HOMOSASSA, Fla. – A "person of interest" who was apparently acquainted with missing 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford (search) but is now located outside Florida is being sought for questioning, the sheriff leading the investigation said Tuesday.
Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy (search) said the man has ties to the local area, has a criminal record and was acquainted with Jessica from either "family, social, school, church" circles. Dawsy said the man has been gone from Citrus County (search) for about two weeks, but he would not reveal his current location.
"We believe he's in a specific region," Dawsy said. "I need to find this individual."
The man being sought is aware that investigators want to interview him, the sheriff added. If the interview does not occur within 48 hours, Dawsy said the man's name will be released publicly.
Although Dawsy stopped short of calling the man a suspect, the disclosure marked the first time investigators have provided public details of any progress in the case since Jessica disappeared from her bedroom on Feb. 23. He said authorities have been tracking down some 3,000 leads.
"This particularly lead led us to believe there was some true credence and that we needed to go out and start looking for this individual," Dawsy told reporters.
A statement issued earlier Tuesday by the sheriff said that "red flags" were raised in an FBI polygraph test given March 4 to the girl's grandmother, Ruth Lunsford, regarding two of her responses. But investigators were unable to determine what, if anything, she might know about Jessica's disappearance, the sheriff said.
"I'm not sure it wasn't stress-induced," Dawsy said. "We have totally not been able to rectify one of the answers she gave or why we got this type of response."
He declined to elaborate.
Reached Tuesday by telephone at the family's home, Ruth Lunsford, 73, said investigators have told the family nothing.
"I have no idea what they are talking about. I'm sorry, I'm under a lot of stress," she said.
No concerns were raised in polygraph tests given to the girl's father, 41-year-old Mark Lunsford, and grandfather, 72-year-old Archie Lunsford, Dawsy said.
Jessica hasn't been seen since Feb. 23, after her grandmother she says she tucked her into bed at the family's home, about 60 miles north of Tampa. Her father had slept at his girlfriend's house that night and discovered the girl missing when he returned home about 6 a.m. Dawsy has said that his story checked out.
An intense sweep using search dogs and hundreds of volunteers ended after five days with no important evidence found.
A 14-member task force is investigating the case, which includes the FBI, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Hernando County and Citrus County sheriff's office. The National Center on Missing and Exploited Children has also provided expertise in helping crack the case.
The reward for Jessie's safe return and information of her whereabouts had grown to $115,000. Atlanta Braves pitcher Mike Hampton, who grew up in Homosassa, donated $25,000.