Jessica Lunsford

When I got up this morning and knew this was the day in which I would blog I kept feeling a pull to do this case.  I tried resisting a bit because this case has always bothered me.  It is not just that it involves the death of a child, which is always difficult to do but in all of the interviews and shows I have seen on this case it was Jessica's father, Mark, and her grandparents, Ruth and Archie that seemed to pull at my heart more than a lot of cases.  It is not that I do not have sympathy for people who have lost children, quite the contrary but these particular people just had a hold of sorts over me.  Once I finally decided there was no sense in trying to talk myself out of doing this case I started my research thinking it would be a fairly easy and quick case.  Boy, was I ever wrong. First, this case required more research than a lot of cases simply because there was so much on the crime itself that I had to dig deeper for other answers of things and it seemed every time that I searched something else I would find another tidbit about the case or the people involved.  For example when I start out a case I generally Google whatever name I have "and murder" to get me started.  A lot of the time that is all I need, but this case sent me in many directions that amounted to multiple searches.  Part of that is because I wanted to know more about the perpetrator beyond his conviction in this case, but I wanted to answers to other questions about other people, including Jessica's mother, father, grandparents and even relatives of John Couey, the man convicted. Part of it was that I needed those answers to conclude the story and part of it involved just making sure I got the most accurate information I could.

So, I began my search about 7:00 this morning and I am not going to lie and say I have sat in front of my computer all day working on it, because really I haven't but I have spent a large portion of the day here.  In fact, now at 7:30 pm I am starting what I hope will be my last draft, or start, of this story.  

We have all heard of the cases in which children have been at least allegedly taken from their home in the middle of the night.  In fact, I have blogged about at least two of them, Polly Klaas and Danielle VanDam.  In fact, the latter I just discussed rather recently.  While Polly's murder was much like this one and more difficult to write about, Danielle's murder, with all of the legal wranglings and questions allowed me to distant myself a bit from the story and concentrate on the legalities and questions left to be answered.  While this case does have a few twists and turns and I have learned not everything may have been as it appeared to me initially, there really are few questions left.  We know that Jessica Lunsford was murdered and we know without a doubt that John Couey did it.  The only significant questions we are left to wonder is exactly how long did he have Jessica before he buried her alive and did anyone else know about it.  As far as the first we will never know since John Couey could not tell the same or plausible story most of the time and he has since died while in prison.  We will not likely know the answer to the latter question either considering it is unlikely anyone will fess up to knowing anything at this point and nothing could be proven conclusively.  

On the morning of February 24, 2005 (I later wondered if since this is my birthday if this was not another reason this case bothers me so), after spending the night with his girlfriend, Mark Lunsford returned to his Homosassa Florida home that he shared with his elderly parents, Ruth and Archie and his 9 year old daughter, Jessica. As he came in the back door around 5:45 he heard Jessica's alarm going off but as most parents will often do he started to get ready for work convinced she would get it shortly.  After a bit Mark realized the alarm was still going off and he headed towards her room only to find it empty.  At this point Mark woke up his parents to inquire if they knew where she may be.  When they knew nothing 911 was contacted.

Officers came in and processed the scene.  A screen in a door in the sun room had been cut near the handle but no other signs of disruption were discovered. Besides Jessica, the only other thing missing was her new favorite stuffed animal, a purple dolphin. The home was searched and processed but my research indicates that little was found in the immediate area or the house, or at least by the time it was all done it did not matter.  Ruth gave investigators a copy of Jessica's fingerprints.  She had gotten them done at a Wal-Mart.  I am not sure they still do those things but at the height of children being abduction and endangered there were places to get things like this done so that parents could give authorities all the tools they needed to find an abducted child and having their prints taken was one of their things.  

Over the next few days there were search parties out with investigators.  Sniffer dogs were brought out as well as helicopters were flying over head. The officers were later criticized about the sniffer dogs.  It was said that after leaving the house they attempted to cross the street but that the handlers deterred them. The thought was that it was unlikely that if someone took Jessica from her home that they would have been walking and more than likely had a vehicle. It seems they believed the dogs were at that point following the wrong trail.

As with any case those closest to the victim are the first people looked at in any investigation.  Of course this one started no only with Mark and his parents but authorities were quick to get information on Jessica's mother, Angela Bryant who lived in Ohio. It took a bit, and a few tricks were played before they were all ruled out.  Archie Lunsford had some run ins with the law in the 1950's... nearly 50 years earlier.  There was some dispute as to whether he had told the police right away about them or waited until they confronted him with what they found in his record and then he downplayed the issues.  At one point investigators even lied to Mark telling them that they had found Jessica's blood on underwear belonging to Archie and then sent him into an interrogation room with his father.  Nothing came of this except that Mark believed them for a short period and was angry with his father thinking he could have been involved.  Then he was angry with himself for allowing the investigators to convince him in the first place.  As far as Angela goes, I will get more into her later but it was pretty much determined that she had not been involved in Jessica's disappearance.  

Amid all of this investigators started talking to neighbors but it does not seems as if they did any big searches or any searches inside homes and basically it seems just asked if they had seen anything unusual.  The only time line they had was that Mark had left the home around 9:00 as Jessica was getting out of the shower, she was put to bed around 10 and by 5:45 the next morning she was gone.  Police were also looking into any registered sex offenders in a 2-3 mile radius of the Lunsford home.  Over the next several days it seems they had located most, if not all, but one.... John Couey. He had registered at a home about two miles from the Lunsford's.  At some point in the next few weeks they discovered that while they could not locate Couey that his half sister, Dorothy Dixon actually lived across the street and two doors down from Jessica's home.  

Dorothy Dixon's home was described as a trailer but at first I was leery of that description considering just how many people were reported as living in the home at one time.  After learning more of their history, their lifestyle at the time of Jessica's disappearance and their subsequent living environment I am leaning more to the description being correct.  And, let me be clear this was not the point that it was a "trailer"  because I have lived in one before and I actually enjoyed it.  It just seemed like a very small environment considering that Dixon was living there with her boyfriend, Matthew Dittrich, Maddie Secord (who I could not determine if she was Dixon's daughter or a niece to both she and Couey) and her husband Gene, there was possibly a son of Dixon's there and they would learn later that John Couey himself had been living there for a while.  

Investigators apparently talked to Dixon who indicated that Couey had moved to Georgia.  I am unclear if she announced, when or how that happened or if she even told them that he had been living with her prior to going to Georgia.  Authorities realized there was a Georgia warrant for Couey from a past drug arrest and contacted authorities there.  Apparently Couey was pulled in a few times and authorities there and in Florida talked to him.  They discovered that he had taken a bus from Florida to Georgia sometime between March 7th and 10th and either Dixon or his niece Maddie Secord had gotten the ticket in their name.  On Monday March 14th Dixon allowed authorities to search her home, but again it was unclear as to whether they knew Couey had once resided there.  On Friday, the 18th Couey was brought in again and it was then that he confessed to crimes against Jessica.

Couey seemed to tell several different stories over the course of time about exactly how things happened but the one consistent thing was that he had buried Jessica in Dixon's yard.  Of course he could not really change that story considering that the first time he told it authorities were out digging.... and they eventually found her. At the time authorities recovered her body they also arrested all four adults living in the home.  One, Gene Secord was arrested on a warrant for unpaid child support but the other three, his wife Maddie, Dixon and Dittrich were arrested for obstructing justice. Those charges would later be dropped, which I will discuss later.  

While investigators will never truly know which version of what Couey told them was true exactly as to what happened what they did know and would find out was more gruesome and tragic than one would imagine.  Couey obviously admitted to kidnapping Jessica from her home.  There was talk that he entered a window to her room and not the door from the sun room but that is unclear. He apparently convinced her that he was taking her to her dad and she agreed. They then obviously went across the street back to Dixon's home where Couey was living.  Couey's stories would differ as to how long he kept her alive in the trailer in his room and some of those stories were too outlandish to be true but authorities do know that Jessica was in that room at some point.  Couey proceeded to rape Jessica in his room; her blood was found on his bed. In one version of his stories he said the following day he had placed her in the closet of the room while he went to work.  Her DNA and fingerprints were found in the closet. In his stories he kept her captive and quiet from anywhere from 3-7 days.  In some versions none of the other adults knew she was in the home and in others his sister knew.  He would say that during the time that she was held captive she was never let out of the room to use the bathroom and in one version that she simply urinated in the closet.  The problem with this is that there was no evidence of this in the closet and more than likely is one of the reason authorities do not believe she was kept very long.  In the most plausible story he told Couey said after knowing the police dogs had been brought out he began to worry the next time officers came to the door he would be caught so he convinced Jessica that he was going to take her home.  Only, he could not simply walk her across the street since everyone was looking for her so he told her to climb into a garbage bag, which she did while holding on to her purple dolphin.  Couey then place another trash bag over her after he had tied the first one.  He later placed her in a small hole in the backyard, covered the hole first with dirt and then with leaves. Yes, there is no doubt that he buried this poor child alive!!  The coroner would later say that while her body was fairly decomposed considering the time of year in Florida it was not as bad as it could have been. Two of her fingers were skeletonized and it was said that was caused by her poking holes in the garbage bags.  It was thought that she lived anywhere from 2-5 minutes in that hole, each second losing more and more oxygen until finally there was no more.  Have you ever sat and just figured out how long a minute really is? When you're busy and doing things it does not seem all that long, but when you are gasping for breath it is a lifetime. Multiply that to up to five times and that is what this poor girl suffered.

The family and the community were crushed and outraged!  How did Couey slip through the system?  How did the dogs or the police not find her right across the street? Why did the police not do searches on every home immediately in the area?  They were even more outraged when the charges against the other people in the home were dropped. Then there was Angela Bryant who had to eat a whole lot of crow. The media had known before Jessica was found that Couey was a "person of interest" and they were slowing learning and reporting why that was. There was obvious tension between Bryant and the Lunsford family and everyone knew it. Most of the media attention was on Mark and his parents since obviously Jessica lived with them but also because Mark was in front of any camera he could be, first searching for his daughter and later expressing his anger. But people wanted to know who was Angela Bryant and while she was not as outspoken and much more shy about the cameras she did speak to a few reporters and on a few television shows. While Couey was becoming more and more a viable suspect Bryant was proclaiming she did not believe he was the one responsible and continued to express that she believed either Mark or his father, Archie had been involved.  She had to admit when Jessica was found that Couey was in fact involved. It was because of her assertions that the Lunsfords began to be looked at a bit different from the community and the general public it seems.

I have a saying, in every situations (especially relationships) there are two sides to every story and somewhere in the middle lies the truth.  People wanted to know, why did Jessica not live with her mother.  From the outside Angela seemed stable enough.  She was remarried, a conservative Christian woman with other children and good standing in her community in Ohio it seems.  Mark on the other hand, who did seem to emit a bit of charm and obviously garnered much sympathy did not seem so put together.  He was a single man living with his elderly parents. Many by this time had claimed that Ruth had cared for Jessica most of her life with Mark appearing to be around when he could or wanted to be.  He was given some heat (although it seemed unwarranted) that on the night of her disappearance he had slept at a girlfriend's house.  Angela seemed more willing to discuss the past than Mark seemed to be as he would say he wanted the focus to be on finding Jessica and Angela, at least in my opinion, seemed to want to redeem her reputation as mother.  Now obviously neither you or I were there and we cannot say for sure what happened in the relationship but I have to say there were at least a few times that Angela seemed to trip over herself in explaining her relationship with Jessica.  Her story was that she had left Mark because he was a drug addict and abusive when Jessica was a year old and had moved in with her mother. She would say that Mark took Jessica on a visitation and then went to North Carolina and filed abandonment charges against her hence he received custody. Mark would deny her drug and abuse charges and claim that Angela had called him to take Jessica as she could not handle working and taking care of a child (she was in her early 20's at the time and Mark was about 10 years older). Angela would claim that she did not know where Jessica was living with Mark and had not seen her in four years. But it seems that either she changed that story herself without prompting or changed it when Mark pointed out she had seen Jessica the previous Labor Day and that while he may not have lived with his parent but over the last year or so they had lived in the same place with the same number for decades.  Mark would claim that Angela would even call him at work but never call Jessica to speak to her.  Regardless, as their animosity played out in front of the cameras during the search for Jessica it apparently seemed to end during Couey's trial as Angela and the Lunsfords seemed to be civil with each other. It also seems that sometime during this time Angela became divorced again although I could not determine details. Suddenly she was being reported as a single mom trying to support her children as a nurses aide in a nursing home in Ohio.  

At a press conference just after the discovery of Jessica's body the sheriff made it very clear what his feelings about Couey, and the other residents of the home were.  He stated Couey was "a piece of trash" that deserved to die for his crime and referred to the other occupants as "crackheads." It had been determined that there was a lot of drug and alcohol use going on between them all.  Couey's rap sheet was a mile long that included battery, theft and molestation. In 1978 he had been convicted of robbing a home and while there he had grabbed a girl and began kissing her.  It was said that he was sentenced to 10 years but paroled in 1980.  In 1991 he was arrested for fondling a 5 year old girl (this was likely either a niece or a stepdaughter, I could not determine).  I was unable to determine what kind of sentence he received for that but it was said that he was again released early.  This latter crime is likely what required him to register with the offenders list in the first place.  There also seemed to be drunk driving issues as his license were suspended for life.  

Couey's trial was to begin in July of 2006 in Tavares Florida but after a few days of attempting to sit a jury, proceedings were shut down because it was obvious an impartial jury would not be found. They tried again, this time with success, in February of 2007 at the opposite end of the state in Miami.  Defense attorney's were able to successfully get Couey's confession from March 18th thrown out.  It was said that his requests for a lawyer were denied.  However, the judge did allow the evidence that was discovered because of that confession, most importantly Jessica to be allowed. The judge also allowed confessions and comments that Couey made to others, including jail guards while he was awaiting trial.  So in reality, the fact that his actual confession, which was riddled with untrue things anyway, was not allowed did little harm to the prosecution. Once Jessica's body was found the Dixon trailer was a crime scene. There appeared to be more than enough evidence against him. Jessica's DNA and blood was found in the room that he and everyone else in the house agreed he occupied alone, the garbage bags used were the same ones that were in the home and she was obviously found.  The only real questioned that lingered, but had no impact on the trial itself was if anyone else knew she had been there. The defense would argue that Couey was of near mentally retarded intelligence level and would claim an abusive childhood for his behavior. On March 7, 2007 John Couey was convicted of all charges and the jury recommended the death penalty.  On August 24, 2007 the judge complied and added two consecutive life sentences.  

John Couey would not see the death chamber.  He died in September of 2009 while serving his sentence.  There are many places that stated he died of natural causes. A few stated he had been ill for some time and his death was not unexpected but claimed privacy rules forbid any more information from being released while there was one or two that claim he died of cancer (one even claimed anal cancer). Mark and his parents would be quoted as saying they were glad that justice had been served and they were not forced to wait to see if they lived long enough to see it.

So what about all the other people in this story?  Well it seems that the charges against Dixon, Dittrich and Maddie Secord were eventually dropped due to true lack of evidence.  There was never definitive proof that any of the occupants knew that Jessica had been in that home or that Couey had been involved. The district attorney would later say that in order to have pursued those charged it would have required making a deal with Couey to testify against them and he was not about to do that. He argued that the law did not allow him to pursue charges any other way.  Many disagreed with him. At the very least many thought drug charges could be sought.  I could find no other information on them other than the fact that the trailer that they had lived in at the time of Jessica's murder (they had moved or been ran out, I am unsure) burned to the ground in an apparent arson in February of 2009. I doubt authorities looked hard for the culprits and they likely did the neighborhood a favor.  As far as the other people a reporter found them living in another trailer in a remote area during the time of the investigation and preparation for Couey's trial.  It was said that it was very dilapidated and from the outside appeared unlivable.  The reporter had also spoke to people at two bars the group had been known to frequent and it was pretty much stated that the family was now considered pariah's to the community. 

Mark Lunsford decided in a way to follow in the footsteps of Mark Klaas, Polly Klaas' father, and be an advocate for justice reform and information.  He quickly began fighting to make sure sex offenders were not let out of prison early like Couey had, their sentences were longer and that their tracking was more precise.  He also advocated for more public knowledge being available.  Many in the area had not known there were as many offenders in their area as they later found out.  In Florida it was called The Jessica Lunsford Act and was quickly signed by then Governor Jeb Bush on May 2, 2005. By 2015 47 states (only Hawaii, New York and Illinois) had forms of "Jessie's Law" that required mandatory sentencing and not early release among other things.  Mark came under a lot of heat when in February of 2008 he filed a wrongful death and negligent lawsuit against the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Citrus County Sheriff's Office. Many criticized him claiming that he was trying to profit from his daughter's death.  Mark disputed this and claimed that if law enforcement would have paid attention to the sniffer dogs they had used they could have possibly found Jessica in the Dixon home.  At one point Couey had mentioned that he knew the dogs were being used and feared they would lead officer's back to the trailer and find her.  They also claim that had officers pursued the Georgia warrant for Couey that was apparently issued long before her disappearance she would still be alive.  He argued that this was not about money or greed but about accountability and change. He was later persuaded to drop the suit.  The last that I can determine he still works with advocacy groups in changing laws and working with parents of abducted and murdered children.  He also had a baby in 2007.  Ironically enough his son was born October 6th... Jessica's 12th birthday.  There are stories that Mark had four other children at the time of Jessica's death who lived with their mother(s) and this likely contributed, along with his arrest record, to some of the animosity about his parenting later on.  I also read an article that indicated that sometime in 2014 or 2015 he had suffered from cancer and his trademark long hair had been taken by chemotherapy. As far as I can tell he has recovered.  

As I said in the beginning this is a case that has always tugged at me and I suspect that is why it has taken me so long to compile my information and place it here.  The suffering that this child endured is beyond imaginable. No one, let alone an innocent 9 year old child should ever have to face what she did.


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