A beautiful Arizona family was struck down with tragedy when single mother Valerie Lorraine Gunnell invited a monster into her home. In late 1988, Alvie Copeland Kiles was completing a four-year stint in prison after being convicted on aggravated assault charges. Four months into breathing the air of freedom, Kiles was living with his girlfriend, Valerie, and her children, five-year-old Shemaeah Gunnell and nine-month-old Lecresha Kirklin in Yuma, Arizona. Kiles was regularly checking with his parole officer and attending his court-appointed counseling sessions, but he still succumbed to his addictions to heroin, cocaine, and alcohol. Yet, no one picked up on Kiles’ recurring drug use.
On February 10, 1989, Kiles was mysteriously seen by a number of people driving around in Valerie’s vehicle. No one thought anything of it until Kiles visited a neighbor and confessed that he had killed Valerie, Shemaeah, and Lecresha. He explained that he and Valerie got into an argument because she was angry that he stole her money and food stamps to buy drugs. The fight turned violent and he said it ended with the cruel deaths of the family of three.
And why did the little girls have to die? According to Kiles, the sisters began to cry as they witnessed their mother’s death. They were screaming and because they could possibly identify him, he had to rid the scene of any witnesses.
To prove his account, Kiles led the bewildered neighbor to the home where Valerie’s body was wrapped in a blanket. She had been beaten to death and placed in the hallway. The scene was something out of a horror film. There was blood in Valerie’s bedroom as well as two large pools of blood in the girls’ room.
Kiles told the neighbor, his mother, and a family friend that he left Valerie’s body in the house but threw Shemaeah and Lecresha’s bodies into the Colorado River. Lecresha’s body was later located in an irrigation canal in Mexico. A medical examiner determined that like her mother, the nine-month-old was also beaten to death.
Almost 30 years later, Shemaeah’s remains have never been found.
Even without the five-year-old’s body, Kiles was charged, tried, and convicted of the three murders. He was initially sentenced to death, but a court found that during his trial he had an inadequate defense so his conviction was overturned. However, in his second trial, he was sentenced to death once again for Valerie’s death. For the murders of the innocent young girls, he received life in prison. Kiles is currently awaiting execution but continues to fight his case in the appeals court arguing that he didn’t premeditate the crimes. His death sentence still stands.
I would love to hope that in some miracle, little Shemaeah survived her injuries as was found by a loving person who took her to safety and all these years she’s been living a prosperous life unaware of her tragic childhood circumstances… But that is a fantasy that very few hold. Everyone involved in this case has treated Shemaeah as a deceased person and is hoping to recover her remains for the sake of her loved ones.
Nevertheless, just in case she may be alive somewhere, an artist rendering of what she would look like as an adult was created (the photo below was done to show Shemaeah at 21-years-old). She would be 34-years-old at the time of this article’s publication. If you have any information about this case that would be helpful in location Shemaeah Gunnell, please contact the Yuma Police Department at 928-373-4670.
Please share this story of Valerie Gunnell, Shemaeah Gunnell, and Lecresha Kirklin to continue the conversation about their lives and the dangers of drug abuse and domestic violence. They are our sisters, and their lives matter.