Mother of missing Waterville toddler receives death certificate

Dressed in a green polka dot nightgown, 20 month old Ayla Reynolds snuggled drowsily into bed at her paternal grandmother’s Waterville home on a cold December night. Her adventurous nature had caused a fall while with her father three weeks’ prior, resulting in the soft splint she wore on her left arm. Knowing of her niece’s rambunctious personality, aunt Elisha DiPietro cracked the door open to make sure Ayla had indeed gone to sleep nearly two hours after her 8:00 p.m. bed time. The toddler’s favorite doll peeped out under the covers; except for her breathing, everything was still. According to Ayla’s father, who was staying with his daughter in his mother’s Waterville home that night, this was all that happened in the late hours of December 16th, 2011. But that doesn’t explain why nearly a cup full of the young girl’s blood was recovered on his bedroom floor.

Since that evening, no one has seen Waterville toddler Ayla Reynolds, and her disappearance has led to the third largest missing person search in U.S. history. Now, nearly six years later, Ayla’s mother Trista Reynolds has been granted an official death certificate by the Maine court system; this would allows her to file a wrongful death suit against the infant’s father, Justin DiPietro, and the two other adults present at the house on the evening of the disappearance. And while nearly all facts point to the young girl’s death, including the blood found in DiPietro’s bedroom and the sizable life insurance policy he bought under his daughter’s name shortly before her disappearance, there is still one vital thing missing from the case: a body. Even after the largest state-wide search in Maine’s history, neither Ayla’s remains nor hints of her whereabouts were found.

This predicament has placed the Reynolds family in a tough situation: without an official death certificate, they could not file a lawsuit against DiPietro and figure out what happened to the toddler. But with one, they resign to the fact that Ayla will never be found. In an interview with The Echo, Trista Reynolds’ stepfather Jeff Hanson described his family’s frustration with their ongoing battle for justice. “We were generating a lot of media coverage initially,” Hanson said, “that was our goal in the beginning: to drum up attention so people would be on the lookout, and we could eventually find her.”

Indeed, Trista Reynolds appeared multiple times in the weeks following Ayla’s disappearance on NBC’s Today Show, HLN’s Nancy Grace, and ABC’s Good Morning America, pleading for the toddler’s safe return and for DiPietro to respond to her inquiries regarding their daughter. She actually filed for full custody over the child only a day before the incident, on Dec. 15, as her daughter had been staying with DiPietro since that October. Reynolds had enrolled herself in a ten-day drug rehab program, and it was during this period of time that DiPietro claimed he “fell” on Ayla, causing her arm injury.

The media frenzy slowed down, however, when the Reynolds family was presented with the most damning piece of evidence. “When we were shown the amount of blood,  that pretty much ended it. There was some closure in that” Hanson said.

This past Thursday, Trista Reynolds requested that Cumberland County probate judge Joseph Mazziotti release an official death certificate for Ayla, and on Tuesday, he complied. With a death certificate, Trista and the Reynolds family can now file a wrongful death suit against DiPietro, who’s believed to be residing in California currently. In a civil case such as this, the penalty is monetary and the burden of proof is less weighty than in a criminal case, in which penalty is disciplinary and actions must be proven beyond reasonable doubt. It would be difficult for the Reynolds’ to pursue a criminal case without a body.

“There’s no money in it for us,” Hanson said, “We want to know the facts of that night”.

Unfortunately for the Reynolds family, so far only a few facts have been repeatedly confirmed about the evening of December 16, 2011: Ayla disappeared. Her was blood in DiPietro’s room. In the days following the incident, Waterville and the Maine State police detectives investigated the house, while the Maine Warden service, FBI, and Waterville Fire and Policemen searched the surrounding rivers and forests. Investigators even drained a part of the nearby Messalonskee stream in search of evidence, but came up empty-handed. And even though the Maine state police have repeatedly stated that they believe Ayla is dead and foul play is a probability, the search will remain active until a body is found. They do, however, confirm that there is no proof of an abduction, a possibility which DiPietro believes is the only explanation.

For the Reynolds then, this civil case is probably the closest they will get to achieving justice for Ayla. And what exactly does that mean to them? “For Trista and I, it means finding out what happened,” Hanson said, “Where’s Ayla? What did they do with her? That’s what getting justice for Ayla would mean.”


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