For the first time since his daughter was last seen on Dec. 16, the father of a missing Maine toddler spoke publicly Monday about the search for Ayla Reynolds and appealed to her abductor to return her safely.
Justin DiPietro, who was the last one to see his 20-month-old daughter when he put her to bed more than two weeks ago, spoke exclusively with TODAY’s Peter Alexander about his daughter’s disappearance, which was ruled a criminal investigation Friday by police in Waterville, Maine.
“By coming here, it was in hopes of reaching out to the person that does have my daughter to let them know that what they’re doing isn’t right,’’ DiPietro said from Maine in the live interview Monday morning. “You may think what you’re doing is right for Ayla, but it’s not. You have no right. You’re not her parent. She belongs home with her family.
“I just want my daughter. I’m doing anything possible that I can to get my daughter home. It feels like a hopeless situation at some points, but I’m doing what I can.”
No suspects have been named by police, but DiPietro’s parenting skills have been questioned by the girl’s mother, Trista Reynolds, who appeared on TODAY last week. Reynolds underwent a 10-day stint in a rehabilitation program for alcohol abuse in October, during which time she and DiPietro agreed that he would take care of their daughter. Before her disappearance, Ayla had a soft cast on her left arm in what police called an accident.
'She's the world to me'
Throughout most of the interview, DiPietro spoke in an unemotional monotone, but his eyes lit up when asked about his feelings toward his daughter and he smiled, becoming slightly choked up.
“I love my daughter,’’ DiPietro said. “I would never do anything to harm my daughter. She’s the world to me.’’
In a statement released exclusively to TODAY Sunday night, Reynolds said, “When I found out from law enforcement that this has become a criminal investigation I got chills up and down my spine, but I am keeping my faith. I am not giving up.’’
Ronald Reynolds, the child’s grandfather, also has been “begging and pleading’’ for Ayla’s return and has been wearing a green ribbon, which is the symbol for missing children.
Authorities have scoured nearby lakes, woods, fields and private properties for weeks and have spent significant time investigating DiPietro’s home in search of the child after determining that Ayla, who had recently started walking, did not leave the house on her own. A privately-funded $30,000 reward also has been posted, leading to nearly 400 tips from as far away as California regarding her disappearance.
On Friday, authorities announced that it has become a criminal investigation.
“We believe that foul play has occurred in connection with Ayla’s disappearance,” the Waterville Police Department said in a statement. “We base our conclusions on evidence by investigators during the past two weeks.’’
Defending his silence
While Reynolds has appeared publicly multiple times since Ayla went missing, Monday marked DiPietro’s first public appearance. He had previously released statements through the Waterville police and has been cooperating with authorities during the entire investigation. On the night of Dec. 16, he said he put Ayla to bed as she wore polka dot pajamas that read “Daddy’s Little Princess’’ on them. At 8 a.m. on Dec. 17, DiPietro went to check on her and found she was gone, officially reporting her missing at 8:50 a.m.
“He said he’s not in hiding, but why won’t he come out?’’ Reynolds told TODAY last week. “Why won’t he talk to me? Why is he staying away? What is he so afraid of, to not come out and talk to me?’’Story: ‘Just talk to me,’ mom of missing Maine tot begs dad
In Monday's interview, DiPietro defended his silence. “Initially, the first few days I was emotionally incapable of coming out to do an interview,’’ he told Alexander. “I had been advised that by coming on and doing an interview by law enforcement that it could possibly hinder the investigation, and I’m here to help in any way I can.’’
Reynolds said last week on TODAY that she and DiPietro have not spoken since their daughter’s disappearance and that she had concerns about her daughter’s safety while living with DiPietro. Reynolds lives 75 miles away in South Portland, and she last saw her daughter on Nov. 21. A day before Ayla’s disappearance, Reynolds filed for “parental rights and responsibilities’’ regarding custody of Ayla.
“He would never let me see her,’’ Reynolds told TODAY. “I would call to talk to her, and he would get mad about it. If I did see her and I would notice something on her like a bruise or just something, instead of reacting in a calm manner, he would lash out about it or kind of go into defense.’’
“As far as I know, there was never any concerns,’’ DiPietro said Monday. “We both agreed that me having her at this point in time was the best thing for her. She’s my child. She’s my world. She’s everything to me.’’
Although the investigation has now become a criminal one, DiPietro has not been made aware of any other major developments by investigators.Story: Dad of missing toddler: ‘What you are doing isn’t right’
“As far as I know, that’s just been a change in terminology,’’ he said. “As far as I know we’re at the same place that we were at on Day One with this.’’
Anyone with information regarding the child’s disappearance is urged to contact the Maine State Police at 207-624-7076.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.