Police in Florida on Saturday searched a vast wildlife reserve near the Gulf Coast for 23-year-old Brian Laundrie, a person of interest in the disappearance of his girlfriend, Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito.
Dozens of North Port police officers, FBI agents and members of other law enforcement agencies searched the 24,000-acre (9,712-hectare) Carlton Reserve in the Sarasota, Florida area. The reserve has more than 100 miles (161 kilometers) of trails, as well as camping grounds.
“His family says they believe he entered the area earlier this week,” North Port Police tweeted Saturday.
Investigators were hopeful that Laundrie was somewhere in the wildlife reserve. Depending on his skills, he could survive out in the reserve for some time, said police spokesperson Josh Taylor at a midday news conference.
“Certainly, we prepare for all different possibilities, but you know, our goal is to locate him and bring him back to North Port,” Taylor said.
Laundrie’s family earlier told officers that they haven’t seen him since Tuesday. Police said the conversation Friday evening was the first time they’d spoken with the Laundries in detail about the case, and that the meeting came at the family’s request. An attorney for the family called FBI investigators and said they wanted to talk about Laundrie’s disappearance, police said.
“We understand the community’s frustration, we are frustrated too,” the North Port Police said in a statement. “For six days, the North Port Police Department and the FBI have been pleading with the family to contact investigators regarding Brian’s fiance, Gabby Petito. Friday is the first time they have spoken to investigators in detail.”
Laundrie and Petito, 22, left in July on a cross-country trek in a converted van to visit national parks in the U.S. West. Police said Laundrie was alone when he drove the van back to his parents’ home in North Port, Florida, on Sept. 1. Petito’s family filed a missing persons report Sept. 11 with police in Suffolk County, New York.
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Laundrie has been identified as a person of interest in the case.
“It is important to note that while Brian is a person of interest in Gabby’s disappearance, he is not wanted for a crime,” North Port police said in Friday’s statement. It added that the investigation is now a “multiple missing person” case.
An attorney for Brian Laundrie, Steven Bertolino, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press on Friday night.
Attorneys for the Petito family released a statement saying that Laundrie was not “missing.”
“All of Gabby’s family want the world to know that Brian is not missing, he is hiding. Gabby is missing,” the statement from the law office of Richard B. Stafford said.
Earlier in the week, Petito’s family pleaded for the Laundrie family to tell them where their son last saw her. Petito and Laundrie were childhood sweethearts who met while growing up on Long Island, New York. His parents later moved to North Port, about 35 miles (55 kilometers) south of Sarasota.
Police video released by the Moab Police Department in Utah showed that an officer pulled the van over on Aug. 12 after it was seen speeding and hitting a curb near the entrance to Arches National Park. The body cam video showed an emotional Petito, who sat inside a police cruiser while officers also questioned Laundrie.
Laundrie says on the video the couple got into a minor scuffle that began when he climbed into the van with dirty feet, and said he didn’t want to pursue a domestic violence charge against Petito, who officers decided was the aggressor.
Ultimately Moab police decided not file any charges and instead separated the couple for the night, with Laundrie checking into a motel and Petito remaining with the converted sleeper van.
The official conversation with the family Friday came shortly after the North Port Chief Todd Garrison had publicly vented frustration over Brian Laundrie’s lack of help on Wednesday, pleading for Laundrie’s lawyer to arrange a conversation. “Two people left on a trip and one person returned!” an earlier tweet by the police chief had said.
Their trek in the Fort Transit van began in July from Long Island. They intended to reach Oregon by Halloween according to their social media accounts, but Petito vanished after her last known contact with family in late August from Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, authorities said.
In other developments, a sheriff in Utah said Friday that detectives have determined there is no connection between Petito’s disappearance on the trip and a still-unsolved slaying of two women who were fatally shot at a campsite near Moab, Utah. The bodies of the two women, Kylen Schulte, 24, and Crystal Turner, 38, were found six days after the traffic stop involving Laundrie and Petito.
Utah’s Grand County Sheriff Steven White said without elaboration in a news release the two cases were unrelated.