Sheriff: Suspected Child Killer in 'Drug Haze'

A registered sex offender entered Jessica Lunsford's (search) house through an unlocked door, snatched the 9-year-old girl from her bed and later sexually assaulted her, the Citrus County sheriff said Sunday.

Medical examiners confirmed the sexual assault, sheriff Jeff Dawsy said. But because the suspect was in a "drug haze" during the abduction, detectives might never know how long she was held before she was murdered, he said.

Dawsy released the new details the same day the man who reportedly confessed to the kidnapping and slaying returned to Florida.

John Evander Couey (search), 46, was booked early Sunday on a probation violation and failure to register as a sex offender, according to officials. He has not yet been charged with Jessica's death.

"I hope he's looking at me and I hope he hears me real clear. ... He needs to stand up and be a man now and take his death penalty," said Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford (search). "Just go away now and rot in hell."

Couey held Jessica at his half-sister's mobile home, just 150 yards from the girl's home, and her body was later unearthed near the mobile home, officials said.

Couey confessed to kidnapping and killing Jessica after taking a lie-detector test Friday in Georgia, officials said. He was returned to Florida in an unmarked sheriff's vehicle, wearing a bulletproof vest and under the cloak of darkness — for security reasons — and was booked at 2:20 a.m.

Couey appeared in a courtroom at the Citrus County Detention Center 61/2 hours later, wearing an orange jumpsuit and shackles, and was told that a public defender would be assigned to his case.

The confirmation of Jessica's death devastated this small community 60 miles north of Tampa. Since then, there has been an outpouring of support to the Lunsfords and a search for answers how this could happen.

"Lord, we don't always understand your ways," the Rev. William LaVerle Coats told 175 grieving people during Sunday's services at Faith Baptist Church, where many people saw the girl for the last time on the night she disappeared. "We accept what has taken place here, and ask that you would give us some peace."

Coats asked the churchgoers to forgive Couey. But at the memorial and with Lunsford, local businessman Joseph Dawson circulated a petition calling for harsh penalties on sexual predators. The petition calls for predators to face 50-year mandatory sentences and the indefinite wearing of electronic monitoring bracelets.

"It's time for us not to get angry. It's time for us to do something," said Dawson, a jeweler.

Down the street from the Lunsford home and the church, well-wishers piled dozens of stuffed animals, flowers and candles high in Jessica's memory.

"God's newest little angel," one sign read.

Couey was being held in isolation at the jail for his safety, jail spokeswoman Julia Swart said.

He 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.

Jessica, a third grader, was last seen in February 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.

Couey's half-sister and two others who lived in the mobile home were charged with obstructing police for failing to notify authorities when Couey allegedly told them he had committed a crime.

Mark Lunsford said Couey's lengthy rap sheet should have been enough to keep the man he called "scum" incarcerated.

"What in the hell is this man doing out?" Lunsford asked. "Why is he still able to be out here and hurt people?"

Lunsford said he asked sheriff's officials not to tell him any details of his daughter's death until they piece together the complete story. He only wants to hear it once, he said.

"She's home," he said, "and no one will ever hurt her again."