Brian Laundrie - Manhunt for Brian Laundrie in Florida wetlands scaled back; FBI collects items for 'DNA matching'
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Brian Laundrie

Manhunt for Brian Laundrie in Florida wetlands scaled back; FBI collects items for 'DNA matching'


Story by N'dea Yancey-Bragg

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Published on September 29, 2021 7:12 AM
 
Laundrie was last seen nearly two weeks ago when he told his parents he was going hiking in Carlton Reserve after returning home on Sept. 1 without Petito from a cross-country trip to national parks. The couple's trip, which was documented on social media as a romantic adventure, began in July and was set to end in Oregon next month. After Laundrie returned home alone, investigators say he refused to share crucial information with them.
 
The manhunt for Brian Laundrie in a Florida nature reserve will be scaled back this week, days after a county coroner said Laundrie's fiancee, Gabby Petito, died by homicide.

The FBI is now leading the search that will be "targeted based on intelligence," North Port Police spokesperson Josh Taylor said Monday.

More than 75 law enforcement personnel from 16 agencies joined the search last week in the 24,000-acre Carlton Reserve in Sarasota County after the FBI issued a federal arrest warrant over events after Petito's death. Authorities used a diver unit, dogs, drones and ATV vehicles to search the wetlands.

"I don't think you're going to see those large-scale types of efforts this week," Taylor told USA TODAY. "Hopefully, water will lower in areas hard to currently access."

The park includes thousands of acres of swampy, subtropical terrain and wildlife including alligators, snakes, bobcats and coyotes. There's more than 100 miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails, along with camping areas and rivers.

On Sunday, FBI agents visited Laundrie's home and asked his parents for some of their son's personal items to help with "DNA matching," the family's lawyer told NBC News and Fox News. The lawyer did not immediately confirm the visit to USA TODAY. The FBI field office in Denver, which is leading the investigation, would not comment on the case.

Death of Gabby Petito

Gabrielle Venora Petito was an American woman whose disappearance was the subject of much speculation and coverage in the news media and on social media. Her family lost contact with her in late August 2021 while she was on a vanlife trip across the United States with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie. The return of Laundrie to his home in Florida in their white camper van without Petito on September 1, and his refusal to comment about her whereabouts, led to concerns about her well-being. After intense speculation and activity in social media channels, on September 19, 2021, human remains consistent with Petito's description were found in Bridger–Teton National Forest in Wyoming. An autopsy on September 21 confirmed it was Petito with a preliminary determination that the manner of death was homicide. Authorities are in a search for Laundrie who has been missing since September 14.

The case gained widespread attention due to the amount of audio and video documentation and logistical information around the couple's travels, including police body camera video footage, emergency dispatch call recordings, social media posts, and mobile tracking information.

Background Petito, from Blue Point, New York, met her future fiancé, Brian Laundrie, while they were attending Bayport-Blue Point High School on Long Island, in Suffolk County, New York. Petito graduated from high school in 2017. They began dating in March 2019 and moved in together with Laundrie's parents in North Port, Florida, in Sarasota County that year. To save money for the trip, Petito, the eldest of six siblings, worked in Florida as a pharmacy technician. Petito and Laundrie got engaged in July 2020. On June 17, 2021, they were both in Blue Point for Petito's brother's graduation ceremony and on July 2, 2021, they departed Blue Point in a 2012 Ford Transit Connect van converted to a camper for a four-month cross-country vandwelling trip. The couple documented their trip on Petito's YouTube account, Nomadic Statik, as well as their Instagram accounts, 'gabspetito' and 'bizarre_design_'.

Domestic disturbance incident On August 12, 2021, a witness called the 9-1-1 emergency response line claiming that the couple were fighting in front of the Moonflower Community Cooperative in Moab, Utah. During the call, the witness told the dispatcher that Laundrie slapped Petito, the two ran up and down the sidewalk after which Laundrie hit Petito again, and then they drove off. In a statement written by a witness, he wrote that Petito and Laundrie were talking 'aggressivel'y and that Petito 'was punching him in the arm.' He said it looked like Laundrie was trying to leave Petito and take her phone with him before Petito eventually climbed into the driver's seat, moved over into the passenger's seat, asked 'why do you have to be so mean?' and then the van drove off.

When police responded, they forced a traffic stop of their van near the entrance to Arches National Park and found Petito crying heavily in the passenger seat, where she told officers she was struggling with personal issues. The responding officer wrote in his report that 'at no point in my investigation did Gabrielle stop crying, breathing heavily, or compose a sentence without needing to wipe away tears, wipe her nose, or rub her knees with her hands'.

Laundrie said that they had been arguing and that emotional tension had been building due to traveling together for four to five weeks. Both agreed that Petito had struck Laundrie, as she was concerned that he would leave her alone and stranded after he got in the van. In the report, the officers characterized Petito as the suspect as 'the male tried to create distance by telling Gabby to take a walk to calm down... She did not want to be separated from the male and began slapping him. She showed indications of separation anxiety. He grabbed her face and pushed her back as she pressed upon him and the van'.

No charges were filed as a result of the incident and the police arranged for Laundrie to spend a night in a hotel and for Petito to stay in the van, separating the two after characterizing the incident as a mental/emotional health break instead of domestic violence.

The interactions between the couple and the Moab Police Department officers were all captured on body cam footage, which was released to the public on September 16.

Disappearance On August 24, 2021, according to staff, Petito stayed at a Fairfield by Marriott hotel near Salt Lake City International Airport.

Petito's mother said that her daughter had told her they were traveling from Salt Lake City, to Yellowstone National Park, and had last received a FaceTime call from her around August 24, 2021, and Petito said she was in Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming. On August 25, the final post was made from Petito's Instagram account, photos in front of a butterfly mural outside of a restaurant in Ogden, Utah. Text messages also continued to be sent from Petito's phone to her mother until August 30. On August 27, a text was sent to her mother that said 'Can you help Stan, I just keep getting his voicemails and missed calls'. The text raised concerns for Petito's mother, who said Stan was her grandfather, and that Petito never referred to him by his first name.

The last message, sent on August 30, said 'No service in Yosemite'. Her mother expressed uncertainty about who sent these messages. Laundrie returned to Florida with the van on September 1 without Petito. On September 11, Petito's family reported her to be a missing person.

Eyewitness reports August 27 – Tex-Mex restaurant in Jackson Hole Nina Celie Angelo claimed that, on August 27 between 13:00 to 14:00, she saw Laundrie and Petito together at Merry Piglets, a Tex-Mex restaurant in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Laundrie had an argument with the manager, waitress, and hostess, all of whom were female, apparently about money, and was 'aggressive'. Angelo said she later saw Petito return to the restaurant, crying and apologizing for Laundrie's behavior. Restaurant staff confirmed via Instagram that Laundrie and Petito were indeed at the restaurant.

August 27 – Bridger-Teton National Forest Jenn and Kyle Bethune, under a YouTube channel called 'Red White & Bethune', posted dashcam footage from August 27, which shows a white van matching the description of the one Petito and Laundrie had been driving in the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping area of Bridger–Teton National Forest in Wyoming near Grand Teton National Park. Initially interested in the white van's license plate as an indicator of a fellow traveler from Florida, the Bethunes said they saw the van around 18:00 and saw it once more when they returned to the area later that night. The back door of the van abruptly closed as the Bethunes got closer.

August 26, 27, and possibly 28 – Bridger-Teton National Forest Jessica Schultz said she reported to the FBI the activities and the exact coordinates of a slow-moving white van and a man 'acting weird' near the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping Area of Bridger–Teton National Forest in Grand Teton National Park on August 26, 27, and possibly 28. She posted a video to TikTok with her observations. According to Schultz, the FBI agent said that this tip was what led them to the body.

August 29 – Colter Bay Village Miranda Baker claimed that, on August 29, she and her boyfriend gave Laundrie a car ride from an area near Colter Bay Village, after seeing him hitchhiking alone. She claimed that when Laundrie found out that they were going to Jackson Hole instead of Jackson, he 'freaked out,' asked that the vehicle stop, and got out near the Jackson Lake Dam, less than 30 minutes after being picked up. Baker reported the time he left the vehicle as 6:09 p.m. Baker also found it weird that Laundrie offered $200 for the 10 miles ride and did not appear to be very dirty, despite claiming that he had been camping for days.

Investigation On September 14, 2021, police seized the van from Laundrie's family home to search for additional evidence. Crime scene technicians found an external hard drive that was later examined as part of a search warrant.

On September 15, Laundrie was named a person of interest. He and his parents refused to speak to police or the Petito family and hired a lawyer, who advised him to remain silent. On September 17, protesters gathered outside the Laundrie home in North Port. Some North Port residents held a candlelight vigil for Petito. That same day, after not having been in contact with anyone for three days, Laundrie was reported by his parents to be a missing person and based on information from the Laundrie family on his possible whereabouts, the FBI and police searched for Laundrie in the T. Mabry Carlton Reserve, a Sarasota County park approximately 13 mi northwest from North Port.

On September 17, Grand County police released a statement saying that a recent double-homicide that also took place in Moab was determined to have been unrelated to Petito's disappearance.

On September 20, the FBI carried out a search warrant on Laundrie's home, declaring it a crime scene. Authorities towed the family's Ford Mustang from the driveway of the home.

Discovery and identification of Petito On September 19, 2021, human remains were found near the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping Area of Bridger–Teton National Forest in Grand Teton National Park. The remains matched Petito's description. On September 21, Teton County coroner Brent Blue confirmed the remains found were of Petito, with a preliminary determination that the manner of death was homicide.

Media coverage and public reaction The search for Petito gained significant national news coverage in the United States and produced widespread interest on social media. Significant public attention has focused on Laundrie's silence in the case, with protesters and reporters gathering outside his parents' home in North Port. Some local residents held a candlelight vigil for Petito on the night of September 17, 2021. By September 18, a number of hashtags, including gabbypetito and justiceforgabby, had become widely used, appearing in thousands of tweets and featuring in TikTok videos with over 212 million views. The r/GabbyPetito subreddit was established to discuss theories, information, and clues about her disappearance. On September 21, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis stated that he was directing all state agencies to assist in the search for Laundrie in a tweet saying 'we need justice for Gabby Petito'.

Experts commented that the interest in Petito's disappearance coincided with the growing popularity of true crime podcasts and documentaries over the previous decade. Additionally, media commentators have attributed the particular interest in Petito's case to a range of factors, including Petito and Laundrie's existing social media presence documenting their 'van life' lifestyle and the narrative appeal of a romantic excursion gone wrong. Other experts said there were various reasons the public was drawn to the story that were 'not all sinister or malicious or creep'y, positing that the traffic stop video footage was of particular interest to domestic violence survivors.

The intensity of the coverage surrounding Petito's disappearance and the subsequent investigation was cited among some commentators as an example of missing white woman syndrome, or the over-emphasis of media coverage of individuals based on their race, gender, age, or appearance. In comparing Petito's case to others, commentators noted the relative lack of media attention towards the roughly 710 Indigenous people that had been reported missing in the state of Wyoming between 2011 and 2020.

Mashable writer Morgan Sung criticized some social media influencers for making 'distastefully opportunistic' posts to appeal to the 'voyeuristic online frenz'y. Others have raised issues about the potentially insensitive, unhelpful, or monetized posts by enthusiasts leading to the dissemination of misinformation before police have the opportunity to corroborate tips.