FBI: Aliayah Lunsford not abducted by intruder
WESTON, W.Va. -- 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.
Supervisory Agent John Hambrick wouldn't say during a news conference Thursday what investigators believe happened to Aliayah Lunsford or whether they think she's still alive. Hambrick also would not name a suspect, predict when an arrest might be made or offer any details about the ongoing investigation.
Asked about persons of interest, he said only: "It's a small universe."
Hambrick did, however, seek to assure residents of north-central West Virginia that they need not fear for their own children's safety, saying investigators have ruled out the notion that Aliayah was taken by an intruder.
"The initial concerns of somebody slipping in and taking Aliayah -- a break-in -- we found no evidence of that," Hambrick said. "We were not able to develop that as a theory."
Aliayah disappeared from her Lewis County home on Sept. 24, 2011, and there has been no sign of her since. Her mother, Lena Lunsford, told police her daughter was in bed at 6:30 a.m. but was gone when she checked on her a few hours later.
Last week, Lena Lunsford's attorney said his client believes there is no way her daughter wandered off. He also said she is cooperating with investigators and "is convinced that no blood relative of Aliayah knows what has happened to her."
Asked whether Lunsford believes a non-blood relative might have been involved in the disappearance, attorney Mike Woelfel told The Associated Press, "She doesn't know what has happened to Aliayah."
Lena Lunsford recently filed for divorce from her husband, Ralph Keith Lunsford. She's been living at her mother's house for months and also is awaiting sentencing for federal welfare fraud.
In a hearing on that case last fall, Ralph Lunsford suggested he's been the focus of some scrutiny. He told a judge he'd "been questioned by authorities day after day for the last month or two."
Hambrick wouldn't say Thursday if Ralph Lunsford is a suspect or if investigators are still talking to him.
Lena Lunsford, meanwhile, pleaded guilty in January to selling $114 worth of credit on her food stamp card for $50 cash. She had been indicted in October on multiple counts, accused of swapping for cash five times in two months.
U.S. Magistrate John Kaull ordered her to live apart from her husband after he admitted buying and using synthetic drugs called bath salts.
A small crowd of volunteers who have been searching for Aliayah Lunsford gathered outside the West Virginia State Police detachment here, shouting out questions along with reporters in the first public briefing authorities have given in months.
Among them was Tina Smith, Aliayah Lunsford's aunt and Lena Lunsford's half-sister. Her voice choked as she described the family's agonizing wait for news.
"It kills us all," she said. "It's on our minds day and night. We don't sleep. We don't eat.
"It's all you think about, all you do," Smith said. "You just hope and pray every day that there's some closure. The phone rings and you jump, and you think, 'There's the call.'"
Hambrick said the silence of investigators should not signal a lack of concern. He insisted "it's a priority matter."
He said two full-time FBI agents and two state troopers are dedicated to the case, along with the resources of the Lewis County Sheriff's Office.
Hambrick said the agencies have used "sophisticated investigative techniques" and "have done extensive video analysis," Of what, he would not say.
The West Virginia Fusion Center and law enforcement agencies have taken as many as 150 tips, and the FBI is offering a $20,000 reward for the one that leads to an arrest.
Smith said her family joins the volunteer search for Aliayah every day. She's talked to Lena Lunsford only once recently, for about five minutes at a family funeral, and said her half-sister is keeping her distance from everyone.
Smith also said she's frustrated that Aliayah Lunsford's case hasn't garnered national attention.
"We have tried and tried and tried," she said. ". . . If us family members wouldn't have kept it going, her case would have been swept under the rug. We wouldn't even be here today."