She was kept in the closet for three days, raped repeatedly and when the rapist found it difficult to hide her, he buried her alive.
On the morning of February 24, 2005 Mark Lunsford was getting ready for work when the alarm started ringing in his daughter’s room. But when his daughter, 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, did not switch off the alarm Lunsford decided to check on her. The notice on the door to Jessica’s room directed all visitors to knock before making an entry. She disliked unannounced intrusions on her private space. So, presumably, Mark Lunsford knocked on the door before entering Jessica’s room and expected to find her fast asleep in her bed, oblivious to the world, holding the stuffed tiger close to herself like she always did. But the bed was unoccupied. Neither Jessica, nor her stuffed toy was there. He looked around the house calling out aloud for her, but there was no response. Jessica was missing. And the front door was found unlocked. Lunsford informed the police about his missing daughter.
The police swung into action the same day, but even with the assistance of trained dogs Jessica could not be found. By the next day the state and the federal agencies had joined the search assisted by hundreds of volunteers who had travelled to Homosassa, Florida, to lend a helping hand.
Born on October 6, 1995, in Gastonia, North Carolina, Jessica was a quiet girl with pretty, bright smile. When she was one year old her parents had divorced, and her custody was granted to her father. She was very scared of the dark, and kept a night light along with a flashlight within reach when she slept. That was in addition to the stuffed tiger that she held close while sleeping. She was not given to wandering too far away from home because she did not trust people easily. Therefore, her disappearance was puzzling. It could not be that she wandered too far and lost her way back. So, how did she disappear without a trace overnight? The only thing that was missing apart from her was her stuffed purple dolphin, which her beloved father had won for her at a county fair.
Since Jessica could not be found, the investigation agency went back to the standard procedure followed in cases where a young girl goes missing. The standard investigation procedure includes checking on all sex offenders living in the region to ascertain whether or not they were involved in causing the disappearance in any manner. When Citrus County Sheriff’s Office performed the check they found that one John Evander Couey (46), a known sexual offender had moved somewhere from the address registered as his place of residence, and he had not notified the authorities of the change as he should have under the law.
Couey’s crime list was long and varied, and the fellow had been arrested for a number of crimes on several occasions including drug violations, carrying a concealed weapon, disorderly intoxication, burglary, driving under the influence, indecent exposure, fraud and larceny. On account of irresponsible driving his driving license was under suspension for 99 years, and to top it all he had been arrested and charged with “fondling a child under the age of 16” in 1991.
Further inquiries about the whereabouts of Couey revealed that he had shifted his residence to Dorothy Marie Dixon’s place. Dixon (47) was Couey’s half-sister, and lived with her boyfriend, Matthew Oley Dittrich (31), her daughter, Madie Catherine Secord (27), and her son-in-law, Gene Allan Secord (35). They all lived in a trailer at 6647 Snowbird Court, which was miles away from Couey’s registered address. But it was not very far from Jessica Lunsford’s house. Therefore, Dixon’s trailer was the next stop for the investigators.
They found Dixon, her boyfriend and her daughter at home, but John Couey was not there, and the trio told the investigators that they did not have any information about Couey’s whereabouts, nor was he living with them. The detectives did go around the premises doing a cursory check, but did not find any sign of Couey or Jessica. However, they did not look into the closet in the room that Couey had occupied. Since Dixon and others had denied that Couey had been living with them at all, the detectives perhaps did not have any idea as to which room Couey had been living in. And they did not go around opening all closets and cupboards.
The detectives, having tried and failed to locate Couey, returned to Dixon’s trailer 19 days after Jessica was reported missing, and this time they did have a peek at the insides of the closet. Nothing incriminating was found in there, but the mattress in the bedroom occupied by Couey had traces of blood, which made him a suspect immediately. And the search for Couey turned urgent. However, the residents of the trailer were not forthcoming with any useful information. They held firm to their previous position of not knowing anything about where Couey was. The fact was that Couey had fled the area two weeks ago having purchased a one-way bus ticket to Savannah, Georgia, under a false name.
Couey had the tendency to land on the wrong side of the law, and that had happened at least 24 times in 30 years. His tryst with the law began the moment he set foot in Savannah with Savannah police apprehending him for a possible possession of marijuana. However, they let him go, for they had no inkling about Couey’s status as a crime suspect in Florida. But the position changed soon after. Jessica’s disappearance became national news soon, and Couey was identified as a suspect in the case with his picture displayed by the TV channels.
Couey was staying at a Salvation Army shelter in Augusta when a secretary working there identified him, and reported him to the police. Augusta police arrested Couey for not registering himself as a sex offender when he entered Georgia as he should have under the law. Citrus County Florida Sheriff’s Office was informed of Couey and two detectives arrived in Georgia. Couey was subjected to sustained interrogation for several hours by the detectives, assisted by an FBI special agent, but Couey maintained throughout that he did not know anything about Jessica, and had nothing to do with her disappearance. During the investigation, as the transcripts of the interview reveal, Couey asked for a lawyer no less than seven times, but the detectives continued interrogating him without heeding his request for a lawyer in clear violation of his constitutional rights. He was put to a polygraph test the next day conducted by FBI Special Agent John Whitmore. Couey broke down and admitted to having killed Jessica and also told where her body could be found.
In a videotaped confession Couey admitted to raping and killing Jessica Lunsford after having kidnapped her at 3:00 a.m. on February 24, 2005 from her bedroom. He stole into the house in the early hours of February 24, found Jessica asleep in her bed, woke her up and ordered her to stay quiet and follow her to his half-sister’s trailer house. According to Couey, she followed without a fuss, and since the detectives found no sign of struggle in Jessica’s bedroom, there was no reason to disbelieve Couey’s version. He took Jessica to his room at his sister’s trailer house, raped her and kept her in his bed for the rest of the night. He raped her again in the morning and before leaving for work he placed her in his closet like a toy and asked her to stay there quietly. Jessica complied again. Couey had switched on the television for her to watch from the little crack he had left by not closing the doors of the closet completely. So, she also saw the news reports of her going missing and of the efforts made to find her. It was during this time that the detectives came over to check on Couey, and also went to his room, but did not open the closet. Had they opened the closet, they would have found Jessica alive in there.
Couey told that he abducted Jessica in a “drug-haze”, for he had been drinking and using drugs that night. He kept Jessica in the closet for three days feeding her and making her urinate in the closet itself so that his housemates did not get to know of her presence. When he got to know of the detectives’ looking for him, he got worried and decided to bury Jessica while she was still alive. On March 19, 2005, a team of investigators dug Jessica’s body out of a shallow grave near the trailer house of Couey’s half-sister, Dixon. Jessica had been buried alive, fully clothed, wrapped in two garbage bags made of plastic with her wrists bound and died clutching her purple dolphin. Autopsy revealed that she had died of suffocation and had not attempted to kick open the bags though she had managed to poke two fingers through the plastic bags. Her body bore traces of cocaine though she had not been administered any of it, but the cocaine environment had apparently made its way into her system, which explains to a large extent of her not fighting back when she was buried alive.
Lunsford was crestfallen when the news of his daughter’s murder reached him. His loving daughter, who adored him so much as to call him at his office simply to tell him that she loved him, had been raped and buried alive, and had died clutching the stuffed toy that her beloved dad had won for her. “I hope you rot in hell,” Lunsford said looking into the camera and addressing Couey during an interview with CNN.
Couey’s recorded confession was rejected by the court on the grounds that Couey’s repeated requests for a lawyer were ignored by the investigators violating his constitutional rights and thus rendering the confessional statements inadmissible.
The trial commenced in Miami on February 12, 2007. The DNA from Jessica’s blood, Couey’s semen on his bedroom mattress, Jessica’s fingerprints inside the closet in the trailer proved the prosecution’s case. And on March 7, 2007, Couey was found guilty, and was sentenced to death on August 24, 2007.
In the meanwhile Jessica’s father, Mark Lunsford, successfully lobbied for a new legislation to protect children from sexual predators, and the ‘Jessica Lunsford Act’ – named after Jessica – was passed. The Act imposes tighter restrictions on sex offenders, including wearing electronic tracking devices, and also provides for increased prison sentences for convicted sex offenders in certain cases. Other states also legislated on the same lines and those laws are collectively called “Jessica Laws”.
Before the death sentence could be carried out, Couey died of anal cancer on September 30, 2009.
Originally written for and published in LAWYERS UPDATE as part of Crime File series in June 2013.
15 May 2016