Police: Aliayah Lunsford died of blunt-force trauma; mother charged
WESTON – The fog is beginning to clear around a case shrouded in mystery for the past five years.
Aliayah Lunsford died of a blunt-force strike to the head from a solid handheld object wielded by her mother, Lena Lunsford, police alleged during a press conference Friday. The little girl’s mother then neglected to provide medical attention and orchestrated an attempt to cover up the crime, police said.
Lena Marie Lunsford, 34, 1414 San Juan Court, Apt. 2, Clearwater, Florida, was arrested Thursday in Pinellas County, Florida, on a charge of death of a child by parent by child abuse, according to a criminal complaint filed by Lewis County Deputy E.E. Carpenter.
Lena Lunsford waived extradition and has been brought back to West Virginia. She was arraigned by special Magistrate John Coffman, who set bond at $250,000. A preliminary hearing has not been set.
The location of Aliayah Lunsford’s body is unknown, Lewis County Sheriff Adam Gissy said.
“I realize there are several questions left unanswered,” he said. “However, I’m sure the one question that is weighing on everyone’s mind is, ‘Have we located Aliayah?’ The investigation has led us to believe that the one person who possesses knowledge of Aliayah’s whereabouts is now in custody.”
“I apologize that this information has been quite vague, but the details cannot be fully divulged for the investigation remains active and ongoing,” he added.
On Sept. 24, 2011, Lena Lunsford allegedly “knowingly and intentionally” struck the 3-year-old toddler while inside their Lewis County residence, according to the complaint. There were witnesses to the bludgeoning of the child who stated Aliayah Lunsford fell to the ground from the head injury, the complaint alleges.
Lena Lunsford did not immediately provide help or medical assistance to the child and did not allow others present to provide medical assistance or contact medical personnel to assist the victim, who was visibly suffering from trauma caused by the attack, the complaint alleges.
Aliayah Lunsford died within hours of being struck. After her death, Lena Lunsford took steps to conceal the crime, the complaint alleges. These steps included originating a fictitious narrative regarding the death, destroying evidence, concealing the victim’s body and instructing witnesses to conceal the true circumstances of the victim’s death, according to the complaint.
Lena Lunsford is the birth mother of the victim, who was under the care and custody of her mother at the time of the incident, the complaint states.
Gissy said Friday’s announcement was a somber occassion, but it represented a successful day for investigators in the case because closure is forthcoming.
“This investigation has been quite trying for all involved. The perception may have been law enforcement has not put forth the appropriate effort in investigation of this notable case. However, by relentlessly probing the one big break that was essential in bringing forth closure, it has come to fruition,” he said.
Gissy’s office has worked hand-in-hand with the West Virginia State Police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as law enforcement agencies in Florida.
The announcement of the arrest of Lena Lunsford came as no surprise to many, including family members who were forced to wait outside the Lewis County Courthouse during the press conference Friday. The arrest may begin to provide some closure to a case that has weighed heavily on the heart of this sleepy West Virginia Community.
Aliayah Lunsford’s great-aunt, Vickie Bowen, said family members have been holding on to hope, but they knew it was paper-thin.
“We tried to prepare for this day. We’ve known in our hearts for years now that Aliayah was gone, but we all still held on to that one little thread of hope, and now that’s gone,” she said.
Bowen and Aliayah’s Lunsford’s aunt, Tina Smith, said they have long suspected Lena Lunsford. They believe the witnesses who came forward are likely Lena’s other children or, possibly, her ex-husband, Ralph Lunsford, who is believed to be Aliayah’s father.
“I believe it was her older daughters. I don’t know, but that’s what I think and, possibly, Ralph even,” Bowen said.
Smith was distraught over the confirmation that Aliayah allegedly was killed at the hands of Lena Lunsford.
“How could anyone do this to an innocent baby? She didn’t deserve any of this. She was an innocent baby,” she said.
When asked if there was anything she would like to say to Lena Lunsford, Smith said, “Girl, you better pray God takes mercy on your soul is all I have to say for you. There’s a place in hell for child killers.”
Bowen had similar sentiments for Lena Lunsford.
“She gave birth, but she was never a mother. That woman has no heart; she has no soul,” she said.
Bowen also was dissatisfied with the way law enforcement officials kept the extended family the dark about the investigation.
“We weren’t even called when Lena was arrested,” she said. “We weren’t even allowed in the press conference today. How does it make us feel? Pretty damn mad, to tell you the truth. We’ve been in this from day one. We’ve been literally in hell for the last five years, and we’re treated like crap for it.”
“I was told by authorities they didn’t have to tell us a damn thing, that Aliayah had no immediate family, that her parents were suspects, her siblings were in protective custody and we’re extended family, and they don’t have to tell us anything,” Bowen added.
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 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.
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.
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.
The Inter-Mountain staff member Kristi Groves contributed to this article.