by Mike Stunson, McClatchy News/TNS | May 24, 2022
On May 17, 2021, 11-year-old Ryan Larsen walked out of La Vista West Elementary School in Nebraska.
It wasn’t the first time the preteen boy with autism had wandered away from his school. But the other half-dozen times, police told KETV, he was found safe.
Police in La Vista, about 10 miles southwest of Omaha, have previously referred to Ryan as the “king of hide-and-seek.” But as the days of Ryan’s disappearance turned into weeks, and weeks into months, the fear and worry has intensified in the Nebraska town with a population of 17,000.
Ryan has now been missing for a year, and there are few signs of the boy’s whereabouts.
“You want closure. You want to find out where he’s at,” La Vista Chief of Police Bob Lausten told KMTV. “Whether he’s still out there or whether he’s not. We want to bring him home.”
How did Ryan Larsen go missing?
Ryan, now 12, was in between classes when he left his elementary school on May 17, 2021, Capt. Jeremy Kinsey said during a news briefing held at the time.
Kinsey said Ryan had a “head start” on police, noting the boy searched online “how to hide from the police,” “how to hide underground,” and “how to avoid being spotted.”
Ryan is described as a “high-functioning autistic” and is often nonverbal with strangers, Kinsey said. At the time Ryan went missing, police did not have reason to believe his disappearance was suspicious in nature.
The school did not have video showing where Ryan went, according to the police captain. Plans for cameras in the district’s elementary schools have been accelerated since Ryan went missing, Papillion La Vista Community Schools spokesperson Annette Eyman told KMTV.
“It’s everyone’s worst nightmare; the fact that a student has left the building and has not been found is something,” Eyman said. “I know the staff in that building and everyone in the school building, think about every single day.”
More than a month after he went missing, authorities found an umbrella Ryan had with him when he left the school, according to WOWT. The umbrella was found near the La Vista apartment complex where the boy lived.
Ryan, who in 2021 was 5 feet 8 inches tall and 125 pounds, was last seen wearing a black jacket with jeans and an Old Navy shirt.
How have police searched for Ryan Larsen?
On the 1-year anniversary of Ryan’s disappearance, crews used sonar equipment and an underwater drone to look for the boy in Walnut Creek Lake, according to KLKN.
“We have a couple theories; we haven’t locked ourselves or pigeonholed ourselves to one specific theory of what we believe happened,” Lausten told KLKN. “We don’t have blinders on so there is different avenues that we’re still going down. I believe he’s in this area somewhere, I do. Where, I don’t know.”
The police chief acknowledged in March the search had “hit a wall at times,” but said officers continued to look at areas that had already been searched, according to KPT.
Experts have not found any evidence to show Ryan fell into the dumpster near where his umbrella was found, and possibly being taken to a landfill, WOWT reported.
Even though police initially believed his disappearance was not suspicious, Lausten said in a January interview with WOWT they are looking at all angles and have not ruled out the possibility he was abducted or harmed.
Police are attempting to subpoena electronic records, but Lausten did not elaborate when he was recently interviewed by the Omaha World-Herald.
What have loved ones said about Ryan?
Speaking publicly for the first time in September about their brother’s disappearance, Taylor and Kayla Larsen described Ryan as a one-of-a-kind boy who is “funny, goofy and a little awkward,” WOWT reported.
“Ryan is the funniest kid you will ever meet,” Taylor Larsen said in a Facebook post. “At first he is shy of new people but once you get to know him, he won’t stop talking. The media is saying he suffers from autism but I think it is what makes him who he is. I envy him for being able to ignore what other people think.”
Tammi Larsen said her son always loved helping others, and he would be allowed to help the janitor if he received good grades in school.
“He would get to help the janitor do different projects,” his mother told the Omaha World-Herald. “Take out the trash, go help in the lunchroom, picking up stuff. That was the reward he chose — to help the janitor.”
She told the publication she believes Ryan is still alive — “We just have to find him.”
Anyone with information is asked to contact La Vista police at 402-331-1582.
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