PORTLAND, Me. – Police investigating the disappearance of a 20-month-old girl from her father's home two weeks ago said Friday they believe foul play was involved.
Waterville police Chief Joseph Massey announced Friday night the case "has evolved from the search for a missing child to a criminal investigation." In a statement, he said the conclusion was based on evidence gathered over the past two weeks. He didn't elaborate.
Ayla Reynolds was last seen on Dec. 16. Her father, Justin DiPietro, told police he put her to bed that night in his Waterville home. He reported her missing the following morning.
Police previously said they believed someone had taken the girl from the home in Waterville. Police have received hundreds of tips as they've searched for her.
Ayla was wearing green pajamas with polka dots and the words "Daddy's Princess" on them and had a soft cast on her broken left arm. Extensive searches of woods, waterways, fields and private properties around Waterville, a city of 16,000 residents 20 miles north of Augusta, have failed to turn up anything.
Former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt said the odds of finding a child lessen if he or she isn't found within the first day or two of disappearing. But he said there's some reason for optimism because there are rare cases of missing children who turn up years later in someone's care.
"If you don't get this child back real quickly, you know that it gets harder and harder," he said. "But you can't give up hope."
Scott Bernstein, founder of Child Recovery International, a New York City-based organization that helps find missing children, agreed the first hours of an investigation are key in tracking down missing children as young as Ayla. Although the situation looks bleak, there's still room for hope, he said.
"One percent hope -- but I'll go for that 1 percent hope," he said.
Earlier Friday, police said DiPietro and Ayla's mother, Trista Reynolds, of Portland, were cooperating with investigators.
Investigators put up crime scene tape at the father's home last week, and two of the state's top homicide prosecutors were called in to get a look at the site. WABI-TV reported that a state police forensic team was back at the home on Friday.
Ayla was placed in her father's care while her mother was in a substance abuse rehabilitation program, which she has finished.
Trista Reynolds, making an appeal on national television on Thursday, said DiPietro has not returned her calls since their daughter went missing, and she asked him to reach out. On Friday, she had no further comment, her sister said.
DiPietro, addressing the public for the first time early last week, said in a statement he had "no idea what happened to Ayla or who is responsible." He said his family and friends would do "everything we can to assist in this investigation and get Ayla back home."
After Ayla went missing, law enforcement officials likely divided their investigation into two parts, one team looking at people with access to her, such as relatives and family friends, and another group looking at the potential for an abduction by an outsider or stranger, Van Zandt said. Under both scenarios, he said, the odds are that the person who took Ayla knew her or her family.
Strangers' abductions of children do occur, but they're rare, accounting for only 105 to 115 children out of 750,000 to 900,000 missing-persons cases each year in the United States, Van Zandt said.
Van Zandt, who has worked similar cases, said Ayla's disappearance, which once had more than 80 searchers and law enforcement officers involved, has been difficult for law enforcers as well as for distraught family members.
"As an FBI agent working these cases, you never turn off the emotional porch light," he said. "You always leave on the light with the hope that the child will come home again."