Father shares heartbreak of losing child, mission to save others

SPRING HILL, Fla. - Mark Lunsford is truly inspiring. He's had the worst thing any parent could ever imagine happen to him, but he's not going to let it bring him down. Instead, he's become one of the biggest advocates for better laws to protect children.

"There's only one thing I don't have about Jessie, and that's what I miss the most. Everything else I still have. The only thing I can't do is touch her. I can't put my hand on the side of her face," said Lunsford. "She was that, the best little girl in the world that every father has."

Lunsford's daughter Jessica was nine years old when she was killed in February 2005, leaving him in a world of darkness.

 "I think about her every day," he said.

Eight years after a a sex offender kidnapped Jessica from her bedroom in the middle of the night, held her captive for days, raped her and then killed her, Lunsford is still searching for answers.

The man behind the heinous and horrendous crime, John Couey, was sentenced to death, but he died of natural causes before he could be executed.

Lunsford said, "It's just one of the most wonderful things to have children and we don't raise our kids so somebody can come and take them away."

Couey lived near the Lunsfords in a small town north of Tampa, and before Jessica's abduction, he had already served prison time for crimes like attempted kidnapping, burglary and child molestation.

Lunsford says the fact that people like Couey, who've been convicted of crimes against children are allowed out is an outrage. So he's going around the country, pushing for laws to prevent this from happening again.

"It's a good feeling to know that Jessie is making a difference. Because I speak for her," said Lunsford.

 So far, 45 states have have what's called Jessie's Law.  It includes  stricter rules for those convicted of sex offenses against children under 12 like GPS tracking and mandatory minimum sentencing.

Lunsford says Florida has taken leaps and bounds to make our kids safer, but still, he says people are slipping through the cracks.

When asked if he agrees that something has to be wrong for these crimes to happen, Lunsford said, "Something has to be wrong with not just the individuals, but our policies, our laws, our procedures. Something's wrong."

Lunsford talked about Cherish Perrywinkle, the 8-year-old Jacksonville girl who police say was kidnapped, raped and killed by Donald Smith.  Smith's rap sheet includes sex offenses against children and he was classified as an offender not a predator.  Smith was released from jail weeks before detectives say he murdered Cherish.

Lunsford said, "You see things like this happen and you have to question, how is this possible?"

Sadly, the scenario has played out time and time again.

"I think of each one of them and it's miserable what I know they went through. I know what they went through. I didn't go through it but my daughter did. I know what those children went through. It's disgusting, it hurts. Every one of them," said Lunsford.

Nearly a decade after his daughter was killed, Lunsford believes Jessie's Law is working, but says more must be done.

I asked Lunsford, "Do you feel that those people are more likely to kidnap them, assault them, and maybe kill them?

"If your neighbor put his hand on your child, what would you think for the rest of your life? That we need to keep an eye on him? If you put your hands on a child the wrong way and you're found guilty of it, you need to be punished for it," he responded.

Lunsford says Jessie's law won't work by itself. He says parents also need to have their guard up and work together.

"You never know. One day you might be able to identify something that you read that you see wrong over with this child. You might be able to identify when something is wrong, you might be able to make a difference," said Lunsford. "Know who your neighbors are. Don't board your windows up, don't hoard your kids in the house, this is our world."

This is now a life mission for Lunsford. He can't bring his daughter back, but he can carry on her legacy to save lives.

"Nothing's gonna stop me," said Lunsford. "The worst thing that could ever happen to me in my entire life has happened. Nothing else is gonna stop me. Nothing. No one, nobody, nothing."  

Lunsford says lawmakers, police and prosecutors are trying and they do want to keep our kids safe, but it takes a village. And we all have to help them out, push for better laws and question the procedures we already have in place. After all, it could make the world of a difference.

Copyright 2013 by News4Jax.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.