Ryan Larsen loved to play hide-and-seek. The 11-year-old, who was autistic, could spend hours hiding in small spaces, waiting for someone to find him. On Monday, May 17, 2021, Ryan slipped away from his elementary school in La Vista, Nebraska when he was left alone in a classroom around 11:45 am. It was likely that Ryan decided to hide somewhere, but no one was able to find him. Ryan never made it home and was never seen again.

Ryan was last seen walking away from La Vista West Elementary School in the direction of his home; a surveillance camera at a business located across the street from his apartment caught him walking by around 2:00 pm, but his trail was lost when he walked out of view of the camera. Investigators were unable to find any additional footage of him.

Annette Eyeman, the Director of Communications for the Papillion La Vista School District, told reporters that a teacher noticed Ryan was missing about five minutes after he had been left alone; a search of the school had then taken place, but they had been unable to find Ryan.

Since there were no surveillance cameras in the school, they were unable to determine exactly where he had gone, but soon realized that he was no longer on school property. At that point, an administrator called Ryan’s mother and the La Vista Police Department. Police and canine units conducted another search of the school to make sure that Ryan wasn’t hidden somewhere in the school; they even used thermal imaging cameras to eliminate the possibility that he was hiding in the building’s ductwork. By 10:00 pm that night, they were confident he was not on the school’s campus.

Detectives with the La Vista Police Department acknowledged that Ryan had a history of running away, but because he had autism and a seizure disorder, he was considered to be at risk and they launched a large-scale search to try and find him. La Vista Police Chief Bob Lausten told reporters that they hadn’t found any evidence that Ryan had been abducted and they believed he was still in the immediate area. “We’ve had instances, at least a half-dozen, where’s he run and we’ve had to find him. He’s probably fearful…he takes medication and doesn’t have it with him.”

Investigators told reporters that Ryan had used his iPad to search for “how to hide from police” and “how to avoid being spotted” before he disappeared. He had also watched a couple of YouTube videos about hiding underground. Other than searching the internet, he didn’t seem to make any concrete plans to disappear; he didn’t take any of his belongings with him, nor did he pack any food or water.

La Vista Police Capt. Jeremy Kinsey described Ryan as “high functioning” but said he didn’t like when people — especially strangers — spoke to him. “He likes to hide in the weirdest spots. He could very well be watching us right now, laughing at us. He’s playing the ultimate game of hide and seek with us now, and he’s winning.”

Police expanded the search on Tuesday, covering the entire city of La Vista on foot, with drones, and by helicopter, but admitted that Ryan wasn’t likely to be found out in the open. Around noon, investigators congregated near a manhole where people had reported hearing noises, but they found no sign of Ryan inside once they were able to gain access to the sewer. The public works department allowed police to use one of their sewer cameras to look down other manholes and sewer drains in the city, but their search came up empty.

At 4:00 pm Tuesday, a man thought he saw Ryan near the La Vista Library. He posted about the potential sighting on social media, and it was quickly brought to the attention of investigators. They immediately flooded the library and surrounding area but were unable to confirm that Ryan had been there.

By Wednesday, police were growing extremely worried for Ryan’s safety. They were unsure if he had access to food or water, and they decided to expand the search to areas outside of La Vista. They asked residents to check their properties for any sign of the missing child. Capt. Kinsey told volunteers to make sure they didn’t wander onto private property during the search, as he wanted to make sure they stayed safe. “I don’t want you to be bitten by anyone’s dog or have some knucklehead with a gun come out threatening you.”

As the investigation entered its third day, La Vista police realized that they needed additional resources in order to find Ryan. Investigators from the Omaha Police Department and the Nebraska State Patrol were brought in to help in the search, and officials also asked for the assistance of the FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Chief Lausten told reporters they were doing everything they could to find Ryan. “There’s no playbook for an 11-year-old autistic that likes to hide and run away.”

Hoping that Ryan was hiding out somewhere close to his home, neighbors set up tables with water, Gatorade, and snacks in their yards and driveways. They also left notes for Ryan, urging him to go home and assuring him that he wasn’t in any kind of trouble.

La Vista police asked for volunteers to assist in searching the Walnut Creek Recreation Area, a 450-acre park in nearby Papillion, Nebraska that included a 105-acre reservoir. Volunteers walked along all the paths in the recreation area but found nothing to indicate that Ryan was hiding there. Police and volunteers also searched Hell Creek in Sarpy County, but had no luck there, either.

On Thursday evening, La Vista police officers canvassed the apartment complex where Ryan lived, handing out missing person flyers and asking residents for permission to search their apartments. La Vista Police Officer John Francavilla noted, “We have to look at it as: Is this a criminal matter? Is this just a little boy playing hide and seek? Is this a little boy that got into trouble?” Although they hadn’t found any evidence to suggest Ryan had been a victim of foul play, as days went by without any sign of him, they couldn’t rule out the possibility that someone had harmed him.

Officer Stuart Nadgwick told reporters that he had gotten to know Ryan quite well over the past two years; Ryan had wandered from home multiple times but was usually found close to his apartment. “He is a good kid, and I know there are a lot of people worrying for him right now and if he has the ability, then it’s time to come home…we’re talking about an 11-year-old boy who has challenges brought on by disabilities.”

At Ryan’s elementary school, counselors were on hand in case any students or staff members wanted to talk about the situation. Annette Eyeman admitted, “It’s everyone’s worst nightmare. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare…we’re all just trying to be optimistic and hope for his quick return.”

Early Friday morning, the La Vista police said they didn’t need any more volunteers, as they had more than 200 officers from various agencies actively searching for Ryan. Officials with the department said that if anyone still wanted to help out, they could make a donation to the Salvation Army of Omaha, which was providing food and drink for the search teams, or to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

On Friday morning, police returned to the Walnut Creek Recreation Area, blocking off the entrance so no cars could enter. Ryan had visited the recreation area with his family in the past, and officials thought it was possible he could be hiding there as he was comfortable with the area. Chief Lausten told reporters that he was trying to remain optimistic. “Our FBI partners have told us they’ve had missing kids with autism that have been out for seven days and they’ve been found alive and everything has been okay.”

A dive team from Omaha spent much of Friday using sonar to search Walnut Creek Lake, entering the water whenever they spotted any anomaly. Investigators assured reporters that they hadn’t found any indication that Ryan had entered the water but they wanted to be as thorough as possible. Tracking dogs were also brought in to see if they could pick up Ryan’s scent anywhere in the recreation area.

Chief Lausten said he was worried that Ryan had tried to hide in a small space somewhere and ended up getting stuck. He noted that many of the La Vista officers had interacted with Ryan in the past, and they were all desperate to find him. “Ryan brought us all Christmas gifts at Christmas, so there’s a relationship that we have with him…it cuts deep.” He said all of the department’s officers were working long hours trying to locate Ryan. “These guys and gals are working their tails off on this. Sleep? What is sleep? They don’t even care about sleep…they’re doing everything that they need to do.”

The search continued throughout the weekend but Ryan remained missing. On Sunday, officials with the Papio-Missouri Natural Resources District said that they were going to lower the water level of Walnut Creek Lake to make it easier for the search teams to complete their search of it.

On Monday morning, investigators said they were focusing their search on areas near Walnut Creek Lake where three different K9 units indicated they had picked up a scent trail. Chief Lausten cautioned reporters not to read too much into the findings of the search dogs, noting that the scent they alerted on could be “animal, human, or otherwise.”

By the time the physical search of Walnut Creek Lake was concluded on Tuesday night, more than 35 agencies had taken part in the hunt for Ryan. Dive teams, K9 units, drones, helicopters, and hundreds of police officers had failed to find any trace of the missing boy.

At a loss for where to search next, investigators once again asked for all businesses and homeowners in the La Vista area to review their surveillance camera footage for any sign of Ryan. Officials confirmed that the only confirmed sightings of Ryan had been on the day he vanished; he showed up on one business’s surveillance camera at 2:00 pm and a resident of the Southfield Apartments saw him around the same time. Where he went after that remained a mystery.

Officials held a press conference on May 28, 2021, to update the public about the search efforts. They noted that Ryan’s family members had been completely cooperative in the investigation, and asked the press to respect their privacy as they were having a hard time dealing with his disappearance. Although they didn’t specifically say that they thought Ryan was d*ead, they asked people to alert police if they noticed any unusual smells.

Chief Lausten said detectives had interviewed around 50 people but still didn’t know what had happened to Ryan. They were considering all possible scenarios, including foul play, and had started looking into registered sex offenders who lived near the missing boy. “Somebody knows what happened to Ryan, somebody knows where he went. I find it hard [to believe] that he just wandered.”

On June 1, 2021, police started focusing on the area surrounding Ryan’s apartment building. Around 80 investigators from several different agencies canvassed the neighborhood, speaking with Ryan’s neighbors and combing through a number of wooded areas that dotted the city. Chief Lausten admitted, “Leads have been few and far between,” and investigators were looking for any small piece of evidence that could point them in a new direction to search. Unfortunately, none of the neighbors reported seeing anything.

Ryan should have been celebrating his 12th birthday on June 8, 2021, and the La Vista community gathered together on that day to honor the missing boy. Ryan Wedekind, who lived near Ryan’s elementary school, told reporters that residents wanted to do something to make sure Ryan knew how loved he was. “When he comes home, he is going to have a bunch of cards to open up and know how many people have been thinking about him, have been looking for him, love him, and really want to meet him.” Ryan’s mother, Tammi, attended the event but was still too emotional to make a public statement.

As the investigation entered its second month, Chief Lausten told reporters that detectives were still following every lead they received. “He could be a walk away, he could have been abducted, he could have been with a familiar person, we just don’t know. At this point, I just find it hard to see him wandering away and getting stuck somewhere.”

On June 28, 2021, investigators confirmed that the umbrella Ryan had with him when he left school was found by a resident of the Southfield apartment complex a few days after Ryan went missing. The resident had turned the umbrella over to police immediately and they sent it out for forensic testing; Ryan’s DNA was found on it. The find seemed to confirm that Ryan made it back to his apartment complex after he left school grounds. He would have been unable to get into his apartment at that time, as no one was home and he didn’t have his own key.

Months went by and the investigation into Ryan’s disappearance seemed to stall. In September, Ryan’s mother and his two older sisters spoke publicly about the case for the first time. Tammi said she had left her son’s room exactly the same as it had been when he left for school the morning he vanished. “Sometimes I actually come in here and sit just because it still smells like him.”

Tammi was struggling to deal with Ryan’s disappearance. She described her son as a sweet boy who was shy around people he didn’t know. He would often run and hide when he got frustrated about something but he would always return within an hour or so — until May 17th. “I knew within three hours something was completely different.” Ryan’s sister, Taylor, agreed. “This isn’t like before…something else happened besides him just taking off from school.”

The family was extremely grateful for the support they had received from the community, and they praised all the people who volunteered their time to look for Ryan. Tammi was desperate to keep her son’s case in the public eye. “His story, I feel, is losing its focus and is fading away and we need to keep his name and his picture out there. He’s out there somewhere and we need to bring him home.”

Ryan was the youngest of Tammi’s four children and her only son. She said he had a big imagination and liked to help people, but his autism caused him to have fits of anxiety and he didn’t handle stress well. He had also been diagnosed with epilepsy and Tourette’s syndrome; he took medication for both conditions and she worried about the fact that he had been without his prescriptions for so long.

In January 2022, Chief Lausten admitted that the investigation into Ryan’s disappearance had slowed down, but he said detectives were still following up on the few tips they received. “It’s still an active investigation, and it’s been a long investigation…we don’t know where he’s at.” He said they still didn’t know if Ryan had wandered off or been abducted, and they had no evidence to suggest if he was alive or de*ad.

As the first anniversary of Ryan’s disappearance approached, his family said they were still holding out hope that he would be found alive. Chief Lausten, however, said he believed Ryan had been abducted by someone he knew. Ryan was big for his age, standing 5 feet 8 inches tall, and easily agitated. “From what we know, he wouldn’t have gone without a fight.” Chief Lausten didn’t think a stranger would have been able to abduct Ryan without someone noticing, but he would have gone willingly with someone he knew.

Tammi agreed that Ryan usually wouldn’t have accepted a ride with a stranger, but pointed out that Ryan might have been desperate that day. “He was already upset — upset enough to leave school. He knows his police buddies would be calling and looking for him, he knows his mom would be looking for him, it’s raining and he doesn’t like the rain…if somebody pulled up and said, ‘Get in, I’ll help you,’ I think he absolutely would have hopped in the car.”

In January 2023, Tammi filed a petition to have Ryan declared legally dea*d. She said that she was doing so because she intended to sue the school district for leaving him unsupervised and allowing him to leave school grounds, but in order to do so she needed a death certificate. Tammi said she believed her son was d*ead as a direct result of negligence on the part of school district employees.

In Nebraska, a missing person can be presumed to be deceased after they have been missing for five years; Tammi noted that Ryan would be unable to survive on his own without his medications, and police had said the search for her son was now considered a recovery effort because they believed Ryan was dea*d. In her petition to the court, Tammi stated that Ryan “was exposed to a specific peril or tragedy resulting in probable death under circumstances that may be proved by clear and convincing evidence.”

On April 27, 2023, a judge denied Tammi’s petition to declare her son de*ad, stating that he didn’t believe there was enough evidence to prove that Ryan was deceased. If nothing changes in the case, Ryan can be declared legally dea*d in May 2026. It’s unclear if Tammi will seek further action against the school district at this time.

Ryan Larsen was just 11 years old when he vanished from La Vista, Nebraska in May 2021. Ryan, who had autism, epilepsy, and Tourette’s syndrome, walked away from his elementary school after he was left unsupervised in a classroom. Despite a massive search effort, the only thing that investigators found was Ryan’s umbrella, which was discovered near his apartment building. Ryan has hazel eyes and brown hair, and at the time of his disappearance, he was 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed 125 pounds. Ryan was last seen wearing blue jeans, a black and gray hooded sweatshirt, and black New Balance sneakers. Ryan tends to be quiet around strangers and enjoyed hiding from people, but he had a good relationship with many of the police officers in La Vista. If you have any information about Ryan, please contact the La Vista Police Department at 402–331–1582.

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