Trista Reynolds of South Portland, seen ] Wednesday, reflects on the ninth anniversary of her daughter, Ayla Reynolds, disappearing from a Waterville home. Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald

Trista Reynolds keeps a pink light shining on her porch every night of the year. But from Dec. 1 to Jan. 1, it stays lit 24 hours a day to honor her daughter, Ayla Bell Reynolds, who was reported missing nine years ago.

Ayla Reynolds in the photograph that was distributed after she disappeared in December 2011. Courtesy photo

Ayla, who loved the color pink, was 20 months old and in the care of her father, Justin DiPietro, when he reported the child missing the morning of Dec. 17, 2011, from his mother’s house at 29 Violette Ave. in Waterville. That report launched the largest and most costly police investigation in Maine history.

Ayla has not been seen since, no one has been charged criminally in the case, and her mother said she never imagined so many years would go by without knowing what happened to her daughter.

“I think about her every day of the year, but it’s a little harder around her anniversary for a lot of reasons,” Trista Reynolds, 32, said this week from her South Portland home. “I have put things up on my grandparents’ graves in memory of Ayla. It’s a place for me to feel connected to her. Her body isn’t there and I don’t have closure and there are still all these questions. It’s always harder around her anniversary.”

DiPietro, who lives in California, continues to deny he had anything to do with Ayla’s disappearance and has long maintained that someone must have abducted her from the house during the night. But police believe otherwise and say those in the house with DiPietro when she disappeared know more than they are revealing. Authorities say they’ve found no evidence Ayla was abducted from the home during the night, when temperatures hovered just below freezing and snow covered the ground.

A judge in 2017 declared Ayla dead, paving the way for Trista Reynolds to file the wrongful death lawsuit against DiPietro in December 2018.

Reynolds said she can not talk about the court case while it is in process, but her attorney, William Childs, said this week that he is awaiting documents from the state Attorney General’s Office pertaining to its investigation into Ayla’s disappearance so he can use that in his wrongful death suit.

“The state of Maine, according to the website, did a half million dollar investigation on this,” Childs said. “It’s not something that’s going to be reviewed in a day or two.”

Childs, of Portland, said he is expecting to receive a lot of information, as the volume of evidence is immense. “I did hear from the AG a couple of weeks ago saying they were still working on what they can and can’t give me,” he said. “It’s a painstaking process.”

Trista Reynolds and her attorney, William Childs, hold a press conference Dec. 17, 2018, to announce a civil lawsuit that accuses Justin DiPietro of causing the death of Reynold’s daughter, Ayla. Derek Davis/ Portland Press Herald file

Childs has deposed a number of witnesses in the case, but before he completes that process, he wants to get the AG’s evidentiary materials.

The coronavirus pandemic has slowed down court proceedings.

“We’re going to be a year without a jury trial — maybe more,” Childs said. “Criminal trials take precedence over civil trials and people in jail awaiting criminal trials have precedence over non-jailed. It’s going to be a while.”

Jeff Hanson, Trista Reynolds’ step-father who manages the gofundme web page for Ayla, said the family is still trying to raise money to help pay for legal costs.

DiPietro’s attorney, Michael J. Waxman, of Portland, says he expects to see the documents soon from the Attorney General’s Office.

Justin DiPietro, seen in 2013, enters a courtroom with his mother to appear before the judge on an assault charge unrelated to his missing daughter, Ayla Reynolds. Gordon Chibroski/Portland Press Herald file

“I’m not expecting there to be any really strong evidence against my client, Justin,” Waxman said Wednesday in a voice message responding to a request for comment. “He continues to live and work in California, continues to claim very passionately that he had nothing to do with his daughter’s disappearance, and it’s something that troubles him on a daily basis. We are absolutely defending this because he did not do anything wrong and the mystery, unfortunately, continues.”

INVESTIGATION ONGOING

The documents from the Attorney General’s Office include evidence from the Maine State Police investigation into Ayla’s disappearance, which is ongoing.

State Police Lt. Jeffrey Love, who oversees the Major Crimes Unit Center and the investigation into Ayla’s disappearance, said police received 42 leads in the case this year (in addition to the thousands of tips from previous years) and have followed up on each one.

“We continue to receive some of them from psychics, so those are a portion of those leads, but we do continue to follow up and track them,” he said, adding that, depending on the information received, police compare it to the case file.

Ryan Brockway is the primary investigator in Ayla’s case, and Josh Birmingham is the co-primary, according to Love.

The detectives have a regular caseload they work on which includes homicides and child abuse cases, he said, adding that they have a pretty full plate, but as leads in the Ayla case come in and time allows, they work on those leads. Love believes Ayla’s case will be resolved.

“I’ve said before, as time goes, people’s lives and events change — events within people’s lives change,” Love said, “and we’re hoping to receive that piece of information that will either solve the case or lead us to solve the case, and we’re hopeful we can bring some closure for Trista and her family.”

Like Childs, Love noted that the coronavirus pandemic has affected the speed at which court cases are moving. “The whole criminal justice system is at a crawl,” he said.

Love welcomes any information in the case that people may have and asks that they call 800-452-4664 or 207-624-7076, or leave anonymous tips on the Maine State Police website.

He said police are waiting for the civil court process to run its course and they will see what happens. Just because nine years have passed doesn’t mean the case is less likely to be solved, according to Love.

“We’ve had some success in the past where we’ve had older cases that resolved, and we’ll have more,” he said. “I’m hopeful that this will be one of them.”

The lawsuit contends DiPietro should be held accountable for Ayla’s death. Police have said consistently they think he and the others who were at his mother’s house at 29 Violette Ave. when she disappeared know more about the case than they are saying.

At the time, DiPietro’s sister, Elisha DiPietro, as well as Justin’s then-girlfriend, Courtney Roberts, were at the home. His mother, Phoebe DiPietro, was not there.

People clean snow off stuffed animals at a January 2012 tribute for Ayla Reynolds at the house in Waterville where she was reported missing on Dec. 17, 2011. Morning Sentinel file

At the DiPietro house on Violette Avenue late Wednesday morning, it was 12 degrees and snow blanketed the lawn by a large tree that, nine years ago at this time, was flanked with Teddy bears to honor Ayla. On Wednesday, two vehicles were parked in the driveway on the quiet residential street, located between Cool Street and First Rangeway. A pole near the driveway was decorated with fir branches and topped with a large, sparkling red bow. A Christmas wreath hung on the front door.

‘YOU LEARN TO LIVE WITH IT’

As she waits for answers in Ayla’s case, Trista Reynolds continues to care for her two other children, Raymond, 9, and Anthony, 7, who attend school Mondays and Thursdays and learn at home Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On Wednesday, she was planning to interview for a second job, and said she hoped to land a third job as well.

The family is preparing for Christmas, and Reynolds noted that, while it has been nine years since Ayla disappeared, it has been 10 years since she celebrated Christmas with her daughter.

Trista Reynolds of South Portland, seen on Wednesday, reflects on the ninth anniversary of her daughter, Ayla Reynolds, disappearing from a Waterville home. Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald

“Every year actually gets harder,” she said. “It actually gets a lot harder. I didn’t get to go shopping for her, I didn’t get to buy toys for her, I don’t get to celebrate Christmas with her and the boys just had a cousin born, a girl who is one month old. I haven’t had a baby girl in my life for 10 years — that made it really hard, especially because of the holiday.”

Trista Reynolds said Ayla is always with her, always on her mind, these many years later.

“You learn to live with it and I was just really hoping that by now we’d be in a different place than we are,” she said. “But all I can do is just keep doing what I do, and I fight for her, and I honor her name and I’ll celebrate her. For Christmas, it’ll be just me and my boys and close family. We’ll set off balloons, light her a candle and just remember Miss Ayla Bell, the beautiful, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl.”

On her Christmas tree, Reynolds said, are Ayla’s ornaments: a baby on a bell that bears the words, “Baby’s first Christmas, 2010,” and a bear ornament with little hearts.

“They were her first two ornaments that she had.”

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