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'Person of interest' sought in Florida missing girl case

Grandmother's polygraph 'raised red flags'

Jessica Marie Lunsford, 9, was last seen February 23.
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Volunteers join police in search for 9-year-old Florida girl.

(CNN) -- Police in Citrus County, Florida, are looking for a man they are calling a "person of interest" in the case of a missing 9-year-old Homosassa girl, the sheriff's department said Tuesday.

Sheriff Jeff Dawsy told reporters at a news conference that the person is part of Jessica Lunsford's family, social, school or church circles and may have come into contact with her before she disappeared.

The girl was last seen the night of February 23.

Whether this line of investigation will lead anywhere remains to be seen, according to the sheriff.

"I do not know how significant this is until I talk to this individual," he said.

The man has a criminal history, Dawsy said. The sheriff added that he thinks he knows where the man is, but would not identify his location other than to say it is outside of Florida.

He said that he would give investigators 48 hours to find the man before releasing his name to the media.

"I think he knows we want to talk with him," he said.

When asked if the man was among the 20 registered sex offenders in Citrus County, Dawsy replied, "Not in that general area."

Law enforcement agencies in other areas of the country were assisting in the search, he said.

Dawsy said investigators have generated about 3,000 leads, but no others are considered strong.

The man is not a family member, sheriff's department spokeswoman Ronda Hemminger Evan said.

Police also announced that a polygraph test given to the girl's grandmother, Ruth Lunsford, 73, on March 4 included two responses that "raised red flags" for investigators.

Dawsy said that her answers could have been affected by stress and that the FBI interviewed her again on Monday.

"We have totally not been able to rectify any of those answers she gave on why we got this type of response," he said.

Polygraphs given to the girl's father, Mark Lunsford, and her grandfather, Archie Lunsford, 72, by the FBI raised no immediate concerns to investigators.

Dawsy reiterated that his department has never stopped working this case and are on a seven-day-a-week schedule to find her.

A 14-member task force has been assigned to work the case full time. The group is composed of representatives from the sheriff's offices in Citrus and neighboring Hernando counties, along with the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Jessica -- who is 4 feet, 10 inches tall, weighs 70 pounds and has light brown hair -- was last reported wearing a pink nightgown.

Police said she was last seen at 10 p.m. on February 23 by her grandmother, who put her to bed in her home in Homosassa, a community of about 2,300 on the Gulf Coast, about 60 miles north of Tampa.

Mark Lunsford, 41, found her bed empty when he returned home around 6 a.m. Thursday, after spending the night with his girlfriend. She shared the home with her father and paternal grandparents.

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

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

In the days after Lunsford's disappearance, hundreds of volunteers turned out -- sometimes in pouring rain -- to help law enforcement officers search for the girl. They were joined by search dogs and officers on horseback and on off-road vehicles.

On February 28, Lunsford said he was convinced his daughter was abducted, but Evan said the question of whether she ran away or was taken from her home remained open.

Lunsford said, "I know my daughter. She is not much different than anybody else's. If they are in a good home, there is no reason for them to leave."

At a news briefing three days earlier, the girl's father and grandparents issued an emotional plea for any information on her whereabouts.

Ruth Lunsford said then that neither she nor her husband heard anything unusual the night of the disappearance 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."

That same day, Dawsy announced that Atlanta Braves pitcher Mike Hampton and his wife Kautia -- residents of Homosassa -- had offered a $25,000 reward for any information leading to the girl's location and return.

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