Sheriff: Sex offender confesses to killing missing Homosassa girl
By Mike Branom
The Associated Press
Posted March 18 2005, 8:31 PM EST
HOMOSASSA -- A registered sex offender with an extensive criminal history has confessed to kidnapping and killing 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, who disappeared from her bedroom more than three weeks ago, authorities said Friday.
``I've got my man,'' Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy told a news conference.
Dawsy said John Evander Couey confessed to investigators after taking a lie-detector test. The sheriff said Jessica Lunsford's body had not been found, but Couey gave them a general area to search.
Deputies Friday used yellow tape to block off an area near the trailer home of Couey's half-sister, about 150 yards from where Jessica lived with her father and grandparents. Couey also has a home in Homosassa, but sometimes stayed with his half-sister, authorities said.
The sheriff's office previously searched the half-sister's home and removed some items that were sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for further investigation, Dawsy said. The home is located in a lightly wooded area in a mostly rural county about 60 miles north of Tampa.
Couey, 46, was arrested Thursday in Augusta, Ga., on a probation violation for failing to notify officials that he was leaving Florida, a requirement for sex offenders.
He had been named as a ``person of interest'' in the case but not initially charged in Jessica's Feb. 23 disappearance. He agreed Friday to be brought back to Florida but was still in Georgia at the time of the news conference, Dawsey said.
Jessica, a third grader, was last seen wearing a pink nightgown when she was tucked into her bed by her grandmother. She was discovered missing the next morning, with an unlocked door and a missing stuffed animal the only evidence of her disappearance.
Couey left Florida on or about March 4, about a week after her disappearance, after telling relatives that police would be looking for him, officials said.
Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford, has said he has never seen Couey. A sheriff's spokeswoman who answered the phone at the Lunsford home Friday evening said the family declined immediate comment.
The girl's mother, Angela Bryant, lives in Ohio. Jessica's stepfather in Ohio, Lonnie Bryant, told the Associated Press that he and the girl's mother planned to come to Florida soon.
``I'm going through agony right now,'' Lonnie Bryant said.
In the street between the two homes neighbors, family friends and people who had searched for Jessica, gathered to console each other and light candles for Jessica. Dawsy said a polygraph investigator traveled to Augusta and gave Couey the lie-detector test. After the test was finished, Couey told detectives that ``you don't need to tell me the results. I already know what they are,'' Dawsy said.
``He apologized to the investigators for wasting their time,'' Dawsy said.
Couey's criminal record includes 24 arrests for burglary, carrying a concealed weapon, indecent exposure and other offenses. In 1991, he was arrested in Kissimmee on a charge of fondling a child under age 16. Records don't show how the case was resolved.
During a house burglary in 1978, he was accused of grabbing a girl in her bedroom, placing his hand over her mouth and kissing her, Citrus County sheriff Jeff Dawsy said. Couey was sentenced to 10 years in prison but was paroled in 1980, a time when inmates were serving a small fraction of their sentences.
Ben Ermini, an executive director with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which consulted with the family and law enforcement during the search for Jessica, said the Friday news was ``depressing and it's tough to hear.''
``We were all hoping that this would turn out to be a case where the child was found safe,'' Ermini said.