VENICE, Fla. - Six days into the search for Brian Laundrie, police in North Port insist the grueling, exhausting search at Carlton Reserve in Sarasota County is worthwhile as they try to solve Gabby Petito's disappearance. And his indictment by the FBI on a federal fraud charge has not impacted the effort.
"The warrant doesn’t change anything for us," North Port Police Department Commander Joe Fussell said in a video released by the department. "We’re working as hard to find him now as we did on Day 1."
Laundrie was initially only a person of interest in the disappearance of Petito, his fiancée. On Thursday, the FBI issued a federal warrant for the 23-year-old's arrest, not for homicide, but rather a fraud charge. According to the agency, he used someone else’s Capital One bank card between August 30 to September 1 and took out more than $1,000.
"There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes electronic work happening now. I’m sure they’re checking every electronic device and related device be that phone tablets, personal computers, license plate readers, closed-circuit TV cameras," explained Edmund Hartnett, a retired law enforcement officer and law enforcement consultant. "I think it’s moving quickly, judging by my past experience, I think this will have a resolution fairly soon."
The indictment does not say specifically to whom the cards belong, however, federal investigators said the charges are "related to Mr. Laundrie’s activities following the death of Gabrielle Petito."
"While this warrant allows law enforcement to arrest Mr. Laundrie, the FBI and our partners across the country continue to investigate the facts and circumstances of Ms. Petito's homicide," The FBI said in a statement. "We urge individuals with knowledge of Mr. Laundrie's role in this matter or his current whereabouts to contact the FBI."
Search for Brian Laundrie
Six days of scouring the waterlogged Carlton Reserve have turned up nothing. The marshy, swampy terrain has made this a slow slog for law enforcement, which has involved search teams from 16 different agencies.
"We’re out here searching for Brian. We’re covering this area as well as we can. These guys are working really hard," Fussell continued. "They come back every day fresh and ready to go. It’s hot, it’s wet out there, but they’re working really hard."
Friday morning, the Federal Aviation Administration again set up "temporary flight restrictions for Special Security Reasons" in the area, but this one is in place through next Friday. The flight ban covers a 3-nautical-mile radius from a point inside the sprawling reserve, according to the FAA.
Thursday, additional resources from the FBI were brought in to help Florida authorities continue the search. The North Port Police Department, which has led the search operations so far, has not revealed why investigators believe a search of the area is important, other than to say that he’s still missing and this is where his parents said he last went.
Fussell said the sweep, which includes everything from drones to dogs to ATVs, is still only part of a larger effort to find Laundrie. He bristled at the idea that the search was a "waste of time," as many social media observers have been suggesting.
"There are many, many more resources we’re deploying in here other than the search efforts we are seeing here today. We have investigative means; we have other technology. Agencies are issuing search warrants for data, whether it be social media or some other investigative means, and then we do this search," he explained as he walked through the preserve.
"So we’re not wasting our time out here, we are doing our due diligence to find Brian in an area that our intelligence has led us [believe] that he could possibly be in. It’s upon us to make sure that we search this area as best as we can – as massive as it is – with the resources that we have to try and find Brian."
Retired FBI agent Stuart Kaplan agreed that, despite the apparent lack of results, the massive search is not a lost effort as investigators work to zero in on something of substance. At this point, he suggested, that may not be Brian Laundrie himself, but it could be some piece of evidence just as important.
The search wrapped up for the day Friday evening but will continue through the weekend as long as necessary, police say.
Meanwhile, a North Port law firm announced it would offer $20,000 for information leading to Laundrie's location, adding pressure to anyone who may have information about the case.
Legal analysis of Laundrie indictment
The indictment against Brian Laundrie is a single count and says he committed fraud by using a debit card to take out more than $1,000. Legal analyst and defense attorney Anthony Rickman says the charge is simple, but it becomes a significant piece in a large puzzle.
"Putting the PIN number in, he had no permission to do it, he used her credit card without her consent," Rickman said, although the indictment does not specify it was Gabby's card Laundrie used.
Rickman suspects that for the act of using someone else's credit card to become part of an indictment in a case of this magnitude, prosecutors are using the charge to further establish a timeline for both Gabby and Brian. Her phone's last text was sent August 27. Brian returned home sometime September 1.
The indictment says the card was used on August 30.
"When you use a card, use an ATM, there's a camera associated with it. We will see his image when he is using that card. That's going to help law enforcement," Rickman said.
The arrest warrant that accompanies the indictment says Brian Laundrie has to go before a U.S. magistrate without unnecessary delay. While it's still unclear whether anyone will be charged in the death of Gabby Petito, which has been ruled a homicide, there is now a charge he has to answer for.
"And that means when they get him, he goes right to a judge?" FOX 13's Evan Axelbank asked Rickman.
"Right to a judge, right into custody, no ifs, ands, or buts," Rickman responded.
Gabby Petito death
On Tuesday, a coroner confirmed that a body found Sunday in Wyoming was indeed Gabby. They said the manner of death was homicide. Investigators believe Brian – Gabby's fiancé – is the last person to see her alive.
The remains were discovered Sunday in the Bridger-Teton National Forest after a national search for the 22-year-old. Video captured by a vacationing Tampa family accidentally caught what appeared to be the couple's van parked at the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping Area in the forest; Gabby's body was later found nearby.
Video captured by a vacationing Tampa family accidentally caught what appeared to be the couple's van parked at the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping Area in the forest; Gabby's body was later found nearby.
Her body was found nearly three weeks after Brian returned home to North Port with the camper van – without Gabby. Brian was later named a person of interest in her disappearance. The remains were discovered Sunday in the Bridger-Teton National Forest after a national search for the 22-year-old.
As for a digital trail of evidence, North Port Police Chief Todd Garrison said last week they didn't have Gabby's phone and were still looking for it. As of Wednesday, it does not appear police have Brian’s phone. It could have been one of the items he took with him when his parents said he left.
Gabby had been documenting the trip across the country on social media. Her last post was made August 25, the same day that she last spoke with her family by phone.
The FBI and other local law enforcement began the search in the national forest Saturday, September 18. Gabby had visited the area on August 27; her family reported her missing on September 11 after her fiancé, Brian, returned home to North Port, Florida with the van, but without Gabby, following a domestic altercation in Moab, Utah.
A 911 caller who reported the "domestic dispute" between Brian and Gabby on August 12 was heard telling a dispatcher that "the gentleman was slapping the girl."
Body camera footage from the responding officers showed Petito crying in the couple's van. Officers ended up splitting up the couple for the night to cool off.
After the missing person's report was filed on September 11, police in North Port and elsewhere began looking for her, but they did not have any help narrowing down the search from the Laundrie family.
Why search the preserve?
Laundrie has not been seen in over a week. Law enforcement has been combing a 25,000-acre preserve near his North Port, Florida home based on information from his parents regarding his last known location.
Laundrie's parents told police their son left Tuesday, September 14 to go camping at Carlton Reserve. His parents told investigators they went to the reserve Wednesday and saw their son's car there, but not Brian. They returned the next day and brought his vehicle home.
Meanwhile, the Laundries left their home for the first significant amount of time since reporting their son missing last Friday. They were followed by a police escort, but police would not say where the couple went.
The Laundries then reported Brian missing the following night.
After Brian was reported missing, the search at Carlton Reserve began. Agents also removed carloads of possible evidence from the Laundrie home.
Brian Laundrie's silver Ford Mustang was returned from police custody to his parents Thursday, who then left their home for several hours, with a police escort.
Laundrie's parents have remained silent as the search for Gabby, and then the search for their son stretched on. Speaking only through a New York-based lawyer, the family said early on it would ‘remain in the background’ as the search for Gabby got underway.
The family of Gabby Petito has maintained that the Laundrie family knows more than they were willing to say, stating through their lawyer "We believe you know the location where Brian left Gabby. We beg you to tell us. As a parent, how could you let us go through this pain and not help us? As a parent, how could you put Gabby's younger brothers and sisters through this?"
Gabby's remains were discovered in Grand Teton National Park in the following days. A preliminary autopsy found her manner of death was homicide, but her cause of death was still being investigated.
Now armed with an arrest warrant, investigators are asking the public for help in locating Brian. They describe him as a white male, 5-foot-8 and weighing 160 pounds. He has brown eyes, very short brown hair, trimmed facial hair, and was last seen wearing a hiking bag with a waist strap.
Anyone with information on the case is asked to submit tips at: www.fbi.gov/petito