WATERVILLE — The sprawling police command center at City Hall still hummed on Thursday as the search for missing toddler Ayla Reynolds entered its 13th day, but it was a quieter hum than last week.
At 29 Violette Ave., where the 20-month-old was last seen sleeping the night of Friday, Dec. 16, passersby slowed to glance at a growing shrine of stuffed animals and crime scene tape. But the police cars — stationed outside as recently as Wednesday — were now gone.
Police on Thursday confirmed that two vehicles seized from the driveway by police Dec. 19 have been returned to their owners. One is a Ford Explorer registered to 24-year-old Justin DiPietro, Ayla’s father, and the other a Hyundai registered to a Portland woman whose name is not being made public.
Police declined to say what they were looking for in the vehicles.
A $30,000 reward offered on Monday for information leading authorities to the missing toddler remains unclaimed, police said. There have been no arrests and Ayla, who was last seen in polka dot pajamas and her left arm in a cast, has not been found.
Even as the search effort has been scaled back, Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey on Thursday repeated his frequent refrain that the incident is still a missing person case.
“There have been some searches this week, but they have dropped off in numbers and size and the number of folks searching,” Massey said. “We have gotten to the point where any other searches will be based on information.”
The Maine Warden Service, which had coordinated an estimated 100 public safety and volunteer search teams in woods and streams since Dec. 17, has returned to its regular duties and will be called upon only if needed. Waterville detectives and Maine State Police investigators were still busy Thursday following up on hundreds of tips on the girl’s disappearance, but the primary search operation had ground to a halt.
Massey said there has been no lack of people volunteering to help in the search. He said some volunteers had to be turned away because each searcher had to be coordinated by the Warden Service to make sure all search areas were recorded and there was no duplication of effort or evidence contamination.
Police said DiPietro reported his daughter missing just before 9 a.m. Dec. 17, some 10 to 12 hours after she was put to bed. They said the toddler did not wander off on her own and she was taken from the home by someone, though police have stopped short of calling it a kidnapping.
Massey said from the first day of the search efforts on Saturday, Dec. 17, there were 15 Waterville police officers at the scene, 15 to 20 firefighters conducting a search, three state troopers, three game wardens and two tracking dogs. Media were not allowed to get close to the house.
By Monday, Dec. 19, there were 75 law enforcement officers on the ground, on the water and in the air looking for the toddler.
A dozen FBI agents from several locations arrived in Waterville to assist in the investigation, including door-to-door visits in the neighborhood. Authorities are not making court affidavits filed in the case public, including those for permission to search the house, garage and the two vehicles seized by police.
At its peak, the search area measured five miles in width — north to south from the epicenter on Violette Avenue — and 2 1/2 miles in depth, from Messalonskee Stream west past First Rangeway.
DiPietro said in a statement Wednesday that he played no role in his daughter’s disappearance and he begged whoever took Ayla to return her home.
Ayla’s mother, 23-year-old Trista Reynolds, of Portland, appeared on NBC’s “Today” show Thursday morning and said she has questions only DiPietro can answer because he was the last person to see her. Reynolds said she’s tried to call DiPietro, but he hasn’t called back.
Ayla had been turned over to DiPietro’s care in October by the state Department of Health and Human Services. Reynolds’ family members have said Trista was previously in rehabilitation for substance abuse.
Reynolds filed for sole custody on Dec. 15, a day before her daughter was last seen in Waterville.
Massey said both parents have been interviewed by police and have been cooperative. Details of the investigation have not been released by police.
Reynolds did not return a phone message for comment on Thursday. DiPietro has told police he will only comment through written statements so he doesn’t hinder the investigation.
Massey and Deputy Police Chief Charles Rumsey said the prolonged search and national media attention to the case have been stressful.
“We try to stay very optimistic and focused and I think if you let frustration in, it’s a distraction,” Massey said Thursday. “Walking into that briefing room in the morning and seeing that many law enforcement officers with a great attitude and a commitment to find Ayla, that’s optimism, that’s inspiration.
“I don’t see any long faces.”
Doug Harlow — 612-2367