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Shemaeah was last seen at her apartment on north 1st Avenue in Yuma, Arizona on February 10, 1989. She lived with her mother, Valerie Lorraine Gunnell, her nine-month-old sister, Lecresha Kirklin, and Valerie's boyfriend, Alvie Copeland Kiles, at the time. Photos of all three of them are posted below this case summary. Kiles had moved in with the family in January 1989, four months after his release from prison. He had served four years for attempted aggravated assault. He had a long-standing abuse problem with alcohol, cocaine and heroin. As per the requirements of his parole, Kiles attended counseling and his parole officer thought his conduct was satisfactory; however, he continued to use drugs.
Kiles was seen by several individuals on February 10, driving Valerie's car. That afternoon, he told a neighbor he had killed Valerie and her daughters. He stated he killed Valerie in an argument because he had stolen her food stamps to buy cocaine, and he murdered her, then killed the children because they began crying and screaming after witnessing their mother's death. Kiles took his neighbor to Valerie's apartment and showed her the body. Shamaeah and Lecresha were missing from the scene. Kiles said he'd put their bodies in the Colorado River. Kiles made similar confessions to his mother and a family friend, saying he'd killed the two girls because "they could talk."
On February 11, the police went to the Gunnell residence and found Valerie's body wrapped in a blanket in the hallway. She had been beaten to death. There were indications of a struggle in Valerie's bedroom and blood all over the home, including two large pools of blood in the children's bedroom. A week after the murders, Lecresha's body was found in an irrigation canal in Mexico. Like her mother, she had been beaten to death. Shemaeah's remains were never located, but her blood was found on a mattress in her family's apartment.
Kiles was convicted of murdering all three members of the Gunnell family and was sentenced to death. A photograph of him is posted below this case summary. His conviction was later overturned on the grounds that he had an inadequate defense, but at his second trial he was convicted again of three counts of murder and two counts of child abuse in 2000. He was ultimately sentenced to death for Valerie's murder and life in prison for Shemaeah and Lecresha's murders. Kiles is awaiting execution. He does not dispute that he committed the murders, but he is appealing his death sentence, saying the crimes were not premeditated. In 2009, he took his case to the Arizona Supreme Court, which upheld the verdict and sentence.
Foul play is suspected in Shemaeah's case due to the circumstances involved.
Left: Alvie Copeland Kiles;
Center: Valerie Gunnell;
Right: Lecresha Kirklin