WATERVILLE — The cost of investigating the disappearance of toddler Ayla Reynolds has been substantial.

“I would say it’s in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it exceeded $500,000,” said Police Chief Joseph Massey.

Four months ago, on the morning of Dec. 17, the child, 20 months old at the time, was reported missing by her father, Justin DiPietro. Since then, multiple law enforcement agencies have been involved in the search, which included hundreds of searchers on the ground, dive teams and boats, planes, and a mobile forensic lab at the Violette Avenue home where Ayla was last seen.

“It is one of the more intense investigations that have taken place (in Maine) in decades,” said Department of Public Safety spokesman Steve McCausland. “As a result, there is a cost factor there.”

During a March 24 news conference, McCausland said the three agencies involved — Waterville police, state police and the Maine Warden Service — have spent about $100,000 in overtime costs.

In Waterville alone, the overtime costs are estimated at $16,000, Massey said. He added that a full accounting of costs is difficult to pin down for just one investigation because so much of the work is done during regular on-duty hours; but, he estimates his department spent about $25,000 during the first three weeks of the investigation alone.

“We used a tremendous amount of supplies within the police department,” he said. “We were using 10 times the amount of paper that we usually do, 10 times the other things we use on a daily basis.”

Massey said additional costs included the installation of new fiberoptic lines in City Council chambers — the impromptu nerve center of the investigation in December — to support FBI transmissions and other data needs. The department also substantially increased its number of long-distance phone calls during that period.

Despite the scope of the investigation, Massey said the department’s spending might come in under budget this fiscal year, because of careful planning.

“We plan for unexpected events that utilize a lot of resources, and so we try to build in some contingency for that,” he said. “If another major event were to happen — whether it’s a homicide or something else — that would require us to bring people in around the clock, 24/7, for an extended period of time, that would significantly impact my budget.”

During the early weeks of the investigation, one potential expense had no bearing on the budget: A few dozen local businesses and residents contributed daily food donations. Massey estimates they fed 75 officers every day and saved the department $7,000.

“I don’t think people realize just how compassionate and generous this community is,” he said. “In my 25 years of service here, I’ve seen that whenever there’s a crisis that affects the whole community, people don’t stand back. They come forward and say, ‘What can we do?’

“In their own way, they certainly contributed in the effort to find Ayla, because it allowed us to focus our attention on the investigation and not get sidetracked on other issues.”

McCausland said that although the cost of finding Ayla is high, the agencies are undeterred.

“It’s what we do,” he said. “And the work continues.”

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Ben McCanna can be contacted at 861-9239 or at: bmc[email protected]