It is the week before Christmas and eight years since Trista Reynolds has seen or touched her toddler, Ayla Bell Reynolds, who disappeared Dec. 17, 2011, putting in motion the largest and most-costly police search in Maine history.

Ayla Reynolds in the photograph that was distributed after she disappeared in December 2011.

Ayla, then 20 months old, was staying with her father, Justin DiPietro, at his mother’s house on Violette Avenue in Waterville when he reported her missing.

DiPietro denies he had anything to do with Ayla’s disappearance, but police believe otherwise. They believe the child is dead and a judge in 2017 declared her so.

Every holiday season, Trista Reynolds, who filed a wrongful death lawsuit against DiPietro and whose lawyer is actively working the case, is reminded in painful ways her daughter is gone: Ayla’s brothers Raymond, 8, and Anthony, 6, do not have their sister, and no one has been charged in the case.

“This year just seems really hard to me,” Trista Reynolds, 31, said Sunday in a telephone interview from her Portland home. “It’s coming up on eight years, but nine years since Ayla and I had shared a Christmas together. I think emotions are running really high right now.”

Despite the difficult memories, Reynolds said she had a bright moment recently when she was given a small-but-profound gift that lifted her spirits — a gift she saw as a message from Ayla, whose favorite color was pink.

Someone placed a pink-and-gold angel wing ornament on the Christmas tree in Monument Square in Portland, with a card addressed to Trista Reynolds. The envelope read: “To Mommy; Love, Ayla. I love you Mommy.”

Inside the envelope was a message: “These angel wings are for you. They will keep you and my brothers safe. Love, Ayla.”

Reynolds said the city tree is special to her and Ayla because they visited it when Ayla was alive.

“I went to Monument Square and I picked them up,” Reynolds said of the angel wings. “I found them on the tree. Now, they’re sitting on my Christmas tree at home.”

Reynolds posted this message on her Facebook page to the gift giver: “I’m not sure who left this on the Christmas Tree in Monument Square but whoever did thank you! Thank you so much you have no idea how much this means to me. I was feeling so empty and just really missing Ayla and whoever you are helped heal a little piece of that. I believe Ayla came to you spiritually to have you do this so I would know she is still with me and her brothers this holiday season. I really can’t thank you enough. God bless and I send my love to you.”

Reynolds said Sunday she finally learned the identity of the person who left the ornament, and that person wants to remain anonymous.

“They didn’t have to do that and they did that to brighten up my holiday spirit,” Reynolds said. “When I found out who it was, it’s someone I never even met. It was just really special and it definitely kind of made me feel a little bit complete. A gift that came from Ayla.”

Reynolds has asked that people light a pink light for Ayla at Christmas.

“I have a neighbor a few houses down and she has kept them lit all year-round,” Reynolds said. “Mine and hers are lit.”

 

CONTINUING COURT CASE, POLICE INVESTIGATION

Trista Reynolds’ lawyer, William Childs, of Portland, is seeking the results of a forensic investigation and other records, including reports and statements of experts, from the Maine Attorney General’s Office case file as part of the wrongful death lawsuit he filed in December 2018 on Trista Reynolds’ behalf.

“We’re looking at doing discovery on this matter well into the forthcoming year,” Childs said Monday.

He said he has deposed, or interviewed, several witnesses, and has between five and 10 more to depose, including DiPietro.

Asked if he is confident Trista Reynolds will prevail in the case, Childs was careful with his response.

“We’re pursuing discovery vigorously,” Childs said, “and we wouldn’t be doing so if we didn’t think there was a reason to do so.”

Reynolds and family have maintained a GoFundMe site intended to “raise the funds necessary to sustain a wrongful death civil action against Justin DiPietro and any others who may share responsibility for baby Ayla Reynolds’ death and any cover-up.”

Meanwhile, Superior Court Justice Thomas D. Warren has issued an order in Cumberland County Superior Court, dated Nov. 4, that stipulates the lawyer for Trista Reynolds shall provide the state with a list of items, information or documents by Nov. 22, and the state shall respond with its position on each item before Dec. 23.

After that, according to the order, the court will convene a discovery and status conference to determine future proceedings with respect to discovery, including a schedule of proceedings and whether formal subpoenas will be necessary.

State Police Lt. Jeffrey Love, who has been involved with the case since it began, said Monday it remains active. Love is supervisor of the State Police Major Crimes Unit-Central and oversees detectives Ryan Brockway and Josh Birmingham, who are working the case.

Asked if solving Ayla’s disappearance becomes more unlikely as even more time passes, Love was quick to respond.

“The State Police historically has solved a lot of these older cases,” Love said, “and they’re solved because of that persistence of investigators, as well as because the families don’t want to give up.”

Police will continue to work the investigation, according to Love.

“As time goes on, dynamics change with people,” he said. “If something changes, that might just be the piece of information we’re waiting for.”

Love said even if it is not the information that solves the case, it could lead to information that eventually does.

Police have followed up on 12 leads they received this year related to Ayla’s death, he said. Anyone with information about the case is asked to call the State Police.

“It’s open and active,” Love said. “There are two detectives assigned to it who evaluate those leads when (the leads) come in. There’s also regular work being done on the investigation in the hopes of bringing closure to Trista and her family.”

 

DIPIETRO’S DEFENSE

Justin DiPietro emerged from behind the scenes last spring to face the civil lawsuit over the death of his daughter. His lawyer, Michael J. Waxman, of Portland, said DiPietro had nothing to do with Ayla’s disappearance and knew nothing about what happened to her.

The lawsuit contends DiPietro, who lives in California, should be held responsible for Ayla’s death. No one has been charged criminally in the case, but police have said all along the people staying at the Violette Avenue house the night Ayla disappeared — including DiPietro — know more about her disappearance than they have said. At the house that night were DiPietro’s then-girlfriend, Courtney Roberts, and his sister, Elisha DiPietro.

Waxman said in May that DiPietro had been cooperative with police and had given many hours of statements to police. He said DiPietro’s story has been consistent since Ayla went missing and he struggles with her disappearance every day. Waxman confirmed DiPetro is employed but declined to say what he does for work.

A call placed to Waxman on Monday afternoon seeking further comment was not returned.

Childs earlier this year served DiPietro a summons and complaint for wrongful death through publication in Maine and California newspapers after exhaustive attempts to serve him in person and by mail failed because his exact whereabouts were unknown.

Childs filed that proof of publication in Cumberland County Superior Court, detailing multiple attempts to serve DiPietro notice of the lawsuit.

The last time Justin DiPietro spoke publicly about the case was when he gave comments to a reporter from the television show “Crime Watch Daily” near his home in California.

On the show, aired Dec. 18, 2018, DiPietro said he believed someone broke into the Waterville home and took Ayla. Prior to that, DiPietro spent years out of the public eye and has not commented directly on the civil action against him.

His last known address was in Winnetka, California, a neighborhood of Los Angeles.

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