Ayla Reynolds, the toddler missing from her Waterville home since December 2011, has been declared legally dead by a probate judge, setting up what the child’s mother hopes will be a renewed quest for justice and answers in a mysterious case that has stumped investigators.

The decision by Cumberland County Probate Judge Joseph Mazziotti clears the way for a planned lawsuit against Justin DiPietro, the child’s father and one of the last people to see the girl alive.

Ayla’s mother, Trista Reynolds, said Monday that she hoped the probate judge would officially declare her daughter dead because it would pave the way for her attorney to file a wrongful-death suit, which she thinks could help solve the case of Ayla’s disappearance in December 2011.

A wrongful-death suit is a civil proceeding, meaning there is a lower burden of proof to reach a verdict and any penalty would be monetary. In criminal cases, the standard is to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, but in civil cases proof is achieved by a preponderance of the evidence.

Reynolds, 29, testified last week in Cumberland County probate court in the case of her missing daughter, who was 20 months old when she disappeared and is believed by authorities to be dead. No one has been charged in the case.

A wrongful-death suit may – or may not – finally help solve Ayla’s case, Reynolds said in a phone interview Monday.

Trista Reynolds’ lawyer, William Childs, of Portland, has said more people than DiPietro may be included in the wrongful-death suit. At the Violette Avenue house with DiPietro the night Ayla disappeared were his sister, Elisha DiPietro, and her daughter, Gabriella, and Justin DiPietro’s then-girlfriend, Courtney Roberts. His mother, Phoebe DiPietro, was not at the house that night.

A police dispatch transcript shows that Justin DiPietro called 911 at 8:49 a.m. on Dec. 17, 2011, saying he had put Ayla to bed in her crib the previous night and the child was gone when he woke in the morning. DiPietro maintains someone must have abducted Ayla from the home while the adults were sleeping – a scenario police say is not supported by any evidence.

The declaration of death order was entered by Mazziotti on Wednesday, according to a digital docket entry. It says that Ayla “died on or about December 17, 2011,” a determination Mazziotti made based on testimony by Trista Reynolds; Lt. Jeff Love, of the Maine State Police; and evidence introduced at the hearing. Love, who oversees the state police unsolved homicides squad that is investigating Ayla’s case, could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Trista Reynolds did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment, and her stepfather, Jeff Hanson, referred questions to Childs.

Childs, who said he is handling the case pro bono, said by phone Wednesday he was traveling in the western U.S. and would be back in Maine this weekend.

“I’m going to get together with Jeff and Trista, make a plan and do a press conference sometime next week,” Childs said.

He said he had received about 20 calls in the previous hour about the case and he wanted to discuss everything in one setting. “I want to do it all at once,” he said.

Steve McCausland, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety, said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon that the probate court’s declaration of Ayla’s death is the same conclusion that authorities “reached in the early days of the investigation, as days led to weeks.”

“We still contend that the adults in the home that night have more knowledge than they shared with us,” McCausland said Wednesday.

Elisha DiPietro and Roberts did not respond this week to messages a reporter sent to them on Facebook. Phoebe DiPietro’s Waterville land line is not in service and a telephone operator said Wednesday there was no number listed for Justin DiPietro, who is listed in court documents as now living in Winnetka, California.

Documents from Cumberland County Probate Court say that in June an official served notice of last week’s probate hearing to a man at DiPietro’s California home who appeared to be DiPietro but denied he was.

Nelson Tucker, a registered process server in Los Angeles County, served that document, armed with a photograph of DiPietro given to him by Childs. Tucker wrote in court documents that at 8:51 a.m. June 12 he went to DiPietro’s home on Lull Street in Winnetka to serve the papers.

“He denied his identity, but he matched the photo provided by attorney for petitioner,” Tucker wrote in the documents.

DiPietro was not present for last week’s probate hearing. Childs said he deposed Elisha DiPietro and Roberts previously.

Earlier this week, Trista Reynolds said she knew she would have mixed feelings if Mazziotti declared her daughter dead, though it would open the way for Childs to file the wrongful-death suit, which is what she and her family have been waiting for.

“I think it’s going to make it more real,” she said. “I think it’s going to put us in a different place than we’ve been in the last six years. It’s going to give me a little bit more answers, a little bit more closure.”

Love, who oversees the unsolved crimes unit, told the judge Thursday that police have received more than 1,500 leads in the case, and the investigation had not yielded any information indicating Ayla is alive.

Trista Reynolds said this week that she thinks police are doing everything that they can in the case.

“I know they can only do so much with the evidence they do have,” she said. “I think police are working very hard and trying to get answers to get justice for Ayla, and I think they’re working as hard as they can.”

Reynolds has been working at Five Guys, a burger business in Portland, for the last three years and said she enjoys contributing to the restaurant’s success. She also is caring for her two young sons, Raymond, 6, and Anthony, 4, who are in the first grade and pre-school, respectively.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

Matt Byrne can be contacted at:

[email protected]