Lena Lunsford charged with daughter’s death
WESTON — A heart-wrenching mystery that has plagued a small Central West Virginia town for five long years may be coming to an end.
Thursday afternoon, detectives with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office arrested Lena Marie Lunsford — the mother of missing Weston toddler Aliayah Lunsford — at 5910 31st St. North in St. Petersburg. She is being charged with death of a child by a parent by child abuse, Sunshine State officials confirmed to The Inter-Mountain.
Lena Lunsford, who has been living in St. Petersburg, Florida, for some time, also has been going by the names Lena Conaway and Lena Marie Lunsford-Conaway, officials said. She is being held on $250,000 cash bail pending extradition back to the Mountain State.
Lewis County Sheriff Adam M. Gissy was unavailable for comment Thursday, but a press conference is scheduled for 11 a.m. today at the Lewis County Courthouse.
The FBI has been in charge of the case, with assistance from the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office.
Reached Thursday at the FBI’s Pittsburgh Field Office, Supervisory Agent Greg Heeb said he was aware of the arrest, but his office was not directly involved.
“Some developments have been made in the case,” Heeb said. “It is not our arrest warrant, though, but we are aware of possible developments in the case.”
Currently, Lena Lunsford is the only person charged in the case, and details of the developments have not been released.
Lena and Ralph Lunsford have battled a variety of legal woes since the disappearance, with Lena serving eight months in a federal prison on welfare fraud charges.
Following her stint in prison, Lena Lunsford moved to Wheeling, then eventually settled in St. Petersburg, Florida.
In 2013, the Lunsfords lost their parental rights to their other children.
Aliayah Lunsford was reported missing from her Dennison Street home in Lewis County at 11:30 a.m. on Sept. 24, 2011.
She was last seen around 6:30 a.m. that morning, but she was not in her room when her mother checked on her at about 9:30 a.m.
At the time of her disappearance, Aliayah was 3-feet tall, weighing only 30 pounds. She was wearing purple Dora the Explorer pajama bottoms and a pink princess sweatshirt. She had no shoes on, reports at the time indicated.
Shortly after the disappearance, the Lunsford family home was deemed a crime scene, with the FBI bringing in a child abduction expert.
“We are gathering information on specific areas to recover,” FBI Special Agent John Hambrick said on Sept. 28, 2011. “We are using a methodical approach. We are not discussing specifics of the case publicly. We are focusing on the facts and following the investigation.”
Officials also launched a 24-hour-a-day search that included dozens of volunteers from the community, including ones from Bendale United Methodist Church. For days, volunteers scoured the county looking for any possible clue.
In October 2011, the search officially became a criminal investigation, with FBI officials declaring that the agency believed Aliayah had either been killed, abducted or was being concealed.
“Right now the volunteer segment of the command post has been disbanded,” FBI Special Agent Jeff Killeen said at the time. “We are no longer considering this as a walk-off, that being a child leaving the home and wandering off into the woods or into a body of water. That has been ruled out. The chances of anyone surviving in these elements is absolutely remote. At this time we are looking at this matter strictly as a crime.”
Prior to the fifth anniversary of Aliayah’s disappearance in September, Heeb said officials still were doing everything they could to solve the cold case.
“The investigation is considered to be open,” he said. “We haven’t forgotten about this. It’s still a priority.”
In addition to the FBI, the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office and the West Virginia State Police have utilized every possible resource to crack the case, Heeb noted at the time.
In February 2014, an age progression photo of Aliayah was released by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, who have continued to champion the case.
In addition, there has been a great amount of community support for the family, with many community members still helping to search for Aliayah and garner tips for law enforcement officials.
Hundreds of local residents and people from all over the country took to social media Thursday in thanks for the recent development.
“Finally, some justice for sweet Aliayah!” wrote Dannette Fleguth on the Help Find aliayah Lunsford Facebook page.
“I have hopes that a family member will step forward and release what they have held inside for the past 5 years of our wondering where baby Aliayah could be,” wrote Jewell Vaughan. “We were all praying that she may be safe and in good hands or gone from this earth and in the hands of her forever master/father. For God sake, family step forward. The siblings of Aliayah have lived a living hell, with what they knew or thought they may know!!”
Others lashed out in anger at Lena Lunsford.
“I’d love to have taken this beautiful little girl and gave her lots of love,” wrote Sissy Miller. “The mother and her b/f are both creeps, and I’ve thought so since the beginning. Looking at all Aliayahs photos show she was a very unhappy/possibly abused child. God Bless her little heart.”
“It’s been a long time coming, and I pray that baby gets her justice and that mother gets her karma 10 fold,” wrote Jennifer Taylor.