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Police return to nature reserve to search for Brian Laundrie, despite calling off search there

The North Port Police Department said it would return to the Carlton Reserve to look for Brian Laundrie despite having said Monday that investigators had "exhausted all avenues."
/ Source: NBC News

A week after Brian Laundrie, the man named a person of interest in the disappearance of his fiancée Gabby Petito, apparently vanished, police in Florida said Tuesday they will once again look for him in the 25,000-acre wildlife refuge where he reportedly went hiking before he disappeared.

The North Port Police Department said it would return to the Carlton Reserve to look for Laundrie, 23, despite having said Monday that investigators had “exhausted all avenues'' in the county park near Sarasota.

Authorities plan to focus on a specific part of the reserve and adjoining lands, according to the department. It's not clear what made officials return to the area.

"Please be aware, the Carlton Reserve is a vast and unforgiving location at times. It is currently waste deep in water in many areas. This is dangerous work for the search crews as they are wading through gator and snake infested swamps and flooded hiking and biking trails," North Port police said in a statement.

Laundrie’s parents told authorities that Brian Laundrie went to that preserve last Tuesday and that's the last day they saw him, according to Steven Bertolino, an attorney for the family.

The FBI on Monday searched the Florida home where Laundrie and Petito were living with his parents.

The agency said it was "executing a court-authorized search warrant today at the Laundrie residence in North Port, FL relevant to the Gabrielle 'Gabby' Petito investigation," and later tweeted that it was concluded. No further details were released.

Laundrie last week was named a person of interest in connection with his fiancée's disappearance, but police emphasized Friday that he was not wanted for a crime.

Petito and Laundrie began a cross-country tour of national parks in July, documenting their journey on YouTube and Instagram using the hashtag #VanLife. Laundrie returned home to North Port, south of Tampa, in the couple's van Sept. 1 — 10 days before Petito's family reported her missing, police have said.

Petito’s mom, Nicole Schmidt, said she last heard from her daughter at the end of August. Petito's last text read: "No service in Yosemite." It is unclear whether Petito sent that text message.

A search warrant affidavit filed in Florida last week noted that Schmidt received another “odd text” on Aug. 27 from Petito’s cellphone.

The text read, "Can you help Stan, I just keep getting his voicemails and missed calls," according to the affidavit, which noted that Stan is the name of Petito’s grandfather. Schmidt, however, told police she never called him Stan.

“The mother was concerned that something was wrong with her daughter,” according to the affidavit. “This was the last communication anyone had with the subject. Her cellphone was no longer operational, and she stopped posting anything on social media about their trip. Per her family, this was not normal behavior for the subject, and they became more worried about her."

The affidavit also revealed that investigators discovered a hard drive inside the couple's van on the day Laundrie vanished. The affidavit referenced concerns for Petito's mental health.

"Based on the totality of the circumstances related to the subject's mental health, I believe there is probable cause to believe the subject is unable to care for herself due to her increased anxiety. Due to this behavior, our concerns for her welfare have reached an exigent level," the affidavit noted. "Her cellphone has been turned off for approximately 15 days and there have been no sightings of her since August 27th, 2021."

On Monday, the Grand County Sheriff's Office in Utah released 911 audio from a witness who said he saw a man slap a female and then saw a white Ford Transit van bearing a Florida license plate drive away.

The 911 call led Moab police to stop the van on Aug. 12.

The witness told the dispatcher that he’d like to report a “domestic dispute.”

“We drove by and the gentleman was slapping the girl,” the witness said. “... And then we stopped. They ran up and down the sidewalk, he proceeded to hit her, hopped in the car, and then drove off.”

Moab police said they responded to a "domestic problem" between Petito and Laundrie that afternoon.

The alleged dispute happened as Petito and Laundrie were driving toward Arches National Park, according to a police report.

The report indicated officers on scene had viewed Petito as the aggressor.

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