Reporter's notebook: How Couey changed my life

It's not often these days a reporter covers a story from beginning to end.

Perhaps in the case of Jessica Lunsford – the 9-year-old girl abducted, raped and buried alive - there is no end. At least not for the family. But with Wednesday's death of Jessica's convicted killer, John Couey, there is some finality. It's made me think about the roller coaster emotions involved in covering this case and how it's changed me as a person.

Jessica lived in a mobile home with her dad and grandparents in a rural Homosassa neighborhood.

I remember my first days out in Citrus County in February 2005 as I witnessed an entire community search for this adorable girl who vanished overnight from her bedroom. Missing was her purple dolphin stuffed animal, recently won at the Florida State Fair by her father. As time passed, and the search continued, the stress showed on the family members, who were suspects themselves.

When Sheriff Jeff Dawsy announced a new suspect, an unregistered sex offender who lived in a trailer down the street, we all started to have a bad feeling.

In the end, they caught Couey in Georgia. He confessed: some of it truth, some of it lies. But he told detectives where he buried Jessica's body, right outside his trailer. When it became public, some reporters were so upset to learn they had actually walked over the area where she was buried for all this time. For three weeks. Where cadaver dogs and deputies searched. One of our News Channel 8 reporters nearly broke down on the air talking about it.

Later, we would learn more gruesome details: She had been raped, her hands were bound, she clutched the stuffed purple dolphin as she was buried alive in trash bags.

When the national media swarmed on the Lunsfords - a quiet, religious family - they were broken and bewildered but stood strong. Mark Lunsford was a single dad who shared his unbearable heartache with the world as he cruised through the county on his motorcycle. Mark never failed to tell it like it was, and that's when we started to see a strength in him, a strength he would eventually use to change laws in order to prevent this from happening to other children.

Mark's resolve only grew, as twists and turns complicated Couey's legal drama. A judge tossed his lengthy confession because detectives never responded to Couey's repeated requests for a lawyer.

The first trial attempted in Lake County failed when everyone realized it was hopeless to find an impartial jury so close to Citrus County. So two years after Jessica's murder, the month-long trial started in Miami. News Channel 8 and the Tampa Tribune each rented condos. News Channel 8's condo happened to be in the same complex shared by prosecutors and defense attorneys. This made for some interesting encounters.

One day my Jeep wouldn't start and one of Couey's attorneys pitied me and let me hang out in his condo while I waited for my tow. (Imagine me trying to spark up casual conversation.) Living in the WFLA condo with two male photojournalists was like a warped version of "Three's Company."

What I recall most from the trial was the judge attempting to communicate in Spanglish with potential jurors (which was very entertaining); John Couey drawing pictures with colored pencils (perhaps an effort to appear mentally retarded, something his attorneys tried to later prove); and Mark Lunsford intensely staring at Couey as if he were trying to light him on fire with his eyes.

It was also the first and only time I ever became visibly emotional during a live report. After viewing autopsy photos of Jessica holding the purple stuffed dolphin, I broke a little talking about it on the air.

I like to think I am a tough bird.

Apparently, I am human after all.

When the trial was over, many of the reporters covering the case ran into the detectives and prosecutors out celebrating in Coral Gables. Not usually two groups to mix - we did that night - and it was a delightful evening.

Outside of a quickly dropped lawsuit Mark Lunsford filed against the Citrus County Sheriff's Office and a few letters Couey wrote from prison, we hadn't heard much about this case until Wednesday, when Couey died of cancer. When Lunsford called me to tell me the news, I asked him how he felt about it.

"Don't be a reporter right now, Sam," he said to me. "Be a person."

I told him I knew he was upset, but I had a job to do.

But something struck me, as it did later that evening standing quietly in his daughter's room - which remains almost exactly as it was since the day she disappeared. Sometimes certain powerful stories break personal barriers - the barriers that protect feelings.

This story always made me question so much - about how something so horrendous could happen to an innocent, joyful girl, in the final moments of her life. I wasn't able to understand it then, and to be honest, I never will. But I did have the honor of meeting and knowing the Lunsford family, the attorneys, the investigators, the sheriff, and some wonderful people in Citrus County.

And that made me more of a person.

The person Mark Lunsford was looking for when he called to tell me his daughter's murderer was dead.

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