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PAULA ZAHN NOW

Florida Girl Murdered?; Car Bomb Rocks Building in Beirut

Aired March 18, 2005 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone. Welcome.
Tonight, a major break in the disappearance of a young girl and the riddle of one of the biggest robberies ever committed.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN (voice-over): For the family of a missing girl, after three weeks of searching, three weeks of agony, finally, some news.

JEFFREY DAWSY, CITRUS COUNTY SHERIFF: I've got my man.

ZAHN: But not the news they wanted.

And one of the crime world's biggest capers, $300 million in art taken without a trace, without a clue. But now new leads could crack the case.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: We begin tonight with a search for 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, the Florida girl who disappeared from her home in the middle of the night February 23. This week, police in Georgia picked up John Couey, describing him as a person of interest. And, tonight, the worst possible news.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAWSY: John Couey admitted to abducting Jessica and subsequently taking her life.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: We now go straight to Homosassa, Florida, where Sara Dorsey of CNN is standing by.

Sara, you're standing not too far from the Lunsfords' home. Police are there as well. What are they telling you about possibly finding her body?

SARA DORSEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Paula, they basically have told us that there was a confession coming from John Couey.

Earlier in the afternoon he confessed to abducting 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford and killing her. Right now, we are watching a search under way by Citrus County authorities, probably one of the worst searches they have had to do so far. They are not looking to bring this little girl home alive anymore after that confession.

Over my shoulder, you can see the lights from this home on, also the flashlights from the Citrus County Sheriff's officers. They are basically searching an area, a very general area, according Sheriff Dawsy, that was given by that person of interest. Right now, they're looking around behind the home that Mr. Couey was staying in. They do not know how long the search is going to take, but Sheriff Jeff Dawsy said it could be quite some time before they find this body because it was a very general area that was given to them -- Paula.

ZAHN: Sara, thank you so much.

And, of course, at this stage, investigators also have to weigh the degree of accuracy to which Mr. Couey's comments are. As we said, Jessica Lunsford vanished nearly a month ago. And since then, her father has been the public face of the family's emotional turmoil.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN (voice-over): Jessica Lunsford disappeared from her own bedroom sometime during the night of February 23. Her shaken family immediately pleaded for help.

MARK LUNSFORD, FATHER OF JESSICA: I really need as much help as I can get right now. I just -- I want my daughter home. And if there's anything that anybody knows, there's a lot of numbers that you can call.

ZAHN: Her neighbors and others turned out in overwhelming numbers to search but there were no clues, no leads, just the desperation of her family.

RUTH LUNSFORD, GRANDMOTHER OF JESSICA: Please, let her come home. Do not harm her in any way. Little children does not deserve this.

ZAHN: After five disappointing days, the volunteer portion of the search was called off. February turned to March. Her father continued hoping, driving around, putting up posters.

M. LUNSFORD: I have confidence in my sheriff's department and I truly believe in my heart that my daughter is coming home. I just don't know when. Sometimes it's a little hard to swallow, but you just swallow it and you keep searching, because that's what she wants me to do.

ZAHN: Investigators started looking into the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders. This week, they announced a person of interest, this man, 46-year-old John Couey.

DAWSY: And you see the things that started to add up as we started to look at this individual, sexual offender. He has changed his residence. He is across the street.

ZAHN: But Couey wasn't across the street anymore. He had bought a bus ticket out of Florida under a different name. Authorities in Savannah, Georgia, questioned him last weekend, but couldn't legally hold him. Couey vanished again, turning up Thursday in Augusta, where he was questioned for nearly four hours.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And for the latest on what we know on John Couey tonight, let's go back to Augusta, Georgia, where he was picked up this week.

Susan Candiotti is standing by there.

So, Susan, we just heard the sheriff tell us that this man is a convicted sex offender and we also know that he's had close to two dozen arrests in three decades. What else do we know about him?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, a lot of interesting information. And, remember, he hasn't been charged yet in this case.

But, Paula, I would like to begin with a piece of chilling videotape and like to have you take a look at it. Police say the man seen at a bar in Augusta, shot just a day before he was arrested at a homeless shelter, coincidentally, this videotape was taken by an a local television station in Augusta, WAGT, that was doing a feature story about people smoking in bars.

Well, police say that this same man in this videotape, nearly three weeks earlier, had killed 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford. Police say the very next day, after this videotape was taken, they arrested John Couey on probation violation charges for leaving Florida without telling authorities. They picked him up at a homeless shelter here in Augusta.

And over the course of interviewing him over two days and 11 hours, they say, finally, they had given him a polygraph. And when it was over with, according to police, Couey told investigators, I don't want to waste your time anymore. I already know the results. Police say he then confessed to murdering Jessica Lunsford.

Now, we can also tell you this is -- that John Couey had been living at a relative's home that was located directly or diagonally across the street from where Jessica Lunsford's family lived. That is the area where they're looking now. And, according to law enforcement sources, he told them that he buried the body behind the house.

This is what Sheriff Dawsy said about the kind of case he has now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAWSY: We have talked about building a case. And this is not a time to sing anybody's praises. But I will tell you that we have built a case, a very methodical case, and I've got my man.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CANDIOTTI: Now, the investigators who had been interviewing John Couey left here not long ago. They said they don't intend to come back this weekend. However, arrangements now have to be made to move him back to Florida.

Earlier in the day, he waived extradition. That was on probation violation charges. It's unclear at this time whether there would have to be another extra decision hearing if he is charged in this murder -- back to you.

ZAHN: Well, based on what the sheriff is saying tonight, I guess it looks likely like that those charges probably will surface.

Susan Candiotti, thank you so much for the update.

And now one person who has actually lived through much of what Mark Lunsford is going through tonight. He is Ed Smart. His daughter Elizabeth disappeared from their home in 2002. Nine months later, she was found alive.

Ed Smart joins me now from Salt Lake City.

Ed, the question everybody is asking tonight, why didn't anybody in the Lunsfords' neighborhood know, if this ends up -- if this man ends up being charged for the murder of Jessica, that they had a convicted sex offender living on their street?

ED SMART, FATHER OF ELIZABETH SMART: That's a great question.

You know, I think this is an issue we face as a country. We don't know where these sex offenders are or what they're doing. And it's a critical issue that we need to address as a nation and bring and make a difference, because the lives like Jessica are so dear. And I feel so bad for her family and what they're going through.

During the time, the nine months Elizabeth was gone, we -- it was a living nightmare, and one that you got to a point where you just wanted to know whether she was dead or whether she was alive. And, I mean, the Lunsfords know that now. And it's hard to face that, you know, this is the point they're at. But, you know, one of the important things is, how can we, as a country, make a difference in other lives that are affected in the same manner?

Because it's going to happen time and time again, and we really have to do something to make a change.

ZAHN: You, obviously, more than anybody else out there, as you just said, can empathize with what the Lunsfords are going through. The most extraordinary thing to me was watching her dad continue to show hope week after week, three weeks, no clues, no signs of how she vanished.

Help us understand how you and how he were able to maintain that sense of hope, when you know, after the first 24 hours elapse, sometimes, or more often than not, it's not good news.

SMART: You know, I think that, in order to survive, you have to go into a mode where you know there is a possibility that she is out there.

And, if she is out there, you've got to keep going, because, if you don't, she won't be found. And this will, you know, end up in a horrible -- in a horrible way. I mean, there are so many parents out there that don't know where their children are, that don't know what has happened to them, that are -- you know, that are trying to keep -- stay hopeful that one day they'll be reunited.

And I think that you have to stay positive until you're faced with, you know, convincing evidence that, you know, they're not going to come home.

ZAHN: What did it mean to you to see Jessica's father traveling in his truck, raising signs himself, trying to convince people to continue the search for his daughter?

SMART: You know, I think that he was out there trying to do his best to keep finding her. The not knowing is so, so heavy on you. I mean, you can't sleep at night. It's hard to function, hard to, you know, do any work. I mean, all you can think about is your daughter.

So, I think that he was out there doing everything that he physically could do to try to keep the awareness to try and find her. And I think that you have to do that to keep going forward, because, if you don't, I think that you collapse. And that's one thing one thing that you have to keep doing.

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: And a final thought, again, about what you want the nation to focus on tonight, when it comes to missing children.

SMART: You know, I think, as a nation, we can make a big difference. I think, you know, for these children, for all of the women out there that are assaulted, that sex offenders need to be put in a different category. Last night, I was speaking with a fellow who was a sex offender. And he said, the only way that he could -- he is not cured, but he has maintained by 14 years by, one, staying away from children, and, two, I think, as you talk to any professional, they'll tell you that sex offenders may not reoffend if they know they're being watched.

And that is what has to happen. They cannot go out there and just be on the open street, unsupervised, whether it's, you know, some type of a device or the random checks. I think it's critical. And I think that lawmakers need to make this difference, help us get legislation through that will make a difference. And I think that law enforcement needs to be helped out.

I think that, as I've talked with them, so many of them are underfunded. But we need to work together as a nation to make this difference.

ZAHN: Well, if everything the sheriff is saying tonight ends up being true, it would seem that you will be talking about a very powerful case here to make that argument. Ed Smart, thank you very much.

Just a reminder that, three weeks after 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford disappeared from his home -- or her home, that is -- authorities are now confirming that a convicted sex offender has confessed to kidnapping and killing her.

Coming up next, a story of another missing little girl. Her mother has been waiting for word for 20 years.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What is that moment of panic like, that first moment when you realize your child has disappeared?

JANICE MCKINNEY, MOTHER OF MISSING GIRL: It's the most scariest thing. I think my guilt started at that point.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: Coming up, an update and a warning for parents.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: And still ahead tonight, a little girl whose disappearance helped saved other lives. She was the first ever "Have you seen me?" child, and her mother, who still doesn't know what happened, even after 20 years.

First, a shade past a quarter past the hour, time to check in with Erica Hill to find out what some of the other stories are working tonight.

Hi, Erica.

ERICA HILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Paula. Good to see you.

Of course, one of the stories we've been following very closely here at Headline News, Terri Schiavo. Here feeding tube has been removed, despite congressional attempts to delay it. Lawyers from the House of Representatives have filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to have the tube reinserted. Without it, it could take one to two weeks for Schiavo to die. The attorney for Terri Schiavo's husband, Michael, calls attempts to deny her wishes -- quote -- "disgusting."

President Bush is getting a little help from mom in his pitch to overhaul Social Security. Barbara Bush joined her son in Florida today to stress to the senior set that creating private Social Security accounts would not affect their benefits. Recent poll show a growing concern among Americans about the president's plan, which allows younger workers to invest some of their payroll taxes into private accounts.

Former Connecticut Governor John Rowland will report to prison on April 1. The three-term Republican was sentenced today to one year and one day in federal prison for corruption. He cut a plea deal back in December, admitting he ran up more than $100,000 in chartered flights and used state money to pay for construction on his lakeside home.

And, Paula, that's the latest from the Headline News studio. We'll hand it back to you.

ZAHN: Thanks so much, Erica. See you in about a half-hour or so.

And, again, the breaking story tonight, police in Florida say a man has confessed to kidnapping and killing 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, who vanished about three weeks ago.

Her disappearance is, sadly, just one of many. And some missing kids are never found. You're about to hear the story of one of them, a girl whose face was the very first to appear on a postcard that asks, "Have you seen me?" Well, that was 20 years ago.

The story from Randi Kaye in Cabot, Pennsylvania.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MCKINNEY: The past 20 years probably has been a real torture.

KAYE (voice-over): Words spoken by a mother in pain.

MCKINNEY: Four o'clock, the bus came and we heard it. And she just never came up the driveway.

KAYE: A mother overwhelmed by grief and guilt.

MCKINNEY: I should have been there when Cherrie got off the school bus, and I wasn't.

KAYE: February 22, 1985, Cherrie Mahan went to school and never came home.

MCKINNEY: I think that the last words that I probably told her was, you know, have a good day and I do love you. And that was probably as I took her down to the bus stop and she got on the bus.

KAYE (on camera): Did she tell you she loved you back?

MCKINNEY: Yes. She always told me that.

KAYE (voice-over): That day, Janice McKinney went from being the mother of a bubbly 8-year-old who loved rainbows and reading to the mother of a missing child. It was Cherrie who helped put a face on missing children nationwide, the first child on ever on a "Have you seen me?" mailer, delivered to homes around the country.

(on camera): What is that moment of panic like, that first moment when you realize your child has disappeared?

MCKINNEY: It's the most scariest thing. I think my guilt started at that point, because, up until that day, I was there. And if I would have been there, she -- I wouldn't be going through this.

KAYE (voice-over): Ever since Cherrie was old enough to go to school, Janice says she walked her daughter to and from the bus stop.

(on camera): It was a day just like this one, snow on the ground, the sun shining. Cherrie got off her school bus right here. She had to go about 200 feet around that bend to get to her driveway, then another 300 feet to her front door. Investigators never found any footprints, which means Cherrie never got very far.

(voice-over): Janice called state police and tracked down Cherrie's school bus. She had to be sure Cherrie wasn't still on it. Children on the bus told Janice and police Cherrie got off at her regular stop with other children. Those young witnesses described a blue van right behind the bus with a snowcapped mountain and a skier painted on its side.

Investigators checked out hundreds of leads, no van, no Cherrie.

(on camera): Is there indication as you walk this way how far she got?

GLENN HALL, FORMER PENNSYLVANIA STATE TROOPER: No, there was no sign of any tracks or anything.

KAYE: So, what does that tell you?

HALL: That apparently someone picked her up.

KAYE: Pretty quick?

HALL: Yes.

KAYE: For retired trooper Glenn Hall, who worked the case from day one, there is also guilt.

HALL: I feel that maybe there's something I overlooked at the time, but I followed every lead that I thought that night.

KAYE (voice-over): With the case now entering its third decade, Trooper Hall remains convinced a stranger abducted Cherrie, a stranger who knew the little girl's schedule and who knew the area. Such crimes are rare. Of the thousands of children each year who are officially described as abducted, the vast majority are taken by someone they know. But every year, about 100 children are taken by a stranger.

MCKINNEY: That was her dog much and that was her cat.

KAYE: Janice gave birth to Cherrie when she was just 16. They grew up together, she says. This year, Cherrie would be 29 and this is what investigators think she might look like.

MCKINNEY: I don't know. Cherrie could be married and have children and have graduated and I could be a grandmother. KAYE: Cherrie's mom works two jobs, barely sleeps, anything to keep out the dark thoughts. Five years after Cherrie was kidnapped, Janice had another child, Robert, now 15.

After losing Cherrie, Janice says she didn't want to go through life without being a mother. Her son Robert is a soccer player with big plans to go away to college, something that doesn't sit so well with his mom.

MCKINNEY: He's never, ever gone anywhere without somebody. I mean, from the time he was able to walk until this day, I mean, I go to every soccer game. I stand by the door, you know, worried that somebody could come in and take him.

KAYE: Janice works hard to keep Cherrie close and her memory alive. There is an angel at the family's cemetery plot. Two decades and countless tears later, Janice is still not ready to place a gravestone here.

MCKINNEY: We live in a society where we need to see something. And until I see something or hold something or know something, I can't put it to rest yet.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: What a loving woman. Randi Kaye reporting.

To be specific, there are about 800,000 children a year reported missing, according to the most recent federal study. And, of that, most are runaways or taken in family abductions, as in child custody disputes. About 3 percent, or 24,000, are classified as nonfamily abductions.

In just a moment, Anderson Cooper will give us a live update from Beirut, where a car bomb just went off. We'll be back with the details.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: A car bomb rocked Beirut tonight. There are reports of several injuries.

My colleague Anderson Cooper has been in Lebanon all week covering the protests in the streets and the growing pressure on Syria to clear out its troops.

And Anderson joins me now from the middle of the night in Beirut.

Do we have any idea what the target was of this car bombing, Anderson?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, I was just at the scene of the bombing, actually, Paula.

It is an office building. We're not sure exactly what office was inside the building. The first four floors of the building have been pretty much just destroyed, the ground floor completely obliterated. And I was actually standing next to the car that the bomb was in. The car itself was blown about 50 feet from the blast site and is just a complete burned-out hull. You barely can tell it's a car.

You can see one tire still visible. The whole place has been cordoned off by authorities. But, at this point, they're not saying who the target of it was or -- what's questionable about it and what is odd about it is that the blast went off about 12:45 a.m. local time here in Beirut. It wasn't a very populated area. There were a number of injuries, no fatalities at this point.

But it perhaps was more about sending a message than actually injuring people, Paula.

ZAHN: And, as you close out your week in Lebanon and Syria, give us a broad view of the climate there politically and what people are telling you about the hopes for democracy in Lebanon.

COOPER: Well, you know, it's a cliche, of course, to use the term historic, but it really has been a historic week and a historic month here.

There was the largest demonstration in Lebanese history on Monday, more than 500,000 people, perhaps as many as a million people, turning out, demanding that Syria withdraw. And what's so remarkable about that is, one, one million people, that is a quarter of the population of all of Lebanon. And up until a few months ago, people were afraid to even talk about Syria.

Syria has occupied this country since the late 1970s with their soldiers, with their intelligence agents. And now, suddenly, you have people flooding into the streets -- you see the pictures there -- screaming: Get out, Syria.

It's just an extraordinary turn of events, an extraordinary time to be here, Paula.

ZAHN: Anderson Cooper, thanks for the update. Travel safely. Come home.

Please stay with us, everybody, for a story about priceless masterpieces and an unsolved crime that, in its own way, was a work of art.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: The biggest cash robbery ever happened in Belfast, Northern Ireland last December. In U.S. dollars, it was a whopping $50 million. But an unsolved heist at a Boston art museum 15-years- ago tomorrow makes that seem like chump change. The crime remains unsolved, but as Dan Lothian reports only here on CNN, it may be about to break wide open.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think we're looking at one of the great mysteries of the 20th Century.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: After 15 years, we don't have any significant leads.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I used to wake up at 2:00 in the morning, 3:00 in the morning wondering what happened to these paintings?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 13 pieces of art, valued at up to $300 million, including Rembrandt's, "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee," Degas, "La Sortie du Passage" and Vermeer's "The Concert." Masterpieces: the heart and soul of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here in Boston until March 18, 1990 when they vanished in the middle of the night.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Questions and theories abound.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stolen from the Gardner Museum.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The answers prove elusive.

LOTHIAN (on camera): Boston was wrapped up in parades leading up to the greatest art heist in history. It was afterall St. Patrick's Day in this heavily Irish city, perhaps the perfect distraction the thieves were banking on as they prepared to hit the museum.

No one suspected anything. The sun set. The night grew late. And the time was right to strike: exactly 1:24 a.m.

(voice-over): Two men, dressed as Boston police officers approached the museum side entrance.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And they knocked on the door and said they received a call about a disturbance. And the security guard opens the door. And they tie up the security guards.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's easy to look back and say, well, the guard shouldn't have let them in. But it is a believable way to get into a museum, by having two guys dressed up as Boston cops responding to an alarm.

LOTHIAN: The two guards were bound and gagged and confined in the basement. The thieves, who brandished no weapons were free to room. The museum had no external alarm system. And the guards had no chance to hit the panic button that would have alerted the real police.

What they would do next was as odd as their entrance. And would baffle not only authorities but also private investigators.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Certainly over a 100 cases...

LOTHIAN: Like Harold Smith, a retired art detective, who had traveled the world hunting stolen pieces for Lloyd's of London and top American insurance companies. Obsessed with the heist, he volunteered his expertise. Even as Smith struggled with his own personal battle against skin cancer, nagging questions kept him awake at night. Why did the thieves essentially destroy some of the priceless works they stole, like Rembrandt's only seascape.

HAROLD SMITH, STOLEN ART INVESTIGATOR: The fact they cut the paintings out baffles me. That's something I can't understand.

LOTHIAN: Smith also couldn't understand why the thieve's broke a criminal's cardinal rule to get in and get out quickly. They spent nearly an hour and a half inside, from the first floor to the famous Dutch room on the second floor. A job, he says, that could have been done in 15 minutes.

SMITH: They knew they were in no danger what so ever staying in that museum.

LOTHIAN: And why did they ignore what's been voted Boston's most significant piece of art: Titian's "Europa." Mistakes or strategic diversions.

Boston Globe investigative reporter Steven Kurkjian says 15- years-later, the mystery only deepness.

STEPHEN KURKJIAN, BOSTON GLOBS: Was this a group of professional art thieves, or were they just, you know, just people who were taking advantage of an opportunity and were pretty much low level thieves who didn't know much about art and just were rushing through a place grabbing as much as they can? And I think that question still is outstanding.

LOTHIAN: It's been a difficult and frustrating investigation. The fake cops also made off with the surveillance tapes. So these sketches are the only images of the criminals.

There have been clues and tips. A $1 million reward was raised to $5 million. But all roads have led to a dead-end.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We here always try and think of each room as a work of art.

LOTHIAN: At the museum, curator Allen Chong still finds it difficult to talk about the stolen art.

ALLEN CHONG, MUSEUM CURATOR: The missing paintings are a real tragic loss. But not just for this museum or Boston, but really for the art world generally.

For me, the real tragedy is a whole generation is being robbed of this experience.

LOTHIAN: The loss is amplified by the fact that these priceless pieces were not insured.

SMITH: The reason being was that Mrs. Gardner in her will, nothing could be added to or subtracted from the collection so the directors decided not insure it.

LOTHIAN: And since nothing can be removed, these haunting empty frames remain behind, a museum and its visitors confronted daily by the art world's loss.

CHONG: It certainly changes the character of the room. One feels the missing pieces -- you know, one feels their absence very strongly.

LOTHIAN: But now, after 15 years, could we be a little closer to solving the case? Could two Boston career criminals have the answer?

One claims he can get the art back in minutes. The other tells CNN hypnosis recently helped him remember an important clue.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a big secret, I just discovered it.

LOTHIAN: Is it believable?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I think it's very credible. I'm not in a position to dismiss anybody at this point in time.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: Well, let's see. When we come back, Dan Lothian with more on those tantalizing clues. Please stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: We continue now with the incredible story of one of the biggest thefts in American history. Who could have been behind the brilliant plan that made $300 million in rare paintings vanish into thin air? And could an ex-con finally solve a case that has baffled detectives for 15 years?

Here again, Dan Lothian.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Just down the street from Fenway Park, Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is an intimate showcase of some of the finest works of art. But it's perhaps best known for what was stolen 15 years ago.

ANNE HAWLEY, MUSEUM EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: It's been like a death in a family. We need to get these back to be whole again.

STEPHEN KURKJIAN, "BOSTON GLOBE" REPORTER: It's an offense, it's a crime that I think the city would like to have solved as soon as possible.

LOTHIAN: The list of potential suspects is long. What about the two museum guards? An inside job?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can tell you that the guards are no longer considered suspects at this point? LOTHIAN: Or was it notorious fugitive Boston mobster James Whitey Bulger and his associates?

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, U.S. ATTORNEY: There's as many stories as there are, probably, days in the year in terms of what happened on March 18, 1990.

LOTHIAN: But the stories and suspicions surrounding two Boston area convicted criminals remain in the headlines.

First, Miles Connor, a notorious art thief, was serving a 15 year sentence for trafficking stolen antiques at the time of the Gardner heist. Now, out on probation, he tells CNN he had once thought about robbing the Gardner but scrapped the idea. He claims two former associates and a third man did the job.

MILES CONNOR, CONVICTED ART THIEF: One of the fellows came out to see me. I was in California at the time. He said, "We've got these things and now, we're going to use a section of what we've got, to essentially bargain you out or bargain you to reduced sentence."

LOTHIAN: The artwork never surfaced. There was no bargain. The two former associates who said they had the goods died: one of a heart attack, the other murdered.

(on camera) When he was released, Connor, who says he stole for the love of the art and because he could, claims he began searching for the Gardner paintings.

His former associates had always promised to leave behind information as a safeguard in case something happened to them. But Connor had a problem. He says massive heart attack that almost cost him his life claimed a lot of his memory.

Are you saying that you may have been told where the artwork was, but you can't remember?

CONNOR: That's -- that's a distinct possibility.

LOTHIAN (voice-over): Now, for the first time, Connor reveals to CNN he has recently undergone hypnosis and recovered a name, perhaps the third man he was told took part in that heist.

LOTHIAN (on camera): Can you tell us the name of that person?

CONNOR: No, I can't because it's kind of a -- it's a big secret.

LOTHIAN: Is it believable?

TOM MASHBERG, "BOSTON HERALD" REPORTER: Well, I think it's very credible.

LOTHIAN: Tom Mashberg, an investigative reporter with "The Boston Herald," has been relentlessly pursuing the Gardner case, which has often placed him in the company of not only Conner but also another one of the ex-con's former associates, William Youngworth. Seven years after the heist, Youngworth took Mashberg to a secret warehouse in the northeast and showed him what appeared to be one of the missing Rembrandts.

MASHBERG: There's so question at the time I felt I was looking at one of the real paintings.

LOTHIAN: Experts at the museum looked at photos of the painting and concluded it was a fake. But less certain, paint chips Mashberg received from Youngworth.

MASHBERG: The paint chips were shown to be authentic paint chips from a Rembrandt type of painting.

LOTHIAN (on camera): But we don't know if those paint chips came from that painting?

MASHBERG: That we don't know.

LOTHIAN (voice-over): No additional clues surfaced. But Youngworth, who has a rap sheet of some 60 convictions, claims to know where the Gardner art is, can get it in 30 minutes but wants guaranteed immunity from prosecution.

SULLIVAN: I can't say that there's nothing to these stories.

LOTHIAN: U.S. attorney Michael Sullivan has been filtering all these claims for years.

SULLIVAN: We do have the ability to consider immunity.

LOTHIAN (on camera): You're willing to deal with whoever that person is who has the artwork?

SULLIVAN: There's no question.

LOTHIAN (voice-over): And in an exclusive on camera appeal from the museum's director, an overture to an anonymous letter writer 11 years ago who seemed legitimate.

HAWLEY: I'm particularly interested in hearing from that person who had, I think, a real concern about our getting the work back.

LOTHIAN: Fifteen years have not dimmed the appeal of the Gardner mystery. It's been the subject of novels and films, like "Stolen," a new documentary.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I, Isabella Stewart Gardner...

SUSANNAH LUDWIG, MOVIE PRODUCER: The story had the extra added bonus of having all these really interesting, intriguing elements.

LOTHIAN: The film was recently voted audience favorite at the Sarasota Film Festival.

REBECCA DREYFUS, MOVIE DIRECTOR: I think people are really fascinated as to what happened? Can the art be recovered?

LOTHIAN: Harold Smith, the art detective, was featured predominantly in the documentary. He was optimistic.

(on camera) At what point do you say, I don't think we're ever going to find this art?

HAROLD SMITH, ART DETECTIVE: No. This art is going to be found. I'm not going to give up.

LOTHIAN (voice-over): Sadly, he won't be the one to find it. Not long after we spoke with him, Smith passed away.

But museum officials and FBI are equally determined. Despite dead ends and disappointments, there is still hope that the greatest art heist in history will one day be solved.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And we need to add that just recently the FBI followed a lead to Paris to talk with French investigators. But as you know, the paintings are still missing. Another year has passed. And museum officials can only hope someone somewhere comes forward.

Moving along now, we'll get an update of the hour's top stories next, including the latest from Florida, where a family now knows the worst.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Still ahead, we're going to take you to the Florida town that has been searching for a missing girl for nearly a month, where police now say a man has confessed to killing her.

First, though, about 10 minutes before the hour, let's check in with Erica Hill at Headline News.

Hi, again, Erica.

ERICA HILL, HEADLINE NEWS: Hi, Paula.

We start in Washington, where lawyers from the House of Representatives have just filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to have Terri Schiavo's feeding tube reinserted. It was withdrawn earlier today. Now without it, it could take one to two weeks for Schiavo to die.

The attorney for Terri Schiavo's husband, Michael Schiavo, calls attempts to deny her wishes, quote, "disgusting."

A single engine plane took a hard nose first crash into a Charlotte parking lot just a couple of hours ago. Now amazingly, despite the crooked cockpit, the pilot was able to walk away and even declined a trip to the hospital after being treated for some injuries. Nobody on the ground was hurt, but the fire department did say authorities are working to contain a gas leak. A new government crash test shows the Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari fared worst among minivans. A GM spokesman says both vehicles meet federal safety standards and notes those tests were done in 1999.

Five minivans received a top rating in both frontal and side impact tests. They include the Mazda MPV, Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town and Country.

And that's going to do it for us at Headline News. Paula, back to you. Enjoy your weekend.

ZAHN: You, too, Erica. Thanks so much.

Let's check in with Larry King, who's coming up in just about nine minutes, 32 seconds, if you're counting.

Hi, Larry. Who's joining you tonight?

LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": Nine, 32. We're going to do half the program on the Lunsford case and the other half on the Schiavo case. And we'll have Michael Schiavo, the husband on, and we'll have the sister of the Schiavo lady who's now had the feeding tube pulled. And we have the goings on in Congress.

So both stories will be covered, half the show on one, half on the other, all ahead at 9. Have a great weekend, Paula.

ZAHN: Thanks very much, Larry. You, too. See you in a couple of minutes.

And we will be back in a moment. And we're going to take you back to Jessica Lunsford's hometown for the very latest developments in that case.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Welcome back.

Again, the breaking news we have been following tonight in the case of Jessica Lunsford, the 9-year-old Florida girl missing for nearly a month now. Well, investigators are telling us tonight that John Couey, the man arrested this week as a person of interest in her disappearance, has now confessed to killing her.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHERIFF JEFF DAWSY, CITRUS COUNTY, FLORIDA: John Couey admitted to abducting Jessica and subsequently taking her life.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: Time to go back now to Homosassa, Florida. That's where we find our own Sara Dorsey. Sara, what's going on there right now?

SARA DORSEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Paula, a search is under way, the search, of course, for Jessica Lunsford's body. Just over my shoulder, you can see some lights on behind me. Of course, crime scene tape all around there, also a crime scene investigative truck back there.

We are told right now deputies are searching. They have out their flashlights and large lights in the area. Digging has not begun, but we're told they're even searching right under that trailer. And that's the home that Mr. Couey, the man that confessed was living in. Living in illegally, we might say, because he was a registered sex offender registered to a different home, not this one so close.

But right now, the search continues. There's a chill in the air here, and it seems almost appropriate because this community is so let down. When the search started for Jessica three weeks ago, nearly 400 and 500 people were coming out, despite bad weather, to search for her.

Now, of course, they're coming out with candles just beyond our cameras, an impromptu vigil for this little girl.

ZAHN: Sara, there are so many things we don't know tonight. And I guess one of the hardest things to try to figure out is how seriously investigators are actually telling -- or taking what this convicted sex offender has told them. Do they believe him?

DORSEY: I think they do. Whenever the sheriff, Jeff Dawsy says, "I've got my man," I think that pretty much says it all.

Dawsy has been extremely tight-lipped throughout this all. He's been very, very careful in what he releases to the media. In fact, whenever he said that Mr. Couey was a person of interest, he even you know, kind of backed off from that saying, you know, "We just want to speak to him. It may not go anywhere."

But I really think he is fairly confident. Now, they have a little ways to go. They're going to need to locate this body and collect any other evidence that possibly could be there.

The sheriff, though, has taken this very seriously and personally all the way through. He has a 9-year-old child himself and has all along wanted to bring this little girl home safely. Now, of course, it looks like that is not the case, if you can, in fact, believe this confession. And it looks like the authorities do believe that they possibly could find her body in the area that Mr. Couey has led them to.

ZAHN: And Sara, I guess it's not clear from any of the reporting I've heard so far tonight, whether anybody who lived in Jessica Lunsford's neighborhood had any idea that a convicted sex offender was living on their street. What have you heard?

DORSEY: Well, the Lunsford family, they say they didn't know this man. They didn't know he was living there.

In speaking to people in this area, it doesn't sound like a lot of people had contact with this gentleman. The family member, of course, that he was living with knew he was there, knew he was a convicted sex offender.

In fact, that family member lied to investigators when they first went to the home and questioned them about Mr. Couey. Of course, later investigators found out they had been lied to, went back and got more information. That is how they figured out where Mr. Couey was in Georgia.

ZAHN: Sara Dorsey. I know you've had a lot to assess here this evening. Thank you for being bringing us all that late breaking news. We appreciate it.

And I'd like to ask you all to join me for the latest developments in the Lunsford case when I host "NEWSNIGHT" at 10 p.m. Eastern. That would be just about an hour from now.

Also, a woman who was carjacked during last week's shooting rampage in Atlanta.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was looking straight into the barrel of that gun. The only thing I could do was continue to scream. You know...

ZAHN: So you're still on the ground at this point?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm on the ground.

ZAHN: And he's standing over you>

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's standing over me. He's got the gun pointed straight in my face. He's telling me to shut up. But the more he says shut up, the louder, the harder I scream.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: The most amazing thing is she cheated death three times. Her full story when I host "NEWSNIGHT" tonight, at 10 p.m. Eastern.

Thanks so much for being with us tonight. We hope you all have a very good weekend. Larry King -- that would be Larry King is next. Hope you're back with us Monday night. Good night.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com


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