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One month before a registered sexual offender allegedly kidnapped, raped and murdered 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, Florida law enforcement agencies had lost track of at least 1,800 other sexual offenders statewide, according to a review of Florida's Sexual Offender/Predator Registry.
John Evander Couey, the man who would confess to killing Jessica, was not even listed as one of them because no one knew he wasn't living at his reported address and was staying near the Lunsfords.
The fact that Couey wasn't marked as missing raises questions not only about how aggressively the state tracks offenders known to be on the lam, but how many others have absconded and aren't noticed at all.
Couey was supposed to be living more than five miles from the Lunsford residence in Homosassa. Officials at the Citrus County Sheriff's Office said they discovered he was staying less than a block from the Lunsford's in his half-sister's mobile home -- only after they began interviewing sex offenders as part of their investigation into Jessica's disappearance.
Police found Jessica's body buried nearby after a three-week search.
''We can't do anything about Jessie's death now, but in the future we have to figure out a better way of knowing where these guys are,'' said Archie Lunsford, Jessica's grandfather.
The Herald obtained a copy of the sexual offender database in January and found 800 of those who were missing had committed lewd or lascivious acts against children while another 130 had been sentenced for sexual battery against minors under 16. Nearly all the remaining 870 committed sexual crimes against adults or teenagers over the age of 16.
Among those who fled: George Gonel, 46, a Broward County man who in 1991 was convicted of lewd and lascivious acts and sexual battery against a child. Also missing: Frederick Campbell, 45, of Miami-Dade County, who was sentenced in 1996 to 10 years supervision after attempting to sexually batter a minor. He absconded two years later and has yet to be found.
Mary Coffee, the supervisor of FDLE's Sexual Offender/Predator Unit, which maintains the registry, said the database is supposed to be a tool to alert residents of potentially dangerous people living in their neighborhoods and to assist law enforcement agencies with criminal investigations.
''It is absolutely a partnership between the state, the community and local law enforcement agencies,'' Coffee said. ``The registry is not something that is going to eliminate all sex offenses.''
But breakdowns in the system conjure up memories of other heinous crimes committed by sexual offenders who were supposed to be closely monitored