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A year later, Jessica's loss still changing lives

(Ran North, South editions of PASCO TIMES)

It was a year ago this morning that the Lunsford family's lives forever changed, and this quiet community lost its sense of security.

Just before 6 a.m., Mark Lunsford came home and heard his daughter's alarm clock. He stepped inside her bedroom to wake her. She was gone.

By now, most everyone in Citrus County - and many people nationwide - knows how the story ends. Jessica - a bubbly, sweet 9-year-old who loved the color purple, playing with Bratz dolls and going to church - was found buried behind a neighbor's mobile home, her body wrapped in trash bags.

John Couey, a 47-year-old sex offender, is accused of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing Jessica. He has pleaded not guilty. His trial is set for July.

"It still has a lasting effect," said the Rev. William L. Coats, pastor at Faith Baptist Church, which Jessica's family attends.

"It's caused everyone to be more aware of who is in the community and what's going on. . . . it's caused all of us to be more aware of who's in the neighborhood. We're just all kind of tensed."

A year after Jessica's disappearance, much has changed. A state law named for her has altered the way sex offenders are tracked and has increased punishments for such crimes against children.

Schools now require background checks for many workers after information surfaced that Couey had worked at Jessica's school, Homosassa Elementary. The state's probation system has been re-examined in light of flaws in officers' knowledge about Couey's previous crimes.

Jessica's father is on a mission to change sex offender laws nationwide. He now spends much of his time traveling to lobby legislators for tighter laws. He has made several trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby for national legislation.

Today, Jessica's father and her paternal grandparents, Ruth and Archie Lunsford, will remember Jessica in private, Ruth Lunsford said this week. Their church had no plans for a public memorial service.

On Saturday, the Italian Angels Motorcycle Brotherhood will remember Jessica with a ride on U.S. 19 that ends at Crystal River Harley-Davidson.

The group sponsored a ride last year to raise money in the search for Jessica, whose body was found the day of the ride.

Last year, hundreds of people came to Sonata Avenue, the sleepy street in Homosassa where the Lunsfords live, to look for Jessica.

The Citrus County Sheriff's Office set up a command center in front of the home. Search dogs prowled the woods nearby, sniffing for any sign of her.

Sheriff Jeff Dawsy remembers that time clearly.

"I think what Jessica's (death) did was to make her the community's child," he said. "She was everybody's little girl. I think that may have woke up a lot of people in the community as to how fleeting life is."

Dawsy, who worked with legislators on crafting new sex offenders laws after Jessica's death, said it's impossible to keep everyone safe by legislation alone, but the Jessica Lunsford Act was a step in the right direction.

Sex offenders like Couey cannot be rehabilitated or cured, he said, and they should always be on monitoring.

"I would say that Jessie's death did not go unnoticed and because of her death those changes probably will protect children," he said.

That's fine for the future, but the community of Homosassa has a long way to go before it recovers from Jessica's death, said Diane Toto, president of the Homosassa Civic Club.

"It's so sad, you know, the laws are being changed but it takes so long," Toto said. "We just want it to be over."

Last year, Toto presided over a meeting of Homosassa residents angered and fearful over the slaying. The outrage is still present, if less visible, she said.

"This has been such a terrible tragedy for the family and the community," she said.

"It has kind of torn us apart. We've always been just a safe little community. It can happen in Tampa or it can happen in other places, but not in Homosassa."