On anniversary, police have new leads in Lunsford case

On the second anniversary of the disappearance of 3-year-old Aliayah Lunsford, law enforcement officials are pursuing a potential lead that may result in a break in the case.

“As a matter of fact, we followed up on a lead as early as 8:30 this morning,” Lewis County Sheriff Adam Gissy said Tuesday. “It’s nearly a daily event for us to find more information on the disappearance.”

Gissy said he could not elaborate on the specifics of the information, saying it could jeopardize the case. He did say, though, that the lead “is part of a working theory we have been looking at for a few months now.”

The Lunsford case has garnered much attention in both the Mountain State and nationally, including coverage by CNN’s Nancy Grace. The disappearance remains fresh on the minds of local residents as missing persons poster seeking new information on the case continue to dot Central West Virginia. Tonight, friends and family members will mark the anniversary at a 6 p.m. vigil at the Lewis County Courthouse.

In the early morning hours of Sept. 11, 2011, Lena Lunsford, Aliayah’s mother, discovered her daughter missing, but then waited about two hours before notifying law enforcement. During that time, she reportedly was searching for the girl. She told authorities that she checked on the girl around 6:30 a.m. that day because Aliayah had not been feeling well. When Lena Lunsford went back to check on Aliayah around 9:30 a.m., she discovered the child was missing. She waited until 11:30 a.m. to report her daughter missing.

The Lewis County Sheriff’s Department, led by Sgt. Mike Posey, immediately began searching the area for the child. Posey said the department is “actively investigating” the case, and that he believes the little girl will be found some day.

In the coming days, the sheriff’s department was joined in the search by the West Virginia State Police, the FBI and countless volunteers from the community and throughout the country. Divers searched the West Fork River behind the Lunsford home for any traces of Aliayah, but found none. Professional searchers combed the woods near the house for days trying to find any clue as to Aliayah’s whereabouts.

Community organizations joined in the search effort, many donating food and shelter to those searching for Aliayah. The Bendale church became a central command post for the searchers to gather, or for those wishing to drop off supplies.

Four days following the missing persons report, the area was declared a crime scene by the FBI, which brought in child abduction experts to assist in the case.

FBI Special Agent John Hamrick said the agents were “gathering information on specific areas to recover.” He said searchers were working under the assumption that Aliayah was still alive, as they had uncovered no evidence to suggest foul play.

While the investigation has continued locally, the majority of the work is being handled by the West Virginia Intelligence Fusion Center.

Since her daughter’s disappearance, Lena Lunsford has seen her share of unrelated legal issues. She was convicted on federal welfare fraud charges and has been in and out of custody since being released from federal prison because of alleged violations on the terms of her release.

She also has been divorced from her husband, Ralph. Her other children are now under the care of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

The FBI is offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any and all individuals involved in the child’s disappearance.

“I still feel there is a chance we can crack this case, as far as the disappearance goes,” Gissy said. “I want the citizens to rest assured we are working on this case daily.”