NORTH PORT, Fla. - After Gabby Petito was reported missing, North Port police thought they had a close eye on Brian Laundrie, but now they have realized they had a case of mistaken identity as they were monitoring him – and they blame his family, at least in part.
North Port police say they mistook Brian's mom for him the week he went missing, which is why they say he was able to disappear without detection. Police admitted the error to WINK-TV on Monday.
According to a North Port police spokesman, detectives had set up cameras around the Laundries' home in North Port to monitor Brian's movement after Gabby's family reported her missing. On Sept. 13, detectives saw Brian leave home in his Mustang. Then, they saw the car return two days later.
The driver was wearing a hat, officials noted.
"I believe it was his mom who was wearing a baseball cap," Josh Taylor, the police spokesperson, explained to WINK. "They had returned from the park with that Mustang. So, who does that? Right? Like, if you think your son’s missing since Tuesday, you’re going to bring his car back to the home."
"So, it didn’t make sense that anyone would do that if he wasn’t there," Taylor added. "The individual getting out with a baseball cap, we thought, was Brian."
North Port police said Brian looks very much like his mother, Roberta.
"They’re kind of built similarly," Taylor said to WINK.
Two more days went by after the mistaken sighting. In a press conference on Thursday, Sept. 16 of that week, North Port Police Chief Todd Garrison said they knew Brian's whereabouts.
"Two people went on a trip, and one person returned," Garrison said. "That person who returned isn’t providing information."
Then, the next day, the Laundries reported Brian missing, saying that they’d found his Mustang abandoned at the Carlton Reserve on Wednesday and had driven it home themselves.
While thousands of man-hours were spent searching the preserve for Brian in the weeks that followed, police don't believe their mistake would have prevented that search or changed the ultimate outcome.
"This misidentification did not have a big impact on costs and the investigation. Other than confusion, it likely changed nothing," Taylor told FOX 13. "There is a very good possibility that Brian was already deceased. He still needed to be found."
Echoing Chief Garrison's comments from Sept. 16, Taylor on Tuesday pointed a finger at the Laundrie family for their reported silence.
"We just wanted people to better understand why we thought we knew Brian was in his home," Taylor continued. "It was a direct result of a lack of cooperation from the family early on this investigation."
Ultimately, Brian’s skeletal remains were discovered last week in a part of the park that detectives say had been flooded during the search and difficult to navigate for weeks.
Chris and Roberta Laundrie visited the park on the day when Brian's remains and items belonging to him were found. Using dental records, the FBI positively identified the remains as Laundrie's the next day.
The family's attorney later released a statement that seemingly deflected blame back towards law enforcement.
"I concur with Mr. Taylor that Brian may have already been deceased when NPPD realized that they ‘lost track’ of him. However you can’t blame the family because the police didn’t know enough to follow someone they were obviously surveilling," Steven Bertolino told FOX 13. "This is a tragedy for two families and any mistakes made by anyone or any entity involved should be acknowledged and used to train or educate others so the mistakes are not repeated."
"Everyone makes mistakes. But Brian and Roberta are not "built" the same. Moreover, it was NPPD that put the ticket on the Mustang at the park and if they saw Brian leave on Monday in the Mustang, which is news to me, then they should have been watching the Mustang and the park starting on Monday and they would have known it was Chris and Roberta that retrieved the Mustang from the park. Now to be clear, none of this may have made a difference with respect to Brian’s life but it certainly would have prevented all of the false accusations leveled by so many against Chris and Roberta with respect to "hiding" Brian or otherwise financing an "escape". In the end LE searchers did their best to locate Brian and their efforts are appreciated" he added.