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Community Pays Tribute to Jessica Lunsford

Recalling a vibrant life cut short while also praying for a safer future, 1,000 relatives, neighbors and friends remembered a 9-year-old girl Saturday whose abduction and slaying devastated her community.

Jessica Marie Lunsford (search) vanished a month ago from the Homosassa home she shared with her father and grandparents. The third-grader's body was found March 19 and a part-time neighbor was arrested.

"I always said she would come home," wept Mark Lunsford (search), Jessica's father. "And she did."

A private funeral for Jessica was held Friday.

The memorial at Seven Rivers Presbyterian Church (search) featured a photo montage of Jessica's life: an infant embraced by her parents, a toddler on a playground swing, a child posing behind the steering wheel of a car.

The final shot showed a broadly smiling Jessica wearing a fuzzy, pink bucket hat — the photo seen on the fliers posted across Citrus County after her disappearance.

"I was told by (grandmother) Ruthie, 'That's the picture we want, right there. That's what we'll remember Jessie by,"' Sheriff Jeff Dawsy said.

More than a week has passed since Dawsy announced that convicted sex offender John E. Couey, 46, confessed to kidnapping and killing Jessica. She had last been seen the night of Feb. 23 when her grandmother tucked her into bed after attending church, and was discovered missing the next morning.

Jessica's body was found near a mobile home where Couey had been staying at the time of her abduction. Medical examiners said Jessica was sexually assaulted and died of asphyxiation.

In a sad twist, Jessica had been buried across the street from her home, barely 100 yards from where Dawsy had set up his command center for the search. He revealed the experience had left him shattered and questioning everything he believed was right.

"I'm so sorry I didn't bring her back home to you alive," an emotional Dawsy told Jessica's family.

Mark Lunsford replied there was nothing for which the sheriff had to apologize.

Both Lunsford and Dawsy again called for toughening the state's laws against sexual offenders. Couey is a repeat felon previously convicted of a sex crime against a minor, and had once claimed helplessness in controlling his urges.

"I've led a simple life: I've worked and I've raised kids," Lunsford said. "And someone has taken this away from me.

"We need to make a lot of changes."

Added Dawsy: "You and I should have more rights than the bad people do."

Couey is being held without bail on charges of capital murder, battery, kidnapping and sexual battery on a child under 12.

Lunsford has repeatedly said he wants prosecutors to seek the death penalty. Dawsy has said he planned to ask the State Attorney's Office to pursue that sentence as well.

The Rev. William LaVerle Coats, the Lunsfords' pastor at Faith Baptist Church, offered hope that a greater good could come from an evil act.

"I believe our community has become more closely knit," Coats said. "Citrus County is probably going to be the safest county in the state of Florida in which to live."

Faith Baptist, a mile from Jessica's home, is where hundreds of people turned out to take part in the search held the days after her she vanished.

The volunteers' effort was one of many ways Jessica's community came together after her disappearance. Within days, fliers bearing her smiling face were posted across the county and businesses' marquees spelled out words of support and hope.

Those message boards now ask for prayers in the name of Jessica and her family.

After the service, the principal of Jessica's school gave thanks for the opportunity to mourn after a month of anxious uncertainty.

"My staff hasn't been together to grieve until today," said Regina Allegretta, of Homosassa Elementary. "We've consoled each other, but we need to do that as a school community."

When school resumes from Spring Break on Tuesday, crisis counselors will be on hand to assist students and teachers.

"My hopes are that parents have had time to talk with their children, to bring them comfort," Allegretta said. "You have to rebuild all that innocence that was lost, to bring them back to feel comfortable."