WESTON, W.Va. — Beginning 9 a.m. Monday, Lena Lunsford, the 35-year-old former Lewis County woman charged in the death of her daughter, will begin what is expected to be a two-week trial to determine her guilt or innocence in what is now the presumed death of Aliayah Lunsford.
Aliayah Lunsford was just 3 years old when she went missing in the early morning hours of Sept. 24, 2011. The child had seemingly vanished without a trace from her Bendale home.
“I have theories of what has happened but, I mean, a little girl that’s 3 years old just doesn’t vanish out of thin air,” said Tina Smith, Lena Lunsford’s half-sister, in 2012. “There’s no trace. There’s no nothing.”
For more than five years, the girl’s whereabouts were the subject of speculation. Aliayah’s mother was often at the center of suspicion, moving in and out of prison on unrelated welfare fraud charges.
While Lunsford was in prison, some family members were growing more and more suspicious that the unthinkable had occurred — that somehow Aliayah was dead and that both Lena and Ralph Lunsford were involved.
“Those two people need to tell us what they did, where Aliayah is,” said Vickie Bowen, Aliayah’s great aunt, during the five-year anniversary vigil in 2016.
Bowen said those were the only two people home at the time Aliayah reportedly went missing.
Bowen also claims her sister — Lena Lunsford’s mother — had expressed some fear of her daughter’s behavior. Additionally, she believed Lena Lunsford was jealous of the attention her mother Joanne was providing Aliayah.
“Aliayah never bonded with Lena,” she said in 2016. “Aliayah knew Joanne — her grandmother — as mom.”
At first, Aliayah had been living with her grandmother while Lena Lunsford was serving a prison sentence. Five weeks before she went missing, Aliayah went to live with Lena.
“I don’t even know how she slipped through the loophole to take the kids out of Joanne’s house,” Bowen said. “I really don’t.”
Joanne, Bowen’s sister and Lena Lunsford’s mother, passed away shortly after Aliayah went missing.
As the investigation into Aliayah’s disappearance stretched into months and years, family members grew increasingly frustrated with law enforcement.
“They come here on the 24th of September and say, ‘We’re still investigating,’” Bowen said. “We need to know the other 364 days of the year as well. We need some reassurance.”
Aliayah Lunsford had no immediate family members still living who weren’t mired in suspicion — meaning the extended family members who had been seeking answers weren’t entitled to direct contact with the police investigation.
“We have to have it. We have to have some type of closure,” Bowen said during the five-year vigil. “We asked. We begged. We were told we would get monthly updates. We’re not getting anything.”
Then police made an arrest.
Now remarried and living in Florida as Lena Lunsford-Conaway, she was charged with four felonies in connection to the death of Aliayah Lunsford, the concealment of her body, and the cover-up that resulted in a missing child search for more than half of a decade.
It took 1,867 days, but police had finally leveled charges.
The criminal complaint claims Lunsford struck her daughter in the head with a hand-held object and caused blunt force trauma. It further alleges she didn’t provide aid to the girl or allow witnesses to help.
“I’ve tried to prepare myself for the last five years, but I’ve always held onto some hope that maybe she would be found alive,” Bowen told MetroNews that night in a phone call after church. “I thought I was ready to hear what we heard today, and I really wasn’t.”
Investigators allege Lunsford concealed her daughter’s body, destroyed evidence, and made up a story about her disappearance.
The break in the case suggested that Aliayah’s remains finally had been found. Not so, said Lewis County Sheriff Adam Gissy.
“The investigation has led us to believe that the one person who possesses this knowledge of Aliayah’s whereabouts is in police custody,” Gissy said the following day in Weston.
Instead, a direct witness had come forward, Gissy said.
“This investigation has been quite trying for all involved,” Gissy said. “The perception may have been that law enforcement was not putting forth the appropriate effort in investigating this notable case. However, by relentlessly probing the one big break that was essential in bringing forth, closure has come to fruition.”
Ralph Lunsford, Lena’s ex-husband, is just one of the major names on the witness list for Monday’s trial.
A grand jury indicted Lena Lunsford in March 2017. She stands officially charged with one count of murder of a child by parent, guardian or custodian or other person by refusal or failure to necessities, one count of death of a child by parent, guardian, custodian or other person by child abuse, one count of child abuse resulting in injury and one count of concealment of a deceased human body.
Then came the legal wrangling. Clarksburg-based attorneys Tom and Zack Dyer took over as lead counsel in the case, and they made every effort to convince Judge Jacob E. Reger to move the pending trial out of Lewis County.
The original June 2017 trial date was postponed until October 2017 as the father-and-son legal team began filing motions.
“I don’t think anybody involved with the case down at the Courthouse in Lewis County would deny that it’s highly unlikely we’ll be able to pick a jury out of Lewis County,” Tom Dyer said June 23, 2017. “So, we’re going to try to address the issue way ahead of time and try to keep a Fall trial date — just in a new location.”
Dyer originally had requested West Virginia Public Defenders Services to fund a jury consultant for between $7,520 and $10,650 plus expenses.
The consultant would organize a study to determine what number of residents that make up a potential jury pool already have made a determination on Lunsford’s guilt or innocence.
Judge Reger denied that motion.
“[Judge Reger] has got a lot of faith in the ability of the local jury pool to be fair and impartial about this,” Dyer said July 27, 2017. “And he would prefer to just give that a chance and go through the jury selection process this fall and see if that works.”
The prosecution agreed last October to continue the trial, postponing it until February of this year — citing the enormous size of the witness list and length of the discovery process.
In that time, Dyer once again made a play to ge the venue changed out of Lewis County, concerned that Lunsford couldn’t receive a fair trial in her home county.
In January, Judge Jacob Reger said no to that motion. Jury selection was set to begin the next month.
One more continuance in February brought us to the newest starting date: April 16.
And, after two full days of voir dire and cross-examinations, the prosecution and defense were able to agree on a jury — 10 women, two men, and two women alternates.
It’s been 2,396 days since Aliayah Lunsford first went missing.
On Monday morning, the prosecution and defense will undertake what could be the highet-profile trial in Lewis County’s history — with the location of Aliayah Lunsford, presumed dead, still unknown.