Couey Still Person of Interest in Lunsford Case

A sex offender charged with leaving Florida without notifying authorities remains a person of interest in the case of Jessica Lunsford (search), a missing 9-year-old girl, the Citrus County Sheriff's Office said on Friday.

John Evander Couey (search), 46, is "probably the most on our radar right now," the spokeswoman said. She said detectives were in the process of corroborating Couey's statements during questioning.

Couey was charged on Friday with violating his parole in an Augusta, Ga., court, and authorities there would not say if they had determined his role in Lunsford's disappearance.

Richmond County, Ga., Sheriff Ronnie Strength said was "very cooperative" during questioning. He was interrogated by two Citrus County sheriff's detectives and an FBI special agent.

The registered sex offender at one point lived 150 yards from Lunsford's home in Citrus County, Fla. (search).

Couey was charged Friday morning with failing to notify Florida authorities that he was leaving the state. He waived extradition and would be moved to Citrus County, though not on Friday, Strength said.

Couey had left Florida after Lunsford was reported missing, and may have been aware that as a sex offender he was a possible suspect. He arranged for a relative to purchase his bus ticket, and after the Citrus County Sheriff's office named him as a person of interest was tracked down in August, Ga.

Strength said Couey was on his way to Tennessee when he was arrested on Thursday. The sheriff did not say why Couey was headed there, or what he was doing in Augusta.

"We are pretty confident we know his whereabouts while he was here," Strength said. "We have nothing to show he was involved in criminal activity while he was in Augusta."

Lunsford was last seen in her bedroom on Feb. 23.

Couey sometimes lived across the street from Jessica's home about 60 miles north of Tampa. He left Florida on or about March 4 after telling relatives that police would be looking for him.

Couey's extensive criminal history includes an incident in which he broke into a home and kissed a sleeping girl while exposing himself.

Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford, said he had never seen Couey.

"Let's not get our hopes up," he said of Couey's arrest. "We had our hopes up in the beginning and we got let down" earlier in the investigation.

Couey's home in Homosassa is about two miles from Jessica's, but he sometimes stayed with his half sister, about 150 yards from the girl's house, Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy said.

Authorities searched his half sister's home and removed some items that were sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for further investigation, the sheriff said.

Couey's criminal record includes arrests for burglary, carrying a concealed weapon and indecent exposure. 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, Dawsy said. Jessica was last seen in her bedroom, Dawsy has 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.

George Kanaris, 46, owner of Emily's Family Restaurant about a mile from the Lunsford home, said Couey worked there as a dishwasher more than 10 years ago, from about 1992 to 1994.

Kanaris said he fired Couey because he wrote a romantic letter to a bus girl who was 14 or 15.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.