WATERVILLE — It started with a 911 call at 8:49 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011. Justin DiPietro told a Waterville dispatcher that his 20-month-old daughter, Ayla Reynolds, was missing.

She was last seen, he said, by his sister, Elisha, when she checked on the toddler at 10 o’clock the night before. DiPietro said when he went in to get her that morning, her bed was empty.

Three years, 20 searches and thousands of tips later, investigators are no closer to finding out what happened to Ayla.

During that time, Ayla’s mother, Trista Reynolds, and her family; DiPietro, the others in the house the night Ayla disappeared; local and state police, and countless others have been at the epicenter of what authorities say is the biggest and most expensive criminal case in the state’s history.

When Maine State Police Sgt. Jeff Love arrived at the Waterville police station the morning of Dec. 17, 2011, a massive police investigation was underway.

Ayla had been reported missing from her home at 29 Violette Ave. earlier that morning, a sunny but cold day. City police and fire officials scoured neighborhoods.

DiPietro, his sister and his girlfriend said they had no idea where the toddler, clad in pajamas and with her arm in a cast, could have gone. As temperatures dropped from just below 20 early in the day to 15 into Sunday morning, the effort to find Ayla intensified. Several area police departments, fire departments, state police and residents looked for the child in a door-to-door ground search, with tracking dogs, in nearby Messalonskee Stream and from the air. They looked in houses, under decks and inside dumpsters, and authorities even drained a pond on First Rangeway.

“It was very clear from my perspective that all available resources needed to be put into the investigation,” Love said. “The tone was set very early that we were going to bring in every available resource until we could find Ayla.”

By Monday, two days after she was reported missing, the search for Ayla ballooned to involve the Maine Warden Service, FBI, organized volunteers as well as countless residents of Waterville and surrounding towns.

Ten days after she was reported missing, the case became a criminal investigation.

Though there have been reports, confirmed by police in February 2012, of Ayla’s blood being found in the house, Love would not discuss specifics of the investigation or what evidence was found in the house that eventually led police to come to that conclusion.

More than 20 searches for Ayla have been conducted, mostly in Waterville. The most recent search took place in October 2013 in Oakland, prompted by tips, and involved more than 30 state and local police officers as well as the Maine Warden Service.

Authorities have never acknowledged finding any evidence of Ayla’s whereabouts.

Love has been the lead investigator since that first day.

MISSING CHILD REPORT

Love is 40 and has worked for the Maine State Police for 16 years, including 10 years in the criminal division. He’s a graduate of the University of Southern Maine and worked at the York Police Department part time while getting a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. He went to high school in Winthrop.

He was doing yard work at his Belgrade home that Saturday morning in 2011 when he got a phone call from Waterville police asking for his help finding the missing toddler.

On Monday, as the search swelled to 70 law enforcement agents, the search began to focus on the house. Police seized cars belonging to DiPietro and Courtney Roberts, his girlfriend.

In the hours after Ayla was reported missing, the family was moved out of the house. As Christmas came and went, crime scene tape blocked the entrances and investigators said they didn’t think Ayla left the house by herself.

Although the search for Ayla has been the most extensive criminal investigation in the state, Love said it’s not the longest he’s worked on a case. “Unfortunately, all cases in our unit remain open until they can be formally closed and we have some unsolved cases that have been open for over 20 years.”

The Ayla Reynolds case has resonated not just with Ayla’s family, a state and national public, but also with the law enforcement officers, he said.

“I think the reason investigators remain so determined is because it involves a small, innocent child and our job is to bring closure to these families and to find out what happened,” Love said. “Our work doesn’t stop until that happens. I can’t imagine what the family has gone through, and that’s part of that determination, day in and day out, to do everything we can to try and bring closure to the family.”

Though there are no further on-the-ground searches planned, Love doesn’t doubt that there will be future searches.

Police have long maintained that they do not believe Ayla will be found alive. But Love, who is a father, said investigators are determined to provide closure for the family.

“Our work will not stop until we find Ayla,” he said.

TIPS KEEP COMING

To date, there have been 1,464 tips reported in Ayla’s case, which far exceeds the few hundred tips that police would normally receive. Usually, a missing person case generates between 600 and 800 tips, Love said.

The information continues to come in almost on a weekly basis, from people around the country, and a core group of investigators reviews the information, comparing new information to the case file and making decisions to include or exclude the new information, Love said. Every lead that has come in has been explored, and at times when there are no leads coming in, police are still reviewing the case file.

“When we get a lead, we get some hope from that. When we run that lead out and determine there’s no helpful information there, at times, that is disappointing, but our job is to bring Ayla home for the family and find out the facts of what happened,” Love said.

Maine State Police also continue to believe that the people who were in the house the night Ayla disappeared – DiPietro, Roberts and Justin’s sister, Elisha DiPietro – have withheld information from the police that’s relevant to the case.

“We’ve said for a long time now that we’re looking for answers to the questions we’ve asked and we just don’t feel like we’ve gotten those answers yet,” Love said.

Trista Reynolds, Ayla’s mother and her family have called on police to press charges against the three adults, but there isn’t enough evidence to hold anyone responsible for the child’s disappearance, said Lisa Marchese, deputy attorney general.

DiPietro, who did not respond to requests for comment, has said he believes someone abducted his daughter after she was put to bed. Police have since dismissed that explanation.

Marchese noted that criminal charges are still possible.

“I think about Ayla Reynolds a lot,” Marchese said. “I think every case in the attorney general’s office is very important, but when you look at that smiling, adorable face, when you see it on TV or something, my heart just breaks.”