AUGUSTA — Family members of missing children and murder victims whose cases have never been solved implored lawmakers Thursday to help them find justice by providing funding for a special unit in the Attorney General’s Office dedicated to investigating the crimes.

“I don’t want to be one of those moms 30 years from now not knowing what happened,” said Trista Reynolds, whose toddler daughter’s disappearance more than three years ago set off the biggest criminal investigation in state history. Reynolds said she believes the special unit could help shed light on what happened to Ayla Reynolds, who was 20 months old when she vanished from her home in 2011 and is presumed dead.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage signed a bill to create a cold-case homicide unit last year, but the Legislature didn’t set aside money for it – an act one victim’s family member called “shameful.”

This year’s bill, which the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee unanimously endorsed Thursday, would provide $500,000 to support two state police detectives and a forensic chemist who would work with the prosecutor in the Attorney General’s Office who focuses on the more than 120 unsolved homicides in Maine.

Some have criticized LePage for not putting the money in his more than $6 billion budget proposal, but his administration says the governor wants to ensure that his anti-drug effort is funded first. LePage is seeking $4 million to create seven new drug enforcement agent positions, four district court judges and four prosecutors to stem the tide of the state’s growing drug problem.

“If we can find money for everything, then let’s move forward,” said Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for LePage. “But if there’s only money for one of the priorities, the governor has been very clear and consistent that the drug epidemic needs to be addressed first.”

The decision to fund the cold case unit will ultimately lie with the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, which will be faced with dozens of other proposals competing for limited resources.

Sen. Linda Valentino, a Democrat from Saco who introduced the bill and serves on that committee, pledged to fight to ensure that the funding for the unit ends up in the final state budget, which must be adopted by June 30.

“This is a small price to pay to get murderers off the street and finally give peace to the victims’ families,” Valentino said.

Among the dozens of family members who gathered Thursday at the State House to urge support for the bill was the mother of Ashley Ouellette, a 15-year-old who was killed in 1999, and the parents of Angel Torres, who vanished the same year.

Angel’s father, Narcisco Torres, told lawmakers that the cloud cast over his family since his son’s disappearance has never gone away. But he said he and his wife remain hopeful that Angel’s remains will be found so they can give him a proper burial.

“Families like ours and many others need closure,” he said. “Even if the answers our family seeks are not found, surely there will be many families for whom the questions are answered.”

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