'In case that you're not here when I get done with my bath, I just want to give you a hug and tell you I love you'.
Those were the last words 42 year old truck driver Mark Lunsford heard from his 9 year old daughter Jessica before she died.
February 24th, 2005
Mark Lunsford shared his double-wide trailer with his parents, Ruth and Archie, and his gorgeous daughter, Jessica.
Mark would set his alarm for 5.00AM every day so he could make it to work on time. Jessica would do the same for school, but on the morning of Friday 24th February 2005, her alarm wouldn't stop buzzing.
As Mark routinely prepared for his day at work, he realised his daughter's alarm had not been turned off. Concerned, he went to her room expecting to find her asleep in her bed, but it was empty. Jessica had gone.
Lunsford frantically searched the trailer for her, calling and eventually screaming her name. With no reply, he realised, sickeningly, that the front door was unlocked. Immediately, he contacted 911 and a tenacious search involving trained police and an entire worried neighbourhood was underway.
Weeks passed without any sign of Jessica and the Lunsford's desperately tried to eliminate their worst fears.
Born on October 6th, 1995, in Gastonia, North Carolina, Jessica was described as a quiet girl with a radiant smile. Her parents divorced when she was only a year old and her father, Mark, was given custody.
She and her Father were inseparable. Together they would ride Mark's motorcycle and sing karaoke at the Saloon Bar and Grill on U.S. 19. She was like any other little girl and had dreams of becoming either a singer, a fashion designer or an Olypmic swimmer.
Jessica always slept with a a stuffed tiger and a night light. She didn't like the dark and hated people coming into her room without permission as she wasn't very trusting of people. After she disappeared, one of her favourite toys (a stuffed purple dolphin won for her by her father at a county fair) was missing.
The Sex Offender Search
In the days following Jessica Lunsford's disappearance, detectives performed a routine scan on all the known sex offenders in the area. A convicted sex offender is required by law to notify the authorities if they intend to change their address, however, detectives discovered that 46 year old John Couey was not living at the address where he was registered.
Convictions and charges against Couey included a host of drug violations, burgulary, carrying a concealed weapon, disorderly intoxication, driving under the influence, indecent exposure, disorderly conduct, fraud, insufficent funds and larceny. Additionally, he had been arrested and charged in 1991 with fondling a child under the age of 16.
It was revealed that Couey had moved in with his half sister (Dorothy Marie Dixon), her boyfriend (Matthew Oley Dittrich) and her daughter and son-in-law (Madie Catherine Secord & Gene Allen).
When their home was searched, the trio (described as 'a bunch of cracked out individuals') denied living with Couey. However, during a check of the premises, detectives made a horrific and fatal mistake by not investigating the closet in the room where Couey had been staying.
Nineteen days after Jessica's disappearance, detectives returned to the residence. This time they did check the closets, but nothing was found. Crucially, however, a blood stain was found on the mattress that Couey slept on and his status was elevated to 'person of interest'.
The trouble was, they couldn't find him.
The 5ft 4', 125lb sex offender had escaped under an assumed name on a bus to Savannah. He checked into a homeless shelter and after being questioned about a marijuana possession violation, he sensed it was time to move on and he hit the road and found his way to Augusta, Georgia.
On the National News, his face was shown on a list of suspects and critically, a secretary working at the Salvation Army shelter in which he was staying called the police.
Couey endured hours of questioning and maintained that he had nothing to do with the 9 year old's disappearance. The next day, during a polygraph test administered by FBI Special Agent John Whitmore, the monster broke down and confessed to the abduction and murder of Jessica Lunsford.
He also revealed where they could find her.
Couey admitted he had entered the Lunsford home at approximately 3.00AM on the morning of Friday 24th February, 2005. Whilst in a 'drug haze' induced by a combination of alcohol and marijuana, he ordered her to be quiet and told her to follow him back to his sister's house.
The innocuous little girl was compliant according to Couey and police found no signs of struggle in her room. He admitted to raping her twice, once at night and once in the morning. The terrified 9 year old was forced to stay in the same bed as Couey and then in his closet whilst listening to reports of her disappearance on the news.
Jessica was locked in his closet for three days where she was forced to urinate and live with little oxygen, food and water. However, when he learned that detectives were searching for him, it got worse for Jessica...
On Saturday 19th March 2005, a team of investigators arrived at Dorothy Marie Dixon's trailer. Couey pointed them to a shallow grave where Jessica's body was found inside two plastic garbage bags.
Her wrists were tied together, but she had managed to poke two fingers through the bag in an attempt to escape. She had died clutching her favourite purple dolphin toy (shown below).
Dr. Steven Cogswell noted that she had been placed feet first into the garbage bag and head first into the second. It is likely that the cause of death was suffocation which he believed took from 3 to 5 minutes.
Cogswell found vaginal lacerations which indicated sexual assault. He estimated that the lacerations had occured approximately 6 hours prior to death.
Her gastro-intestinal tract was 'basically empty', meaning the last time she ate was between 'twelve hours and three to four days before death'. Traces of cocaine were found on her body and although she had not ingested cocaine herself, she had definitely been in an environment where crack cocaine had been smoked.
Trial and Sentencing
On August 24th 2007, Judge Richard Howard sentenced John Evander Couey to die for the brutal rape and murder of Jessica Lunsford.
His trial began in Miami on February 12th 2007. Evidence included DNA from Jessica's blood, Couey's semen on the mattress from his bedroom and Jessica's fingerprint's found in a closet inside his trailer.
The defense argued that Couey's below average IQ rendered him mentally handicapped which would disqualify him from the death penalty. However, the judge ruled that his IQ scores were actually eight points higher than the standard score for mental retardation (70).
On March 7th, Couey was found guilty of all charges relating to the murder of Jessica Lunsford, including first degree murder, kidnapping, burglary and sexual battery.
On September 30th 2009, John Couey died in prison of natural causes. His death was not unexpected and he had been ill for some time.
All along Couey said he had not meant to kill her and had acted only out of fright when he learnt of the huge investigation.
Jessica's mother, Angela Bryant, told CNN that John Couey 'will pay' after learning of his involvement with her daughter's murder.
Her father, Mark, said 'she's home now'. Later in an interview with CNN, he looked into the camera and spoke directly to Couey: 'I hope you rot in hell, I hope you get the death penalty'.
Mark Lunsford was intent on preventing the same happening to other children around the world. He proposed that the Florida state legislature should introduce tougher laws. In the aftermath, a bill was written that would require increased prison sentences, electronic tracking of all convicted sex offenders on probation, and the mandatory use of state databases by all local probation officials so that known sex offenders could not avoid the scrutiny of law enforcement.
The 'Jessica Lunsford Act' was approved on May 2nd 2005 and took effect on September 1st of the same year.
Disturbingly, Jessica was so close to being saved from this sexual predator. Had it not been for a momentary lapse in concentration by 'trained' detectives, she could still be alive today.