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Wilderness search for Brian Laundrie presents 'highest number of challenges'

Even in the best of circumstances, expert says chances of finding someone remain relatively low.

NORTH PORT, Fla. — UPDATE (Sept. 23, 2021): A federal arrest warrant was issued for Brian Laundrie following a grand jury indictment in connection with the Gabby Petito case. Click here for the latest information.

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Covering nearly 25,000 acres, the T. Mabry Carlton Reserve is a massive expanse of mostly untouched wilderness.

Satellite views from Google Earth show the area’s massive size.

Police across Florida are all assisting in the FBI-led investigation focused on finding Brian Laundrie, Gabby Petito's fiancé. 

“ATVs, UTVs, we have multiple drones operators that have been sent out in numerous teams,” said Commander Joe Fussell of the North Port Police Department.

The main staging area is near the park’s entrance, but from there, search teams are fanning out into the wilderness and along dirt paths, cutting their way through thick vegetation and even searching areas covered in mud and water.

Credit: Google Earth Pro
An image from Google Earth shows the massive size of the Carlton Reserve boundary in red.

“The terrain is very difficult,” said Commander Fussell.  “Essentially, 75 percent of it is underwater and other areas that are dry were try to clear.”

“The amount of resources that are being deployed to this particular area seem to indicate that they have information that there is a strong likelihood of where this individual may be,” said Allen Benitez who spent more than 40 years in law enforcement. 

His career includes experience on major search and rescue missions along with manhunts for people looking to avoid arrest.

“Do they have someone supporting them, helping them, driving them, transporting them? There’s a lot of background information that they will be looking to get.”

While Benitez has no involvement in this search he says officers across the country follow a similar playbook. 

“They’re looking for clues that they might have left behind,” he says. “Did you have a campfire? Clothing scraps car? Garbage left behind?”

But searching such a large area comes with its challenges.

“If you’re looking in various overgrown, marshy areas, even in the best of circumstances, your percentage of finding someone is relatively low. You basically have to hit every square foot of that marshland and that’s a significant challenge.”

He says even the weather can have an impact on K-9 units working to pick up Laundrie’s scent.

“Temperature, wind, rain. Scent moves in different ways depending on the weather,” Benitez says.

Sources report the search of Carlton Reserve is now focusing within the northwest corner. Benitez says if Laundrie is still alive, it's likely only a matter of time until he’s found.

“You can only survive in these tough conditions for a limited amount of time.”

He says searches for those who don’t want to be found can often be among the most dangerous.

“In a circumstance where you’re looking at someone who is at the very least wanted for questioning, they potentially could be armed, therefore could potentially be a threat to any of the searchers.”

The ground search was once again suspended Tuesday evening at dark. Crews will have aircraft up overnight searching heat signatures.

The ground search will then resume Wednesday morning.

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