Police suspect foul play in case of missing Maine toddler

Reuters News
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Posted: Dec 30, 2011 10:14 PM
Police suspect foul play in case of missing Maine toddler

(Reuters) - Authorities searching for a Maine toddler who vanished from her home about a week before Christmas said on Friday they now suspect foul play in the girl's disappearance.

The girl, 20-month-old Ayla Reynolds of Waterville, was reported to have last been seen on December 16 when her father, who had custody, put her to bed in her room, officials said.

Justin DiPietro, her father, reported Ayla as missing from the house early the next morning, and hundreds of police officers, game wardens and local residents have been searching the area for her since.

"At this point, we believe that foul play has occurred in connection with Ayla's disappearance," Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey said in a statement. "We base our conclusions on evidence gathered by investigators during the past two weeks."

"This case has evolved from the search for a missing child to a criminal investigation," he added.

Authorities have said they believe an unidentified person abducted Ayla, but have not disclosed whether they suspect a stranger, a family friend or a relative took her from her home in Waterville, about 20 miles north of the capital, Augusta.

State Police spokesman Stephen McCausland could not say whether any pivotal lead in the case prompted Friday's announcement, and he declined to discuss specifics in the case.

Police said a $30,000 reward put up by private citizens for information leading to the child's whereabouts remained valid. The reward is the state's largest ever in a missing persons case, officials said.

Investigators have checked at least 370 leads in the case, many of which came after a TV segment about the girl aired on Fox network's "America's Most Wanted" program last weekend. By mid-week, police said they had completed "large-scale search operations" for Ayla.

Officials have interviewed numerous family members in town and outside the area. DiPietro said Ayla, who is 2 feet and 9 inches tall and weighs 30 pounds, was wearing polka-dot pajamas with the phrase "Daddy's Princess" on them, and had a cast on her left arm, broken in a recent fall.

The toddler had been living with her father after her mother, Trista Reynolds, checked herself into a 10-day rehabilitation program, police said. Following the rehabilitation program, on the day before Ayla was last seen, Reynolds had filed papers seeking sole custody of the girl.

DiPietro has twice issued statements saying he had "no idea what happened to Ayla."

(Reporting by Zach Howard. Editing by Cynthia Johnston)