February 9, 1989
Yuma, Arizona
Alvie Copeland Kiles (27) kills his girlfriend Valerie Lorraine Gunnell (26) and her two daughters

Kiles had moved in with Valerie and her daughters — 9-month-old LeCresha Kirklin and 5-year-old Shemaeah Gunnell — in January of 1989. Weeks later on February 9, Kiles stole Valerie’s purse and sold her food stamps. He returned to Valerie’s apartment later that night at around 11 p.m., and the couple began to argue over the theft, culminating with Valerie slapping Kiles. Kiles told Valerie not to hit him again. Valerie responded by slapping him a second time.

Shemaeah Gunnell and LeCresha Kirklin
via Our Black Girls

Kiles left the apartment briefly to retrieve a bumper jack from his car, returned to the apartment, and knocked Valerie unconscious with the jack. When Valerie regained consciousness, she asked, “Why did you do that?” Kiles then beat Valerie to death before beating her children to death as well. He put the children’s bodies in plastic bags which he then threw into the Colorado River. Valerie’s body was left in her apartment.

The day after the murders, Kiles began to tell several people he had killed his girlfriend for “ragging” on him for stealing from her. He explained he killed Valerie’s children because they were “crying and hollering and screaming,” and had witnessed him killing their mother. “Why the kids? That’s my question,” Yuma police detective Brian Rogers later asked the press rhetorically. “There’s no way a 9-month-old could identify or testify against you. And for a 5-year-old, the traumatic shock would have been to the point she may never have been able to tell us what happened.”

Alvie Copeland Kiles
via Our Black Girls

One of the friends Kiles had confessed the murders to did not believe his story. To prove his claims, Kiles brought the friend to Valerie’s apartment. The friend suggested they call an ambulance because he believed Valerie may still be alive; Kiles replied Valerie was dead and stepped on her face as proof. The same day, Kiles admitted the killings to his mother, who called police to report the murders after he left her home.

Police found Valerie’s body in the early hours of February 11, wrapped in a bedspread and laying in a hallway. A “significant amount of blood” was in the living room and two bedrooms of the home and the bumper jack used to kill the family was found in one of the bedrooms. As indicated by Kiles’ confession, the children were missing from the home. Kiles was arrested the next morning after he was discovered hiding under a bed in a friend’s apartment.

Valerie’s autopsy revealed she had extensive blunt force trauma to her “head, face, neck, upper extremities, and trunk.” She had multiple lacerations including lacerations to her brain, multiple skull fractures, and all of her front teeth had been shattered. In addition, Valerie’s right forearm had been fractured and she had puncture wounds on top of her left elbow which the coroner determined was indicative of defensive wounds.

Members of the community would assemble to walk the banks of the Colorado River to look for the bodies of the missing children, accompanied by corpse dogs and divers from local law enforcement. A week after her murder, the body of LeCresha was found in a canal about 15 miles (24 km) away from the US-Mexican border. Her skull had been completely shattered. Shemaeah’s body has not been recovered but, due to the volume of blood left at the scene which was matched to the 5-year-old’s DNA, she is presumed to have been killed at the time of the other murders.

Kiles attempted a defense involving his addiction to cocaine and diagnoses of an “adjustment disorder with depressed mood of mild to moderate intensity” and “a mixed personality disorder consisting of narcissistic, paranoid and explosive features.” The jury convicted Kiles of 3 counts of first-degree murder and 2 counts of child abuse. He was sentenced to death for each of the murder convictions and two consecutive terms of 22 years for the child abuse charges. He was later given a second trial resulting in two of the death sentences being reduced to life imprisonment. At the same time, the sentences for child abuse were upgraded to life.

Sources:
Kiles, Alvie C. Inmate 058243. Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation & Reentry. Accessed: February 9, 2021. https://corrections.az.gov/public-resources/inmate-datasearch
Shemaeah Nicole Gunnell. The Charley Project. Accessed: February 9, 2021. https://charleyproject.org/case/shemaeah-nicole-gunnell
Fischer, Howard. “Verdict and death sentence upheld in ‘89 Yuma murder.” Arizona Daily Star [Tucson, Arizona]. August 11, 2009
“Judge orders Yuma killer of 3 to be retried.” The Arizona Daily Star [Tucson, Arizona]. December 8, 1996
State v. Kiles. 175 Ariz. 358 (1993). 857 P.2d 1212. STATE of Arizona, Appellee, v. Alvie Copeland KILES, Appellant. No. CR-90-0106-AP. Supreme Court of Arizona, En Banc. April 15, 1993. Archived: https://law.justia.com/cases/arizona/supreme-court/1993/cr-90-0106-ap-2.html
“Slain woman’s baby found dead.” Tucson Citizen. February 20, 1989
“Colorado River Searched For 2 Arizona Children.” Deseret News. February 18, 1989. Archived: https://www.deseret.com/1989/2/18/18795650/colorado-river-searched-for-2-arizona-children
Shields, Tom. “Yuma fears for girls.” Tucson Citizen. February 16, 1989

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