Trigger warning: child abuse, sexual assault
Imagine you grew up in a small town in the middle of Florida where everyone knew everyone and the thought of any big crime happening there was a scandal.
A scandal of epic proportions is exactly what happened in February of 2005.
I grew up in a tiny town named Inverness, Florida in Citrus County, home to amazing fishing spots, the start of the Withlacoochee Trail, and the cooter turtle.
Citrus County is also home to one of the most horrific murders in Florida history.
As a junior in high school, the news about a missing five-year-old girl by the name of Jessica Lunsford from Homosassa, another town in the county, hit the news. Missing children in the county are often found the next day or so, unharmed. After three weeks, however, the situation became dire.
Nothing like this had ever happened in Citrus County that I could recall. Crime was petty stuff like drug use and low level theft. It seemed like a different world that the police were considering abduction. That just didn’t happen in Citrus County. Hell, any crime that occurred, most people wanted to pretend it didn’t happen to secure the image of a perfect place to live.
This was too big to pretend anymore.
My brother lived nearby and recalled several searches with police dogs combing the area thoroughly and not one lead came about.
That was until three weeks later, when a man by the name of John Couey was arrested in Savannah, Georgia for drug possession, though he was released due to the warrant being local.
You may be wondering, “Why is this relevant?” Turns out Couey not only lived 64 yards from the Lunsfords but was also a registered sex offender and he moved without informing the proper authorities of it, which is a violation, and when you are in violation of such things, the county that the charge was placed in gets notified. Once was brought to light, the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office contacted Georgia state police, had Couey arrested a second time, and again released.
Now John Couey was on their radar and investigators started to deep dive into his past.
That’s when his entire arrest record was brought into questioning. Not only did it list his drug charges and the case that gave him the permanent label of “sex offender,” he had MULTIPLE accounts of burglary, drug charges, trespassing, and sexual offenses against children.
Yes, you read that right friends: John Couey had multiple sexual offenses against children but was allowed to live around them. According to the laws, he had short sentences that didn’t require monitoring after release.
Seems like a certain court system needs to be held accountable, don’tcha think?
At least now they had a suspect. Officers then searched his home in Homosassa, which he shared with his sister Dorothy Dixon, her boyfriend, her daughter and son-in-law, and baby grandson. And let me let you in on something—this was a trailer, so it wasn’t very big.
In Couey’s room, the officers found a blood-stained mattress and pillows in the closet and were determined to have both his and Jessica’s DNA on it.
On March 17th, three days after his previous arrest, Couey was arrested and charged with the murder of Jessica Lunsford and transported back to Florida.
When he arrived back in Citrus County, he confessed to the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Lunsford. He even led police to the location of her body.
According to the confession, Couey only intended to rob the home but saw Jessica. He “acted on impulse” and kidnapped her, telling her, “Don’t yell or nothing.” He admitted to taking her to his room, raping her, keeping her in his bed, and raping her the next day. She was to remain in the closet the entire day, which she did while Couey reported to work.
This routine went on for three days. Then he told Jessica to step into two plastic garbage bags, which she did, as he promised to take her home.
Instead, he did something much more horrific—he buried her alive underneath the stairs of his trailer, which is where the police found her. There were two holes poked out of the trash bags where she tried to escape but suffocated to death from the dirt. Even the coroner said that the “death would have happened even in the best circumstances within 2-3 minutes from lack of oxygen.”
Despite Couey admitting to the crime in detail, his confession was ruled inadmissible because the police hadn’t granted his request for a lawyer. The evidence, however, was allowed to be used against him. Thank goodness for small favors.
He was sentenced to death despite his defense attorney’s best argument that he was not competent for the death penalty. Before he could be strapped to the chair, John Couey died of natural causes in 2009.
The only good thing about this was a new law called “Jessica’s Law” that requires tighter restrictions on sex offenders. The fact a child had to die in order for this law to be passed says wonders.
Personally, I believe that if the authorities were watching over John Couey properly, Jessica Lunsford would still be alive today. In no way, shape, or form, should that man have ever been around children with a rap sheet like that. There has also been speculation that when the police first searched the house of John Couey, Jessica Lunsford was still alive. This has never been concrete though and will never be proven.
R.I.P. Jessica Lunsford.