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WAIT IS OVER: GUILTY

Guilty on all counts. Many who lived in Jessica's hometown had been expecting these words for a long time. Wednesday they heard them, amid joy and tears.

The folks here in the hometown of Jessica Lunsford reacted to Wednesday's verdict in the trial of John Couey with a predictable mix of rancor and relief tempered by two things the news didn't and couldn't change.

Couey isn't dead yet.

Jessie still is.

Couey, 48, drifter, drug addict, and pedophile, took and raped and buried alive the 9-year-old girl late one night in February 2005. He was charged with murder, burglary, kidnapping and sexual battery. The reading of the verdict Wednesday in Miami sounded the way many expected it would: guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty.

"Tears welled up in my eyes," said Rev. William LaVerle Coats, the pastor at Faith Baptist of Homosassa Springs, the Lunsfords' home church. "I am happy for the Lunsfords, and for them to finally hear this verdict."

"I was elated," said Sharon Armstrong, who tutored Jessie in math and was like a mother to her and was the state's first witness last week in Miami. "I am so, so thankful."

"Justice," Warren Hill said when asked what he thought of the verdict. Hill is the general manager of Harley-Davidson of Crystal River.

"Well," he said, "it's not really justice yet. This is a good beginning."

Only that.

The next phase of the trial - the penalty phase - starts Tuesday. And for the people in this town? There's just one acceptable outcome.

"Death," said Leo Furrell, 46, a friend of the Lunsfords who watched the verdict on the TV at the bar next to the restaurant on U.S. 19 called Two Guys From Italy. "He needs to get the death penalty. He needs to be fried."

"And the sooner the better," said Colleen McBride, who runs Mac 1 Signs, the store that made many of the signs to try to help find Jessie when she went missing.

"No waiting around," she said. "Let's just get to it and get it done."

All this isn't a true-crime TV show for these people. That face in that well-known photo isn't just a picture. Jessica Lunsford was a little girl they knew and loved.

She was a third-grader at Homosassa Elementary School.

She sang karaoke Friday and Saturday nights at the Saloon on U.S. 19.

She sat with her grandparents at Faith Baptist in the center section of the pews near the rear and went to King's Kids youth group on Wednesday nights. She put quarters in the collection plate.

She often ate lunch after church at nearby Luigi's restaurant. Always hot noodles with just butter. Never any of the parsley she called "the green stuff."

On Wednesday afternoon, there were bright, fresh flowers by her heart-shaped headstone under the oaks at the Fountains Memorial Park cemetery and also at the longstanding memorial at the corner of Cardinal Street and S Sonata Avenue just up the road from the Lunsfords' home.

In Miami, closing arguments were in the morning, and the jury was out before noon. Up here, TV trucks were parked in the lot behind Emily's restaurant at the corner of Cardinal and U.S. 19, and another one was in front of the Lunsford place.

The jury deliberated down there. The people waited up here.

"Just drop him off in Citrus County," McBride said at Mac 1 Signs. "Let the alligators have him."

Or the people.

"Set that bastard's a-- on fire," said Mike Burris, 27, who was at the bar by Two Guys From Italy.

"Put him in regular population. Let the inmates have him."

"They should bury him alive," said Furrell, "just like he did her."

Deliberations lasted just over four hours.

"Shhhhh," said the people at the bar.

The music was turned off.

The volume on Court TV was turned up.

Those who were sitting sat still. Those who were standing stood still. Women held their hands together tight and in front of their faces.

First the murder count. Guilty.

There was a short sharp clap.

Then burglary. Guilty.

Then kidnapping. Guilty.

Then sexual battery. Guilty.

"So say we all," the court clerk read down in Miami.

And at the bar, barely more than 2 miles from where Jessica Lunsford lived, and where she died, the people clapped and yelled and cried.

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

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