Trista Reynolds, mother of missing child Ayla Reynolds, is seen at her apartment Thursday in South Portland. Ben McCanna/Maine Sunday Telegram

Ten years to the day that Justin DiPietro reported his daughter, Ayla Bell Reynolds, missing from their Waterville home, he will be interviewed as part of a civil lawsuit seeking to hold him accountable for her death.

It’s an indication that progress is ramping up in the case of Ayla a decade after her disappearance, which is giving her mother, Trista Reynolds, renewed hope.

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

“I’m actually hoping that this is the year my Christmas wish will come true,” Reynolds said this week.

Ten years ago this month, the 20-month-old blonde-haired, blue-eyed Ayla was in the care of her father, Justin DiPietro, at his mother’s house on Violette Avenue in Waterville. He called police to report her missing on the morning of Dec. 17, 2011, launching the largest and costliest police investigation in Maine history.

Ayla has never been found and no one has been charged in the case. A judge in 2017 declared her dead, paving the way for Trista Reynolds to file a wrongful death lawsuit against DiPietro in December 2018 that contends he should be held accountable for Ayla’s death.

After delays in the case last year because of the coronavirus pandemic and other issues, Trista Reynolds’ lawyer, William H. Childs, this year received documents he was seeking from the state Attorney General’s Office, including evidence and documents from the Maine State Police investigation.

“We now have that; it has been provided to my forensic expert and my expert has rendered a report,” Childs, of Portland, said this week. “But the report and source documents are still subject to a confidentiality order with the court, so they can’t be disclosed to anyone as of yet.”

Childs said he anticipates a judge will allow for release of the report but first must hear from the AG’s office about whether it objects to that disclosure. There is no date set for a civil trial in the case, he said.

“Predicting when any civil trial will be heard by a jury during this pandemic is pure guesswork,” he said separately in an email.

Childs is reticent to reveal details about the case while it’s in court, but paperwork he filed in Cumberland County Superior Court reveals he was granted extensions in the case throughout the year. Those extensions were needed because of the large volume of information from the state police investigation and AG’s office. That office had to pore over the material and make redactions where appropriate.

The investigative materials include “thousands of pages and many photos and other recordings,” court documents say.

Justin DiPietro, father of Ayla Reynolds, in 2013. Portland Press Herald file

Childs also has deposed, or interviewed, several witnesses in the case, including DiPietro’s mother, Phoebe DiPietro, according to the court documents. She owns the home in which Ayla was staying when Justin DiPietro reported her missing, though she reportedly was not there the night before he called police. As part of the discovery process, Childs inspected the Violette Avenue house and is scheduled to depose Justin DiPietro on Friday, which will be 10 years to the day that DiPietro reported Ayla missing.

DiPietro, whose last known address was Winnetka, California, continues to deny he had anything to do with Ayla’s disappearance and has long maintained that someone must have abducted her from the house.

His lawyer, Michael J. Waxman of Portland, said Thursday that he had not yet received the forensic expert’s report that Childs was given but looks forward to reviewing it.

“I think it will provide comic enjoyment,” Waxman said. “There is no evidence which I’ve seen that supports any claim that my client had anything to do with her disappearance.”

Waxman said he will be present when Childs deposes DiPietro, virtually. He said he has been present at other depositions including that of DiPietro’s sister, Elisha DiPietro, who was at the Violette Avenue home when Ayla disappeared. Justin DiPietro’s then-girlfriend, Courtney Roberts, also was there.

Waxman said he has heard nothing at the depositions that makes a case for the wrongful death suit. After he has a chance to review the forensic expert’s report, he said, he’ll be able to ask the expert about his background, qualifications and education in the field, how he came to write the report, what his motivation was in being involved in the case, how he is being paid and what he did to prepare for writing the report.

“Obviously, our concern would be that if he does have proper qualifications, knowledge and education in this field, what biases does he have?”

Trista Reynolds and her lawyyer William Childs hold a news conference Dec. 18, 2018, to announce a civil lawsuit that accuses Justin DiPietro of causing the death of their daughter, Ayla Reynolds. Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald file 

While DiPietro lived in California in 2019 when he was served with the papers notifying him of the wrongful death lawsuit, Waxman said Thursday he believes he now lives in the Midwest, though he said he didn’t know what state. Asked how DiPietro is doing, Waxman said he’s OK, but struggles with the loss of Ayla.

“You lose a child, you think about it every day, every minute of every day,” he said. “He suffers with it, and this lawsuit, of course, just feels like piling on, because he doesn’t have an answer. The lawsuit, unfortunately, from what I’ve seen, isn’t bringing us any closer to the answer.”

Waxman said that after he has had a chance to review the forensic report, he will probably file for summary judgment with the court, asking that it be granted for DiPietro due to a lack of evidence.

Authorities clear the Messalonskee Stream of ice under North Street as they prepare to continue the search for Ayla Reynolds on Feb. 3, 2012. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

“But I don’t know yet because I haven’t read the report,” he said.

Maine State Police have consistently held that those in the house with DiPietro when Ayla disappeared know more than they are revealing. Authorities say they’ve found no evidence Ayla was abducted from the home during the night, when temperatures hovered just below freezing and snow covered the ground.

Jeff Hanson, Trista Reynolds’ stepfather who manages a GoFundMe web page for Ayla, said the family is still trying to raise money to help pay for legal costs, including for the work of the forensic expert, court paperwork and other expenses. As of Friday, the page was showing $10,882 raised of a $25,000 goal.

POLICE INVESTIGATION

Concurrent with the civil case, the Maine State Police investigation into Ayla’s disappearance continues.

Lt. Jeffrey Love, who oversees the Major Crimes Unit and Unsolved Homicide Unit in the central part of the state, remains hopeful the case will be resolved.

“We’ve had several successes in the past with cases five years, 10 years, 30 years old,” Love said. “We’ve had successes, and we will have more success. We put an enormous amount of resources into this case to bring closure to the family.”

Love, who has been involved in the investigation since the time Ayla disappeared, said police have received 30 leads in the case this year alone and have followed up on each one. Some are from psychics who say they have knowledge through a “feeling,” though their information is not first or second-hand knowledge, according to Love.

“Each lead that we receive, it’s another piece of information we can follow up on and eliminate,” he said. “First or second-hand knowledge is what we’re looking for, but we do listen to all of it and sift through it for information that is pertinent to the case.”

When leads come in, they are assigned to the primary investigator in Ayla’s case, Ryan Brockway, who assesses the leads and talks to other officials to determine the resources that should be used to follow up on them, according to Love. Brockway has been on the case since it began; Josh Birmingham is the co-primary investigator.

Maine State Police Detective Ryan Brockway works Wednesday at his office in Augusta. Brockway is the primary investigator of Ayla Reynolds’ disappearance 10 years ago in Waterville. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Love welcomes any information in the case that people may have and asks that they call 800-452-4664 or 207-624-7076, or leave anonymous tips on the Maine State Police website.

State police refer to Ayla’s case and others as “unsolved” rather than “cold,” as cold implies they are not worked on, according to Love.

“I think what separates the Ayla case from others is the size,” he said, explaining how the resources dedicated to it and the involvement of so many law enforcement agencies was unparalleled.

“It was a massive undertaking,” he said.

Investigators will monitor the wrongful death suit as it progresses.

Investigators seal Ayla Reynolds’ off 29 Violette Ave. home in Waterville with crime scene tape Dec. 24, 2011. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

“We’ll sit back and watch that process unfold, and if there’s any information that helps us further the case, we will get that information, sift through it and see how it fits into the unsolved case,” Love said. “The missing person investigation is still continuing.”

As Love says every year, police are hopeful for a resolution.

“Every day that goes by, we get a little bit closer to maybe another piece of technology that is created that may help with the evidence,” he said.

A MOTHER WAITS

Trista Reynolds, who’s now 33 and living in South Portland, continues to care for her two other children, Raymond, 10, and Anthony, 8. Their sister, Ayla, who loved the color pink, would have turned 11 this year.

Reynolds honors her memory by shining a pink light on her porch every night of the year, and 24 hours a day through the month of December.

She knows her daughter will not be coming back, so the wish of having her present is never going to be fulfilled, she said.

But her Christmas wish this year — of finally learning what happened to Ayla — feels more attainable, she said.

“I’m actually hanging on that,” she said.

Trista Reynolds, mother of missing child Ayla Reynolds, at her apartment Thursday in South Portland. Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald

Helping her maintain faith is a neighborhood friend in whom she has confided about her struggles with the loss of Ayla. That friend, she said, launched a social media campaign to ask the neighborhood to light up their homes in pink in her memory.

“I have always said I just want to light up the world pink for her,” Reynolds said.

A neighborhood hardware store owner ordered pink lightbulbs to have in stock for customers and plans to do that every December, she said, adding that the support she’s receiving is heartwarming.

“It means the world to me to actually be driving down the street in South Portland and see Christmas lights, but also to see pink lights for Ayla,” she said. “It’s more emotional this year. I miss her so much.”

Trista Reynolds, left, and Justin DePietro, right, speak on the steps of City Hall during a vigil in Castonguay Square in Waterville for their missing toddler, Ayla Reynolds, on Jan. 28, 2012. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

On Tuesday, she and the boys decorated their Christmas tree and added Ayla’s special ornament that was on her first and only tree, when she was 1. They place it front and center.

“It’s a baby Teddy bear and it says, ‘Baby’s first Christmas,’ with three pink lights,” she said.

An assistant manager at a Five Guys restaurant, Reynolds works and focuses on her boys, who she said keep her on her toes. They know all about their sister, she said.

About 75 miles away, back on Violette Avenue in Waterville, snow fell Wednesday on two vehicles parked in the driveway at Phoebe DiPietro’s house where Ayla was last seen. Holiday wreaths hung on both doors and greenery was wrapped around a light post sporting a large bow.

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