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Piecing Together The Puzzle

On anniversary of disappearance, police have new leads in Aliayah Lunsford case

September 25, 2013
By John Wickline - Upshur Bureau Chief ( , The Inter-Mountain

Lewis County Sheriff Adam Gissy desperately wishes he could find that final piece of the puzzle that would lead to a resolution in the case of a two-year-old missing persons case that has gripped his county since it first occurred.

But he said rarely a day goes by when he and his deputies are not pursuing some new lead that they hope result in that big break.

"As a matter of fact, we followed up on a lead as early as 8:30 this morning," Gissy said Tuesday, which marked the anniversary of the Sept. 24, 2011, disappearance of then 3-year-old Aliayah Lunsford from her Weston home.

Article Photos

Vickie Bowen, left, the great-aunt of missing 3-year-old Aliayah Lunsford, cries into the chest of her husband, David, after she addressed the crowd at Tuesday's vigil at the Lewis County Courthouse, which marked the two-year anniversary of the little girl's disappearance from her Weston home. (The Inter-Mountain photo by John Wickline)

"It's nearly a daily event for us to find more information on the disappearance."

Gissy said he could not elaborate on this new piece of information, fearing it could jeopardize the case. He did say the lead "is part of a working theory we have been looking at for a few months now."

The Lunsford case garnered tremendous attention nationally at the onset, including from CNN's Nancy Grace. The little girl's disappearance remains fresh on the mind of local residents as missing person posters continue to dot the landscape of central West Virginia.

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"This is very much an active investigation," said C.L. Moneypenny of the Lewis County Sheriff's Department. "The FBI, the West Virginia State Police and our department are very much committed to this investigation."

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.

Fact Box

Aliayah Lunsford Timeline

Sept. 24, 2011: Three-year-old Aliayah Lunsford went missing from her Lewis County home. She was last seen by her mother, Lena Lunsford, at about 6:30 a.m. and was not in her room when her mother checked again at 9:30 a.m. She was reported missing at approximately 11:30 a.m.

Sept. 25, 2011: Hundreds of community members and law enforcement officials began combing the surrounding areas in search of Lunsford. Bloodhounds were utilized in the search, and briefly narrowed in on a scent, only to lose it again a short time later.

Sept 27, 2011: The FBI joined in on the search, focusing on a quarter-mile radius around the family's Dennison Street home in South Weston. Divers also continued their search in local bodies of water.

Sept. 28, 2011: FBI officials announced that the family's home was being treated as a crime scene.

Oct. 2, 2011: Officials with the Department of Health and Human Resources removed the remaining children from the Lunsford home, doing so without making any comment as to why.

Oct. 3, 2011: Officials with the FBI said Lunsford's disappearance had become a criminal matter. FBI Special Agent Jeff Killeen said the agency is looking at three possibilities: homicide, abduction or concealment.

Oct. 6, 2011: The Lewis County 911 tapes from the day of the disappearance were released to the news media.

Oct. 15, 2011: FBI officials announced that they were narrowing their search, reviewing a significant amount of video evidence from security systems in the South Weston area.

Oct. 17, 2011: Lena Lunsford, Aliayah's mother, was arrested on unrelated charges of allowing another individual to use a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) card, issued to her, in her name and with her personal identification number, to purchase approximately $114.82 in food in exchange for a $50 cash payment on or about Oct. 15.

Oct. 27, 2011: Law enforcement officials refocused their search to the western end of Lewis County. FBI Special Agent Jeff Killeen said the move was made based on what he called "valuable information" received from the community.

Nov. 3, 2011: The FBI announced a $20,000 reward for information leading to the recovery of Lunsford.

Nov. 11, 2011: Aliayah's mother issued a statement through her attorneys begging residents to watch for any clue concerning her daughter's whereabouts. "I believe in my heart that Aliayah is alive," Lunsford said in the statement.

Nov. 15, 2011: Federal officials released a new missing-child poster of Lunsford, with a family photo that shows multiple large bruises on her face.

Nov. 17, 2011: U.S. Magistrate John S. Kaull accepted a plea agreement from Lena Lunsford on one count of a six-count indictment regarding federal welfare charges.

Feb. 8, 2012: The search for Aliayah Lunsford began with fresh eyes with help from rescue group P.P.P. Recovery.

May 22, 2012: Lena Lunsford was sentenced to eight months in prison on charges of welfare fraud.

Sept. 24, 2012: Friends and family looked on as Aliayah Lunsford's brother released white doves as a symbol of hope, but officials have not yet solved the mystery of what happened to the 3-year-old who vanished from her home.

Sept. 27, 2012: Television journalist Jane Velez-Mitchell devoted part of her interview program on the HLN cable channel to the search for Lunsford.

Feb. 14, 2013: The West Virginia Supreme Court upheld a Lewis County judge's decision to terminate parental rights to Lena Lunsford.

Aug. 20, 2013: U.S. District Judge John Preston Bailey released Lena Lunsford from prison, but extended her probation following her third arrest this summer for violating the terms of her supervised release.

Sept. 24, 2013: 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. The family gathered at the Lewis County Courthouse for a vigil.

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.

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 has also 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 with Aliayah's disappearance.

"No matter how trivial you think it is, come forward and let us look into the details," Moneypenny said.

Gissy said he wants the citizens of Lewis County to know that his department has not forgotten about the missing little girl.

"I still feel there is a chance we can crack this case, as far as the disappearance goes," he said. "I just wish it could happen overnight."



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