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One year later ...

Family still hoping for return of missing girl

September 25, 2012
Wire and Staff Reports , The Inter-Mountain

Friends and family looked on as Aliayah Lunsford's brother released white doves as a symbol of hope in Weston Monday, but officials have not yet solved the mystery of what happened to the 3-year-old who vanished from her home one year ago.

The doves were released during a ceremony at Bendale United Methodist Church featuring Aliayah's 5-year-old brother, Trenton Lee Cook.

"She's just sweet, loving; she's everyone's little girl," Wendy Swiger, Aliayah Lunsford's aunt, said before the ceremony. "I think about her all the time. I cried myself to sleep last night. I'm hoping for a safe return to her family."

Article Photos

The Inter-Mountain photos by Melissa Toothman
Trenton Lee Cook, 5, releases a white dove, symbolizing hope for finding his missing sister Aliayah Lunsford, who has now been missing for a year. A memorial ceremony was held at the Bendale United Methodist Church Monday for friends, family and community members who still share the hope of bringing Aliayah Lunsford back home.

"It's her year anniversary and we just want her remembered and brought home," Sue Kerns of Weston, who helped organize the event, said. "We don't want her just being another face on a milk carton."

Aliayah's mother, Lena Lunsford, told police her daughter was in bed, wearing purple pajama pants and a pink sweat shirt, at 6:30 a.m. Sept. 24, 2011. But she said the child was missing when she checked on her a few hours later.

Six months later, an FBI official said investigators had a working theory about what happened - and it didn't involve a break-in. The agency has since refused to say what agents believe happened to Aliayah or whether they think she's still alive, though it is offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to her recovery or an arrest.

Authorities have made no arrests and named no suspects, only describing the people of interest as "a small universe."

Concern for Aliayah has spawned several Facebook groups with the aim of gathering information to try to locate the girl.

Several candlelight vigils and other events over the last year have tried to raise awareness and gather information about the missing child.

"I just hope and pray everyday for closure," Sherry Tomsyker of Weston said at Monday's ceremony. "I know God's holding her in his hands wherever she may be."

"She should've been found and brought home. It's nice the community sticks together to remember this little girl," Tammy McDonald of Weston said.

The search for Aliayah has covered several miles, rivers, ponds and lakes, but no evidence to where the girl is has ever been released.

The rescue group P.P.P. Recovery, which includes ex-law enforcement officers, also became involved in the search, but still nothing was found.

The girl's mother was indicted weeks after Aliayah's disappearance on charges she illegally swapped welfare benefits for cash five times in two months. She was sentenced in May to eight months in prison after pleading guilty to selling $114 worth of credit on her food-stamp card for $50 cash and reported to prison in late June.

Attorney Mike Woelfel, who has represented Lena Lunsford in unrelated civil matters, has said Lena doesn't believe her daughter wandered off and has cooperated with investigators. She's also certain "no blood relative of Aliayah knows what has happened to her," though Woelfel has never elaborated.

Woelfel said he spoke to Lena Lunsford on Friday, and she told him she still believes "Aliayah is out there, alive."

"She's told the FBI everything she knows," he said, "so she's basically powerless to do anything other than sit and wait."

Lena Lunsford filed for divorce from her husband, Ralph Keith Lunsford, after her daughter's disappearance, and is still waiting for it to be finalized. She'd been ordered by a judge to live apart from Ralph after he acknowledged buying and using synthetic drugs called bath salts.

Both parents have repeatedly refused to comment on Aliayah's disappearance, but in a court proceeding, Ralph Lunsford acknowledged police had considered him a person of interest and repeatedly questioned him in the case.

Lena Lunsford gave birth to twins after Aliayah disappeared and before she went to prison.



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