PORTLAND, Maine -- More than 1,000 children are reported missing each year in Maine. The vast majority are quickly reunited with loved ones, often within hours. Over 40 years, only three missing-person cases involving young children remain unsolved.
The case of Ayla Reynolds -- which drew national attention as hundreds of searchers looked for her last December in the central Maine town of Waterville -- is one of them. And a year later, her family fears that the case is growing cold as they await answers from detectives about what happened to her.
"Sometimes I feel like they’re just kind of giving up on it," said Ayla’s mother, Trista Reynolds. "You know, Ayla has been missing for a year, and what answers do they have for anybody? None."
Nationally, about 800,000 children and teens are reported missing each year, said Robert Lowery from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Most are soon resolved in all states, but the number of unresolved cases is uncommonly low in Maine, a mostly rural state with a low crime rate.
Ayla, a blond, blue-eyed toddler with a bright smile, was 20 months old when she was reported missing the morning of Dec. 17 from her father’s home. The disappearance prompted a massive search by Waterville and state police, game wardens, and FBI agents who canvassed neighborhoods and lowered several streams.
Police announced that they didn’t think Ayla was abducted from her bedroom. They also confirmed the presence of her blood in the home and said the father, Justin DiPietro, and two other adults in the home that night know more than they’ve told detectives, creating an air of suspicion.
DiPietro declined to comment for this story.
Each month in Maine, police receive more than 100 calls about missing children, most of whom are runaways and return home in a day or two. Over the past four decades, that adds up to thousands of runaways, along with kids who become lost or are abducted.
Only Ayla’s and two other cases involving young children remain unsolved in Maine, said Stephen McCausland, state police spokesman.
Three-year-old Doug Chapman was last seen playing with his toy trucks in a sand pile behind his family’s home in 1971 in Alfred. When his mother went outside to check on him, he had vanished. Road workers nearby didn’t see anything. Two bloodhounds tracked his scent to the road.
Carole Anne Allen, Doug’s mother, sympathizes with Trista Reynolds because she’s been there. Wardens and police searched the woods but found no evidence of Doug, not even his loafers, which he had trouble keeping on his feet.
The first year, she said, was the worst.
Someone stayed near the phone at all times. She didn’t know how to act. She didn’t want to give up. But law enforcement gave her little hope.
"That’s the worst thing. There is no closure. It’s like every day you think you see a person who’s about the age he would be now. And you think, ‘Could he be my son? Is my son in the woods where he died? Or is he alive somewhere?’ Forty-one years later, I’m still looking," she said.
Another child, 4-year-old Kurt Ronald Newton, of Manchester, disappeared four years later from a campground near the Canadian border. That case also led to a massive search, but the boy was never found. His father declined to talk about it for this story.
Part of Trista Reynolds’ healing was to move to a small town outside of Portland, where she lives with her toddler son and her boyfriend. She said she’s no longer confronted with daily reminders of Ayla, as she was in Portland, where the two had lived. She’s also seeing a therapist. She’s addressed her substance abuse -- which led to Ayla being placed with DiPietro in Waterville, 75 miles away -- and she’s in a better place as she cares for 20-month-old Raymond.
"I’m trying to keep in the spirit of things," she says of her home, which is decorated for the holidays. "Even if my sprits aren’t way up, I’ve got to be up for him," she said of Raymond, a blond bundle of energy who enjoys dancing to Maroon 5’s "Moves like Jagger," just as his sister Ayla did.
While Ayla’s disappearance remains a mystery, Reynolds questions whether "mystery" is the right word.
Reynolds said police confirmed to her that DiPietro walked out of an interview when he was confronted with photos showing Ayla’s blood in the basement. They also confirmed that before dialing 911 the morning that Ayla was reported missing, DiPietro called his friend, an insurance agent who wrote a life insurance policy on Ayla.
State police have declined to comment, other than to say they’re not giving up. Police planned to discuss the case at a news conference Friday.
It’s difficult for Reynolds to accept that Ayla may be dead, as police now believe.
In Alfred, Allen still thinks daily about her son. She wonders if he was taken by someone who wanted a child, or became a victim of a crime, or simply became lost in the woods.
She said she has a window into how Reynolds must feel.
"Don’t tell me my boy is dead unless you have a body, because I don’t want to go there," she said. "You don’t want to give up hope."