Ryan Larsen loved to play hide-and-seek. The autistic eleven-year-old would hide in small spaces for hours on end, waiting for someone to come find him. Ryan ran away from his elementary school in La Vista, Nebraska on Monday, May 17, 2021, around 11:45 a.m., after being left alone in a classroom. Ryan probably made the decision to hide someplace, but nobody managed to track him down. Ryan was never seen again and never returned home.
At approximately 2:00 pm, Ryan was last observed leaving La Vista West Elementary School and heading towards his residence. He was observed by a security camera at a business across the street from his apartment, but his trail was lost when he moved out of the camera’s field of view. It was impossible for investigators to locate any more video of him.
The Papillion La Vista School District’s director of communications, Annette Eyeman, informed reporters that a teacher discovered Ryan was missing approximately five minutes after he was left alone. Despite searching the school, they were unable to locate Ryan.
They weren’t able to track him down precisely because the school didn’t have any security cameras, but they quickly discovered that he wasn’t on school grounds anymore. An administrator then gave the La Vista Police Department and Ryan’s mother a call. To make sure Ryan wasn’t hiding somewhere in the school, police and canine units searched the premises once more. They even used thermal imaging cameras to rule out the possibility that Ryan was hiding in the ductwork of the structure. They had no doubts by 10:00 p.m. that evening that he had left the school grounds.
Although Ryan had a history of running away, La Vista Police Department detectives recognized that he was considered at risk due to his autism and seizure disorder, so they conducted a thorough search to try and locate him. Chief of La Vista Police Bob Lausten informed reporters that they thought Ryan was still in the vicinity and that they had not discovered any evidence of his kidnapping. “There have been at least six occasions in which he has run away and we have had to locate him. He takes medication and doesn’t carry it with him, so it’s likely that he is afraid.
Before going missing, Ryan used his iPad to look up “how to hide from police” and “how to avoid being spotted,” investigators told reporters. Additionally, he had watched a few YouTube videos about subterranean hiding places. He didn’t appear to have any specific plans to vanish, other than browsing the internet; he didn’t bring any food or water, nor did he pack any of his possessions.
Ryan was characterized by La Vista Police Capt. Jeremy Kinsey as “high functioning,” but he expressed a dislike for conversation, particularly from strangers. He enjoys hiding in the most unusual places. It’s possible that he’s laughing at us while observing us right now. He and I are currently engaged in the ultimate game of hide-and-seek, and he is winning.
Although they acknowledged that Ryan wasn’t likely to be discovered in the open, police increased their search on Tuesday and covered the entire city of La Vista using helicopters, drones, and foot patrols. Investigators gathered around noon near a manhole where people had reported hearing noises, but once they were able to enter the sewer, they discovered Ryan was nowhere to be found. Police were given permission by the public works department to use one of their sewer cameras to search other manholes and sewer drains in the city, but their efforts proved fruitless.
Tuesday at 4:00 p.m., a man claimed to have seen Ryan close to the La Vista Library. Investigators were alerted as soon as he shared information about the possible sighting on social media. They flooded the library and its surroundings right away, but they were unable to verify Ryan’s presence.
By Wednesday, authorities’ concerns for Ryan’s safety had grown significantly. They decided to broaden their search to include areas outside of La Vista because they couldn’t be certain if he had access to food or water. Residents were asked to look for any signs of the missing child on their properties. In an effort to keep volunteers safe, Capt. Kinsey instructed volunteers to watch out for private property while conducting the search. “I don’t want some knucklehead with a gun to come out and threaten you, or for anyone’s dog to bite you.”
As the third day of the investigation wore on, La Vista police realized they were going to need more help finding Ryan. Officials requested assistance from the FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in addition to bringing in investigators from the Omaha Police Department and the Nebraska State Patrol to aid in the search. Reporters were informed by Chief Lausten that every effort was being made to locate Ryan. “For an 11-year-old autistic child who enjoys hiding and running away, there is no playbook.”
Neighbors set up tables in their driveways and yards with water, Gatorade, and snacks, figuring Ryan was hiding out somewhere near his house. A note encouraging Ryan to return home and reassuring him that he was safe was also left for him.
Looking through the Walnut Creek Recreation Area (Image courtesy of twitter.com)
Volunteers were requested by the La Vista police to help with the search at the Walnut Creek Recreation Area, a 450-acre park with a 105-acre reservoir located in nearby Papillion, Nebraska. The recreation area’s paths were all explored by volunteers, but they found nothing to suggest Ryan was hiding there. In Sarpy County, police and volunteers also searched Hell Creek, but they were unsuccessful there as well.
Ryan’s apartment complex was visited by La Vista police officers on Thursday night. They distributed flyers about missing persons and requested residents’ consent to search their units. Officer John Francavilla of La Vista Police said, “We have to look at it as: Is this a criminal matter? Is this just a young child having a game of hide-and-seek? Is this a young child who was in trouble?Days passed without any sign of Ryan, so even though they hadn’t discovered any evidence pointing to foul play, they couldn’t completely rule out the possibility that he had been injured.
Over the previous two years, Officer Stuart Nadgwick told reporters, he had gotten to know Ryan fairly well. Ryan had gone missing from home on several occasions, but he was usually found near his apartment. “He is a good kid, and I know a lot of people are worried about him right now. If he can come home, that’s when it should happen. He’s an 11-year-old boy with challenges brought on by his disability.”
Counselors were available at Ryan’s elementary school in case any staff members or students wanted to discuss the circumstances. According to Annette Eyeman, “it’s everyone’s worst nightmare.” It’s the worst nightmare of a parent, but all we can do is try to stay positive and wait for his speedy return.
The La Vista police announced early on Friday morning that more than 200 officers from different agencies were actively looking for Ryan, so they didn’t need any more volunteers. Department representatives advised anyone who wished to continue helping to donate to either the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children or the Salvation Army of Omaha, which was feeding and watering the search parties.
Police went back to the Walnut Creek Recreation Area early on Friday morning and blocked the entrance to keep cars out. Authorities believed Ryan might be hiding there because he was familiar with the recreation area and had visited it with his family in the past. Reporters were informed by Chief Lausten that he was attempting to maintain optimism. “Our FBI partners have informed us that after going missing for seven days, some autistic children have been found and everything has turned out okay.”
Using sonar, a dive team from Omaha searched Walnut Creek Lake for the majority of Friday, diving into the lake whenever they noticed any anomalies. Reporters were reassured by investigators that while they hadn’t discovered any evidence of Ryan getting into the water, they still wanted to be as thorough as possible. To see if they could detect Ryan’s scent anywhere in the recreation area, tracking dogs were also brought in.
Chief Lausten expressed concern that Ryan might have attempted to hide in a cramped area and become trapped. He mentioned that a number of the La Vista police had dealt with Ryan previously and that they were all eager to locate him. “We have a deep relationship with Ryan because he brought us all Christmas gifts at Christmas,” he said, adding that all of the department’s officers had been searching for Ryan for a long time. “These folks are putting in a ton of effort on this. Sleeping? Describe sleep. They’re taking care of everything they need to do and don’t even give a damn about sleep.
Ryan was still missing at the end of the weekend despite the ongoing search. In order to facilitate the search teams’ work, Walnut Creek Lake’s water level will be lowered, according to Papio-Missouri Natural Resources District officials’ announcement on Sunday.
Three different K9 units reported they had detected a scent trail, so investigators announced on Monday morning that they were concentrating their search efforts in the vicinity of Walnut Creek Lake. The search dogs’ findings should not be interpreted too broadly, Chief Lausten warned reporters, adding that the scent they detected might be “animal, human, or otherwise.”
Upon the completion of the physical search of Walnut Creek Lake on Tuesday evening, the search for Ryan had involved over 35 agencies. Drones, helicopters, K9 units, dive teams, and hundreds of police officers had searched for the missing boy without success.
Unsure of where to look next, investigators in the La Vista area once more requested that residents and companies check their security camera footage for any indication of Ryan. Authorities verified that the sole verified observations of Ryan occurred on the day of his disappearance; he appeared on a company’s security footage at 2:00 pm, and a Southfield Apartments resident saw him at approximately the same time. What happened to him after that was still unknown.
On May 28, 2021, officials updated the public about the search efforts at a press conference. They requested that the media respect their privacy as they were struggling to deal with Ryan’s disappearance, noting that his family had been fully cooperative with the investigation. They asked people to notify police if they noticed any strange smells, but they didn’t explicitly state that they believed Ryan was dead.
According to Chief Lausten, investigators had spoken with about 50 people, but they were still unsure of Ryan’s whereabouts. They were investigating every possibility, including foul play, and had begun investigating any registered sex offenders who might have lived in the boy’s neighborhood. “Someone is aware of Ryan’s whereabouts and what happened to him. It’s difficult for me to accept that he simply wandered.
Police began monitoring the area around Ryan’s apartment building on June 1, 2021. About eighty investigators from various agencies scoured the neighborhood, talking to Ryan’s neighbors and going through the many wooded areas that were scattered throughout the city. “Leads have been few and far between,” Chief Lausten acknowledged, and investigators were searching for any tiny bit of information that might lead them to a new area to search. Regretfully, nobody in the neighborhood saw anything.
On June 8, 2021, Ryan’s 12th birthday should have been celebrated. To honor the missing boy, the La Vista community came together on that day. Ryan Wedekind, a neighbor of Ryan’s elementary school, informed reporters that the community wished to take some action to ensure Ryan understood how much he was loved. Ryan’s mother Tammi attended the event but was still too emotional to speak in public. “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,” Tammi said.
Chief Lausten informed reporters that detectives were still following up on every lead they received as the investigation moved into its second month. We simply don’t know. He might have been abducted, walked away, or with a known individual. I just find it difficult to imagine him getting lost or stuck somewhere at this point.
Investigators confirmed on June 28, 2021, that a few days after Ryan vanished, a resident of the Southfield apartment complex found the umbrella Ryan had with him when he left school. Ryan’s DNA was discovered on the umbrella after the resident gave it to the police right away and had it sent out for forensic examination. The discovery appeared to validate Ryan’s return to his apartment building following his departure from the school premises. Since no one was home and he was without his own key, he would not have been able to enter his apartment at that time.
The investigation into Ryan’s disappearance appeared to be at a standstill for several months. For the first time, Ryan’s mother and his two elder sisters discussed the case in public in September. According to Tammi, she had left her son’s room exactly as he had left for school the morning before he disappeared. “I actually come in here sometimes and sit just because I can still smell him.”
Tammi was finding it difficult to cope with Ryan’s disappearance. She said her son was a shy child who was nice but reserved around strangers. When he was angry, he would frequently flee and hide, but up until May 17th, he would always come back after about an hour. Ryan’s sister Taylor concurred, saying, “I knew within three hours something was completely different.” “This isn’t how it was before—something more happened than him simply skipping school.”
The family expressed their sincere gratitude to the community for its support and expressed appreciation to everyone who gave of their time to search for Ryan. Tammi was frantic to maintain public awareness of her son’s case. We need to continue spreading awareness of his name and image because, in my opinion, his story is becoming less and less relevant. We must bring him home because he is somewhere out there.
Ryan was Tammi’s only son and the youngest of her four children. She claimed that although he was autistic and enjoyed helping others, he struggled with anxiety attacks and had trouble managing stress. He also had a vivid imagination. In addition, she was concerned about the length of time he had gone without his prescription drugs for epilepsy and Tourette’s syndrome, for which he was treated.
Chief Lausten acknowledged in January 2022 that the inquiry into Ryan’s disappearance had slowed down, but he added that detectives were still checking in on the few leads they had received. “We don’t know where he’s at. It’s still an active investigation, and it’s been a long investigation,” he said, adding that they lacked any proof to indicate whether Ryan was alive or had been kidnapped.
As Ryan’s first anniversary of going missing drew near, his family expressed that they continued to hope he would turn up alive. However, Chief Lausten stated that he thought Ryan had been kidnapped by a familiar acquaintance. Standing five feet eight inches tall, Ryan was large for his age and quickly agitated. Chief Lausten didn’t believe a stranger could have kidnapped Ryan without anyone noticing, but he would have gone voluntarily with someone he knew. “From what we know, he wouldn’t have gone without a fight.”
While Tammi acknowledged that Ryan typically wouldn’t have accepted a ride with a stranger, she also brought up the possibility that Ryan wasn’t feeling well that day. He left school because he was already upset. It’s raining and he doesn’t like the rain, so he knows his mom and his police buddies would be calling and looking for him. If someone had pulled up and said, “Get in, I’ll help you,” he would have definitely gotten in the car.
Tammi submitted a petition to have Ryan formally pronounced deceased in January 2023. She claimed that the reason she was acting was that she needed a death certificate in order to file a lawsuit against the school district for failing to keep an eye on him and letting him off school property. Tammi expressed her belief that her son’s death was directly caused by the carelessness of school district staff.
After going missing for five years, a person in Nebraska is presumed dead. Tammi pointed out that Ryan would not be able to survive without his medications, and the police had informed her that the search for her son was now being conducted as a recovery effort. Ryan “was exposed to a specific peril or tragedy resulting in probable death under circumstances that may be proved by clear and convincing evidence,” according to Tammi’s statement in her court petition.
A judge dismissed Tammi’s request to have her son declared dead on April 27, 2023, citing insufficient evidence to support the claim. In May 2026, Ryan may be deemed legally deceased if the case proceeds as is. At this point, it’s unclear if Tammi will take the school district to court again.
In May 2021, Ryan Larsen went missing from La Vista, Nebraska, at the age of just eleven. Ryan, who suffered from Tourette’s syndrome, epilepsy, and autism, left his elementary school after finding himself alone in a classroom. Ryan’s umbrella was the only item recovered by investigators in spite of a thorough search; it was found close to his apartment building. Ryan was 5 feet 8 inches tall and 125 pounds at the time of his disappearance. He had brown hair and hazel eyes. When Ryan was last seen, he was sporting black New Balance sneakers, a hooded sweatshirt in black and gray, and blue jeans. Ryan liked to hide from people and was usually reserved around strangers, but he got along well with many of the La Vista police officers. Please call 402-331-15822 to report any information you may have about Ryan to the La Vista Police Department.