UPDATE: Community Gathers to Remember Missing Child Two Years Later

By: Rahel Solomon;Jennifer Rizzi; WSAZ News Staff; The Associated Press Email
By: Rahel Solomon;Jennifer Rizzi; WSAZ News Staff; The Associated Press Email

UPDATE 9/21/13
LEWIS COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ)-- The days don't get any easier for Tina Smith; it has been nearly two years since her niece Aliayah Lunsford disappeared.

“It's been really, really hard. Just not knowing where she's at,” Smith said.

Nearly one hundred people gathered Saturday evening at the Jacksons Mill Baptist Church in Weston to keep Aliayah's memory alive.

The three-year-old girl was last seen September 24, 2011 in her Lewis County home. Her mother, Lena Lunsford, said she had checked on the toddler three hours before she went missing.

Police and volunteers unsuccessfully searched for days for any sign of the girl but authorities never identified a suspect.

Deputies with the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office tell WSAZ.com tips about the case still come into the office regularly.

Smith says the family is hoping for the best, but is preparing for the worst.

“We may never get justice for Aliayah, but we need her found. If she's no longer with us we need her to put to rest.”

A candle light vigil is scheduled Tuesday at the Lewis County Court House from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.



UPDATE 8/21/13
WHEELING, W.Va. (AP) - The mother of a missing Lewis County girl has been released on probation again following her third arrest for violating terms of her supervised release.

U.S. District Judge John Preston Bailey heard arguments Tuesday in Wheeling on whether to revoke Lena Lunsford's probation permanently following her latest arrest. Then he sentenced her to time served.

Lunsford was warned repeatedly to stay away from the convicted felon who fathered what will be her eighth child. She met him at a halfway house in Wheeling after her release from prison.

Lunsford served eight months for welfare fraud after her 3-year-old daughter Aliayah disappeared from their Lewis County home in September 2011. The child has never been found.

Lunsford has been held at the Northern Regional Jail since last week.

Keep clicking on WSAZ.com for the latest on this story.



UPDATE 8/16/13 @ 12:50 p.m.
WHEELING, W.Va. (AP) - The mother of a missing West Virginia girl will remain behind bars after violating probation for a third time.

U.S. Magistrate James Seibert temporarily revoked Lena Lunsford's at the request of probation officials and scheduled a final hearing for Tuesday in Wheeling.

Seibert says that Lunsford was "sternly warned" of the possibility of imprisonment and a contempt-of-court prosecution after her second arrest last month.

He says it's clear she'll likely ignore yet another warning.

Lunsford was repeatedly warned to stay away from the convicted felon who fathered what will be her eighth child.

Prosecutors had her arrested this week for defying the order.

Lunsford served eight months for welfare fraud after her 3-year-old daughter Aliayah disappeared from their Lewis County home in September 2011. The child has never been found.



UPDATE 8/14/13 @ 1:20 p.m.
WHEELING, W.Va. (AP) - The mother of a missing West Virginia girl is back in jail for the third time this summer, and prosecutors are moving to revoke her bond and keep her there.

Lena Lunsford was arrested Wednesday by federal marshals and sent to Northern Regional Jail. A month ago, she was warned to stay away from the convicted felon who fathered what will be her eighth child.

Magistrate James Seibert told Lunsford she could be imprisoned and prosecuted for contempt of court if she continued to defy the conditions of her probation.

But U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld said in a motion Tuesday that she's continued to have contact with the man.

Lunsford served eight months for welfare fraud after her 3-year-old daughter Aliayah disappeared from their Lewis County home in September 2011.



UPDATE 7/11/13 @ 4:15 p.m.
WHEELING, W.Va. (AP) - The mother of a missing West Virginia girl is out of jail for now. But a judge is warning her again to stay away from the convicted felon who fathered what will be her eighth child.

Lena Lunsford was arrested twice in two weeks for violating probation in Wheeling. U.S. Magistrate James Seibert ruled Thursday that she is neither a flight risk nor a danger to the community.

But Siebert say she's clearly unwilling to comply with the court's conditions.

He ordered a bond be posted and warned Lunsford that continued defiance could lead to imprisonment and prosecution for contempt of court.

Lunsford served eight months for welfare fraud after her 3-year-old daughter Aliayah disappeared from their Lewis County home in September 2011. T

The child has never been found.



UPDATE 6/25/13 @ 10:30 a.m.
WHEELING, W.Va. (AP) - The mother of a missing West Virginia girl is out of jail.

U.S. Magistrate Judge James Seibert ordered Lena Lunsford's release on Monday. Seibert ruled that Lunsford isn't a flight risk and doesn't pose a danger to the public or to herself.

The U.S. Marshals Service arrested Lunsford last week for violating the terms of her supervised release. Lunsford served eight months in prison for welfare fraud.

The Marshals Service said Lunsford failed to pay restitution and had contact at least five times with a convicted felon she'd been ordered to stay away from.

Lunsford's 3-year-old daughter, Aliayah, went missing in Lewis County in September 2011. She's never been found, and no one has been charged in her disappearance.

Keep clicking on WSAZ.com for the latest on this story.



UPDATE 6/19/13 @ 12 p.m.
WHEELING, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- The mother of a missing West Virginia girl has been arrested again.

U.S. Marshals in Wheeling arrested Lena Lunsford about 10 a.m. Tuesday at West Virginia Business College for violating her supervised release.

She is on probation after pleading guilty last year to selling food stamps.

Her daughter, Aliayah, has been missing since September 2011. Investigators have called her disappearance a crime, but no suspects have been named or arrests ever made.

Lunsford is set to appear in magistrate court, Wednesday afternoon to determine if she will go back to jail or stay on probation.

Keep clicking on WSAZ.com for the latest on this story.

UPDATE 5/20/13 @ 8:33 p.m.
CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (AP) -- The mother of a missing West Virginia girl won't be relocated to serve supervised release for welfare fraud.

A federal judge has approved a modified supervised release plan that allows Lena Lunsford to stay in Wheeling.

The U.S. Probation Office in Wheeling had planned to relocate Lunsford to the Clarksburg area because she violated conditions of her original release plan.

In a court filing, Senior U.S. Probation Officer Daniel E. Fugate said Lunsford's treatment provider determined that relocating her would have an adverse effect.

Lunsford was freed from a federal prison earlier this year after serving eight months for welfare fraud.

Her daughter, Aliayah Lunsford, disappeared in September 2011. Authorities have made no arrests.

The Associated Press first reported the modified release plan.



UPDATE 5/3/13
CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (AP) -- The attorney for the mother of a missing 3-year-old West Virginia girl is opposing a federal probation plan to move her from Wheeling to the Clarksburg area.

Lena Lunsford was released from a federal prison earlier this year after serving eight months for welfare fraud.

Federal public defender Brian J. Kornbrath says in a Thursday court filing that Lunsford has been living at a YWCA in Wheeling.

Kornbrath says federal probation officials plan to relocate Lunsford after the YWCA told her she's no longer eligible for a substance treatment program that allowed her to stay free of charge.

Kornbrath says Lunsford is a "social pariah" in the Clarksburg area because of publicity surrounding her daughter Aliayah's disappearance in 2011.

The Associated Press first reported Kornbrath's motion.



UPDATE 2/27/13
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) -- The mother of a 3-year-old West Virginia girl who vanished in September 2011 is out of prison.

U.S. Bureau of Prison records showed Wednesday that Lena Lunsford was released from a Maryland facility after serving eight months for welfare fraud. It's unclear whether she's returning to West Virginia.

Lawyers who have previously worked with Lunsford won't return phone calls or emails.

Lunsford was living with her mother before she went to prison. Her mother has since died, and Lunsford filed for divorce from husband Ralph.

No one has been charged in the disappearance of Aliayah Lunsford.

Lunsford's other six children are in state care. Earlier this month, the state Supreme Court unanimously upheld a Lewis County judge's order terminating her parental rights.



UPDATE 2/14/13
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) -- The mother of a 3-year-old girl who vanished without a trace in September 2011 won't regain custody of her other six children when she gets out of prison later this month.

The state Supreme Court has unanimously upheld a Lewis County judge's order terminating Lena Lunsford's parental rights. It was a decision backed by West Virginia child-welfare workers and the unidentified father of one of Lunsford's children.

Neither his attorney nor Lunsford's lawyers immediately returned telephone messages seeking comment about the court ruling, which identifies Lunsford and missing daughter Aliayah only by initials

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons website shows Lunsford is set to be released Feb. 26 from a facility in Baltimore, where she's been serving an eight-month sentence for welfare fraud.



UPDATE 9/24/12 @ 11:15 p.m.
WESTON, W.Va (WSAZ) -- A community is still holding out hope that one little girl will come home.

It's been a year since 3-year-old Aliayah Lunsford vanished without a trace from her Lewis County home. Her family says they're still fighting to find her, and the community is behind them.

Dozens came out for a special vigil in Weston Monday night to remember the sad anniversary.

"I plan on doing everything I can to keep Aliayah's name out there and alive," her aunt Wendy Swiger said. "Because her family loves her and misses her and wants her home."

The group released three doves in Aliayah's memory and prayed for her safe return, singing hymns and supporting each other as one.

"The pouring out of people that contributed to this has just been miraculous," organizer Susie Kerns said. "Everyone needs closure. Aliayah's siblings need closure."

Pastor Ron Brown led the vigil and says the community will not give up the search.

"We know that she's somewhere and we pray that she's alive," he said.

Swiger said she's grateful for the community support and will never give up hope.

"I do believe that she's going to come home ... I just don't know when," Swiger said. "And I feel in my heart that she is with us ... I refuse to believe anything else."



UPDATE 6/29/12
ALDERSON, W.Va. (AP) -- The mother of a missing Lewis County 3-year-old has begun serving her eight-month prison sentence for welfare fraud.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons' website shows that 29-year-old Lena Lunsford reported as ordered Thursday and was being held Friday at the Federal Prison Camp at Alderson.

Lunsford was sentenced in May after pleading guilty to selling $114 worth of credit on her food-stamp card for $50 cash. She'd been indicted on multiple counts last October, accused of swapping the benefits for cash five times in two months.

Lunsford's daughter Aliayah disappeared from their rented Bendale home more than nine months ago, on Sept. 24, 2011.

Investigators have made no arrests, named no suspects and refused to say what they think happened to the girl.



UPDATE 6/26/12
WESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- Relatives of a missing 3-year-old Lewis County girl are still searching for answers.

Aliayah Lunsford vanished from her Bendale home on Sept. 24, 2011.

Family members held a vigil Sunday evening at a bridge where a search dog had picked up her scent. They plan to hold vigils on the 24th of every month until they get answers.

Relatives also plan to hand out balloons and flyers during Weston's July 4th parade.

Authorities have classified the child's disappearance as a crime but have made no arrests and named no suspects.



UPDATE 5/22/12 @ 5 p.m.
ELKINS, W.Va. (AP) -- The mother of a 3-year-old girl who vanished eight months ago this week will spend eight months behind bars for welfare fraud.

Lena Lunsford also must spend a year on probation. She will begin serving her sentence June 28.

Lunsford appeared Tuesday in Elkins before U.S. District Judge John Preston Bailey. She'd pleaded guilty in January to selling $114 worth of credit on her food-stamp card for $50 cash.

Lunsford was indicted on multiple counts in October, accused of swapping the benefits for cash five times in two months.

Her daughter Aliayah disappeared from their rented Lewis County home Sept. 24.

Authorities haven't made any arrests or named any suspects. They also won't say whether they think Aliayah is still alive.



UPDATE 5/22/12 @ 8:20 a.m.
ELKINS, W.Va. (AP) -- The mother of a 3-year-old girl who vanished eight months ago this week is being sentenced for welfare fraud.

Lena Lunsford is scheduled to appear Tuesday afternoon in Elkins before U.S. District Judge John Preston Bailey.

Lunsford pleaded guilty in January to selling $114 worth of credit on her food-stamp card for $50 cash. She had been indicted on multiple counts in October, accused of swapping the benefits for cash five times in two months.

Her daughter Aliayah disappeared from their rented Lewis County home Sept. 24, 2011.

Authorities haven't made any arrests or named any suspects. They also won't say whether they think Aliayah is still alive.

Lunsford says Aliayah was in bed at 6:30 a.m. but was gone when she checked on her a few hours later.



UPDATE 3/29/12 @ 10:50 a.m.
WESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ & AP) -- The FBI has a working theory about what happened to a 3-year-old Lewis County girl who vanished six months ago, and it doesn't involve a break-in.

FBI agent John Hambrick won't say what that theory is, or whether he believes Aliayah Lunsford is still alive.

But Hambrick said Thursday at a news conference in Weston that there's no evidence to support a break-in as a theory.

Aliayah disappeared from her Bendale home September 24, 2011, and there has been no sign of her since.

Last week, Lena Lunsford's attorney said she believes there is no way her daughter wandered off.

Hambrick says even though police don't speak publicly about the case often, they're aggressively pursuing it every day.

"The information is out there," John Hambrick said. "We believe that someone in the community can help us resolve this matter and we would encourage them to call in."

Two full time FBI agents have been assigned the case. They say the FBI is still aggressively pursuing the case as a priority.

So far 125-150 tips have been called in to the FBI, West Virginia State Police and the Lewis County Sheriff's Department since Lunsford disappeared.

Investigators believe someone in the community knows something that could help bring this case to a resolution.

"If anybody knows anything please say something because we need her found, we need her home," Aliayah's Aunt, Tina Smith said. "If she's no longer with us then we need to properly lay her to rest."

The FBI confirmed during the news conference that investigators have done extensive video analysis involving this case, but they would not say if they found anything.

There is still a $20,000 reward for any information leading to information that can help solve the case.



UPDATE 3/29/12 @ 8:40 a.m.
WESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- The FBI is planning a public update on the case of a 3-year-old Lewis County girl who vanished more than six months ago.

The supervisory special agent in charge of the Clarksburg office, John Hambrick, will lead a briefing Thursday in Weston with state and local authorities.

Aliayah Lunsford disappeared from her Bendale home Sept. 24, and there has been no sign of her since. Her mother, Lena, has told police the child was in bed around 6:30 a.m. but gone when she checked on her later.

Last week, Lena Lunsford's attorney said she believes there is no way her daughter wandered off.

Authorities are treating Aliayah's disappearance as a crime, but they've named no suspects, made no arrests and refused to say what they think happened.

The news conference is scheduled for 10 a.m. in Weston.

We will have a crew at the news conference. Keep clicking on WSAZ.com for more information.



UPDATE 3/23/12 @ 3:30 p.m.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) -- A lawyer for the mother of a missing 3-year-old says Lena Lunsford believes her daughter remains alive and prays every day for her return.

Aliayah Lunsford disappeared from her Lewis County home six months ago Saturday. There has been no sign of her since.

Attorney Mike Woelfel said Friday that Lena is convinced Aliayah didn't wander off on her own and wasn't taken by any blood relative.

Woelfel says that Lunsford doesn't know what happened or where her daughter is. She is, however, divorcing husband Ralph.

Authorities are treating Aliayah's disappearance as a crime, but they've named no suspects, made no arrests and refused to say what they think happened.

The FBI is holding a news conference on Thursday to release the latest information. The news conference starts at 10:00 a.m.

We will have a crew there. Keep clicking on WSAZ.com for more information.



UPDATE 2/28/12 @ 11:35 p.m.
LEWIS COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- A dive team was out Tuesday afternoon searching a dam near the home of missing 3-year-old Aliayah Lunsford.

The search began after the group calling itself Aliayah's Army say they found something in the water. The group's members have been following leads for the past few weeks.

They have been focusing on the dam in Bendale because it is right behind Aliayah's home. She disappeared from that home Sept. 24, 2011.

Volunteers aren't saying what they saw, but they alerted state police and the sheriff's department.

At this point, crews have not been able to find anything. The search has been called off until later this week.



UPDATE 2/8/12 @ 11:15 p.m.
WESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) – Though it’s been months since any new information has surfaced in the case of a missing 3-year-old girl, a new search effort is underway to find her.

Volunteers gathered Wednesday night for a candlelight vigil in honor of Aliayah Lunsford, who vanished from her Bendale home in September.

The Patriot Outreach/PPP-Recovery program has set up in Weston, bringing the community back together to try to find Aliayah.

The FBI has called her disappearance a criminal investigation, but has never named a suspect or what happened to her.

In the months since the FBI gave the last public update about the case, the void has been filled by tension and a vicious rumor mill that many people say only served to divide the community.

Vickie Bowen, Aliayah’s great aunt, says there has been "so much anger, so much hate. And, I really believe most of it is because of not having answers. Everybody that has looked at this child has fallen in love with (Aliayah)."

Rachel Jackson, founder and director of PPP-Recovery, says divisions like the one Bowen talked about are common in these cases.

"What I see here, and what I see in many cases across the nation -- because we are a national program -- is the way this community has divided because of the pain that this has happened, this has caused," Jackson says.

Just in the last few days many people involved in the search say that pain is healing, and the focus is back on Aliayah.

The group is helping the community start the search again, sort fact from fiction and keep the effort going as long as needed.

"And through that, I've been actually getting tips that were not coming in before because they were afraid to talk to anybody," Jackson says.

No one knows whether those will tips lead to Aliayah, but her family is just grateful that at least something is happening again.

"If she's gone, we need to put her to rest. We need this," Bowen says.

Aliayah's parents are not part of this search. They haven't talked publicly about this case in months.

The PPP-Recovery group will be in town until Saturday. Jackson is optimistic the search will continue after the group has left.

Organizers say they still need a lot of volunteer to search and help at headquarters.



UPDATE 2/6/12 @ 11:50 p.m.
WESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- We have new details in the case of a missing 3-year-old girl from Lewis County, W.Va.

The PPP recovery group and Joe "The Bloodhound" Nick have arrived in Weston to renew the search for Aliayah Lunsford on Tuesday morning.

Along with the new search group, an unidentified person's offering an additional reward for information leading to the "immediate recovery" of Aliayah.

Organizers say they're hopeful the search will bring long-awaited results. Organizers set up the command Monday tonight.

They're asking volunteers to meet with the group at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Fraternal Order of the Eagles off of Route 33 in Weston.

If you have any information about Aliayah's disappearance, you can call the incident command center at (910) 627-3244.



UPDATE 1/18/12 @ 10:40 a.m.
WESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- Lewis County residents frustrated by lack of information about a girl missing for nearly four months want law enforcement to give them an update.

WDTV, a television station in Clarksburg, W.Va., says they've issued an open letter, complaining that little is being done to find 3-year-old Aliayah Lunsford. They're also concerned about the safety of their own children.

The letter contends the FBI has quit investigating the Sept. 24 disappearance, but Special Agent William Crowley said Thursday that's untrue.

Crowley says the FBI would offer updates if they were beneficial to the case. But right now, they're not.

He says the investigation is in a different stage now, and different tactics are required.

Authorities have made no arrests and named no suspects in Aliayah's disappearance. Nor have they said what they believe happened to her.



UPDATE 1/10/12 @ 1:40 p.m.
ELKINS, W.Va. (AP) -- A woman whose 3-year-old daughter has been missing for more than three months has pleaded guilty to a federal charge of welfare fraud.

29-year-old Lena Lunsford appeared before federal Magistrate John Kaull in Elkins on Tuesday. She pleaded guilty to selling $114 worth of credit on her food stamp card for $50 cash.

Lunsford will be sentenced at a later date. She could get as much as five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Lunsford's 3-year-old daughter Aliayah vanished from the family's Lewis County home on Sept 24. Investigators are treating her disappearance as a crime but have made no arrests and named no suspects.

Weeks after her daughter's disappearance, Lunsford was indicted. She was accused of selling her benefits five times in two months.



UPDATE 1/10/12
ELKINS, W.Va. (AP) -- A woman whose 3-year-old daughter has been missing for more than three months may soon answer to federal welfare fraud charges.

Court records show Lena Lunsford is set to appear for a plea hearing on Tuesday afternoon with U.S. Magistrate John Kaull in Elkins.

Neither the federal prosecutor handling the case nor Lunsford's public defender would comment on whether a plea bargain is in the works.

Lunsford's 3-year-old daughter Aliayah vanished from the family's Lewis County home on Sept 24. Investigators are treating her disappearance as a crime but have made no arrests and named no suspects.

Weeks after her daughter's disappearance, Lunsford was indicted on multiple counts of welfare fraud. She's accused of swapping credits on her food stamp card for $50 cash five times in two months.



UPDATE 11/16/11 @ 3 p.m.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) -- A court official is recommending substance abuse treatment and home detention for the mother of a missing toddler while she awaits trial on welfare fraud.

Federal records show pretrial services officer Brian Kilgore wants the court to intervene in the case of 29-year-old Lena Lunsford, who was caught with synthetic drugs called bath salts.

Lunsford's 3-year-old daughter Aliayah vanished from her Lewis County home Sept. 24 and hasn't been found. Her mother has since been indicted on multiple counts of welfare fraud but is free on supervised release.

Kilgore's petition says Lunsford is unwilling to cooperate and is withholding information. It says a state trooper caught Lunsford and husband Ralph in possession of bath salts in a Clarksburg parking lot Nov. 1.

Neither of Lunsford's attorneys immediately commented Wednesday.



UPDATE 11/14/11 @ 6:10 p.m.
WESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- One of two new posters released by authorities Monday to help locate a missing 3-year-old girl shows a bruise on the left side of her face.

FBI special agent Jeff Killeen says investigators don't know what caused it or why Aliayah Lunsford is also missing four teeth.

He says children can have marks and missing teeth for many reasons, but the photo was taken shortly before Aliayah vanished from her Bendale home.

It is one of the last known images of her.

The posters are on the FBI's website and Facebook page. To see a copy of the photo, click on the photo link above.

Investigators are treating the disappearance as a crime but won't say what they believe happened to Aliayah.



UPDATE 11/11/11 @ 11:30 a.m.
WESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- The mother of a 3-year-old Lewis County girl missing for more than six weeks has given birth to twin girls.

Attorney Michael Woelfel says Lena Lunsford delivered late Thursday. He said Friday he believes the babies remain hospitalized.

Their sibling, Aliayah, has been missing since Sept. 24, when she vanished from the family home in Bendale.

Woelfel won't say which hospital is caring for the babies or whether state child-welfare authorities are expected to take them.

The Department of Health and Human Resources removed four other children between 10 months and 11 years old from Lunsford's care after Aliayah vanished.

Woelfel says Circuit Judge Thomas Keadle has issued a gag order prohibiting comment on the status of the older children, so he won't comment on the babies.



UPDATE 11/9/11 @ 10:30 p.m.
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- The mother of a 3-year-old Lewis County girl missing for more than six weeks has released a statement.

The statement was released through Lena Lunsford's attorney on Wednesday.

In the statement Lunsford asks residents of central W.Va. to "keep a vigilant eye" open for any information that may lead investigators to find her daughter.

"I believe in my heart that Aliayah is alive. That belief is keeping me going through these horrible days," Lunsford said in the statement.

Lunsford also calls out a family member for allegedly making "uninformed comments" to the media.

If you would like to read the full statement, click the link above.

Lena Lunsford's aunt, Vickie Bowen, says she believes she is the family member Lena mentions.

Bowen says, "If it was my daughter that was missing, everybody in the country would know my name. I would be yelling on the street corners. I would be yelling everywhere to find my daughter."

Aliayah Lunsford was last seen at her home in Lewis County on Sept. 24.

Investigators recently offered a $20,000 reward to anyone with information that helps them find Aliayah or can give them information that leads to an arrest and conviction.

Lunsford's statement does not include any references to her not guilty plea she entered Tuesday to federal welfare fraud charges.

Keep clicking on WSAZ.com for the latest information.



UPDATE 11/8/11 @ 3:55 p.m.
ELKINS, W.Va. (AP) -- The mother of a 3-year-old Lewis County girl missing for more than six weeks has pleaded not guilty to federal charges of welfare fraud.

29-year-old Lena Lunsford waived her right to appear in U.S. District Court in Elkins on Tuesday. Her public defender entered the plea for her.

Lunsford's daughter Aliayah vanished from the family home near Bendale Sept. 24. Investigators are treating the disappearance as a crime but have made no arrests and named no suspects.

The mother was indicted last week on charges of swapping credits on her food stamp card for $50 cash five times in two months. She faces more than 10 years in prison if convicted.

U.S. Magistrate John Kaull has scheduled a Dec. 13 hearing on motions in the case.



UPDATE 11/3/11 @ 8:36 p.m.
WESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ & AP) -- The FBI is now offering a $20,000 reward in the case of a missing three-year-old girl from Lewis County.

The FBI made the announcement during a news conference Thursday in Weston.

Aliayah Lunsford was last seen at her home in Lewis County on Sept. 24.

Investigators are hoping the reward will help develop a break in the case.

The reward is being offered for information that leads investigators to Aliayah's whereabouts or an arrest in the case.

"The problem with a case like this is it could go on for days, it could go on for weeks, it could go on for months. Potentially, a case a like this could go on for years. But, generally, these cases are solved. And, we do have resources committed to them. Of course, we'd like to have a resolution to this as soon as possible, but we're just not there yet," says FBI Special Agent Jeff Killeen.

Last week investigators moved their search to the Vadis area of Lewis County . The command was moved there after investigators say they received "valuable information." No other details about why investigators are looking in the new location have been released.

Meanwhile, Vickie Bowen, Aliayah's great aunt released a statement asking anyone with information about Aliayah to call her. She offers to arrange for a pickup, no questions asked.

Bowen says she won't give up hope that Aliayah's alive.

"Any information we can get at all to bring this little girl home, we need it desperately. We love her. She needs to be home," says Bowen.

Authorities are treating the disappearance as a crime but have named no suspects.

Bowen says investigators have told the family very little.

She says the girl's mother, Lena Lunsford, has yet to deliver twins.

Lena Lunsford was eight months pregnant when Aliayah disappeared. Four other children have been removed by child-welfare officials.

Aliayah's mother was just indicted Wednesday on multiple welfare fraud counts.

U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld said Tuesday that 29-year-old Lena Lunsford of Weston faces six federal charges alleging she tried to swap the value of her food stamp card for cash.

The indictment says she exchanged varying amounts on her card for $50 cash five times - twice in September and three times in October.

The FBI is joining forces with the West Virginia Fusion Center in hopes of getting more tips. If anyone has information, you're urged to call 304-558-4831 or click on the link below.

Keep clicking on WSAZ.com for the very latest information.



UPDATE 11/02/11 @ 11 a.m.
WESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- The mother of a 3-year-old Lewis County girl missing for nearly six weeks has been indicted on multiple welfare fraud counts.

U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld said Tuesday that 29-year-old Lena Lunsford of Weston faces six federal charges alleging she tried to swap the value of her food stamp card for cash.

The indictment says she exchanged varying amounts on her card for $50 cash five times - twice in September and three times in October.

Her daughter Aliayah Lunsford vanished Sept. 24. Investigators consider her disappearance a crime but have made no arrests and named no suspects.

The charges against the mother include conspiracy to defraud the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program and knowingly selling federal benefits.

Lena Lunsford's public defender, Brian Kornbrath, didn't immediately return messages Tuesday.



UPDATE 10/27/11 @ 9:30 p.m.
LEWIS COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- The search for a missing toddler continues but FBI agents have started searching in a new location.

Investigators are now searching in the Vadis area of Lewis County for 3-year-old Aliayah Lunsford.

The command was moved there after investigators say they received "valuable information."

No other details about why investigators are looking in the new location have been released.

Investigators say it is still a criminal investigation and they believe Aliayah is the victim of a homicide, abduction or a possible concealment. She has been missing for more than a month now.



UPDATE 10/24/11 @ 11:15 p.m.
WESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Community members tried a new way to raise awareness Monday about the case of a missing 3-year-old girl, who was last seen one month ago.

Aliayah Lunsford was last seen at her home in Lewis County on Sept. 24.

Investigators have been very tight lipped, as the FBI looks for a break in the case.

Investigators are focusing on three possible scenarios: that Aliayah could have been murdered; that she could have been abducted; or that she may have been taken by someone who thought they were protecting her.

People in Lewis County aren't giving up on the possibility that Aliayah could be alive.

They released hundreds of purple balloons Monday evening. Each balloon had a card attached to it with identifying information about Aliayah.

"We're just a close-knit kind of community here, so when something like this happens it impacts everybody. So, people come out and help whenever they can," Braden Stover says.

Aliayah's cousin, Jade Gregory, says she wishes she could do more to find Aliayah.

There are "a lot of broken hearts in my family," she says.

Organizers of Monday’s event chose to release purple balloons because that is Aliayah’s favorite color.

"We want to remind everybody that she's still out there. And, when they see a balloon, they'll think of Aliayah," Teresa Hathaway says.

They're hopeful that someone, somewhere knows something that can help in the case.

"It's just very frustrating that there's nothing they can tell us," Hathaway says.

FBI Special Agent Jeff Killeen recently said there's “limited hope” Aliayah will be found alive.

But, hope is one thing the community is not letting go.

“Just hoping that whoever has her, just let her free," Gregory says.

Killeen says since last week, not much has changed with the case. There are still no suspects being named publicly and no clear indication of whether Aliayah's even in Lewis County.

People from other states wrote on Facebook they planned to release purple balloons Monday night too. Those included responses from Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas.



UPDATE 10/18/11 @ 11:30 p.m.
LEWIS COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) – Though the case of missing 3-year-old Aliayah Lunsford has not been solved, some community members are already pushing for changes to state laws.

Lunsford was last seen at her Bendale home more than three weeks ago.

People are calling attention to an online petition for "Aliayah's Law."

People supporting it say they see ways the state could improve its laws dealing with crimes against children, regardless of how the case is resolved.

"We have gotten a petition together. And, we are trying to make it statewide to protect children," says Margie Blake, who also was among the many people who searched for Aliayah for several days.

The petition is already getting some pushback, including from people who say it's premature.

It calls for stiffer penalties for crimes against children, abolishing parole in those cases and giving more power to the DHHR and CPS to check on kids at home and remove them immediately.

The proposal also calls for more funding for DHHR.

Del. Kelli Sobonya (R-Cabell) has worked on a few laws aimed at protecting kids.

"They're asking for DHHR and CPS workers to be given additional powers. And, I just don't know if we should give unfettered access to our homes," Sobonya says.

That concern is shared on Facebook, where a group called “People Against Aliayah’s Law” also has been created.

Some people are worried about personal liberties being taken away. They also question the practicality of the proposals, saying the state needs many more foster homes and more resources to care for children removed from abusive homes.

"I don't know if government's the answer to every situation. If we can protect children with stronger penalties, I think that's something that we need to do. And, I think it could be a deterrent," Sobonya says.

WSAZ.com also talked with leaders of some child advocacy groups, who say they want lawmakers to focus more on prevention than stiffer penalties.

They also point out that the state is trying to figure out how to get the prison population under control, not necessarily add to it.



UPDATE 10/17/11 @ 10:43 p.m.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP and WSAZ) -- A Lewis County woman whose 3-year-old daughter has been missing for three weeks has been charged with selling federal food stamp benefits.

A criminal complaint filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Clarksburg, W.Va., says Lena Lunsford transferred a Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program card and personal identification number to someone else in exchange for $50 cash.

The complaint says the other person, who wasn't named, intended to use the EBT card to buy $114.82 in food.

"This is an ancillary investigation. It is not done yet. This investigation continues, as well," says FBI Special Agent Jeff Killeen. "We're still looking at what all of this will mean. We're still looking at all the implications of this arrest and what it will mean."

Lunsford's daughter, Aliayah Lunsford, has been missing since Sept. 24.

Several community members who spent days searching for Aliayah showed up at Monday's news conference.

Margie Blake called the situation "very frustrating. It's like she just vanished into thin air."

Community members plan to put up more flyers with Aliayah's picture in surrounding counties.

"I've done a lot of research on cases here in West Virginia. And, this is unlike everything I've seen so far," says Bob Hein.

Lena Lunsford told police her daughter was in bed that morning at 6:30, but there's been no sign of the child since. The FBI considers the disappearance to be a crime.

The FBI is not labeling her as a suspect in her daughter's disappearance.

She was arrested Monday and arraigned in federal court. She has been released on bail.



UPDATE 10/17/11 @ 2:15 p.m.
LEWIS COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- New information is expected in the case of a missing toddler from Lewis County, West Virginia.

The FBI has called a 4:00 p.m. news conference.

Aliayah Lunsford went missing from her home in Bendale, W.Va., on Sept. 24.

A spokesperson with the FBI wouldn't release any information before the news conference.

During a news conference Friday, the FBI Special Agent Jeff Killeen said, "We're operating on the assumption that there's limited hope that she's alive."

Aliayah's mom, Lena Lunsford, said she had checked on her daughter about three hours before she realized she had vanished.

For weeks, hundreds of volunteers and several law enforcement agencies searched for Aliayah.

Investigators haven't said if they have any suspects or persons of interest in the case. However, they believe there's a "small universe" of people potentially involved.

WSAZ will be at the news conference. Keep clicking on WSAZ.com for the very latest information.



UPDATE 10/16/11 @ 3:10 p.m.
LEWIS COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) - The FBI says it is narrowing its search for a 3-year-old West Virginia girl reported missing three weeks ago.

Special agent Jeff Killeen says the agency is reviewing video evidence from security systems in the South Weston area in the search for Aliayah Lunsford.

Killeen said investigators have recovered video from civilian, governmental and business security systems. He would not comment on what might be on the security tapes.

Killeen said investigators have narrowed the focus of their investigation into Aliayah's disappearance. He said they are moving to "a favorable conclusion."

The little Lewis County girl has been missing since Sept 24.


UPDATE 10/14/11 @ 8:15 p.m.
LEWIS COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- The FBI is comparing the case of a missing 3-year-old girl from Lewis County to a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

A spokesperson with the FBI says the taskforce has put more pieces of the puzzle together, but the case is still not solved.

Aliayah Lunsford went missing from her home in Bendale, W.Va., on Sept. 24.

During a news conference Friday, the FBI Special Agent Jeff Killeen said, "We're operating on the assumption that there's limited hope that she's alive."

Aliayah's mom, Lena Lunsford, said she had checked on her daughter about three hours before she realized she had vanished.

For weeks, hundreds of volunteers and several law enforcement agencies searched for Aliayah.

"It was very frustrating. And when they called off the search, it was really, really frustrating then," says Teresa Hathaway, who spent several days looking for Aliayah.

The taskforce says it has narrowed its timeline significantly, and it has obtained a lot of video evidence from home and government security cameras. The FBI is asking anyone else with potential video that would help the case to come forward.

"When we have a case like this, it's like taking a huge, 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle and dumping it on the ground," Killeen says.

The FBI also announced during the news conference Friday that they do not believe any other children are at risk.

Investigators haven't ruled anything out when it comes to the case. However, they have limited the possibilities to three scenarios: concealment, abduction or a homicide. Killeen did not rule out that Aliayah's family may be involved in the crime.

The FBI says this is a serious case, and it is still investigating it everyday.

Some community members who attended the news conference tell WSAZ.com they are frustrated no new information was released.

During the news conference, investigators would not say if they have any suspects or persons of interest in the case, only saying there's a "small universe" of people potentially involved.

Keep clicking on WSAZ.com for the very latest information.



UPDATE 10/14/11 @ 10:20 a.m.
LEWIS COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- The FBI has scheduled a news conference Friday afternoon to release the latest in the case of the missing 3-year-old girl from Lewis County.

Aliayah Lunsford went missing from her home in Bendale, West Virginia on September 24.

Aliayah's mom, Lena Lunsford said she had checked on her daughter about three hours before she realized she had vanished.

For weeks, hundreds of volunteers and several law enforcement agencies searched for Aliayah.

Aliayah is about 3 feet tall and 35 pounds, with brown hair and brown eyes. She was last seen in purple pajama bottoms and a pink sweatshirt.

The news conference is set for 2 p.m. Friday. The FBI won't release any details about the case until that time.

We will be at today's news conference. Keep clicking on WSAZ.com for the very latest information.



UPDATE 10/4/11 @ 10:10 p.m.
LEWIS COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- After 11 days of searching for a missing toddler and no sign of her anywhere, there were some new developments Tuesday.

The FBI says they have a "small universe" of people they believe may know what happened to 3-year-old Aliayah Lunsford.

On Tuesday, the target area for professionals who are still involved in the search was 5 miles around the Lunsford home.

Aliayah has been missing since a week ago Saturday when her parents say they discovered her missing from her bed.

At the time, no Amber Alert was issued because the case didn't meet the requirements for the program. Amber alerts require a vehicle description or license plate number, and investigators had neither of the two.

Lena Lunsford, who is Aliayah's mother, has four other children between the ages of 9 months and 11 years old. We're told she's also 8 months pregnant with twins.



UPDATE 10/3/11 @ 3:15 p.m.
LEWIS COUNTY, W.Va. (WV MetroNews) -- The search for 3-year-old Aliayah Lunsford in Lewis County is over from a volunteer perspective. Federal authorities say they now consider her Sept. 24 disappearance a crime.

FBI Special Agent Jeff Killeen said during a media briefing Monday afternoon they are no longer considering the possibility that the young girl walked away from her home.

Killeen says Lunsford was either a victim of a homicide, abduction or a possible concealment.

Killeen says investigators have a "small universe" of persons of interest.

The search for the Aliayah began a few hours after her mother reported her missing. Dozens of police officers and hundreds of volunteers search the area in and around the Lewis County community of Bendale.

Keep clicking on WSAZ.com for the very latest information.



UPDATE 10/02/11 @ 5:30 p.m.
LEWIS COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Weather conditions and time are working against crews in the search for a missing 3-year-old girl.

Aliayah Lunsford disappeared from her home in Lewis County, West Virginia more than a week ago.

FBI agents say the wet weather yesterday definitely put a damper on the search efforts.

If in fact Aliayah did wander off, the chances of survival are diminishing as crews make their way into the eighth day of the search.

They did say that this is still a rescue mission, and all possibilities are open.

Anyone who has information about where the girl may be is asked to call 911.



UPDATE 10/01/11 @ 12:15 a.m.
WESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- An open investigation. That's how police describe the case of a missing three year old girl from Lewis County, West Virginia.

Day seven of the search, and volunteers remain hopeful they'll find her alive. The FBI says it's looking into all possibilities, including the chance that someone may have taken Aliayah from her home in an attempt to -- in their mind -- protect her.

"The message we have is one of hope," FBI Special Agent Jeff Killeen told reporters at the search zone near Weston. "We want to get this child back."

It's clear from the effort that everyone involved wants to get 3 year old Aliayah Lunsford back. The question is...back from where? Is she lost in the woods after walking away from home early last Saturday morning? Was she abducted by a stranger? Did a relative take her to another location for some reason? The one question no one really wants to ponder...is she alive?

"We do have a child out there," Killeen said. "Every minute that goes by, is a minute lost."

The search from the air and the ground includes more than 18 hundred volunteers. They'll admit it's exhausting work, but they're almost afraid to give up.

One volunteer described it as frustrating. "You want to find her. You want to bring her home. People say they've been here before. But you never know. She could come back to a spot that was just checked yesterday."

The FBI's avoiding words like criminal investigation, refusing to speculate about potential suspects. So the questions remain as the search continues.



UPDATE 9/29/11 @ 6:15 p.m.
WESTON, W.Va. (AP & WSAZ) -- The FBI says the family of a missing 3-year-old Lewis County girl has been moved to an undisclosed location while the search for the toddler continues.

They offered no new details on their investigation during a Thursday afternoon press briefing.

"We do have a child out there. Every minute that goes by is another minute lost. We want to do everything we can with all due haste to try to locate this child," says FBI Special Agent Jeff Killeen

Aliayah Lunsford of Bendale vanished Saturday. She was last seen in purple pajama pants and a pink sweatshirt.

Some volunteers have been working since Saturday to find her.

"I've had 11 hours' sleep since Friday night. But, we're keeping our spirits up. We're doing, and we're helping, and we're doing whatever needs to be done," says Mary Conley, pastor of the Bendale United Methodist Church.

Killeen says new volunteers and professionals are coming in to relieve some people and search dogs who've working very long hours.

Authorities haven't declared her disappearance a crime. They're still treating the search as a rescue mission.

Killeen says that while abduction is among the possible scenarios, authorities have no suspects or evidence of foul play.

Police say the doors and windows of the family's home were secure, and there were no signs of forced entry.

A press conference is set for 2 p.m. Friday.



UPDATE 9/29/11 @ 12:09 p.m.
WESTON, W.Va. (AP & WSAZ) -- Authorities are continuing extensive grid searches as they try to find a missing 3-year-old Lewis County girl.

FBI Special Agent John Hambrick says investigators want to be
sure they've hit every nook and cranny as they hunt for Aliayah
Lunsford of Bendale.

She vanished Saturday morning.

Sgt. Mike Posey of the sheriff's department is still calling it
a rescue mission, and investigators are proceeding Thursday as if the girl is still alive.

Authorities have yet to declare Aliayah's disappearance a crime.
Hambrick told media outlets only that it's a possibility.

Police say the doors and windows of the family's home were
secure, and there were no signs of forced entry.

Volunteer coordinator Chris Strader says as many as 1,800 people a day have helped in the search.

Another news conference has been scheduled for 2:00 p.m. Thursday to update everyone on the search efforts.

Keep clicking on WSAZ.com for the very latest information.



UPDATE 9/28/11 @ 7:50 p.m.
WESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Five days and counting -- that's the last time anyone saw Aliayah Lunsford.

The 3-year-old girl disappeared Saturday morning from her home. But, with each passing day, the search and the investigation get a little more mysterious.

“We have to look at it from all different angles -- missing/abduction," FBI Special Agent Mike Hambrick said. "The potential that it's a missing child, the potential that it's an abduction. We have to consider all of the possibilities.”

The search for Aliayah trudges into it's fifth day. The goal is the same -- to find the child. She's about 3 feet tall, weighs 30 pounds and has long brown hair and brown eyes.

But, the tone of this search has changed dramatically. Some of the search crews seen in the initial day or two of Aliayah's disappearance have been replaced by teams of FBI agents and specialized teams.

“We have a trained team -- all volunteer force. They're using a scientific effort. (They have) searched some very specific areas through the night, and we believe we're making good headway,” Hambrick said.

Aliayah was last seen wearing purple "Dora the Explorer" pajama bottoms and a pink sweatshirt. She was discovered missing Saturday morning when her parents went in her room at their home in Lewis County to wake her up.

At one point, a trail was picked up at the nearby West Fork River in Weston, but searches of the water have come up empty.

The flow of information has slowed. News conferences are fewer, with updates focusing more on what authorities can't release versus what they can.

“We're not comfortable with conducting the investigation in a public forum ... the specific details of our investigative efforts. It would be counter-productive,” Hambrick said.

The case has gone national. Lunsford's case was featured on the "Nancy Grace Show" on CNN Headline News earlier this week, fueling talk that something isn't adding up in this case.

Investigators say they have a strong search crew and aren't seeking any more volunteers at this time.

If you have any information, you're asked to call the Lewis County Sheriff's Department at 304-269-8251



UPDATE 9/28/11 @ 11:50 a.m.
WESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- Authorities remain tight lipped about any details of their investigation as the search for a missing 3-year-old girl from Lewis County enters a fifth day.

Police and hundreds of volunteers have been looking for Aliayah Lunsford since she vanished from her Bendale home Saturday morning.

FBI Special Agent Jon Hambrick wouldn't say Wednesday what her family members are telling investigators.

Hambrick says that publicizing details of the investigation would be counterproductive.

He says no Amber Alert has been issued for the girl because the case doesn't meet the requirements of that program, such as providing a vehicle description or license plate number.

Aliayah is about 3 feet tall and 35 pounds, with brown hair and brown eyes. She was last seen in purple pajama bottoms and a pink sweatshirt.

Keep clicking on WSAZ.com for the latest on the investigation.



UPDATE 9/27/11@ 4:18 p.m.
WESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- A collaborative effort was the theme of a news conference about the missing 3-year-old W.Va. girl.

The search for Aliayah Lunsford entered in its fourth day Tuesday. She vanished from her Bendale home Saturday.

"We’re trying hard to not miss anything we’re bringing in experts who have worked this type of matter, do it on regular basis that’ll help us in terms of helping where we’ve been and where we need to go," said John Hambrick, special agent with the FBI.

The news conference happened just after 4 p.m. Tuesday.

Special agent Hambrick was joined by Sgt. Michael Posey, with the Lewis County Sheriff's Department during the press conference.

"Volunteers have been outstanding," said Sgt. Posey, speaking to what the community can do to help with the search. "No volunteers will be turned away."

Both Hambrick and Posey were asked if there were any suspects currently, but explained that they weren't willing to discuss that information in a public forum at this time.

According to Hambrick, due to scientific data and past experiences the search area is a very confined area.

"We’re still operating on the possibility she’s alive, there is data on that that we know it’s possible," said special agent Hambrick.

Aliayah is about 3 feet tall and 35 pounds, with brown hair and brown eyes. She was last seen in purple pajama bottoms and a pink sweatshirt.



UPDATE 9/27/11@ 3:45 p.m.
WESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- A press conference has been scheduled for 4 p.m. in regards to the search for the missing 3-year-old girl.

No word on who as called the press conference, or what it is about.

The search for Aliayah Lunsford entered in its fourth day Tuesday. She vanished from her Bendale home Saturday.

Keep clicking on WSAZ.com for the latest from the press conference.



UPDATE 9/27/11@ 3:30 p.m.
WESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- The president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says efforts to find a 3-year-old Lewis County girl have been extraordinary.

The search for Aliayah Lunsford entered in its fourth day Tuesday. She vanished from her Bendale home Saturday.

Ernie Allen says his organization has an expert in West Virginia, assisting local, state and federal investigators.

Although police report no new developments, Allen says their response has been aggressive.

He says it's too soon to give up hope; children can wander farther than people think.

On Monday, Kentucky firefighters found an autistic 7-year-old who had traveled 3 miles from his home.

Aliayah is about 3 feet tall and 35 pounds, with brown hair and brown eyes. She was last seen in purple pajama bottoms and a pink sweatshirt.



ORIGINAL STORY 9/26/11@ 12:05 p.m.
WESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- Authorities are searching for a 3-year-old girl who went missing from her Lewis County home over the weekend.

Police say Aliayah Lunsford's family reported her missing from her Bendale home near Weston Saturday morning.

Her mother, Lena Lunsford, says that she went to wake the child up and she was gone.

Authorities searched the surrounding area and a K-9 unit led them to the West Fork River. Dive teams searched the river Saturday and Sunday. A Lewis County dispatcher says the search will resume Monday.

Police say Aliayah is about 3 feet tall, weighs about 30 pounds and has long brown hair and brown eyes. She was wearing purple Dora pajama bottoms and a pink sweatshirt when she was last seen.


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