Gabby Petito case: Authorities search vast nature reserve for Brian Laundrie, missing woman's family claims he is hiding

NORTH PORT, Florida (WABC) — Authorities are scouring a vast nature reserve in Florida Saturday as part of their search for Brian Laundrie, Gabby Petito’s fiancé, after family members say he headed there Tuesday after leaving home with a backpack.

Local and federal law enforcement are combing through a massive county park known as the Carlton Reserve, which spans more than 24,000 acres and is located just north of the home in which Laundrie and Petito shared with his parents.

WATCH | Chopper hovers over police search for Brian Laundrie at Carlton Reserve

Police say his family believes he entered the area earlier this week after leaving home with a backpack on Tuesday.

FBI in Denver said on Twitter searches are also underway in areas of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming for evidence related to Petito’s disappearance.

Meanwhile, Petito’s family claims Laundrie is not missing but is in hiding.

The Petito’s released the following statement through their attorney overnight:

All of Gabby’s family want the world to know that Brian is not missing, he is hiding. Gabby is missing.

More than 50 police officers were accompanied by FBI agents, drones, K-9 and bloodhounds to search for Brian Laundrie, law enforcement said on Saturday.

Police shared new photos from the search for Laundrie around the Carlton Reserve area.

North Port, Florida police spokesperson Josh Taylor said at a news conference that a tip from the family drove law enforcement to the Carlton Reserve.

His family told police on Friday that they last saw the 23-year-old leaving on Tuesday with a backpack and told them he was going to the reserve.

Laundrie’s family told police about where he went after becoming “concerned about his whereabouts” and wanted to file a missing person’s report, according to Taylor.

He said that Laundrie’s vehicle was at the reserve and was found again at the family home but when pressed as to who or how the car would have gotten back without a sign of Laundrie, the spokesperson said “we are going by their family’s word.”

Laundrie’s family claims they have not seen Brian since Tuesday.

Investigators removed items from the Laundries’ house to assist in the search for him, according to his attorney Steven Bertolino.

RELATED | Gabby Petito disappearance timeline: What we know so far

Police said on Twitter that it was the first time the Laundrie family had spoken with them in detail about the case.

They reiterated that Brian is a person of interest in Gabby’s disappearance, but that they are “not currently working a crime investigation.”

Both he and Petito are now considered missing persons.

Speaking to Good Morning America Saturday, North Port Police Public Information Officer Josh Taylor said police were “trying to corroborate everything they’ve been telling us.”

Taylor said detectives spoke with Chris and Roberta Laundrie in-person with their lawyer present over the phone.

“I wouldn’t say that it was, you know, a full conversation. Right now their focus was on us helping them find their son,” Taylor said.

Taylor said investigators were still working to piece together Brian’s trip from western states to their home in Florida.

“Certainly that truck did not drive from, you know, potentially, you know, the mountain west to here on one tank of gas so we know there were stops along the way. If people saw anything as far as those movements, we’re piecing that together, some parts of the time line we’ve solidified. We know her mother talked to her, saw her on facetime on the 25th of August,” Taylor said.

Watch the full GMA interview with Josh Taylor:

“We are happy they called the police in and they want to cooperate, but until…I’m not going to speculate, I don’t know what to believe,” said Petito’s stepfather, Jim Schmidt.

A spokesperson for the department appeared on CNN later Friday night and said the department does have more details but they cannot be released just yet.

“I think that will come out here, very shortly, we just want to get our, our ducks in a row a little bit,” the spokesperson said. “This has been a very quickly developing situation here in just the last hour really for the most part. So we’re working through that. We want to make sure that we are accurate in everything that we’re saying.”

Petito, a 22-year-old woman originally from Long Island, disappeared on a cross-country road trip with Laundrie.

The Florida couple were traveling to Oregon when Petito stopped communicating with her family somewhere in Wyoming in late August.

Laundrie, who has been named a person of interest by police in North Port, Florida — returned to their Gulf Coast home in Petito’s 2012 white Ford Transit van on September 1, 10 days before Petito was reported missing by her family in Blue Point.

Police in North Port held a news conference Thursday during which Petito’s father begged for her safe return and for Laundrie to speak up and stop hindering the investigation.

“What I need from everybody is help,” Joseph Petito said. “That goal is to bring Gabby home safely. I’m asking for help from everyone here. I’m asking for help from everyone at home. I’m asking for help from the parents of Brian, and I’m asking for help from the family members and friends of the Laundrie family as well.”

MORE: Police body cam video shows Gabby Petito, boyfriend after 911 call

Petito’s mother, Nichole Schmidt, said the last video chat she had with her daughter was August 24 or 25, though they exchanged text messages for a few days following.

She has since said she is unsure if it was her daughter actually sending those texts.

“We don’t eat, we don’t sleep, we’re just actively looking for her,” she said.

The engaged couple had been documenting their trip on YouTube, and they were set to arrive in Portland in October.

“We were excited for them,” Schmidt said. “I believe she’s in danger because she’s not in touch with us. She could be alone somewhere. She could be stranded somewhere in the wilderness and she needs help.”

Petito is described as a white female, approximately 5-foot-5 and 110 pounds.

She has blonde hair, blue eyes, and several tattoos, including one on her finger and one on her forearm that reads “Let it be.”

Detectives are asking anyone with information on Petito’s disappearance to contact Suffolk County police at 1-800-220-TIPS, the North Port Police Department at 941-429-7382, or the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI or 303-629-7171. Information can also be submitted online.

ALSO READ: ABC Exclusive: Full interview with Brian Laundrie’s sister on Gabby Petito

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