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Nearly 3 years later, Nebraska family of 11-year-old boy not giving up on their search for answers about his disappearance 

11-year-old Ryan Larsen walked out of his elementary school in La Vista, Nebraska on May 17, 2021. Ryan is on the Autism spectrum and his family asks anyone with information to come forward. 
Ryan Larsen
Ryan LarsenTammi Larsen

Original. It’s the word that loved ones use when describing 11-year-old Ryan Larsen.  

“He is just so original with everything,” his older sister Taylor told Dateline. “One of my favorite things about Ryan is he is so funny -- and not necessarily because he’s trying to be.” 

Ryan’s mother, Tammi Larsen, told Dateline that some of his favorite things include Matchbox cars, army figurines, and Legos. But most of all — he loves to play pranks. 

“He has a mechanical wind-up bug,” Tammi told Dateline. “He loves to wind it up and let it go in his sisters’ room and wait for them to see it and then giggle when they did. He always thinks it’s hilarious. He also would take it to school to play pranks on his teachers.” 

Ryan has three older sisters, Christina, Kayla and Taylor, who all miss Ryan and his silly pranks dearly. 

Their close-knit family has been incomplete for nearly three years — since the day Ryan disappeared.

Ryan Larsen
Ryan LarsenTammi Larsen

Tammi Larsen has not seen her son, Ryan, since she dropped him off at school in La Vista, Nebraska, on the morning of May 17, 2021.

“That day started out normal. We got up, got ready for school,” Tammi said. “He was actually very excited to get home that evening. We had some plans. Dropped him off at school, went to work.”

Tammi told Dateline about those after-school plans Ryan was excited about that day. “We were sending a present to a friend across the country and it was kind of a mystery,” she recounted. “So we were going to come up with clues [that night] to leave him guessing, so he’d have to try and figure out what he was going to get in the mail.” 

At 12:27 p.m., that otherwise normal day took a turn. That is when Tammi received a call that would change her life forever. 

Just minutes earlier, at around noon, Ryan reportedly walked out of La Vista West Elementary. Ryan is on the Autism spectrum and also has epilepsy and Tourette’s. 

“[I] got the company call from the school saying that they believed [Ryan] had walked out of school, they didn’t know for sure, and that I needed to come to school,” Tammi told Dateline.

According to Ryan’s family, this was not the first time Ryan had walked out of school or gone missing, in general. However, in the past, it had only been for a short time. 

“I actually had called [an] officer that he had gotten to know because this is not the first time Ryan has run from school,” Tammi said. “And, you know, I said, ‘OK, school called. Where do we go from here?’”

Tammi said the officer advised her to go home first to check for Ryan there. So she went home and when Ryan was not there, Tammi immediately headed to the school. 

When she arrived, Tammi learned Ryan had been having an issue in class. 

“He had an issue, I believe, with a math problem, and he was having a hard time,” Tammi said. “So part of Ryan’s special individual education plan — his IEP — he can move to a different room to calm down.”

According to Tammi, Ryan was left unattended for a few moments when switching classrooms and that is when he walked out of the school. 

Tammi and Ryan Larsen
Tammi and Ryan LarsenTammi Larsen

Dateline contacted La Vista West Elementary to get a timeline of events the day Ryan disappeared. The principal directed Dateline to contact the Papillion La Vista Community School District. 

Captain D.J. Barcal, who is currently the acting chief of the La Vista Police Department, confirmed that authorities were told by the school that Ryan had been having some difficulty, and was moved to another room.

Captain Barcal also told Dateline there is surveillance footage of Ryan leaving the school, however, it has not been released to the public. 

“We [spoke] directly with school employees at the time. We went directly to all the staff who were working that day, [and] interviewed them,” Barcal said. 

Based on Ryan’s history of running away, authorities had a few areas they knew to check for him. “We immediately went to the areas where we had found him in the past,” Barcal said.

The captain said they checked local businesses and parks, in addition to the school property. Officers also searched the apartment complex where Ryan lives, the playground area, and the garages.

According to Captain Barcal, Ryan would sometimes go visit his grandmother who lived nearby, so officers searched there, too. 

Unfortunately, those search efforts turned up nothing.

Captain Barcal told Dateline that there is no evidence of foul play at this time. “He just vanished, which seems very odd,” he said. “I mean, it’s a busy area for our city, a lot of people, a lot of vehicular traffic. So the fact that no one really saw anything — say, he was being abducted, that would have drawn attention.” 

Captain Barcal is due to retire next year. He said Ryan’s case is one of those cases that he knows will stick with him. “If we don’t find him or find out what happened, it’ll probably stick with every one of us here, you know, until there’s a resolution to it,” he said. “I mean, no one wants to see, as I said, anybody missing. But a child, that just — that touches all of us who are parents or grandparents, so we take that personal.”

Ryan Larsen
Ryan LarsenTammi Larsen

According to his family, Ryan would sometimes get upset if he was not good at something quickly. 

“If he doesn’t understand something education-wise right away, he gets very frustrated. Kind of a perfectionist,” Tammi said. “Can’t get it the first time, it’s very hard for him to try and get it done.” 

They think that could explain why he may have gotten upset at school that day — because of the math problem — and was being moved to another room, per his IEP. 

Tammi and Taylor explained some of the other things that frequently upset Ryan, or cause him to have sensory overload. 

“Loud noises for sure,” Tammi said. 

“I think a lot of times just, like, being in overly crowded places sometimes [he] could kind of become a little nervous,” Taylor told said. “He definitely didn’t like to be told no sometimes. You know, that would frustrate him.”

Taylor said that she had gotten married and was no longer living at home with her family in May of 2021. She told Dateline that she had always been physically there for Ryan in the past when he was struggling with something at school. 

“[This] was the first time he had walked out of school when I wasn’t living there anymore,” Taylor noted. “Ryan has just been through so much. He’s had the hardest time in school and he’s been bullied and he just always felt like he didn’t fit in.”

Ryan and Taylor Larsen
Ryan and Taylor LarsenTammi Larsen

“Hearing that as, like, a big sister, that, like, I wasn’t there, like, I wasn’t home to do anything about it and I wasn’t there to... like, kind of be there right away when Ryan walked out of school... It was really, really hard to deal with,” Taylor said. 

After almost two years with no answers, Tammi needed to make a very hard decision. She filed a motion to have Ryan declared “deceased” in February 2023. 

Dateline spoke with Sean Conway, Tammi’s attorney, who provided some insight on the legal standpoint of that decision. “The state action and having Ryan declared ‘deceased’ was one way in which we could proceed on with the lawsuit against the school district,” Conway said. “It also, in speaking with Tammi, was providing, I think, or at least an attempt to provide some measure of closure for what her and the family have been going through.”

Ryan Larsen
Ryan Larsen Tammi Larsen

From a personal standpoint, this decision was not easy for Ryan’s family. “It was very hard to hear that, you know, when we decided to go that way,” Tammi told Dateline. “Because I still believe he’s out there, but at the same time I want the people that need to be held accountable for that day to be held accountable for it.”  

Taylor also discussed the family’s difficult decision. “I think it is important to know that when coming to that decision we made 100% sure that even if the judge decided to declare him, it would in no way stop any investigations or police work,” Taylor said. “I also wanted to add that we chose to go that route because we knew that it wasn’t a permanent decision. When Ryan is found, the judge would reverse the ruling immediately. I think these are important to note for [this] topic.”

The motion was denied on April 27, 2023. When asked if the family will be pursuing it again, Conway told Dateline, “We are not pursuing that action currently as Ryan’s death will be presumed after five years from the date of disappearance.” 

The Larsen family is pursuing legal action against the Papillion La Vista Community School District.

“Initially, we filed a federal action against the school district alleging violations of the ADA, IDEA, etc. The court dismissed that action as it determined we did not have remedies under federal law,” Conway said. “But the court did not comment on our state claims. The current action against the school district is in state court and alleges negligence on the part of the school district.”

On March 27, Dateline reached out to the Papillion La Vista Community School District and was told a statement would be provided in response, but it has not yet been provided. Follow up calls have also not yet been returned.

The news that Ryan was missing shook the whole La Vista, Nebraska community. “In the beginning, the turnout was amazing with the community,” Tammi told Dateline of the search for her son. “I mean, there were hundreds and hundreds of people out looking.”

“We felt very loved and taken care of, I think, by the community, by seeing everybody help out the way that they were,” Ryan’s sister Taylor added.

Taylor and Tammi started a Facebook group dedicated to Ryan’s case called “What Happened to Ryan Larsen?” There, they keep the community updated on the facts and status of Ryan’s case. 

Ryan, Taylor and Tammi Larsen
Ryan, Taylor and Tammi LarsenTammi Larsen

“I think social media is very, very powerful. Um, I think that we’ve kind of had like a love-hate kind of situation going on with it,” Taylor told Dateline. “I think every single one of us think, ‘What if?’ every single day. Like, ‘What could we have done better to fix the situation?’ ‘What could we have done to help Ryan so this never happened?’ And I think that social media just kind of adds to that by telling you like, ‘Well, you should have done this, you should have done this, you should have been better.’” 

Taylor said that all the noise is difficult to deal with, but it’s worth it — if it helps bring attention to Ryan’s disappearance. “That’s very hard when you’re going through the situation. But I think we’re willing to go through anything to help spread awareness about Ryan,” she said. “We are thankful that social media is getting his name out there no matter what has been going on and what has been being said in the media.”

Ryan’s family told Dateline that they are not letting up on their search for answers. 

Tammi Larsen

“We feel like somebody has to know something somewhere. He didn’t just disappear into thin air,” Tammi said, adding that anyone who thinks they may have seen something should come forward, even if they aren’t sure it’s anything of importance. “Tell somebody anyways, it could be the difference that the loved one comes home or not.” 

At the time of his disappearance, Ryan was 5’8” and 125 lbs. He has brown hair and hazel eyes. He was last seen wearing a white T-shirt, blue jeans, and a black zip-up jacket with orange around the collar and hood. Ryan would be 14 years old today. He turns 15 on June 8. 

Anyone with information on Ryan’s whereabouts is asked to contact the La Vista Police Department at 402-331-1582.

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