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Amid grief, suspect in girl's slaying returned to Fla.

HOMOSASSA, Fla. -- The convicted sex offender who authorities say confessed to kidnapping and slaying 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford returned to Florida in shackles yesterday as her family grieved for the girl who vanished from her bedroom.

John Evander Couey was booked early yesterday on a probation violation and failure to register as a sex offender, officials said. He was being held without bail.

Couey, 46, confessed to kidnapping and killing Jessica after taking a lie- detector test Friday in Georgia, officials said. The girl's body was found early Saturday, more than three weeks after she was taken from her bedroom.

Jessica's father, in an emotional statement, expressed a desire to mete out justice of his own.

''I won't get the wish, but I wish I could see him, just one time," said Mark Lunsford.

Lunsford said he and his relatives would soon begin planning Jessica's funeral.

Couey had not been charged in her death, although that was expected soon. ''If he's not charged today, he probably will be tomorrow," sheriff's spokeswoman Ronda Hemminger Evan said. ''It shouldn't take that long."

At Jessica's church yesterday, the pastor asked for prayers for the Lunsfords.

''Lord, we don't always understand your ways," the Rev. William LaVerle Coats told 175 people during Sunday services at Faith Baptist Church. ''We accept what has taken place here, and ask that you would give us some peace."

Coats asked churchgoers to forgive Couey. Jessica's father said he may have a hard time with that request. ''He needs to stand up and be a man now and take his death penalty," Mark Lunsford said.

Earlier, Couey appeared before Circuit Judge Stephen Spivey at the Citrus County Detention Center. He was declared indigent and was told that a public defender would be assigned to his case.

He answered that he was doing ''all right," when the judge asked how he was. Couey answered all other questions with either ''Yes, sir" or ''No, sir" replies.

At the end of the hearing, Spivey wished the man luck. ''Thank you," Couey said softly, before turning and shuffling away, his shackles clanging together.

Couey was returned to Florida overnight in an unmarked sheriff's vehicle and wearing a bulletproof vest.

He was being held in isolation at the jail for his safety, Hemminger Evan said. As a precaution, the timing of his arrival from Georgia was kept secret, although the sheriff's office was not aware of any threats against Couey.

Jessica, a third-grader, was last seen in February when she went to bed after attending church. She was discovered missing the next morning.

Down the street from the Lunsford home and the church, well-wishers piled dozens of stuffed animals, flowers, and candles high on a makeshift memorial.

At the memorial, businessman Joseph Dawson joined Jessica's father and circulated a petition calling for harsh penalties on sexual predators. The petition called for predators to face 50-year mandatory sentences and the indefinite wearing of electronic monitoring bracelets.

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