Bounty hunt for Brian Laundrie in a land of lookalikes
Severin Beckwith and Anna Brettmann, a young couple from Ithaca, NY, have been hiking from Georgia to Virginia on the Appalachian Trail since late September. In western North Carolina, after a few days of heavy rain and little sleep, they decided to take a break in the woods. A shuttle took them to the Lodge at Fontana Village Resort, a rustic retreat two miles from the trailhead, where they ate lunch and lay down for a midday nap. Hitting woke them up. There was a muffled voice outside their door. It opened before Beckwith could unlock it.
“The next thing I see is a bunch of guys with riot shields with ‘US Marshals’ written on them,” Beckwith said. “Handguns pointed at my face. Brettmann was still in bed. A marshal helped her get dressed as they handcuffed Beckwith, still in their underwear, and led her down the hall. He had a hunch why this was happening. “I really hoped I was right,” he said.
Beckwith looks like Brian Laundrie – the fugitive and person of interest in the murder of his fiancee, Gabby Petito – in the same way most white long-distance hikers look like Laundrie: lean and pale, with a shaved head and a beard. The preponderance of such men may have made the Appalachian Trail a place of man-hunting among amateurs. There’s also the fact that Laundrie is known to hike the trail and is considered, mostly by those who haven’t, as a place to go if you want to get lost. A Florida engineer was “99.99% sure” that he saw Laundrie looking “wig” near the trail.
A few days earlier, someone else had timed Beckwith as looking like Laundrie. But the marshals had seen more than a fleeting resemblance. One of them touched the side of Beckwith’s head and noted that he had, as Beckwith said, “a notch in the top of my inner ear, just like his.” On top of that, Beckwith and Brettmann had booked their room with a credit card linked to a New York ID card – Petito was from New York – “which I guess was reason enough to get in.”
But Beckwith didn’t have Laundrie’s hand tattoos. His ID card didn’t have Laundrie’s name on it either. The marshals took Beckwith’s fingerprints (“They must have used our hotel’s Wi-Fi password,” Beckwith said, “because they were having trouble with their Bluetooth fingerprint”) and suggested to him to shave his beard, which he did but “immediately regretted,” he said, “because I have a lot less chin than Laundrie. “They told the couple that they now had a good story to tell. Then they left.
Who had alerted the commissioners to the presence of a laundry look-alike? Beckwith remembered a moment earlier that day at the Fontana Lake Marina, where they’d gone to call the shuttle. An employee had responded strangely to his request to use the phone. As it turned out, he also took Beckwith’s photo and passed it on to authorities. A marshal showed the photo to Beckwith after he kicked his door.
“They had a little side by side,” Beckwith said. “It was Brian and I on the phone to call the shuttle.”
For their unique issues, the lodge offered Beckwith and Brettmann a free night – in a room with a working lock – and free breakfast. “It was a buffet,” Beckwith said. “We took as much as we could. “
Days later, Maria Guzman, who runs the Standing Bear Farm Inn, a week-long walk on the trail in Tennessee, met Beckwith and Brettmann on a hike. They told him the story.
“He looks like Laundrie,” Guzman said later. “But thousands of people too.” Another hiker attempted to give Beckwith a trail name, as is customary for long-distance hikers: the Fugitive. It was, according to Beckwith, “a little too much on the nose”. Instead, he went with Not Brian, who, he said, “basically covers him up.” Guzman promised the couple free pizza if they stayed at his hostel, which they ended up doing. Their luck was turning.
Guzman mentioned the Laundrie lookalike to his friends Tina Simerly and Xander McDouall, a local couple who were also looking for the fugitive. Simerly and McDouall are neither amateur sleuths nor government agents: they run a local group of bounty hunters called the Predator Hunter Nation. (Duane Chapman, aka Dog the Bounty Hunter, was also on the Laundrie trail recently, until he injured his ankle.)
“Mostly pedophiles,” said Simerly, describing their prey. “But not exclusively. She continued: “There are sightings all over Hartford” – a nearby town. “And no one is paying attention.” She added: “Our friend Hunter, he saw him at the Citgo in Hartford, in a brown Ford Escape.” The bounty hunters discussed the reward offered for the information leading up to the capture of Laundrie. “The last time I heard it was one hundred and seventy thousand,” Simerly said.
“Eighty now,” McDouall said. “That’s half the reason people even search. But not us. We’re looking for this guy because he’s a predator. He paused and continued, “He’s a pretty generic guy, though, really.” People say I look like him too. ??