‘Second phase’ begins in search for Florida girl

Missing 9-year-old Jessica Marie Lunsford in an undated photo.
Missing 9-year-old Jessica Marie Lunsford in an undated photo.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Search teams with bloodhounds began combing the area immediately surrounding the home of a missing 9-year-old girl for clues Tuesday, a day after a broader search of the area was suspended.

Investigators had turned up “no leads, no information” after five days of searching for Jessica Marie Lunsford, who disappeared Thursday, Gov. Jeb Bush said Tuesday in Tallahassee.

“One can hope for a miracle,” Bush said.

The scaled-back search Tuesday focused on an area within three-quarters of a mile of the home Jessica shared with her father, Mark Lunsford, and grandparents. Teams of officers with search dogs were carefully working through the woods, fields and marshes, said sheriff’s spokeswoman Gail Tierney.

Missing children experts arrive
Law enforcement officials also turned to 20 experts from the National Center on Missing and Exploited Children to help crack the case.

Police suspended a search within a five-mile radius of the girl’s home late Monday. Hundreds of volunteers had endured fog, torrential rain and a tornado watch.

Jessica’s father described the change as a second phase of the investigation. After making a plea for her safe return while choking back tears, he expressed confidence that his daughter would come home.

“Just drop her off. I’ll come get her,” Mark Lunsford answered when asked what he would say to whoever had Jessica. “I know whoever has got Jessie, they have to have a heart.”

He also expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support. “It’s been overwhelming, the people that have shown up,” he said. “It makes me feel real good to know everyone’s trying to help me out.”

No abduction evidence
Lunsford said he remains convinced that his daughter did not leave home voluntarily even though authorities have uncovered no evidence she was abducted. He said it’s unlikely Jessica was lured away.

“She just didn’t go with strangers,” Lunsford said. He said authorities also are looking for a stuffed purple dolphin missing from his daughter’s room.

Mark Lunsford, father of missing nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford, reacts as he speaks at a news conference Monday afternoon Feb. 28, 2005, outside the family home in Homosassa, Fla. Jessica Lunsford has been missing since last Wednesday. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)Chris O'meara / AP

The sheriff said nothing suspicious was found on the family’s computer and that Lunsford and his father, Archie Lunsford, had both passed FBI tests that measure changes in voice stress levels as a way of verifying whether a person is telling the truth.

Mark Lunsford also passed an FBI polygraph test. “None of his answers to questions set any alarms off,” said Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy.

The girl’s mother, Angela Bryant, lives in Ohio and traveled to Florida over the weekend.

Jessie hasn’t been seen since her grandmother tucked her into bed Wednesday night; the girl’s father discovered she was missing early Thursday.