Trying to find Aliayah
Something’s been troubling me for the past week. As a journalist writing on assignment for a newspaper, magazine, or online journal, I would have spoken up a week ago. As a blogger, I would have done the same. But journalism ethics being what they are, I didn’t feel I could, at the time.
You see, I didn’t approach this story as either a journalist or a blogger—I went in just like most everyone else did: as a volunteer searching for a missing three-year-old.
Maybe that’s why, when I posted this blog last Friday, the first words that entered my brain and jumped onto the page had nothing to do with Aliayah Lunsford—but everything to do with me. Or maybe it’s because, once you reveal you could have killed your own children, as I do in my book, Sister of Silence, you have some nagging desire to reassure people that you really were a good mother. Or maybe it’s just because every mother I know has, at least once, lost her own child in a supermarket, a shopping mall or elsewhere.
But after actually taking part in the Weston, W.Va., search, I came to realize only one thing: Ken Lanning was right. I spoke with Lanning on Sept. 29, not long before I was called upon to join what turned out to be the last volunteer search that day. Lanning and I talk every now and then, whenever I’m curious to learn his thoughts about cases involving missing children or sexual abuse. (Lanning, an expert about such crimes whose training manuals are used by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, taught at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., for more than 20 years. Retired in 2000, he wrote the foreword for my book and now works as a consultant for crimes against children.)
I should note that nothing Lanning said specifically applies to this case, as our conversation was about the general nature of such searches.
We spoke for 30 minutes or so, and what Lanning said didn’t surprise me. Not because I already knew it, but because of human nature. In general, he said searching for missing children is an extremely challenging task, for it involves various levels of law enforcement, professional searchers, and volunteers who are eager to find the missing child. When these three groups converge, the potential exists for evidence to be missed or misunderstood, in part because of how such searches are conducted.
For instance, Lanning said his own former FBI Behavioral Science Unit “totally misconstrued the evidence” in similar cases. One such case he cited was the West Memphis 3 murders, which involved the 1993 mutilation of three eight-year-old boys. Authorities subsequently arrested three teen boys, ages 16, 17 and 18, who were convicted of the murders. (The trio was recently released from prison after such celebrities as Johnny Depp became convinced of their innocence.)
In that case, prosecutors claimed the mutilation was the act of Satanic cults. But as Lanning explained, and as was later found to be true, such violence had nothing to do with Satan worshipers. It was simply a case of people jumping to the wrong conclusions.
“Even professional people can make errors in judgment,” Lanning said. “The police and FBI can make errors.”
He’s seen this happen when searchers missed an area during their search—the same area where a child’s body later turned up. Searchers literally walked right over it, Lanning said.
Other times, Lanning said, search and rescue dogs have traced a victim’s scent to an area where the scent then disappeared, causing police to believe the missing child was kidnapped and taken in one direction. “But the child actually went in the opposite direction,” Lanning added.
Several hours later, as I drove the 60 miles home, wet, dirty and exhausted, I thought about the only volunteer search I’ve ever been a part of, and Lanning’s words came back to me. “People come from all around. They have a vigil, they say prayers . . . They get caught up in the emotion and . . . lose their objectivity,” I remembered him saying.
In addition, there is another problem with volunteer searches. “Sometimes you have searchers who aren’t searchers,” Lanning said. They’re highly motivated, they spend 12 to 16 hours a day helping to search, and they really feel a type of calling to take part. But, according to Lanning, the very thing that’s good about their involvement—their level of motivation—can became a bad thing: “It sometimes affects their judgment and objectivity.”
Like the majority of people helping to look for Lunsford, I wasn’t a professional searcher. I was a volunteer. I may be an investigative journalist, but I can now tell you for a certainty that while the two are similar, they are not alike. Searching for a small child while combing through all kinds of vegetation on uneven riverbank terrain is nothing like taking notes while interviewing people and digging through documents trying to track down, say, a money trail.
At least, it wasn’t in this case. In my group, a professional searcher some of the volunteers had nicknamed “Rambo” because he carried something that looked like a machete, which he used to cut through the thick underbrush, had us all line up about 10-feet apart. We still needed to be able to see the shoes of the person on our left and right, he said. As we walked straight ahead in a line, we were to look up and down (even in the trees), from side to side, and even behind us.
This is a grid search, and while Lanning said he isn’t an expert in this area, he does know what’s involved—and that searchers can “make mistakes and overlook things.”
From personal experience, with only a few hours “on the job,” I can attest to that. Intent upon searching every square inch, I was doing everything possible not to miss a piece of ground. But other searchers would call out for me to hurry up, since the entire line of people are supposed to stay together and not move too far ahead, or lag behind, as the group moves forward. Frustrated, I tried to cover ground faster, while not skipping any of it. But I know I did.
So en route home later that night, I kept wondering, “What if I missed an area—under a fallen tree branch or a pile of wet leaves—where Aliayah was hiding, or hidden?”
The other nagging thought I’ve had since last week is this: by the time we ended our search, darkness had descended at least 15 minutes earlier. When the volunteers gathered that afternoon and discussed the search, I thought I heard someone say we wouldn’t be searching during the darkness—only the professionals would be. So I didn’t expect to be waving around a small, dimly-lit flashlight as we continued searching, hoping to find a swatch of fabric or a sign that earth had been moved—clues that might tell us anything about Aliayah.
(To be continued . . . )