Jessica Lunsford
Jessica Lunsford

BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – John Evander Couey was a career criminal, arrested 24 times in a 30-year period for everything from burglary, carrying a concealed weapon, disorderly intoxication and driving under the influence, to indecent exposure, disorderly conduct, fraud, insufficient funds and larceny. The 46-year-old spent time in prison and had his driver’s license suspended for 99 years, but as his drug addiction to crack cocaine became more severe, Couey’s crime spree escalated into sexually assaulting two young children.

As a twice convicted sex offender, Couey was required to register his home address, but he went into hiding, moving into a trailer camp in Homosassa, Florida, just down the block from where 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford lived with her father, Mark Lunsford, and her grandparents.

At 3 a.m. on February 24, 2005, Couey broke into the Lunsfords’ home, kidnapped Jessica and took her to the trailer he shared with his half sister. Over the next three days as police, as Jessica’s family and volunteers searched for her, Couey raped her repeatedly, fed her nothing and forced her to remain in a closet – the same closet he made her use as a bathroom. Police stepped up their search, and even looked in Couey’s trailer, but they missed the closet where Jessica was locked up. Afraid he’d be caught and returned to prison, Couey bound Jessica’s wrists, placed her in garbage bags, and buried her alive.

The horror Jessica experienced at the hands of a repeat sex offender changed many lives – and legislation. Lawmakers in 44 states were inspired to pass “Jessica’s Law” also known as the “Jessica Lunsford Act” – a variety of measures that stepped up penalties against sex offenders targeting children.

There are 6 states without a version of Jessica’s Law: Idaho, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Colorado and Hawaii. This year in New Jersey, Colorado and Hawaii, legislators introduced Jessica’s Law to mandate a 25-year minimum for first time sex offenders, impose stricter monitoring and require sex offenders to register their whereabouts.

On Wednesday, February 12, Colorado representatives will hear HB 13-1149 also known as Jessica’s Law, which was introduced by Rep. Libby Szabo. The representative was motivated to introduce the legislation after 10-year-old Jessica Ridgeway, a resident of her district, was kidnapped, assaulted, murdered and dismembered in October.

Mark Lunsford, Jessica’s father, and Stacie Rumenap from the non-profit Stop Child Predators, plan to testify at the Colorado hearing.

The Girl Who Inspired Others Through Her Tragedy

Jessica Lunsford

Mark Lunsford was awarded custody of Jessica when she was 1 years old. She was a loving child and excellent student who loved to sing, play with her dolls and stuffed animals, attend church events, and ride with her dad on his motorcycle.

Like many children, Jessica was unsure what she wanted to be when she grew up, but she was interested in becoming a singer or a fashion designer.

Two hours after the third grader was abducted from her bed, her father heard her alarm clock and went into her room to check on her.

Jessica was afraid of the dark and slept with a flashlight, a nightlight and her stuffed tiger, but when her father went in to see her, she was gone. Everything but a stuffed purple dolphin that he won her at a carnival was left behind.

Couey was not brought in for questioning until three weeks later, and during a lie detector test, he admitted to snatching, assaulting and killing the child and told police where to find Jessica’s body.

Jessica was found buried under two feet of dirt and leaves still enclosed in the garbage bags. She was clutching her stuffed purple dolphin, and had managed to pry two holes in the bag letting just two of her tiny fingers out of the plastic wrapping. She died of suffocation, the medical examiner said, alone in the dark.

‘I Already Knew She Was Dead’

“I already knew she was dead,” Mark Lunsford told Hawaii Reporter in an exclusive interview about the day police found his daughter. “I was standing in the front yard, when two police cars went racing to that house, sirens blazing. They put the entire lot off limits and I knew that is where my daughter was. About an hour or so later, they came to my house,”

Mark Lunsford said he was furious with law enforcement officials because of the way they handled the case. “Couey was as a sex offender who was not living where he was supposed to be and the police knew that and let him stay there. Two weeks later he murdered my daughter. They even went to his house three different times, including when my daughter was being held there,” Lunsford said.

Couey tried to recant his confession and was subsequently put on trial and convicted of First-degree murder, kidnapping, sexual battery of a child under 12 years old and burglary. He was sentenced to death, but died in prison of “natural causes” – anal cancer.

Shortly after Jessica’s murder, Mark Lunsford was contacted by Florida Representatives Charlie Dean and Nancy Argenziano, and with the help of Gov. Jeb Bush, they passed the Jessica Lunsford Act. The law substantially increased prison sentences for convicted sex offenders and mandated electronic monitoring and the use and upkeep of state sex offender databases.

“Jessica was just like your daughter or granddaughter, the little girl you love so much. You have no idea how empty and worthless you would feel if you had to be without her because she was murdered,” Mark Lunsford said. “I told lawmakers, ‘If you could have stopped what happened to her, wouldn’t that be the thing to do?’”

Putting the ‘Worst of the Worst Away’

John Couey

Mark Lunsford said sexual predators target children from “all walks of life,” but Jessica’s Law can stop them. “Jessie’s Law can stop repeat offenders – the ones who never go away – we can put those guys away. We are talking about putting the worst of the worst away,” Mark Lunsford said.

Though she did not know the Lunsford family, Stacie Rumenap was so impacted by Jessica’s murder that she started her own group – Stop Child Predators – and spent every year since lobbying lawmakers across the country for tougher laws against child predators. Together, Rumenap and Mark Lunsford were able to get Jessica’s Law passed in 44 states.

“That story is what motivated us because it showed how the system failed the Lunsford family,” Rumenap said. “John Couey was twice convicted, and twice released for sex offenses. He was not living where he was registered. He lived across the street from Jessica, working in Jessica’s elementary school. He was on a monitor device for 9 months, but when it was taken off, he was free and able to commit the crime again just after the device was removed. His crimes escalated. During a burglary, he attacked a child. The second time, he assaulted a child. The third time, he assaulted and murdered a child. And he didn’t just murder her, he buried her alive after having kept her for several days and raping her repeatedly. She was 9 years old. He should have never been released from jail.”

Penalty enhancement was the missing piece, Rumenap said. “There were no tough penalties, there was a revolving door, high recidivism rates, and Jessica was his third victim. We decided to go state by state until we could get something done. The Jessica Lunsford story should not happen again.”

Their legislation took a three-pronged approach: Penalty enhancements; Integrated nationwide sex offender registry; and Victims’ representation and notification.

Setting Sights on the Final Six States

Rumenap and Mark Lunsford are optimistic they could win over three new states this year of the six with no Jessica’s Law.

New Jersey has bills in the House and Senate. Hawaii has a bill in the Senate and Colorado in the House.

Stacie Rumenap, President of Stop Child Predators

“When you look at the country as a whole, child safety cannot be dealt with in only one state. We live in a mobile society,” said Rumenap. “It is frustrating for parents when they live in one state, they move, and the laws are different, or from a perpetrator’s standpoint, they are very savvy criminals, they know the laws in each state. Just because your child lives in Hawaii, your child should not be any less protected than the child living in Alaska.”

“The sacrifices have to stop,” Mark Lunsford said. “We don’t have bills that will put child predators away, so judges and prosecutors let them walk. Let’s not put it off any longer, too many children being sexually abused by someone who has committed this crime before.”

Sen. Sam Slom introduced Jessica’s Law in the Hawaii Senate and hopes the Senate Judiciary and Labor committee will hear the bill in the next couple of weeks.

SB 799 and SB 1223 require electronic monitoring for those who sexually assault of a minor and it establishes mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years for felony sexual assault of a minor.

“It is unacceptable that Hawaii, whose lawmakers are always talking about doing things ‘for the Keiki’ have long neglected basic protection of our children against sexual predators,” Slom said.

“Some think even a 25 year minimum sentence is too lenient but it is better than Hawaii’s current 2 year sentence. Nationally, several organizations have taken note of our indefensible position. Even though it is late, now must be the year we act and tell the monsters who prey on our children we will stop you.”

Senators Gilbert Keith-Agaran, Michelle Kidani, Clarence Nishihara, Brian Taniguchi, Glenn Wakai and Senate President Donna Mercado Kim, signed on as co-introducers of the legislation. The Honolulu city prosecutor’s office will be supporting similar legislation, according to spokesperson Dave Koga.

Rumenap said it is essential that Hawaii lawmakers act. “We cannot just sit by and let this keep happening to kids. I would encourage lawmakers to pass the bill before it happens in Hawaii, should not have to wait for a story to become national news in order for lawmakers to act.”