Gaston & Catawba

Father channels grief into action for young victims

As Gov. Mike Easley signed a new law toughening sex-offender punishments last week in Gastonia, Mark Lunsford watched amid a flood of memories.

The Jessica Lunsford Act was inspired by the 2005 rape and murder of Mark Lunsford's daughter. Nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford lived in Gaston County most of her life before moving to Florida, where she was killed.

Mark Lunsford remembered his shy but popular little girl who attended Carr Elementary School in Dallas.

But he also can't forget how she was kidnapped by a convicted sex offender, someone police concluded had raped her and buried her alive.

Ever since, Mark Lunsford, a former truck driver, has been a tireless crusader for tougher sex-offender laws nationwide.

After the discovery of Jessica's body, Mark Lunsford said he tried to return to truck driving.

But he found himself on the roadside, crying and unable to remember where he was or where he was going.

Then, Lunsford said, he began getting phone calls from legislators asking him to testify in issues involving sex offenders.

“They said I had the power to make a difference and to use it,” Lunsford said.

“My life changed completely. I didn't see anything the same. I wasn't the same person.”

He is pleased the Jessica Lunsford Act is now on the books in North Carolina, but said his fight will continue around the country.

“It's doesn't end with Jessica's law,” said Mark Lunsford, 45, who lives in Homosassa, Fla. “That doesn't solve the problem. I've got a lot of work to do.”

Next step: Federal law

The bill that Easley signed on Monday imposes stricter penalties on sex offenders, making the minimum prison sentence 25 years for adults who commit certain sex crimes, including rape, against those younger than 13.

The law also requires that offenders have lifetime GPS monitoring. Lunsford is also pushing for tracking devices in all 50 states and is lobbying for a federal law that will give funding for tougher laws.

Lunsford started the Jessica Marie Lunsford Foundation to change legislation, stimulate grassroots awareness on sex offenders and help law enforcement find them.

Easley praised Lunsford's efforts during last week's signing ceremony at the Gastonia City Hall.

Looking back over his involvement, Lunsford said “I didn't plan to start this…..I had no idea I'd be doing it.”

A native of Dayton, Ohio, Lunsford got out of the Army in 1984 and came to Gastonia where his parents had moved two years earlier. He followed in his father's footsteps and became a truck driver.

Twice married and divorced, he had four children. In 2004, he moved to Homosassa, Fla. where his parents had relocated.

“We're a very tight-knit family,” Lunsford said. “She (Jessica) was missing her grandmother.”

For a while, things went well in Florida.

“Jessica was one of those kids, everybody loved her to death,” Lunsford recalled.

One Sunday in February 2005, Lunsford and his daughter went to the Florida State Fair in Tampa.

“She had a blast,” Lunsford said. “We stayed until midnight. She got a pink hat and a purple (stuffed) dolphin.”

The following Wednesday, Jessica was kidnapped from her grandparents' home.

Three weeks later, searchers found her body buried in a shallow grave in a neighbor's backyard, about 150 yards from her home.

“I was there when they pulled her out of the ground,” Lunsford said.

In the grave was the stuffed dolphin she'd gotten at the state fair.

John Couey, a convicted sex offender, was sentenced to death for Jessica Lunsford's murder.

Wide-ranging role

Lunsford became a lobbyist and advocate for tougher laws against sex offenders. He also works with child advocacy groups helping prosecutors build cases against offenders. And he's involved in fundraising for the groups.

Mark Palmer, director of Jessica's Law Now North Carolina, said the coalition group that supported the bill signed by Easley will remain intact and support Lunsford's continued efforts.

One focus will be pushing to make it mandatory for courts to assign a clinical psychologist to not only help children who are victims of sex crimes, but their family members as well.

Lunsford plans to stay on the road, retelling his daughter's story and fighting for the protection of children everywhere.

“I'm the pedophile's worst nightmare,” he said.