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Sunday, May 27, 2018
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Lunsford's Plan To Sue Sheriff Inspires Tort Protection Bill

TAMPA - TAMPA - TAMPA -- He is calling it the "Mark Lunsford Show Respect and Gratitude to Law Enforcement Act." State Sen. Michael Bennett, R-Bradenton, is pushing for a bill that would keep law enforcement agencies from being sued. Bennett filed his bill after Mark Lunsford filed a notice that he intends to sue the Citrus County Sheriff's Office over the handling of the investigation into the disappearance and death of his 9-year-old daughter, Jessica Marie "Jessie" Lunsford. Last year, John Evander Couey was convicted and sentenced to death for raping and killing Jessie in February 2005, but Lunsford contends that the Citrus County Sheriff's Office should have found Jessie before she was buried alive. Sheriff Jeff Dawsy calls that accusation baseless and said that he is convinced Jessie was dead before his office began investigating.
In his bill, filed last week, Bennett states that because law enforcement agencies must make "difficult and complex" decisions in the course of an investigation, they should not be sued. "Was this investigation the best I've ever seen? Certainly not," Bennett said. "But law enforcement ripped their hearts out for this guy. At the funeral, some of the deputies literally wept. The country poured their heart out for this guy. Now that it appears he has run out of money, he wants to sue someone? The case could be made that when his daughter was abducted, where was he?" Bennett said Lunsford "is really showing ingratitude." He said he does not expect the bill to pass. "I just wanted to make a point." Government agencies are liable for a maximum $100,000 in lawsuits unless the Legislature approves more. After drafting the bill, Bennett learned of this and said his bill might not serve a purpose. He might pull it, he said. "It could be if we find out we don't need it," he said. Bennett said he has not sought a House sponsor for the bill. Lunsford, pointing out that he has not filed a lawsuit, said he found it odd that Bennett would file his bill now. He maintains that any potential suit is not about money, only about changing the sheriff's policies and procedures for handling missing children cases. Lunsford's attorney, Mark Gelman, is furious. "It is easy for people to throw stones, but Bennett's child was not in that trailer for four days," Gelman said. "Bennett's position on this whole situation would be different if his child were in the trailer for several days when police were on notice that there was something wrong there and didn't go in." Gelman said, "Bennett is welcome to call me and actually be educated to the merits of the potential lawsuit. If he knew the facts, he would have a different point of view."

Reporters Josh Poltilove and Thomas W. Krause contributed to this report. Editor Howard Altman can be reached at (813) 259-7629 or [email protected]

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