Police pursue new lead in Lunsford case

Lewis County Sheriff Adam Gissy can’t say with the fullest confidence that the latest information received by investigators in a 2-year-old missing child case will be the final piece of the puzzle that cracks the case.

“There are many different working theories,” he said Wednesday. “We are hopeful it is going to help us, but I don’t know how soon that will be.”

Tuesday marked the two-year anniversary of the disappearance of then 3-year-old Aliayah Lunsford from her home in Weston. Since then, the FBI, the West Virginia State Police and other trained searchers and investigators have sifted through the information, hoping to find some clue as to the whereabouts of the little girl.

“It gives us hope that they are still getting leads,” said Tina Smith, Aliayah’s aunt. “We didn’t think there was any new information. But since they are still getting leads, it shows that there is somebody out there that knows something.”

Gissy said Tuesday the sheriff’s department had received information regarding the Sept. 24, 2011, disappearance that very morning. But he said elaborating on the tip could jeopardize the investigation, though he noted it was part of a “working theory” his department has been looking at for a few months.

That lack of information is frustrating to family members who hold out hope that Aliayah will return home one day.

“We used to get updates,” Smith said. “We don’t get that anymore.

“If anyone knows anything, please come forward so we can bring Aliayah home,” she said.

That the sheriff’s department recently cracked a nearly 14-year-old cold case involving two missing Lewis County women gives Smith a glimmer of hope that one day police officers will announce they have solved the mystery surrounding Aliayah’s disappearance.

“We’re hoping it’s real soon,” Smith said. “It’s already been two years too long.”

In the early morning hours of Sept. 24, 2011, Lena Lunsford, Aliayah’s mother, allegedly discovered her daughter missing, but then waited about two hours before notifying law enforcement of the situation. During that time, she reportedly was searching for the child.

She told authorities that she had checked on Aliayah about 6:30 a.m., because Aliayah was not feeling well. Lunsford said she went back to check on her daughter around 9:30 a.m., only to discover the child was missing. She waited until 11:30 a.m. to report her missing daughter.

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.

In the coming days, the sheriff’s department was joined in the search by the West Virginia State Police, the FBI and several 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 also joined in the effort, many of which donated food and shelter to those searching for the child. The Bendale church became a central command area for the searchers to gather, or for those just wishing to drop off donations.

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 searchers continued to work under the assumption that the little girl was alive, noting there was no evidence to suggest foul play.

While the investigation has continued locally, the West Virginia Intelligence Fusion Center continues to handle the bulk of the investigation. The FBI is offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any and all individuals involved with Aliayah’s disappearance.