By John Clise
It was a Saturday morning when then three-year-old Aliayah Lunsford turned up missing from her family’s Dennison Street home in the Bendale area of Weston in Lewis County West Virginia.
I was headed to Weston to cover some event that I don’t remember now when I saw a deputy friend of mine walking along the road with no cruiser in sight.
I pulled over and was probably about to say something obnoxious when I saw the look on his face. Instead of being a smart mouth, I asked what was happening. All I could make out was that a child was missing. It was at that moment I got a bad, bad feeling in my stomach that hasn’t left me for 10 years now.
In the following days there were searches, media coverage, multiple law enforcement agency coverage, community awareness… the only thing missing was the presence of Aliayah’s mother, Lena. That struck me, and many others as very odd.
My gut told me Lena was guilty from the beginning, but I wasn’t a judge or a jury. I was just a newspaper reporter reporting objectively on the disappearance of a three-year-old from her home.
I took part in the searches, kept my eyes and ears open, and lost a lot of sleep wondering about what could have transpired.
In truth, I still wonder where Aliayah’s body ended up. I wonder how a parent could do that to a child. How could a parent threaten her living children in such a manner?
At the time, I talked to a friend who lived not far from the family and was active in the searches. She said she couldn’t say if Lena was guilty or not, but that if her child was missing, she would basically go crazy, and that she would have been on every search, talking to the media, and working with law enforcement to find her missing child 24 hours a day.
Also at the time, an FBI agent told, as I was personally struggling to make sense of the situation, that some cases get solved immediately, some never got solved, and others take 5 or 10 or 20 years to solve. He said people can grow a conscience over the years, seek forgiveness, lost fear, grow up, say something somewhere they shouldn’t, and the case can get solved from there. He was right.
When Lena was finally tried for Aliayah’s murder in 2018, Lena’s lawyers defense strategy was to throw everything they could at the wall and hope something stuck. It didn’t.
I’ll leave those full details to the Charley Project write up as I believe, and have said previously, do a good job getting all of the facts in place.
Personally, all I can say is that Aliayah would be 13 now, and should be enjoying her life as a teenager, doing all the things we did as young teenagers. It’s truly heartbreaking.
According to the Charlie Project, Aliayah was last seen in bed in her Weston, West Virginia home on September 24, 2011. She had been sick with flu-like symptoms, including vomiting, the previous evening. When her mother, Lena Marie Lunsford, went to check on her at 6:30 a.m., Aliayah was in bed asleep. The child’s nine-year-old sister also saw her around that time. The next time her mother checked, at 9:00 a.m., she was gone. She has never been heard from again.
Her mother didn’t report her missing until 11:30 a.m., five hours after she was last seen and two and a half hours after Lena realized she was gone. She said that in the interim she drove around in her car looking for Aliayah, running out of gas at one point.
There were no indications of forced entry to the house, and an extensive search of the area, including a nearby river, turned up no sign of the child. Aliayah’s family described her as shy and said she would never have left her house or yard alone.
Nine days following Aliayah’s disappearance, her four siblings, aged between nine months and eleven years old, were removed from the household and placed in foster care. The state Department of Health and Human Resources didn’t give a reason for the removal, but it’s worth noting that all of Lena’s children, including Aliayah, had previously spent time in foster homes or with relatives. Lena was pregnant with twin girls at the time Aliayah went missing, and the babies were taken from her after they were born.
In the month following Aliayah’s disappearance, Lena was arrested on federal charges of welfare fraud. She and her husband, Ralph Keith Lunsford, who is Aliayah’s stepfather, both had prior criminal records for various charges for minor offenses. Lena’s mother, who occasionally cared for Aliayah, died in early 2012. In February 2013, while Lena was in jail, she lost her parental rights to her other six children. Ralph, who is the father of five of the children, also had his parental rights terminated.
Photographs of Lena and Ralph are posted with this case summary. They divorced in the wake of Aliayah’s disappearance. The court found that all the Lunsford children had been neglected and some of them had irreversible tooth decay as a result.
Court documents noted that Lena and Ralph had “vaguely accused” each other of involvement in Aliayah’s disappearance; the court believed Lena knew more about her daughter’s disappearance than she disclosed. Lena maintained she knows nothing about what happened to Aliayah and only hopes she’s still alive. She was released from jail shortly after losing her parental rights, but later re-incarcerated for a series of probation violations related to her welfare fraud conviction.
Lena spent the next few years in and out of custody; she was jailed three times in the five years after Aliayah’s disappearance. In November 2016, over five years after Aliayah’s disappearance, Lena was arrested in her new residence of St. Petersburg, Florida and charged with homicide by child abuse in her case.
At Lena’s trial in 2018, Ralph testified that they had taken bath salts the night their daughter disappeared and he didn’t know what happened to Aliayah. Two of Aliayah’s older sisters testified against their mother. The girls, who have since been adopted by another family, were nine and eleven years old when their sister disappeared.
They said Lena had always treated Aliayah more severely than her siblings, and on September 23, she struck Aliayah in the head with a wooden bed slat. Aliayah’s head was “squishy” and swollen after she was struck, and about twelve hours later her sisters found her unresponsive in bed. Lena attempted to revive her but didn’t call 911 or otherwise try to get help.
She then put the child in a laundry hamper, put the hamper in the family car, and took it, Aliayah’s sisters and her infant brother to a wooded area known as Vadis. This was in a rural area of the county, off a dirt road without road signs. The younger sister stayed in the family vehicle with the baby while the older sister went with Lena, who was carrying the hamper with Aliayah’s body.
Eventually Lena told the girl to stop and sit down, and left with the hamper. She came back without it, and they all went home. Lena told her daughters not to tell anyone and threatened them, saying she had brought them into the world and could take them out of it. They kept their secret for five years.
Lena’s defense argued that the girls were lying, and suggested Aliayah was still alive and might have been been sold for heroin. A restaurant manager from Louisiana testified for the defense, saying she thought she saw Aliayah with a man at her restaurant in November 2017. The defense also suggested that if Aliayah was dead, she might have died of an accidental overdose of flu medicine.
Lena was convicted of all counts in April 2018: murder of a child by refusal or failure to provide necessities, guilty of death of a child by child abuse, child abuse resulting in injury, and concealment of a deceased human body. She was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the murder, plus 40 years for the other charges, to be served consecutively.
Aliayah’s body has yet to be located; searches of the Vadis area turned up no evidence as to her whereabouts. Authorities believe the child’s body was buried in a shallow grave in a ravine which floods frequently, and that no trace of it may be left now. Foul play is suspected in her disappearance due to the circumstances involved.