Lewis County child missing for two years
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It has been 731 days since 3-year-old Aliayah Lunsford was reported missing from her Lewis County home.
In the two years since she was last seen in her bed at the small rented home in the Bendale area, her extended family and law enforcement have searched high and low with no results.
In the same span of time, her mother, Lena Lunsford, who reported her missing the morning of Sept. 24, 2011, in a frantic 911 call, has been in and out of jail several times and is currently pregnant with her third child since Aliayah's disappearance.
Vickie Bowen, Aliayah's great-aunt, never met the brown-haired toddler but saw plenty of pictures of her before she vanished.
She never imagined she'd still be handing out flyers, putting the girl's picture up, or searching under every rock (sometimes literally) looking for her two years later.
"I never thought it would go on this long," Bowen said. "I sure never thought I'd be here two years ago."
A mother of two and grandmother of two boys, she sat in on a vigil at Jackson's Mill Baptist Church Saturday evening. The outpouring of community support touched her, but it was the Lewis sheriff's deputies that gave her hope.
The sheriff's department assures her Aliayah's case hasn't gone cold and deputies are constantly working the case. Her hope grew when she learned deputies had arrested a Weston man and charged him with the kidnapping and murder of his mother and grandmother, both of whom went missing in 1999.
Joseph Metz, 39, was arrested Sept. 19 and charged with first-degree murder, robbery and kidnapping in the disappearance of his mother, Mary Friend, 46, and grandmother, Maxine Stalnaker, 69.
The women disappeared Dec. 1, 1999, after leaving the Jane Lew area on a shopping trip. Their vehicle, a silver-gray station wagon was found five days later in a muddy lot behind a concrete wall in Harrison County. One of the women's purses was found in 2002 at Stonewall Jackson Lake.
Authorities searched the lake, at the time believing their bodies were weighted down at the bottom, but found nothing. Their bodies have never been recovered.
"If this case can be solved I believe Sheriff Adam Gissy can do it," Bowen said. "He assured us that Mary, Maxine and Aliayah's cases were top priorities. I do believe that.
"They really want to solve this case. The community's demanding it and the family is demanding it."
Law enforcement continues to receive active leads in the case, FBI spokeswoman Kelly Kochamba said. Investigators also are working with the West Virginia Intelligence Fusion Center, which facilitates a partnership between public safety agencies, federal, state and local law enforcement and the private sector, according to its website.
"We're still continuing our investigation along with federal, state and local law enforcement," Kochamba said. "Leads are still coming in and they're being addressed currently."
While authorities continue the search, family, friends and community members have taken on the hunt for answers themselves. She said there was a huge outpouring of love and prayers for brown-eyed, brown-haired Aliayah.
"The community has a right to know and they want to know that if it wasn't her parents (behind Aliayah's disappearance), are their children safe?" Bowen said. "If my grandbabies lived in Weston that would be a thought in the back of my mind."
Bowen goes out on searches with maybe five or six people, usually friends and family members. They've been to areas in the woods accessible only by all-terrain vehicle and sketchy neighborhoods she never knew existed before searching.
"If we hear of something, no matter how big or little, we're there," she said. "We don't hesitate."
They're not allowed to question anyone, so the group maps out a grid of the area and searches for clues. Bowen never did anything like that in her life before the girl went missing. The group searches for anything that looks out of the ordinary, including disturbed earth.
"We're looking for answers anywhere I can find them," Bowen said. "I do believe someone out there knows what happened."
Bowen has theories on what happened to Aliayah.
"The FBI ruled out abduction," she said. "They ruled out -- she didn't walk out of there by herself. That didn't happen. What did happen, I don't know.
"I don't want to point any fingers but I know there was two adults in that house that was responsible for Aliayah and the other children in that house. They failed her."
Lena Lunsford called 911 at 11:30 a.m. Sept. 24 to report the girl missing. She told the operator Aliayah had been sick and that she'd checked on her earlier that morning and went back to bed. Hours later the child was gone.
"A 3-year-old child does not disappear into thin air," Bowen said. "They don't just walk out of the house. A sick 3-year-old especially does not leave the house."
Aliayah is about 3 feet tall and weighs about 30 pounds. She was last seen wearing Dora the Explorer pajama bottoms, a pink princess sweatshirt and no shoes. Her ears are pierced and she was missing four front teeth at the time of her disappearance.
Lunsford, who was pregnant with twins at the time, was arrested shortly after the girl's disappearance on federal welfare fraud charges, specifically that she was selling access to her food stamp card.
She was caught with synthetic drugs while awaiting trial. Her husband at the time, Ralph Lunsford, told the court he bought and used synthetic drugs. He is not Aliayah's father.
Lunsford spent eight months in a federal prison in Baltimore on the fraud charges and was released earlier this year. Divorced from her husband, she has since lost her parental rights to the six remaining children, including the twins she gave birth to last year. The children are in state custody.
She is living in Wheeling and working at a pizzeria on supervised release since she left the prison. She violated the terms of her release three times over the summer, causing a federal judge to extend the term of her supervision.
Neither Lena nor Ralph Lunsford have helped with the search, Bowen said. Though she never met Aliayah, Bowen said she took up the search because "nobody else" in the girl's immediate family had done so. She works closely with Lena's half-sister, Tina Smith.
Joann Evans, Lena's mother and Bowen's sister, was unable to help because of her health, Bowen said. Evans later died and Bowen said she made a promise to her on her deathbed that she would never stop searching for Aliayah.
"I will not stop," Bowen said. "If it takes 10 years, I'll be here.
"We're not going to forget her."
A vigil will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. at the old courthouse in Weston. She said the family is asking churches in the area to ring their bells at noon for Aliayah and others who are missing.
The FBI is offering a reward of up to $20,000 for information leading to Aliayah's recovery or the identification, arrest and conviction of the person responsible for her disappearance. Those with information can contact their local FBI office or local law enforcement office.
Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4850.