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Father of slain girl to file suit over failed search

  • Story Highlights
  • Mark Lunsford to sue sheriff's department over daughter's search
  • Jessica Lunsford abducted, later found dead
  • John Couey admits keeping Lunsford in closet for days before burying her alive
  • Lunsford's attorneys say authorities searched Couey's yard, not home
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(CNN) -- Mark Lunsford, whose daughter Jessica was abducted, raped and killed by a neighbor in 2005, is planning to sue the Citrus County, Florida, sheriff for failing to search the neighbor's home, Lunsford's attorneys said.

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Jessica Lunsford was kidnapped and killed by a neighbor in February 2005.

The proposed lawsuit, which has not yet been filed, claims that if law enforcement officers had searched the mobile home of John Couey, the registered sex offender convicted of Jessica's rape and murder, instead of just searching the home's yard the night the 9-year-old girl disappeared, she would have been discovered.

Evidence revealed during Couey's trial showed that Jessica was kept alive for as many as four days before being buried alive. Couey was sentenced to death in August for the crimes.

The lawsuit will name Sheriff Jeff Dawsy and his department, the attorneys said.Video Watch Lunsford explain that the suit isn't about money »

Eric Block and Mark Gelman, Lunsford's attorneys, said in a news conference in Jacksonville, Florida, Tuesday that negligence by law enforcement directly or indirectly led to Jessica's death.

"Had the Citrus County sheriff's office done its job, Jessica would be alive," Gelman said.

After a letter of intent to file the lawsuit was sent to the Citrus County sheriff's office last week, Sheriff Jeff Dawsy told reporters Friday that he was "deeply disappointed and actually very surprised."

According to the St. Petersburg Times, Dawsy said the litigation is baseless and that "Jessie was already dead before I hit the street looking for her."

In a news conference, Dawsy said the sheriff's office did everything it could to bring Jessica home alive. He said he disagreed with a statement from Lunsford that the suit was necessary to bring about change, noting that a lawsuit was not needed for the Jessica Lunsford Act, which strengthened monitoring of sexual predators and offenders. Dawsy said the suit is about seeking damages, not change.

Dawsy said that the communications between him and Lunsford were open and cordial until the pre-suit notice, and that he welcomes the opportunity to reopen a dialogue with Lunsford to facilitate change. However, he said the agency would not back down from the lawsuit.

Lunsford said he would drop the lawsuit if the sheriff's department admitted fault and made the necessary changes in its procedures to prevent such a situation from happening again.

Jessica was taken from her bedroom late February 23 or early February 24, 2005.

Couey, a registered sex offender, lived about 100 yards away from her home in Homosassa, Florida, and has admitted that he put her in his closet in the mobile home his sister owned and kept her alive for three to six days before burying her alive, Lunsford's lawyers said.

Lunsford's attorneys said police visited the mobile home several times, including on the first night the child was missing, but searched only the yard and perimeter of the property.

Neighbors told law enforcement officials the mobile home should be checked, the lawyers said, saying they were suspicious something was going on there connected to the case.

The attorneys also charge that if the neighborhood had been informed that Couey was a sex offender when he moved in two weeks before the young girl was abducted, she might have been saved.

Gelman said the sheriff's office also committed a "tragic and horrible error in this case" when detectives made up their mind that Lunsford's father killed Jessica.

"Detectives came to me and said ... the truth is your father knows where your daughter is, we found your daughter's blood on his underpants," Lunsford recounted. "They asked me to go into the interrogation room and ask my father what he did with my daughter."

He said the detectives never admitted later that they had lied to him and never apologized for trying to trick his father into a confession.

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His attorneys said such tactics wasted precious time that investigators could have spent searching for Jessica.

Lunsford has since urged states to adopt stricter laws against child predators and increase prison time for them. He said 34 states have adopted such laws. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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