The fate of 3-year-old Aliayah Lunsford has stymied police and frustrated her family since she vanished more than five years ago.
Questions were partially answered this week, when authorities announced that Aliayah was killed, allegedly by her own mother, Lenal Lunsford. Investigators believe Lunsford hit her daughter in the head with a blunt object inside their home in Ben Dale, an unincorporated community in Lewis County, West Virginia.
Officials said Lunsford hid the child's body and lied to police when she reported her missing in September 2011, the Associated Press reported.
Lunsford was arrested last week and charged with the death of a child by child abuse, Lewis County Sheriff Adam Gissy said during a news conference on Friday.
The girl's body, however, has yet to be found.
"The investigation led us to believe that the one person who possesses this knowledge of Aliayah's whereabouts is in police custody," Gissy told reporters.
A criminal complaint cited by the AP states that Lunsford, now 34, kept witnesses from helping Aliayah after the child suffered the fatal blow and also asked them to keep quiet about what transpired.
Lunsford reported her daughter missing on September 24, 2011. She told police she checked on her daughter early that morning, and Aliayah was gone when she checked on her again later that day, the AP reported.
An FBI official told reporters six months later that investigators did not believe someone broke into the home and took the child. The agency at that time offered few details about what investigators believe happened. At one point, the FBI offered a $20,000 reward for information that would lead to the little girl's whereabouts or to an arrest.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children also had published an age-progressed picture of Aliayah. But no suspects were ever named or arrested - until this past week.
Lunsford, who's been living in Florida, was arrested in Pinellas County and has been extradited to West Virginia. She appeared in court this week, according to media reports. It's unclear if she has an attorney.
Family members, however, take little comfort in Lunsford's arrest.
"We tried to prepare for this day," Vickie Bowen, Aliayah's great aunt, told West Virginia Metro News. "We've known in our hearts for years now that Aliayah is gone, but we all still held out that one little thread of hope. Now that's gone."
Sheriff Gissy, who offered very few details about the investigation during the news conference, said investigators found witnesses who had direct knowledge of Aliayah's death. He didn't say anything on who those witnesses were and didn't take questions from reporters. He said more information will be released at a later date.
"They ought to be tried too," Tina Smith, the little girl's aunt said of the witnesses, according to West Virginia Metro News. "Five years. Why wait five years?"
Lunsford was pregnant with twins when she reported Aliayah missing, according to media reports. She was charged with welfare fraud shortly after she reported her daughter missing and was sentenced to eight months in prison.
Lunsford had also filed for divorce from Ralph Lunsford, Aliayah's stepfather. She had lost parental rights of her six other children.
"How could you do this to your own child?" Smith said of Lunsford. "She didn't deserve any of this. She was an innocent baby."