No body has been found, but a woman living in St. Petersburg has been arrested and extradited to West Virginia on charges she killed her young daughter there with a strike to the head.
Lena Lunsford, 34, told authorities five years ago that 3-year-old Aliayah had vanished from her bedroom. Authorities launched a national search. Family in Lewis County, W.Va., held out hope for years that the young girl would be found safe and alive.
"It comes with great sadness that I report that Aliayah Lunsford, who went missing on Sept. 24, 2011, is deceased," Lewis County Sheriff Adam M. Gissy said at a news conference in a Lewis County courtroom Friday.
Aliayah was inside her West Virginia home when she received the fatal blow from a handheld object, according to a Sheriff's Office criminal complaint. The report says that Lunsford struck her daughter intentionally and that the mother of seven didn't help the girl or let others who were present help her, either.
The girl was "visibly suffering from trauma caused by the strike," Deputy E.E. Carpenter wrote in the complaint, adding that, based on witness accounts, "within hours of the strike, the child victim died."
Afterward, Lunsford took steps to conceal what happened, deputies said.
"These include, but are not limited to, originating a fictitious narrative regarding the death, destroying evidence, concealing the victim's body, and instructing witnesses to conceal the true circumstances of the victim's death," Carpenter wrote.
Gissy said investigators still do not know the location of Aliayah's body, but believe her mother does. He did not answer questions at the news conference.
Lunsford was first arrested about a month after Aliayah's disappearance and pleaded guilty to federal charges of food stamp fraud. She was sentenced in 2012 to eight months in prison plus a year of supervised release. She and her husband lost custody of their six other children in 2012, according to the Exponent Telegram newspaper in Clarksville, W.Va.
Lunsford was arrested Thursday after a warrant was issued in West Virginia for her arrest.
No one answered the door Friday at a home on 31st Street N in St. Petersburg listed as Lunsford's address in a Pinellas County Sheriff's Office arrest report.
Still unclear is how long Lunsford had been living in St. Petersburg and what brought her here.
She now is in custody in West Virginia.
Contact Sara DiNatale at email@example.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.