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Vigil held for Weston toddler missing five years

 Inter-Mountain photos by Matthew Burdette Tina Smith, right, wipes tears away during a prayer vigil and balloon release for her neice, Aliayah Lunsford, late Saturday at Jackson’s Mill Baptist Church near Weston
Inter-Mountain photos by Matthew Burdette
Tina Smith, right, wipes tears away during a prayer vigil and balloon release for her neice, Aliayah Lunsford, late Saturday at Jackson’s Mill Baptist Church near Weston

JACKSON’S MILL, W.Va. — More than two dozen community members gathered in a small Baptist Church off a winding country road on the outskirts of Weston Saturday night to pray for closure in the vanishing of little Aliayah Lunsford.

The candlelight vigil and balloon release marked the fifth anniversary of the toddler’s disappearance from her Dennison Street home in Weston.

Tears flowed freely, songs echoed throughout the tiny church, family members again made pleas for her safe return and prayers for patience and forgiveness were sent up for the little girl who has touched the lives of so many in this sleepy community.

The gathering, at Jackson’s Mill Baptist Church, started at 5 p.m. with the release of dozens of purple balloons as family members wept, hoping that Aliayah was somewhere, anywhere knowing that she was still in the thoughts and prayers of the people who loved her so.

After the brief outside ceremony, residents filed one-by-one up a worn and narrow ramp and into the church, where J.R. Pratt opened the vigil with a prayer, followed by the old-time hymn “Farther Along,” which moved many congregants to tears.

“For the family of Aliayah, one of these days, you will know why this has happened to her,” Pratt said. “Christ is looking out for her, wherever she is at. She is being looked after.”

A member of the Lewis County Sheriff’s Department was on hand to address not only the family, but also the community as a whole.

“I want to reassure you that this is an active investigation,” Lewis County Sheriff’s Department Deputy E.W. Clark said. “It’s active in the department and, with you here, it’s active in the community as well. The Sheriff’s Department is constantly chasing down leads, running theories. We are doing everything that we can thanks to all the help from the community calling in tips and letting us know.”

“It’s really important not to give up hope, that’s why we encourage anybody who knows anything or anyone that thinks they know anything to call the Sheriff’s Department,” added Clark, who stood in the back of the church with his head bowed for much of the vigil. “We are exhausting everything that we can do. We won’t stop until we find her.”

That sentiment, as well as hope, filled the room Saturday as members of the community consoled the family and prayed that closure would one day come.

“We pour our hearts out to this family in remembrance,” said Pastor Bill Coffindaffer. “Even though Aliayah is not physically with us today, that we can know of, we know that God is providing for her and taking care of her. That, we can be assured of. God is never going to leave (her). God is never going to forsake her. And, God is going to provide for her, even though we and families and friends set and ask questions and wonder why.”

Aside from questions, Coffindaffer said the truth eventually will come out, but he also said something else is necessary in the lives of those mourning her absence.

“Family members knew what happened. Someone had knowledge,” he said. “For those that know what happened, we need to lift them up in prayer that God will melt that cold heart, that God will come in and replace that with the need to let this family know what happened. Along with that prayer, there is another word in there that I think we mentioned. Forgiveness. Yes, it’s true; this should never have happened. They (those responsible for the disappearance) will come to recognize the needs of the family for reconciliation for a knowledge of where she is and what happened to her.”

Prayer, Coffindaffer said, is the most powerful tool in the search for Aliayah.

“What else can we do but to get on our knees and pray?” he said. “Let us never forget, Jesus loved her, and He is never going to leave her. She is one of God’s children.”

Even with the power of prayer, family members still struggle to cope with the disappearance.

“It’s been a rough five years,” said Aliayah’s great aunt Vicky Bowen. “I never thought I would be here today. I thought we would have answers. I was the one that requested we sing the song ‘Farther Along,’ because that’s the only thing that’s got me through these five years, knowing that farther along we will know all about it.”

“We will understand why, and the hard part of living this nightmare is not understanding.” Bowen added. “The only way I can cope with this is to think back about Aliayah and the sacrifice she made, because in my mind she is a hero. I don’t know what she went through. We don’t know yet. In my eyes, she will always be my little hero.”

Aliayah’s aunt, Tina Smith, said the hardest part is not knowing what happened that September morning. She holds out hope, though, that someone eventually will come forward with information that will break the case.

“If you know anything, it may not be anything at all, it may be just the one thing we need to find out where she is at and what happened,” Smith said. “We never dreamed it would be five years without knowing. We are never going to give up.”

Anyone with information is asked to call the FBI’s confidential tip line at 412-432-4000 or the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office at 304-269-8251.

After the brief outside ceremony, residents filed one-by-one up a worn and narrow ramp and into the church, where J.R. Pratt opened the vigil with a prayer, followed by the old-time hymn “Farther Along,” which moved many congregants to tears.

“For the family of Aliayah, one of these days, you will know why this has happened to her,” Pratt said. “Christ is looking out for her, wherever she is at. She is being looked after.”

A member of the Lewis County Sheriff’s Department was on hand to address not only the family, but also the community as a whole.

“I want to reassure you that this is an active investigation,” Lewis County Sheriff’s Department Deputy E.W. Clark said. “It’s active in the department and, with you here, it’s active in the community as well. The Sheriff’s Department is constantly chasing down leads, running theories. We are doing everything that we can thanks to all the help from the community calling in tips and letting us know.”

“It’s really important not to give up hope, that’s why we encourage anybody who knows anything or anyone that thinks they know anything to call the Sheriff’s Department,” added Clark, who stood in the back of the church with his head bowed for much of the vigil. “We are exhausting everything that we can do. We won’t stop until we find her.”

That sentiment, as well as hope, filled the room Saturday as members of the community consoled the family and prayed that closure would one day come.

“We pour our hearts out to this family in remembrance,” said Pastor Bill Coffindaffer. “Even though Aliayah is not physically with us today, that we can know of, we know that God is providing for her and taking care of her. That, we can be assured of. God is never going to leave (her). God is never going to forsake her. And, God is going to provide for her, even though we and families and friends set and ask questions and wonder why.”

Aside from questions, Coffindaffer said the truth eventually will come out, but he also said something else is necessary in the lives of those mourning her absence.

“Family members knew what happened. Someone had knowledge,” he said. “For those that know what happened, we need to lift them up in prayer that God will melt that cold heart, that God will come in and replace that with the need to let this family know what happened. Along with that prayer, there is another word in there that I think we mentioned. Forgiveness. Yes, it’s true; this should never have happened. They (those responsible for the disappearance) will come to recognize the needs of the family for reconciliation for a knowledge of where she is and what happened to her.”

Prayer, Coffindaffer said, is the most powerful tool in the search for Aliayah.

“What else can we do but to get on our knees and pray?” he said. “Let us never forget, Jesus loved her, and He is never going to leave her. She is one of God’s children.”

Even with the power of prayer, family members still struggle to cope with the disappearance.

“It’s been a rough five years,” said Aliayah’s great aunt Vicky Bowen. “I never thought I would be here today. I thought we would have answers. I was the one that requested we sing the song ‘Farther Along,’ because that’s the only thing that’s got me through these five years, knowing that farther along we will know all about it.”

“We will understand why, and the hard part of living this nightmare is not understanding,” Bowen added. “The only way I can cope with this is to think back about Aliayah and the sacrifice she made, because in my mind she is a hero. I don’t know what she went through. We don’t know yet. In my eyes, she will always be my little hero.”

Aliayah’s aunt, Tina Smith, said the hardest part is not knowing what happened that September morning. She holds out hope, though, that someone eventually will come forward with information that will break the case.

“If you know anything, it may not be anything at all, it may be just the one thing we need to find out where she is at and what happened,” Smith said. “We never dreamed it would be five years without knowing. We are never going to give up.”

Anyone with information is asked to call the FBI’s confidential tip line at 412-432-4000 or the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office at 304-269-8251.

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