Officials suspend the search for missing Homosassa girl


Published: Tuesday, March 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 28, 2005 at 9:26 p.m.

HOMOSASSA - With the full-scale search for a missing 9-year-old girl suspended after five fruitless days, her father made a desperate plea Monday for anyone who knows of her whereabouts to "please bring her home."

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Mark Lunsford, left, father of missing 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, and Jessica's grandmother Ruth Lunsford, speak to the media during a news conference Monday afternoon Feb. 28, 2005 in Homosassa, Fla. Jessica has been missing since last Wednesday.

AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

"Just drop her off. I'll come get her," Mark Lunsford said as tears filled his fatigued eyes. "I know whoever has got Jessie, they have to have a heart."

Asked if he had a message for his daughter, he said, "Pray . . . we'll get you home."

Jessica Marie Lunsford hasn't been seen since her grandmother tucked her into bed Wednesday night; the father discovered she was missing early Thursday, with all her shoes still in her closet and her clothes still neatly laid out for school.

Police were joined by 540 volunteers who braved fog, torrential rain and even a tornado watch to scour thick forests and marshlands in a five-mile circle around the girl's house.

But late Monday afternoon, Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy told reporters he has suspended the full-scale search, and he expressed frustration it uncovered little evidence. He said nothing suspicious was found on the family's computer and Lunsford and his father, Archie Lunsford, had passed FBI tests that measure changes in voice stress levels as a way of verifying whether a person is telling the truth.

Mark Lunsford, Dawsy added, also passed an FBI polygraph test."None of his answers to questions set any alarms off."

Time has proven to be the greatest enemy in missing children cases. Statistics show that 44 percent of children are found slain within an hour of being discovered missing, with the figure jumping to 74 percent within three hours and 99 percent within seven days, said Al Danna, crimes against children program coordinator for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Before speaking with reporters, Lunsford placed a purple sign in his yard with the words "Bring Jessica Home" written over the image of a yellow ribbon.

"We all need to pray together, just as much as you can, everybody," Lunsford said, adding he's still convinced his daughter did not leave home voluntarily.

"She just didn't go with strangers," Lunsford said.

Dawsy has said a door at the home was unlocked and one of Jessie's dolls - which Lunsford described as a stuffed purple dolphin - was gone from the house she shared with her father and his parents.

The sheriff said the girl's disappearance is not a confirmed abduction, and he hasn't ruled anything out. Deputies were even taking in tips from psychics.

"We're all trying to find that little piece to the puzzle," said Dawsy, who said 20 experts were arriving from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to help crack the case.

Despite the bad weather, searchers turned out for five straight days to comb the rural county for any hints of where Jessie might be. Fanning out on foot, horseback and all-terrain vehicles, they searched residential areas, the shoulders of a four-lane highway about a half-mile from the girl's house and the 3,000-acre Withlacoochee State Forest about four miles away.

Atlanta Braves pitcher Mike Hampton, who grew up in Homosassa, and his wife, Katia, put up a $25,000 reward for Jessie's return.

"It's been overwhelming," Lunsford said. "I can't thank everybody enough."

The third-grader's disappearance has shocked her community of 2,300 people and its reputation as a safe place about 60 miles north of Tampa.

According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's most recent statistics, Citrus County's violent crime rate is ranked 55 of 67 and second-lowest among counties with at least 125,000 residents.

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