NORTH PORT, Fla. — A massive, multi-agency search was launched Saturday across a “vast” Florida wildlife reserve for Brian Laundrie, the boyfriend of missing Long Island native Gabby Petito, who officials warned “could be out here for months,” because of his ability to live off the grid.
Search teams with scent-tracking dogs are scouring the Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park, a 160-acre, heavily wooded park, for Laundrie, 23, considered by police a person of interest in Petito’s disappearance.
The park connects via a bridge to the even larger Mabry Carlton Reserve, a lush 24,565-acre wildlife habitat in Sarasota County.
“We’ve got about 50 law enforcement personnel back here in the park, this is kind of an opening to more than 25,000 acres that are over here into the Carlton Reserve so obviously it’s a vast area, seems like that’s nothing new in this case,” said North Port, Florida, police spokesman Josh Taylor during a brief press conference. “We’ve got 5 different local agencies and the FBI helping us.”
The initial focus was on the Myakkahatchee park, “then spreading out there,” Taylor said
The searchers were using everything from bloodhounds to drones to try to track Laundrie, who has not been seen since Tuesday, his parents told cops. Police visited his home and spoke with his parents and lawyer on Friday night but only about Laundrie’s disappearance — they would not answer any questions about Petito, Taylor said.
“The first time that we’ve had any in-depth conversation with them was yesterday,” Taylor said. “Their attorney called and said the family is concerned about Brian’s whereabouts; they would like to file a missing persons report.”
The family told cops that the park is “a place that he frequents, they also believe this is where he came,” Taylor said. “At this point, we’re going by their word. We’re going by the family’s word of where they think that he’s at.”
Taylor said police believe that his vehicle may have been at the park on Tuesday, though it is now back at his home. He did not know when it was returned.
Laundrie has been silent about his 22-year-old girlfriend’s disappearance since returning to their Florida home alone on Sept. 1 after the two went on a road trip in a van across the country.
Taylor said the fact that Laundrie has outdoors skills after living “off the grid” with Petito for months could complicate the search.
“I don’t know how frequently, if he would come out here and do day long hikes or whatever, you could be out here for months if you wanted,” he said.
“It’s muddy, it’s wet, there are a few unpaved dirt roads that are out there basically running along the power lines,” Taylor said as he described the search area. “You know, it’s a place that people hike, there are mountain biking trails out there.”
Petito’s family issued a statement Friday night saying that Laundrie is not missing but “hiding” from authorities.
Taylor said police were not to blame for Laundrie going of the radar.
“Brian is a resident of this community,” he said. “Brian was not a suspect in a crime, Brian was a person of interest and a missing person.
“We’re not following him everywhere he’s going,” Taylor continued. “Were we trying to keep an eye out kind of where he’s at so that when needed we could potentially reach him? Yes. But our focus was putting resources on trying to find Gabby.”
“Look, Brian wasn’t willing to talk, that was abundantly clear,” he added. “We were attempting, attempting, attempting. So we were putting our resources on trying to find Gabby, we knew we would deal with Brian eventually, but this is certainly a twist.”