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Mom charged in death of long-missing WV toddler

Aliayah Lunsford when shew was reported missing at 3 years old.
Aliayah Lunsford when she was reported missing at 3 years old.

WESTON — Lena Marie Lunsford, mother of missing Lewis County toddler Aliayah Lunsford, has been arrested in Florida in connection with the case, Lewis County Sheriff Adam Gissy confirmed.

Lunsford is awaiting extradition on a charge of death of a child by a parent by child abuse, Gissy confirmed. She is in custody in Pinellas County, Florida, the sheriff said.

Lunsford, also now known as Lena Conaway and Lena Marie Lunsford-Conaway, 34, of St. Petersburg, Florida, is being held on a $250,000 cash bail.

 The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department assisted West Virginia law enforcement in locating Lunsford and arresting her on the warrant, according to a Florida court affidavit. Sgt. Spencer Gross of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department said the arrest was made without incident. He believed Lunsford was taken into custody at her St. Petersburg dwelling.

Asked whether Aliayah’s body had been found, Gissy said he would neither confirm nor deny that, and that the investigation is still active. Gissy declined to answer any further questions. He said a press conference would be held at 11 a.m. Friday at the Lewis County Courthouse.

Lena Lunsford is the only person charged in the case at this time, Gissy said.

Aliayah Lunsford was 3 when she went missing Sept. 24, 2011, from a rental home in Bendale, which is located near Lewis County High School and the Stonewall Jackson Lake Dam.

Lena Lunsford reported at the time of the disappearance that she checked on her daughter in her bed in the early morning of Sept. 24, 2011. Lena Lunsford said she looked in on Aliayah again about 9 a.m. and she was gone.

Lena Lunsford told authorities she went out driving around looking for Aliayah and didn’t report her missing until 11:30 a.m., according to police.

That report touched off massive search efforts that involved law enforcement agencies, first responders and volunteers from around the region and the state. Those efforts have been unsuccessful.

Less than two weeks after Aliayah’s disappearance, her four brothers and sisters were removed from the home by the state Department of Health and Human Resources, Gissy previously said.

Lena Lunsford, who was pregnant with twins at the time, was arrested on federal welfare fraud charges weeks later and was sentenced to eight months in prison. She was sent back to prison for violating her supervised release by failing to keep a job, failure to attend scheduled counseling appointments and possession and use of cocaine, the sheriff previously confirmed.

Aliayah’s stepfather, Ralph Keith Lunsford, and Lena lost their parental rights to all the children, Gissy previously said.

The FBI has been overseeing the cold case.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children also is involved.

Rewards were offered, and fliers were issued that showed what Aliayah might look like if she grew older.

Also, Gissy’s office has been actively investigating.

Searchers for the toddler have included professional and volunteer groups, and there have been countless hours of investigation by law enforcement, Gissy has said. Authorities also dragged the nearby river, he has said.

“There’s not a week that goes by that we are not digging into the case or re-interviewing people,” Gissy said this September. “We are in contact with the FBI and State Police regularly. We just need that one break, and I believe we could really bring about some closure.”

If someone is convicted of death of a child by parent by child abuse in West Virginia, the penalty can range from 10 to 40 years. In such a case, parole isn’t possible for at least 10 years, according to West Virginia Code.

See more from The Exponent Telegram. 

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