WATERVILLE — The past 20 days have been difficult for Justin DiPietro, he said. His daughter is missing and widespread speculation has often focused on him.

Particularly, from the host of a daily HLN television program, he said.

“I will publicly invite Nancy Grace to come spend a day with me,” DiPietro said Thursday afternoon during an exclusive interview with the Morning Sentinel. “Nancy Grace, please come see me. Do you want to spend a day with me? Do you want to see what I’m going through? Do you want to see the ins and outs of it? I invite you to.”

DiPietro said he understands why attention has sometimes focused on him and added that he can handle the speculation.

“If I have to be the brunt of those attacks, then so be it. If that’s helping bring Ayla home, then sign me up,” he said.

DiPietro said his invitation is solely for Nancy Grace, not for her show’s producers.

“She’s got a job to do and I do respect that,” he said. “And, as far as her personal attacks on me, well, thank you Nancy Grace. You are essentially keeping the awareness up about Ayla.”

DiPietro made his first media appearances Monday.

Since then, DiPietro has been working from home, trying to raise awareness about his missing daughter. He’s been working on putting together T-shirts, bracelets, posters and more with help from the Laura Recovery Center for Missing Children, a nonprofit organization devoted to preventing abductions and runaways and to recovering missing children.

DiPietro acknowledged Thursday that his efforts to reach out were delayed.

“Getting in touch with the people from the Laura Recovery Center was a big step,” he said. “You can say I was sort of naive for the first few weeks. I just thought that Ayla was going to be home.

“It’s nice to talk to someone who can relate to something like this and be able to share an experience like this with people who genuinely do care.”

In the meantime, DiPietro is concerned by the lack of activity outside his door on Violette Avenue Thursday. Since Ayla was reported missing, television and print journalists have been staked out at the home. He wants her disappearance to remain in the spotlight.

“The media isn’t outside today,” he said, gesturing to the window. “As much as people thought (the press) might have bugged me, it bugs me a lot more that they’re not here.”

DiPietro initially avoided interviews with the media under the advice of police, he said. Now, he said he’s prepared to go in front of cameras, and he’s in talks with NBC for another “Today” appearance.

“If it means answering people’s tough questions, then that’s what I’m going to do,” he said. “I have no problem answering questions about me. I have nothing to hide.

“I had nothing to do with my daughter’s disappearance. I can’t say that enough, or stress it enough. There’s no other way to say that. I want my daughter home.”

DiPietro said he’s aware of widespread public perception of him and it doesn’t bother him, but it is detrimental.

“If people think that by people making personal attacks and making accusations is helping find Ayla, then they’re wrong, because they’re taking away from Ayla. In my mind, they’re drawing attention away from her to something else.”

He’s also concerned that the media has focused closely on accusations made by Ayla’s mother, Trista Reynolds.

“I don’t have time for that,” he said. “If I stoop to the level that some people have gone to, I’ve lost more than my daughter. I’ve lost myself. I know who I am, the people around me know who I am.”

DiPietro’s mother, Phoebe DiPietro, said the media scrutiny has been difficult for her, but not on her son.

“I am so proud of my son Justin. I’m proud of all my kids, but Justin has handled the scrutiny so well. All the cruel, mean things people have said. We’re crawling through hell, and people are accusing him of things that are just incomprehensible.”

DiPietro declined to be photographed Thursday.

“I never liked my picture to be taken to begin with,” he said. “If there’s a picture (in the newspaper), I want it to be Ayla’s. Her picture needs to be out there. That’s essential.”

DiPietro’s mother also declined to be photographed.

Ben McCanna — 861-9239

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