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Couey's life path mostly a dead end

See also: Sexual crimes: No easy answers
3-27-2005 Florida:

The man accused of killing Jessica Lunsford has spent his existence mostly as an aimless, unsettling vagabond who was no stranger to police.

HOMOSASSA - For all of his adult life, John E. Couey lived like a vagrant. He worked dead-end jobs for petty cash. He drank much of the money he made.

Repeatedly, he wound up in jail for a night or a month or longer, because he passed hot checks or broke into someone's house. It was so common for him to be behind bars that he once listed the Citrus County jail as his address.

"He stayed with whoever would take him in," said Sherry Rhoden, who met Couey in the late 1970s. "He was like one of the strays in the neighborhood, like a stray dog."

People who know Couey said he's a hard worker when he does get hired. But he goads people. He's loud-mouthed, though he would run before he would fight. He talks nonsense, then clams up when questioned about his past.

On March 21, Couey, 46, was arrested. He is accused of the sexual assault and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, who lived around the corner from his latest landing spot in Homosassa.

It turns out that Couey, the aimless, burned-out vagabond, had reason to hide his history.

* * *

Even people who have known Couey for years don't know where he was born, where he went to school.

He doesn't talk about that. He doesn't talk about his family. In prison records, he said he had a wife, a son and a stepdaughter. They were on his visitors list in 1991 and off the list when he returned to prison in 1995.

He said his father died; his mother lived somewhere in Osceola County.

"When it came to his mom, that was a closed subject for him," said Cynthia Lolley, whose father-in-law Elvin Lolley periodically gave Couey work on his fishing boats.

Couey's name first surfaces in Citrus County public records when he was arrested in 1977, at 18. It wasn't his first arrest, just his first as an adult.

He broke into three houses not far from where Dorothy Marie Dixon, his half-sister, lived. According to Rhoden, Dorothy Dixon's husband, Bill, didn't want Couey around.

So he drifted around the neighborhood and sidled up to Elvin Lolley, who let him stay in a railroad trailer parked behind his house.

"He didn't seem like a real bad feller," said Lolley.

Rhoden, Lolley's daughter, thought otherwise.

"I always knew he was a creep," she said. "Nothing bothered him. It was like he'd been through worse.

"He always put off this presence that he had these things to hide, and you knew it, but you couldn't get it out of him."

Couey was sentenced to six months in jail for the burglaries, but got out early for good behavior. His jailer said the quick release would help in Couey's rehabilitation.

Three days later, he was arrested again. This time, he had climbed through the window of a child's bedroom and grabbed her, clamping his hand over her mouth when she awoke. She broke free and darted, hollering, to her mother.

From his jail cell, Couey wrote a note to his lawyer, saying he had a "mental problem."

"When I was young I saw a doctor of the mind," he wrote. "I saw many psychiatrists and they confirmed I have a mental disease."

He asked to be sent to a "mental home."

He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and got out in 21/2. He was back behind bars within seven months - another burglary.

When he got out the next time, an entire day passed before he was arrested again.

* * *

At age 26, Couey married Karen Joan Goshe in a church ceremony in Crystal River.

Marriage didn't change his life. The family bounced around Georgia and Florida, with both Coueys arrested for bad checks, DUI, failure to appear in court, violation of probation.

One May morning in 1987, a Lake City officer, called to a trailer park for a reported disturbance, found Couey hiding naked in the shrubs. He was charged with, among other things, indecent exposure - his second arrest involving aberrant behavior.

By 1991, his marriage was essentially over.

Karen Couey was in Fort Lauderdale, building an arrest record of prostitution and cocaine possession charges. John Couey was in Kissimmee, living near the railroad tracks with an elderly woman and her sons.

"All he did was drink and fish," said one of the sons, Ronald J. Tittle. "As far as we knew, he was just a loner when my mom took him in."

Couey worked in construction and washed dishes at a nearby Shoney's restaurant.

"He went from job to job, always getting paid under the table," Tittle said. "Then as soon as he got his money, he'd drink it up."

In April 1991, a 5-year-old child who lived near the Tittles was riding her bike outside. Couey would later say he went into the child's yard to watch her, then called her over to him behind the house near the air-conditioning unit. "Want to play hide and go seek?" he asked.

"She said yes, so we did," Couey told the Kissimmee police in a taped statement. Then he asked her to sit with him. "She sat on my lap - voluntarily. I didn't force her to do it, voluntarily."

In unemotional, detached terms, he described how he exposed himself to the child and got her to touch him. "I did not molest her," he said.

When the child's mother called for her, Couey fled.

Couey told the police "this was not the first child he had ever touched, however, this is the first time he was caught," the investigator's report said. He also admitted to molesting a relative's child.

As he did after his 1978 arrest, Couey asked for psychiatric help.

"Personally, I feel prison ain't gonna help me," he told the police. "I feel that I need help for myself . . . I don't want to go to prison, I want help for myself."

Sentenced to five years in prison, he was released in two.

Distraught, the mother of his victim sought a restraining order to keep Couey away from her daughter.

"He has had no rehabilitation for this sickness," she wrote. "The victim's advocate's office in Orlando and the state Corrections Department . . . stated a restraining order is the extent of my additional effort to keep any restrictions on this man. He will not be on any parole or special probation. He will be free."

* * *

Back in Citrus, Couey washed dishes at Emily's Restaurant in Homosassa and slept in a shed out back. Emily's owner George Kanaris called Couey "a rogue."

Kanaris felt sorry for Couey, who said he had been abused all his life because of his size. Couey is 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs about 120 pounds.

Still, Kanaris was unsettled by some of Couey's behavior. Couey would say something like, "Wow, look at that woman."

"And you would go over and look and she would be 10 or 12 years old," Kanaris said.

Kanaris fired Couey in 1994 after finding a love letter Couey wrote to a 14-year-old girl who worked at the restaurant.

"He was mad," Kanaris said of Couey. "He didn't think he had done anything wrong. He told me he was her "soul mate, Dawg.' That's how he talked."

Over the next decade, Couey was arrested five more times, served time in jail, served time in state prison and moved frequently.

In August 2003, he was living in a mobile home across the street from a Homosassa bar. He got work as a mason's tender on the Crystal River Middle School construction project. He was a registered sex offender, though his parole officer wasn't informed of that.

Workers at the middle school construction site were strictly prohibited from being anywhere near students or faculty, according to Giles Cannon, a mason on the job.

That wasn't the case at Homosassa Elementary School, where Couey went to work early in 2004, according to Cannon and mason Will Doherty, who also worked at Homosassa.

There, students, teachers and laborers mingled often, the two masons said.

"I actually dated one of the teachers for a short period of time. I was in her classroom," said Doherty. "Does that answer the question of whether the workers and school people mingled?"

Last summer, Couey's brother-in-law, William Troy Dixon, died. In January, Dorothy Dixon and her children sold the mobile home across from the bar, where Couey had lived with them.

Soon after, a different mobile home was placed on Snowbird Court in Homosassa, around the corner from the Sonata Avenue home of the Lunsfords - grandparents, father and a 9-year-old girl.

Within weeks, Dorothy Dixon, her boyfriend and some of her relatives took up residence in the mobile home.

Couey, Dixon's half-brother, moved in with them. ..Source.. by COLLINS CONNER and BARBARA BEHRENDT

Times staff writer Abbie VanSickle and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Collins Conner can be reached at or 727 869-6243. Barbara Behrendt can be reached at or (352) 564-3621.

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