WATERVILLE, Maine — After a year of national publicity, more than 1,000 tips, and the offer of a reward, the largest missing person search in Maine history has not found a 20-month-old toddler who disappeared from her father’s home last Dec. 17.
Blood from the child was discovered in the basement of the house where, her father said, Ayla Reynolds had been abducted as he slept. But authorities, who many months ago dismissed the possibility of kidnapping, have said ominously that they believe the father, Justin DiPietro, knows more than he has said.
Since Ayla’s disappearance, DiPietro has not said much.
One year later, the authorities and a struggling city are left with this: no criminal charges, an apparent dead end, and an estranged young mother 85 miles away who has no answers to her questions as she prepares for another Christmas without her daughter.
“For a year now, it’s been the same thing, waiting and waiting and waiting,” said Trista Reynolds, 24. “Every time I get a phone call, it’s never good, it’s always bad. But I still get that feeling: This might be that call.”
Reynolds said she has not been contacted by State Police since May, when they said that Ayla probably would not be found alive. And when she calls them, Reynolds said, investigators are often unavailable.
“I kind of feel that they’ve given up,” Reynolds said.
State Police, who have scheduled a press conference Friday in Waterville, insist that the case has not been abandoned.
“It’s open, it’s active, and there are no new developments,” Steve McCausland, the State Police spokesman, said Thursday. He declined to elaborate.
In Waterville, however, a sense of resignation surrounds a case that stunned this struggling, mid-Maine community. A $30,000 reward offered by local businesses was withdrawn in June. A robust mound of teddy bears, flowers, candles, and printed prayers is gone from outside the DiPietro home.
Now, a simple white sign with the word “Missing” is stuck in the front lawn. Ayla’s picture is attached, along with a plea to “Please call 911.” Underneath the sign is a single, rotting pumpkin.
Next door, John Roy and Pati Redeagle said this neighborhood of modest homes has returned to the slow-moving rhythms that have characterized Waterville since many of its factories and mills closed in recent decades.
“I would say that about six months ago, people got used to it and got over it,” Roy, 62, said of Ayla’s disappearance. “It’s the same sleepy, little town it always was.”
DiPietro, who could not be reached for comment, visits the home about once a month in a Ford Explorer, Roy said. He said he believes DiPietro’s sister, who also was in the home the night Ayla disappeared, still lives there. A woman who answered the door greeted a reporter with a brusque “no comment.”
Roy said he has had no contact with anyone in the DiPietro home since Ayla vanished. About five months ago, he recalled, “I was sick of looking at the house, so I put up a stockade fence. The family is not very friendly and never has been.”
Roy was lying in bed with a broken leg, only 14 feet from the DiPietro home, on the night Ayla disappeared. “I believe they have not told the truth over there,” Roy said. “The idea that somebody could have come and gone is ludicrous.”
That night she disappeared, DiPietro said, Ayla had slept alone in a separate room. He, his girlfriend, his sister, and two other children were in the house, the father said. When DiPietro checked on Ayla the morning of Dec. 17, he told police, her bed was empty.
But the abduction theory, McCausland said about a month later, “doesn’t pass the straight-face test.”
Reynolds, who never had a formal relationship with Ayla’s father, was blunter. “Everyone inside that house that night, to me, is a suspect,” she said.
Shortly after Ayla’s disappearance, DiPietro released a statement saying: “I would never want anyone to spend even a minute in my shoes. No one should ever have to experience this. It has affected me in more ways than anyone can imagine.”
“I have to believe that Ayla is with somebody,” DiPietro added then, “and I just want that person to find the courage to do the right thing and find a way to return her safely. Even if that means dropping her off at a church or hospital or some safe place.”
State Police said DiPietro’s “reaction was no reaction” when they informed him in May that Ayla probably was dead.
Compared with the first, frenzied weeks after Ayla’s disappearance, when reporters and television trucks camped outside DiPietro’s house, Reynolds is now dealing with lonely, lingering grief and a nightmarish list of what-ifs.
“I never get past the worry. It’s on my mind from the minute I wake up until the minute I go to bed,” said Reynolds, who lives in Gorham with her 20-month-son and a boyfriend. “I still worry about where she is. Is she OK? Is she coming home?”
DiPietro had been caring for Ayla temporarily because her mother, who was living in Portland, had entered a substance abuse program. A year later, Reynolds said she remains sober and is a full-time mother to her son, Raymond.
This week, Reynolds spoon-fed oatmeal to Raymond and spoke of her yearlong vigil. She moved to the countryside of Gorham, about 10 miles from Portland, to avoid sights that constantly reminded her of Ayla. She also tired of condolences from strangers, on the street, on the bus, nearly everywhere.
“It got really hard to walk down the street without having people talk to me,” Reynolds said. “It can be overwhelming. I still have my days when I don’t want to get out of bed, but I’ve got to keep thinking about Raymond, because it’s not fair to him. I don’t think he’d be as happy as he is if he saw me crying every day.”
While Reynolds spoke, Raymond hugged a teddy bear and watched a children’s TV show with wide eyes and a beaming smile. Prebirth ultrasound images of him and Ayla hung on the wall. Ayla’s blanket lay draped on the couch, and the missing toddler’s “Tinker Bell” Christmas stocking formed part of the decorations.
Although Reynolds said she has not lost hope, optimism about the case is nearly impossible to find in Waterville.
“I wouldn’t give up hope, but I don’t think [Ayla] would be found alive, necessarily,” said Michael Giroux, 47, who owns a downtown stationery store.
Despite the pessimism, Shawn Scanlin, a father of three, said something positive has come from Ayla’s disappearance.
“I believe it has brought people closer to their families,” said Scanlin, 34, as he waited patiently to buy dog food at a discount store. “I couldn’t imagine anything happening to my kids. I’d be hysterical.”
Reynolds has been through that phase. On Monday, the one-year anniversary of Ayla’s disappearance, Reynolds wants a simple, quiet respite to reflect and to grieve. “I just don’t want to be around anybody. I want that day for myself,” Reynolds said. “She’s my daughter, but I’ve been sharing her with everybody.”