Ayla Reynolds’ mother is requesting a probate court hearing for formally declaring her daughter dead more than five years after the toddler’s disappearance from her Waterville home triggered the largest police investigation in state history and drew national attention.

Trista Reynolds and her family have said that a court ruling declaring Ayla dead is necessary to “preserve the rights of Ayla’s estate” to bring a lawsuit. The probate court hearing is set for Sept. 21.

Trista Reynolds has commented for stories about her daughter in the past, but in a brief phone interview Tuesday afternoon she directed questions to her family’s attorney, William Childs.

In a phone interview, Childs said there are a “couple of things I’ve got to get squared away” before doing a news conference or interviews. He plans to make an announcement about the case in roughly two weeks.

AYLA PRESUMED DEAD BY JUDGE

On May 17, Cumberland County Probate Judge Joseph Mazziotti named Trista Reynolds the personal representative of Ayla’s estate. Mazziotti’s order, which states Ayla “is dead,” led some Maine news outlets to erroneously report Tuesday that the court had declared the child dead.

Trista Reynolds and Justin DePietro, the mother and father of Ayla Reynolds, speak during a vigil for their missing toddler in January 2012. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

But for Mazziotti to appoint Trista Reynolds as the estate representative, he had to determine that Ayla was presumed dead. Under Maine law, someone who has been missing for five years or more is presumed dead, said Kelly Bunch, Cumberland County deputy register of probate.

In a petition filed May 24 in Cumberland County Probate Court, Childs noted that the court had appointed Trista Reynolds as a personal representative of Ayla’s estate. The petition says no death certificate has been issued yet and requests that a court hearing be scheduled to consider a formal declaration of Ayla’s death.

Jeff Hanson, Ayla’s step-grandfather, said last year that the Reynolds family planned to pursue a civil lawsuit against Ayla’s father, Justin DiPietro, that possibly would include allegations of child endangerment and wrongful death. He called the declaration of Ayla’s death “the first step to hold those accountable for baby Ayla’s demise.”

Mazziotti’s May 17 order lists DiPietro’s current address as Winnetka, California.

Ayla was 20 months old when she was reported missing from her grandmother’s house at 29 Violette Ave. in Waterville on Dec. 17, 2011. She was staying there with DiPietro, his then-girlfriend, Courtney Roberts, and his sister, Elisha DiPietro.

Police don’t believe she is alive and have said they think foul play was involved in her disappearance, but there have never been any charges in the case.

The statute of limitations for filing a wrongful death lawsuit is six years after the five-year anniversary of when a person is reported missing, which in this case would be in December 2022.

A hearing before a probate judge to determine if a person is legally dead is usually a short proceeding that involves the personal representative telling the judge the last time he or she saw the missing person and producing affidavits, newspaper stories and other information about the case, said Jim Burke, a criminal lawyer and clinical professor at the University of Maine School of Law. Burke has no inside knowledge of Ayla’s case and wouldn’t comment on specifics.

A wrongful death lawsuit is a civil lawsuit in which a plaintiff tries to prove someone caused another’s death. The plaintiff’s lawyer is entitled to get discovery from the other side and can ask the defendant questions under the rules of civil discovery, Burke said.

“He can choose not to answer, and if he does that they can’t compel him to answer, but they’d probably ask the court to draw a negative inference,” Burke said.

DISAPPEARANCE STILL INVESTIGATED

In a civil case, if the defendant is found liable for wrongfully causing the death of another, the punishment is monetary damage, Burke said, and there are rules for how pain and suffering and other damages are calculated.

“The plaintiff’s lawyer will try to get the highest figure they can, and the defendant will try to get zero,” said Burke, who has been a criminal lawyer for 41 years and a law professor for 15.

Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said Tuesday that the investigation into Ayla’s disappearance is still “open and active.” He said any announcement from a probate court would not affect the police investigation.

McCausland noted that two weeks after the toddler’s disappearance, state police announced they no longer thought Ayla was alive.

Justin DiPietro has maintained that someone must have abducted Ayla from the home, and Elisha DiPietro said last year in an interview with the television show “Crime Watch Daily” that the DiPietro family believes Ayla “is out there somewhere.”

But investigators with the Maine State Police have said it is highly unlikely that Ayla left the house on her own or that she was abducted during the night. McCausland has said the possibility that someone slipped into the house and took Ayla “doesn’t pass the straight-face test.”

Police also have said that the people who were in the house the night Ayla disappeared have withheld information from investigators that is relevant to the case.

Ayla’s blood was found at the Violette Avenue home, police said, a fact that her maternal family often has pointed to when urging authorities to bring criminal charges against Justin DiPietro.

State police Lt. Jeff Love, who has worked on the case since its inception, has said that police have received more than 1,500 leads, including 40 last year.

Portland Press Herald Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy contributed to this report.

Amy Calder can be contacted at 861-9247 or at:

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