EXCLUSIVE: Sister who came forward in Aliayah Lunsford case shares her story

Destiny Cole, 15, was 9-years-old when her sister, Aliayah Lunsford, was killed at the hands of her mother, Lena Lunsford in 2011. Cole came forward in 2016 with the truth about what happened to her sister that eventually led to her mother's arrest and murder conviction. (WCHS/WVAH)

It's a case that captivated the state for years as people never stopped wondering what happened to Aliayah Lunsford.

The little girl, who was just 3, seemingly vanished from her home in Lewis County, W.Va., in 2011 under mounting suspicions, but no proof at the time, that her mother, Lena Lunsford, knew more than she was saying.

Lunsford will be sentenced next month and faces life in prison on several charges, including murder, for the death of her daughter. A jury convicted her in April following a trial that lasted a week.

The break in the case came in 2016 after Lunsford's two daughters, who were 9 and 11 at the time, came forward to police and told their story about what really happened to their sister.

For the first time, Destiny Cole (formerly Destiny Lunsford) is telling her story publicly. During her testimony in the trial, her identity was concealed because she is a minor but she and her adoptive parents sat down exclusively with Eyewitness News Reporter Leslie Rubin in the weeks following the guilty verdict.

Destiny is 15 years old now, but she was just 9 when she watched her mother hit Aliayah in the head with a piece of wood and then hide her body in the woods after she was found dead the next morning. She said her mother made her and her sister, Kiara, promise to never tell what really happened.

"She will be punished later. Even after she dies, she will see the creator and she will have to take for account everything that she has done," Destiny said.

For more than five years, she said she lived in fear of her own mother.

"I saw her like react to different things and act different ways. You knew what she was capable of doing," she said.

Craig and Cammie Cole adopted Destiny and five of her siblings about a year after Aliayah disappeared. At the time, the Coles hadn't heard of the Lunsford story but quickly learned the details, including that their sister's body had never been found and no one knew for sure what happened to the little girl.

"We kind of had some suspicions, but we just didn't know what exactly they knew," Craig said of the girls' knowledge about what happened to Aliayah. "I always thought that they were very loyal to Lena, wanting to protect her. But what I later found out was that they were actually very scared of Lena and that's why they were holding their secret - out of fear, not loyalty."

Cammie Cole said it was a difficult situation for the girls.

"It was hard," Cammie said. "I suspected that there was something that they knew more, but then there was part of me that was like, 'No, they said that they don't and I need to trust them.' "

In June 2016, the Coles got a call from investigators in Lewis County that Aliayah may be alive and had been sold to a motorcycle gang.

"At this juncture, the police were chasing this lead that she had been kidnapped and we were going to find her. I'd already set up a bed for her and a room for her, and we were praying for her to come and saying she's going to have a lot of brokenness and we're going to need to help as she transitions and we're going to find her," Cammie said.

But Destiny knew that wasn't true and said she was in the midst of finding her faith and becoming closer to God. In October 2016, she said she couldn't keep the secret any longer. She was in the car with her father after leaving a church event when she decided it was time.

"And then finally, I was like, I got this," she recalled. "I don't really remember what I said before, but I know I turned to my dad and I was like, 'I know where Aliayah is' and I was like, well now I got here and there's no turning back. So, I think that was the hardest part, just starting."

It was the start of more than five years of secrets and lies falling apart for Lena Lunsford. Destiny could remember, in detail, what happened to her baby sister.

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"I was doing something in a different room and I heard commotion so I like ran to see what was going on and I did witness our mom take a board to her head and she fell," she said. "Aliayah kind of collapsed on the floor. I don't really know the time between her going to bed and staying in the corner or whatever, but I do remember out mom saying, 'Fine, just stay there.' "

Destiny said Aliayah was already treated differently than the other siblings. She said she had harsher punishments, sometimes forced to drink saltwater and be deprived of food and even clothes and blankets to sleep in. That night, Lena also took her clothes and bed sheets before Aliayah went to bed.

"When she did go to bed, she wasn't allowed to wear any clothes and her bed was stripped full of sheets so it had the regular plastic bed. She went to sleep, and we felt her head before she went to sleep and it felt squishy, like I had said, and she said that her head hurt really bad," she recalled. "I remember waking up at one point in the night and she was breathing, she was fine and I went back to sleep and that morning, I was awake and doing something in the bathroom and our mom told us to go get Aliayah up, so we did. She wasn't really responding, and she wasn't breathing and her chest wasn't rising or anything."

The next morning, Aliayah was dead, as Lena frantically tried to revive her but refused to call for help.

"When nothing really worked, we went and we took Aliayah out to Vadis in a hamper and we left her there," she said. "On the way back to our house, she said, 'Hey guys, we've got to make mommy a promise.' She had never called herself mommy before, it was always mom or whatever. She was like, 'Everything will be OK' and everything, 'You've just got to trust me and keep this little secret, can you promise mommy that?' And we're like yeah, I mean what else are you going to say in this position?"

Craig contacted authorities in Lewis County and Destiny was soon telling her story to investigators. She was able to point out the board that Lena hit Aliayah with and even the hamper she used to carry her daughter's body in the woods in previous photos taken by police inside the home. The timeline police desperately tried to piece together for years was now finally falling into place.

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At this time, Kiara did not know, however, that her sister had spoken to police and told the truth.

"We were just all hiding lies and doing a cover-up for one evil person and it was tearing me apart," Cammie recalls in the days following Destiny's revelation. "She's the other hero in this. We needed her. We could not go a step further without her. That was the hardest part, not having her on board and knowing that one child was freed from one secret."

Law enforcement came up with a plan to bug the Coles' home in hopes that Destiny could get Kiara to also tell her story. "The two girls were left here by themselves and Destiny had a microphone on her and they had microphones planted around the house and I sat up the road and was texting Destiny and Destiny was scared and I was texting her different things to say," Craig explained.

After several hours, batteries started to run low and they were worried the operation would be a bust. But suddenly, the girls started talking just before time ran out.

"Craig said, 'They're talking. It's happening!' And I just burst into tears and I was just like, only God, in the third hour of that bug, could make a conversation happen that had not happened in 5 years, ever," Cammie said.

Soon after, Lena was arrested. The trial, that didn't take place for more than a year after her arrest, was the first time the girls had faced their mother in years.

Both daughters individually accompanied investigators and search dogs in searches of the Vadis area, where they recalled their mother taking them to dispose of Aliayah's body.

"Both those girls, they targeted the same spot. Individually, took police to the same spot without having talked to one another and those dogs hit on the same spot, so she was definitely there. That body has been moved. That was hard because the girls were so confident, 'We're going to get this done, this mystery is going to be solved.' So, somewhere her remains are still out there but at least the truth is there," Cammie said.

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When asked if there was anything Destiny would say to her mother now, she said, "I don't know if I would definitely say it to her, but I would definitely say I'm sorry that I didn't do it sooner and told the truth sooner."

Destiny said she doesn't think her mother has any remorse.

"I think she's sorry that she's in jail now. In the future, prison. I think she's sorry for her future, her life, how she's not going to be out and doing what she wants to be doing. I think that if she could, I think she would take it back just to save herself. But I don't know if she's like truly sorry for what she did and how she acted," she said.

Destiny said she has reflected after looking at the aged-progressed photos of what her sister would be like today if she were alive.

"She looks very pretty and it's kind of a nice thought, but in heaven one day, I'm going to see her and it's going to be nice," Destiny said.

The Cole family has recently bought a headstone for Aliayah that will be set up in Weston as the place they can visit as a family and remember her. They also have started The Aliayah Lunsford Foundation to raise money for a memorial scholarship. If you would like to donate, click here.

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