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$25,000 reward for information on missing girl

Braves pitcher offers reward for clues about 9-year-old Jessica

Jessica Marie Lunsford, 9, has been missing since Wednesday night.
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Volunteers join police in search for 9-year-old Florida girl.
Missing Children

(CNN) -- The father of a missing 9-year-old Florida girl made a tearful plea for public help in locating her Saturday, as authorities announced a $25,000 reward for information about her whereabouts.

Atlanta Braves pitcher Mike Hampton and his wife Kautia have offered the reward for any information leading to the location and return of Jessica Marie Lunsford, Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy announced Friday.

The Hamptons are residents of Homosassa, Florida -- a rural town north of Tampa -- where Jessica lives and was last seen Wednesday night.

Meanwhile, "nearly 200" people continue to comb the western Florida area, Dawsy said.

He said investigators are re-interviewing Jessica's friends and re-examining all the leads they have to see if there is "anything we missed."

Her family found that Jessica was missing early Thursday morning. She is 4-feet-10-inches tall, weighs 70 pounds and has light brown hair.

She was last seen when she went to bed wearing a pink nightgown at her Homosassa home, where she lives with her father and grandparents.

Mark Lunsford thanked all those who are helping to search for his daughter, but asked the media to defer to authorities' parameters on where reporters should not go and what they should not report.

Sheriff Dawsy said the search became "an emotional roller coaster" Friday, after officials in nearby Hillsborough County reported finding a female body in Lake Thonotosassa.

"We have confirmed it is not our girl," the sheriff said. "Our hearts go out to whoever this girl's family is."

Dawsy said he had told Jessica's father and grandfather about the discovery, just in case it was the missing girl.

The unidentified body was determined to be older than Lunsford, Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Debbie Carter, said.

He said searchers were exhausted, and he brought them in at dusk. A helicopter equipped with infrared equipment will fly over the area during the night, weather permitting.

Jessica's aunt, Susan Lunsford, said the family still hopes Jessica will be found alive.

Angela Bryant, the girl's estranged mother who lives in Warren County, Ohio, said, "Every night when I close my eyes, I ask God to watch over her, keep her safe."

"She's 9 years old, she's innocent. Nobody should have just come in and taken her like that, but it happens every day. You don't think it's going to happen to you."

"I hope that she's not dead, that somebody hasn't taken her and did things that they wanted to do to her," she added.

Mark Lunsford said Bryant has had very little contact with Jessica over the past eight years, and he was "convinced that no family member has anything to do with this."

Dawsy said the FBI interviewed Bryant Friday.

Pleas for help

Investigators have no concrete evidence that the young girl was abducted.

"It's very frustrating," Dawsy said. "It's a bump above missing, believe me. Missing to me, as you know, somebody just walks out. I do not classify [it as] that because of this young girl's background, we don't have any history.

"I can't say it's an abduction because I don't want to use that word until I have something concrete."

There was no sign of forced entry at the home, the girl's room was extremely clean, the sheriff said. However, he said the front door of the home was unlocked.

A computer from Jessica's home, which she shared with her father and grandparents, is being analyzed by investigators, but Dawsy said they don't believe her disappearance was connected to the Internet.

"We do a child lurist program up here. She just graduated from it and it deals highly with the cyber safety issues," the sheriff said. "We think that that program would have alerted her as to what she was seeing, but it's always a concern."

The sheriff said the only thing missing from the girl's room is a doll, which he would not describe.

"She did not leave with any shoes," the sheriff said. "She was in her nightgown. And that does raise some major concerns for us."

At Friday's news briefing, Mark Lunsford and Jessica's grandparents, Ruth and Archie Lunsford, issued a tearful plea for any information about her whereabouts.

"She's just like any other child, she's innocent and she just needs to be home, like any other child, with her family," her father told reporters.

"I don't care who you are. Drop her off on the corner and call me, I'll come get her. I don't care. She just needs to be home."

Ruth Lunsford said she had put the girl to bed around 10 p.m.

Jessica's father returned home around 6 a.m. Thursday, after spending the night with his girlfriend. "When I opened the door to her room she wasn't there," he said.

Ruth Lunsford said neither she nor her husband heard anything and said Jessica would never go anywhere "without consulting us."

"She just doesn't go off ... she doesn't roam," the grandmother said. "She's very smart, she's very well-mannered, and she's a beautiful child. When God made Jessie, he made an angel."

Homosassa is a rural town of about 2,300 on Florida's Gulf Coast, about 80 miles west of Orlando.

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