The news this small community always feared finally came Saturday: Police had found the body of 9-year-old Jessica Marie Lunsford (search), more than three weeks after she disappeared from her bedroom.
Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy (search) said Jessica's body was found during an overnight search near a mobile home close to the house where she lived with her father and grandparents. A registered sex offender confessed Friday to the kidnapping and killing and told authorities where to look for the missing girl.
Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford (search), visited the search scene shortly after sunrise. Later, he slowly walked up to a throng of reporters and cameras.
"Everyone heard me say, time after time, that she would be home," Lunsford said, his eyes hidden behind dark black sunglasses. "She's home now."
Jessica's safe return had become a preoccupation in this rural town of about 2,500 people, hundreds of whom had volunteered to scour the county in search of her. Word of the body's discovery spread as the sun rose, and at the end of her street well-wishers began building a makeshift memorial of candles, flowers and teddy bears.
"The last three weeks it's been hard to sleep, hard to eat," said Kim Bidlack, who taught the youth church class Jessica attended before vanishing Feb. 23. "It's so hard to explain how this makes you feel. We're so heartbroken over Jessie, but then you have so much bitterness to the person who would do this."
John Evander Couey, 46, confessed to kidnapping and killing Jessica after taking a lie-detector test Friday in Georgia, Dawsy said.
At the time of the abduction, he was living about 150 yards away in a mobile home he shared with his half-sister and three others.
"We're en route to bring him back home," said Dawsy, who added that he wants Couey to face the death penalty. "This guy is not a quality person, by any means ... He's truly a piece of trash."
The four people who lived with Couey were also charged, three of them with obstructing police for failing to notify police when Couey allegedly told them he had committed a crime. The fourth, the sheriff said, was picked up for questioning in the case but was charged only with failure to pay child support in an unrelated matter.
Dawsy called the four "a bunch of druggies" and said he would urge prosecutors not to allow them to plea-bargain for reduced sentences.
The three charged with obstructing police were Dorothy Dixon, 47, who is Couey's half-sister; Madie Secord, 27; and Matthew Dittrich, 31. The man charged with failure to pay child support is Gene Secord, 35.
The body was found near the trailer home, but Dawsy refused to give details of where it was discovered or how Jessica was killed.
While crews worked through the night, bright search lights were erected around the perimeter, and several candles left from a late-night vigil burned nearby.
A stream of official vehicles came and went throughout the pre-dawn hours, and a state mobile forensics unit left the scene about 3:30 a.m. — about the time Jessica's body was found and taken to nearby Leesburg for examination.
Mark Lunsford has said the family did not know Couey, who was arrested Thursday.
"He may have interacted with Jessica," Dawsy said. "But there is no relationship between Couey and this family."
At a news conference late Friday from Ohio, the girl's mother, Angela Bryant, repeatedly made the same vow: Couey, she said, "will pay."
"This man's hurt too many people," she said through tears. "He's hurt too many children. And one of them is my daughter. He took her life from her and she didn't deserve it. He will pay."
Jessica, a third grader, was last seen when she went to bed after attending church. She was discovered missing the next morning, with the door unlocked and her stuffed animal gone. The clothes she had laid out for school were still in place, and her shoes weren't missing.
Hundreds of police and volunteers, with help from bloodhounds and helicopters, searched the area about 60 miles north of Tampa for days following her disappearance. Jessica's family made emotional appeals on national television for her safe return.
Detectives grew interested in Couey while interviewing all registered sex offenders in the area. They tried to contact Couey at his home in Homosassa five days after Jessica disappeared and discovered he no longer lived there.
When investigators followed up with the half-sister, she denied that Couey had lived with her. But another relative confided to a detective that Couey sometimes stayed at the home.
Authorities said Couey left Florida on or about March 4. He was arrested in Augusta, Ga., on a probation violation for failing to notify officials that he was moving, a requirement for sex offenders.
Couey has an extensive criminal record that includes 24 burglary arrests, 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, Couey was accused of grabbing a girl in her bedroom, placing his hand over her mouth and kissing her, Dawsy said. Couey was sentenced to 10 years in prison but was paroled in 1980.