The claim: Trail camera photo shows Brian Laundrie
A trail camera photo of a man who resembled Brian Laundrie captured the attention of Internet sleuths who were following his disappearance, generating tens of thousands of shares and comments on Facebook in under 36 hours.
But the apparent lead was a dead end, authorities confirmed on Sept. 22.
Sam Bass, 29, posted the viral photo several hours after it was reported to local authorities and the FBI on Sept. 20, Bass told USA TODAY.
"I'm not saying this is the guy, but whoever was on my trail camera this morning strongly fits the description of Brian Laundrie," his post reads. Laundrie is the fiancé and travel companion of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old vlogger who was found dead by homicide at a Wyoming national park on Sept. 19.
The black-and-white snapshot shows a young man wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and a backpack slung over his shoulder. He seems to pause and stare into the fog ahead of him, surrounded by trees and wild grass.
According to Bass, a motion-activated camera captured the photo at his family's farm in Baker, Fla. Baker is about seven hours' drive from the Carlton Reserve, where Laundrie's car was found abandoned on Sept. 17.
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Social media users were quick to respond with hypotheses, and soon rumors spread as well. One tweet posted just hours after the photo surfaced claimed the mystery had been solved.
"Breaking News! The trail cam picture captured this morning of Brian Laundrie in Baker, Florida is confirmed based on independent profile imaging technology," the now-deleted tweet claimed. "He is alive and on the move."
Screenshots of the tweet quickly spread through Facebook posts and comments. However, the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office shut down the rumor Sept. 22, when it announced that the man was a local resident, not Laundrie. Authorities continued to search for Laundrie as of Sept. 23.
More: Search continues for fiancé Brian Laundrie after coroner determines Gabby Petito's death a homicide
USA TODAY reached out to several Facebook users who shared the tweet.
How the search unfolded
Law enforcement determined that the trail cam photo didn't show Laundrie within 48 hours, but before that, the photo drew widespread attention amid the online manhunt.
Soon after Bass's family submitted a report, Okaloosa County police visited the site at around 6 p.m. and contacted the FBI, Bass said. He posted the image to Facebook at around 11 p.m.
The online race to prove the identity of the man on the trail cam began immediately afterward, with over 2,000 users sharing in less than 30 minutes, Bass told USA TODAY.
Thousands more tagged friends or left comments on the photo in the hours that followed. Some drew connections between a shark-tooth necklace Laundrie wore and a necklace the man seemed to be wearing in the photos; some, including the creator of the widely-shared tweet, searched for physical similarities between the shapes of the two men's faces; and some said the mystery man's backpack was the same as one in an Instagram story Laundrie posted during the trip.
"I went back & discovered that the two bags shown in the trail cam (photo) were also on Brian's Instagram account," Alexis Ramey, who shared a tweet stating the photo showed Laundrie, told USA TODAY over Facebook messenger.
But it wasn't Laundrie.
The Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office, which has jurisdiction over Baker, Fla., announced it had completed an "extensive search" of the area and surrounding farmlands and found no trace of Laundrie on Sept. 21.
But the social media frenzy continued until Sept. 22, when the sheriff's office announced on Facebook that it had positively identified the man as a resident of the county, thanks to deputies who recognized his neck tattoo and likeness.
"The OCSO has confirmed the man is an Okaloosa County resident who acknowledged he was the one walking on the deer trail carrying his backpack," the post read. "During its search and investigation, the OCSO found no indications that Brian Laundrie is, or was, in Okaloosa County."
Seven hours away at the Carlton Reserve in Sarasota County, search crews and volunteer divers continued to search gator- and snake-infested waters to find Laundrie, USA TODAY reported on Sept. 22.
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"If he's down there in the Carlton Reserve, he's living in hell," local survival expert Mark Burrow told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
Our rating: False
Based on our research, we rate the claim that a Florida trail camera photo shows Brian Laundrie FALSE. Authorities in Okaloosa County, where the photo was captured, confirmed they had positively identified the man in the photo was not Laundrie but someone else on Sept. 22.
Our fact-check sources:
Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office, Sept. 21, Statement via Facebook
Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office, Sept. 22, Statement via Facebook
Sam Bass, Sept. 20, Facebook post
Sam Bass, Sept. 24, Phone interview with USA TODAY
Alexis Ramey, Sept. 22, Facebook messenger correspondence
Rose (@smittyrose113), Sept. 21, Tweet
Candace Stuber, Sept. 22, Facebook comment
Melody Vega, Sept. 22, Facebook comment
USA TODAY, Sept. 20, TikTok is on the Gabby Petito case. Are these true crime sleuths helping solve it?
USA TODAY, Sept. 22, Search continues for fiancé Brian Laundrie after coroner determines Gabby Petito's death a homicide
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Sept. 22, Brian Laundrie 'living in hell' if he's indeed in Carlton Reserve, survival expert says
The Independent, Sept. 21, Brian Laundrie: Alabama police investigate possible sighting of Gabby Petito boyfriend
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Viral trail cam photo doesn't show Brian Laundrie