Five years ago this coming Saturday, a phone call from a Waterville man to that city’s police department kicked off what came to be the state’s biggest criminal investigation. Yet, five years later, little more is known about what happened to 20-month-old Ayla Reynolds than was known on that cold December morning.
Ayla was reported missing by her father, Justin DiPietro, at 8:49 a.m. Saturday, December 17, 2011. I was night editor for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, working that Saturday. I field a call early afternoon from the reporter who was working that weekend saying there was a missing toddler. I figured they’d find her wherever she’d wandered off to and that would be that.
But they didn’t.
Over the years, there’s been a lot of speculation that DiPietro is responsible for what police quickly termed a criminal case. Police said in early 2012 that they no longer believed the child was alive. But DiPietro and the two others who were in the house the night she disappeared — his then-girlfriend Courtney Roberts and his sister, Elisha DiPietro — have said little except to maintain their innocence and speculate that Ayla was abducted.
Ayla’s mother, Trista Reynolds, and her family have been pushing for years for legal action in the case, but law enforcement officials have continually said there isn’t enough evidence to prosecute. The family said in May that they were looking into filing a civil suit against DiPietro, but Reynolds said on WCSH TV Wednesday night that her attorney told her there wasn’t even enough evidence for that.
There are six children who have disappeared in Maine since the early 1970s and never been found — Ayla Reynolds is the most recent and barring someone stumbling on her remains, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know what happened to her.
Ben McCanna, who was a reporter for the Morning Sentinel in Waterville when Ayla disappeared and covered much of the story in late 2011 and early 2012 was a guest of my sister Rebecca and I on our podcast Crime & Stuff this week. Ben said the case haunted him for a long time, and he’d tried to put it behind him. But he graciously relived much of that time — including his exclusive access to DiPietro and Reynolds — for our show marking the fifth anniversary.
Ben has probably talked more in depth to Reynolds and DiPietro than any other reporter — much of it off the record. He points out that one of the biggest pieces of “evidence” cited over the years in the case, Ayla’s blood in the basement, where she normally slept with her father, Roberts and Roberts’ baby, never came directly from Maine State Police investigators, but from Ayla’s family. Police have said little to nothing about what evidence, if any, they have in the case. No one has been charged and aside from the “blood evidence,” there is little else that points to what happened and who did it. Ben, too, believes the case will only be solved by accident or someone talking.
While many people think they “know” what happened, it’s speculation. Law enforcement officials need solid evidence to prosecute a case.
We like crimes tied up in a nice neat bow, both in our fiction and in real life. Frequently in real life, though, that doesn’t happen. The hundreds of thousands of dollars and hours put into investigating Ayla Reynolds’ disappearance and searching for her remains, or any clues that would point to them, have come up empty. So, public outrage continues.
And yeah, people should be outraged. But as I was thinking about Ayla this week, I was also listening to another podcast, Missing and Murdered. The Canadian production is chilling. While it focuses on the unexplained disappearance and murder of Alberta Williams, 24, who was killed in 1989 after a night out with family and friends, it also touches on Canada’s hundreds and possibly thousands of indigenous women and girls who have vanished or been killed in the past few decades. A photo gallery of some of them on the website cbc.ca/missingandmurdered is chilling.
While the podcast explores Willliams’ murder, it also looks at the factors at play behind the fact that while Canada’s indigenous women make up 3 percent of the country’s population, they account for 10 percent of the murdered or disappeared population. It does a great job of delving into Canada’s history with its indigenous people, and how the effects of that led to a culture and prejudices that have made it a ripe atmosphere for crimes against women, and for many of those crimes to be given short shrift.
Ayla Reynolds, too, wasn’t born into a great situation. When she disappeared she was living with her father and grandmother — who barely knew her before he took her in — because her mother was in rehab. He’d had some scrapes with the law, and the group in that tiny Waterville house that night comprised three adults under the age of 24 and their three babies.
The outrage over what happened to Ayla Reynolds continues five years later, but we should be just as outraged for every child and adult who has come to harm at the hands of someone else and whose fate is unknown. Vigils and letters to the editor are great for keeping the missing and murdered in the public eye, but many of these deaths aren’t in a vacuum and, as a society, we should try to channel all that emotion into taking better care of each other before the bad stuff happens.
EVENT: Thursday, December 29, Maureen Milliken, Jen Blood, Bruce Coffin and Vaugh Hardaker will be part of the Carrabassett Valley Library‘s Maine Crime Writers Death & Desserts presentation, 4:30-6:30 p.m. They’ll also be signing and selling books.
Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at@mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.