The film shows Lunsford's relentless effort to pass Jessie's Law — by his count, now in more than 30 states — which requires mandatory minimum sentences for sex crimes against children and tougher reporting standards so law enforcement can better track offenders.

But even as he tallies legislative successes, he grows frustrated that the Citrus County Sheriff's Office refuses to admit it did anything wrong after Jessica's disappearance. In an interview on camera, Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy repeats his assertion that if he could do the investigation all over again, he'd do it the same way.

"We did not and we will not change any procedures," Dawsy says early in the story. "We followed the correct procedures."

Lunsford's attorney Mark Gelman counters in the film that the sheriff shouldn't have put the command post so close to Lunsford's house, where it could interfere with traffic patterns and evidence.

And nearly a year before announcing his intent to sue, Lunsford publicly criticizes the Sheriff's Office before a Washington, D.C., audience. In April 2007, he says the Sheriff's Office focused too much on Lunsford and his father. He says investigators received tips that a sex offender was living across the street. Still, they didn't ask to search inside the house where sex offender John Couey was living. He now sits on death row for killing Jessica.

The lonely crusade wears on Lunsford. In one scene, he talks on a cell phone, describing how he often breaks down with a feeling that he can't breathe. Eventually, he decides to go after the sheriff, saying his daughter's death might have been prevented.

The suit would have hinged on how long Jessica was alive, still one of the biggest mysteries in the case. Prosecutors were adamant she was killed the same night she went missing, but the autopsy and Couey's confession suggest it could have been days.

Stung by the public outcry against the suit, Lunsford insists on camera that he only wanted to change police protocol.

"The public is all about criticism, man, I mean bashing, man," Lunsford says. "I mean, a week ago they loved me because I was a child advocate, and I went to all these states and I advocated. But now because we're suing the sheriff's department they don't like me anymore, they think I'm a jerk, a scumbag, money hungry."

After meeting with Dawsy, Lunsford agrees to drop the suit and work together. The sheriff admits no wrongdoing.

The film is open-ended. The directors may shoot more scenes and make revisions before submitting it to PBS.

Times Staff Writer John Frank contributed to this report. Stephanie Garry can be reached at sgarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2374.

Lunsford's pain vivid in documentary 'Jessie's Dad' 05/02/08 [Last modified: Sunday, May 4, 2008 11:38pm]
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