Was it news? Was it entertainment? Was it both?

“Baby Ayla blood ‘clean-up’ in daddy’s bedroom? What do you think is the truth? Questions? call me now: 877-NANCY-01,” read the tweet early Tuesday afternoon from the Twitter account of cable TV crime diva Nancy Grace.

Lest we all forget, the investigation into the disappearance of Ayla Reynolds is a criminal investigation of the highest order.

But let’s also hit the pause button long enough to admit it – this increasingly sordid tale has become one part news, two parts reality TV show.

Somewhere between that 911 call by Ayla’s father on the morning of Dec. 17 and Monday’s apparently erroneous report by a Boston television station that police now think Ayla is dead, this seemingly straightforward whodunit has morphed into the talk of not just one small town, but of an entire nation.

“Informing the public takes many forms now,” observed Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine State Police, moments after taping his second interview in as many days with, you guessed it, Nancy Grace. “There’s a useful purpose to it, but there are a lot of balls you have to keep up in the air.”

The useful purpose, of course, is to keep the public (which by now means the entire planet) abreast of the investigation in the hope that someone who knows something might somehow step forward and save an innocent child. Or, if that’s now impossible, at least help police find little Ayla’s remains and figure out what happened to her.

Clearly, that’s what prompted a sudden and significant change in McCausland’s message over the weekend, when he announced for the first time that investigators don’t buy Justin DiPietro’s claim that his 20-month-old daughter was abducted from his modest home in Waterville while he, two other adults and two other children slept.

“Six weeks out, we have explored that (abduction) scenario every which way,” McCausland said. “And there’s not one piece of physical evidence that we’ve found in the home to back it up.”

McCausland also confirmed a report posted by Ayla’s mother, Trista Reynolds, on her family’s website that police found evidence of blood in the basement of the home – and that the blood was Ayla’s.

All newsworthy developments, to be sure. All deserving of the media’s time and attention.

Then there’s the mindless chatter.

We’ve got the incessant battle of the polygraphs, in which both Ayla’s parents and assorted other players all say they’ve taken lie detector tests. Dad claims he knows his results but won’t divulge them, while Mom says her test couldn’t be completed because of medical problems she won’t disclose.

Titillating? You betcha.

Useful? Hardly – especially when you consider that even under the best of conditions, polygraphs are not admissible in court as proof of guilt, innocence or anything in between.

We’ve got the nonstop appearances by both parents on the network morning news shows, appealing to an entire nation for help in locating their little girl.

Call me cynical, but I can’t help but think all that face time with NBC’s Matt Lauer has a lot more to do with ratings than with actually finding little Ayla. (I’ll also go out on a limb and predict that the key unlocking this mystery will be found right here in Maine, not via Mississippi or Montana.)

Finally, with the national media on red alert, we’ve got the relentless pressure to be first – at all costs – if and when the big break finally arrives.

Hence Boston TV station WCVB’s claim on Monday, based on “several anonymous sources,” that Justin DiPietro left a police interrogation when confronted with the blood evidence and that “police do not believe Ayla is alive.”

Missed that one? That’s because only hours after McCausland put out a blistering news release calling the report “unattributed, irresponsible and inaccurate,” the TV station toned its website report down to “Hope Fades for Missing Toddler.”

There is, of course, one way to shake the truth loose – and it has nothing to with half-baked theories and talking heads.

It has to do with money.

Remember David Hobson? He’s the guy who escaped from a jail in New Hampshire back in December and kept all of southern Maine on pins and needles until he was caught five days later.

As McCausland correctly recalls, federal marshals made headlines during that search when they announced a $1,000 reward for information leading to Hobson’s capture.

“They got a phone call within hours,” said McCausland.

The reward for information about Ayla’s fate, in case we’ve all forgotten, is $30,000 – raised by Waterville attorney John Nale and others in the community.

And strangely, of the 700-plus calls about Ayla that police have fielded so far, not one has qualified as reward-worthy.

Maybe that’s because very few people out there know what happened to Ayla – and they’re not talking.

Or maybe it’s because the media have been talking too much about the blood – and not enough about the money.

Either way, if anything’s worth thumping news cycle after news cycle, it’s not the hastily plugged police leaks or the partially completed polygraphs. It’s the cash.

Tuesday afternoon, McCausland found himself standing with Nancy Grace’s shivering producer outside the Maine Department of Public Safety while the never-shy Grace screamed orders from her studio perch about how she wanted the interview to proceed.

The piece covered no more ground than the telephone interview they’d done the day before – but at least this one had that visual of genuine Maine snow falling live from the sky for all the world to see.

“I dressed for the occasion,” mused McCausland. “Unfortunately, the producer didn’t.”


Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]