Image: Girl mourns Jessica Lunsford
Ted Mclaren  /  Pool via AP
Haylee Shiminski, 8, looks at a picture of Jessica Lunsford during a public memorial service for Jessica in Lecanto, Fla., on Saturday.
updated 3/26/2005 8:33:20 PM ET 2005-03-27T01:33:20

About 1,000 mourners gathered Saturday to say goodbye to the 9-year-old Florida girl who was abducted from her bed and allegedly slain by a sex offender staying in a nearby home.

Relatives, neighbors and friends filled a Presbyterian church for a memorial service to remember Jessica Marie Lunsford. They gazed at a photo montage of her life: an infant being embraced by her parents, a toddler playing on a playground swing, a child posing behind the steering wheel of a car.

The final shot showed a broadly smiling Jessica wearing a fuzzy, pink bucket hat — the same photo seen on fliers posted across Citrus County after the third-grader’s disappearance.

“I always said she would come home,” wept Mark Lunsford, Jessica’s father. “And she did.”

Image: Jessica Lunsford grandparents
Str  /  Reuters
Jessica Lunsford's grandparents, Ruth Lunsford, right, and Archie Lunsford (white shirt), watch as hundreds of balloons are released after the memorial for Jessica.
She was last seen in February when her grandmother tucked her into bed after attending church. The third-grader’s body was found March 19, about 150 yards from her house, near a mobile home where convicted sex offender John E. Couey had been staying at the time of her abduction.

Medical examiners said Jessica had been sexually assaulted and suffocated.

Sheriff shattered by case
She was buried barely 100 yards from where Sheriff Jeff Dawsy set up his command center for the search. He revealed the experience left him shattered.

“I’m so sorry I didn’t bring her back home to you alive,” an emotional Dawsy told Jessica’s family.

Jessica’s father and Dawsy again called for toughening the state’s laws against sexual offenders. Couey is a repeat felon previously convicted of a sex crime against a minor and had once claimed helplessness in controlling his urges.

“You and I should have more rights than the bad people do,” Dawsy said.

Authorities say Couey, 46, confessed to kidnapping and killing Jessica. He is charged with murder, battery, kidnapping and sexual battery on a child under 12.

Couey, who is expected to enter a plea next month, was being held without bail.

The Rev. William LaVerle Coats, the Lunsfords’ pastor at Faith Baptist Church, offered mourners hope that the community could recover.

“I believe our community has become more closely knit,” Coats said. “Citrus County is probably going to be the safest county in the state of Florida.”

A private funeral for Jessica was held Friday.

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