The yearslong investigation of an Illinois child’s 2011 disappearance briefly appeared to have reached a happy resolution Wednesday in Newport, Kentucky, where neighbors found a skinny, bruised young man claiming to have escaped a pair of kidnappers who held him for multiple years.
According to police documents, he said his name was Timmothy Pitzen.
According to the FBI, he was lying.
The missing boy's family spent a day "on tenterhooks," hoping for the best, before they learned the truth.
Who's Timmothy Pitzen?
He was a tow-headed 6-year-old on May 11, 2011, when his mother picked him up early from kindergarten at Greenman Elementary School in Aurora, Illinois. It was a family emergency, Amy Fry-Pitzen told his teachers.
That wouldn’t be true until the following day, when Pitzen’s father reported the pair missing. Jim Pitzen had known his marriage to Fry-Pitzen was in trouble, he later told True Crime Daily, but had never anticipated a vanishing act. His calls to her went straight to voicemail.
Meanwhile, the mother-son pair traveled to the Brookfield Zoo, KeyLime Cove water park and a Kalahari Resorts in the Wisconsin Dells.
Fry-Pitzen would be discovered dead May 14 in a Rockford, Illinois motel room. The knife she had used to take her own life was covered in her blood — no one else's.
Her suicide note assured readers Timmothy was safe but would never be found.
What happened next?
Aurora police continued their search for nearly eight years, and Pitzen’s family continued to hope they would see him again.
“I feel it’s not long when he will be showing up,” paternal grandmother Linda Pitzen told the Aurora News-Beacon in 2016.
The first six months were hard, the Chicago Tribune reported in 2011. Jim Pitzen lost his job. Maternal grandmother Alana Anderson celebrated Timmothy’s seventh birthday by planting a 7-year-old blue spruce in her backyard, buying him a birthday card and cutting out pictures of things she wanted to buy for him: A skateboard, a remote-control helicopter.
“He’s out there,” she told the Tribune then. “And I think when he’s old enough he’ll find us.”
Greenman Elementary School planted a memorial garden in his honor, although it bears no name plaque and few of the children who play there know why it exists.
The police investigation would reach a few points that seemed like breakthroughs: The discovery of blood in the back seat of Fry-Pitzen’s car, Fry-Pitzen’s cell phone, and a tip from an Orlando woman who said she had spotted Timmothy in her neighborhood.
Is this young man really Pitzen?
The Louisville FBI announced Thursday afternoon that DNA tests attempting to match the boy's DNA to Pitzen's came back negative. The person who claimed Pitzen's identity was in fact 23-year-old Medina, Ohio man Brian Rini, who had weeks earlier completed a prison sentence for burglary and vandalism.
"A local investigation continues into this person's true identity," the FBI tweeted. "To be clear, law enforcement has not and will not forget Timmothy, and we hope to one day reunite him with his family. Unfortunately, that day will not be today."
Aurora, Illinois police and members of the Pitzen family said in news conferences they hoped the hoax would at least remind the public of Pitzen's still-unsolved disappearance.
"He’s a wonderful little boy, and I hope he has the strength of personality to do whatever he needs to do to find us," Anderson said.
The FBI has charged Rini with making false statements.
How do multiple people mistake an adult man for an abused 14-year-old?
Law enforcement was skeptical, United States Attorney Benjamin Glassman said, and grew more so when the man refused to be fingerprinted. (He eventually consented to a DNA swab.)
However, Glassman said they were determined not to overlook any opportunity to find Pitzen — no matter how long a shot it seemed.
Why would he lie?
Recorded instances of impostors claiming to be notable missing persons extend at least as far back as the early 20th century, when various women falsely claimed to be the missing Grand Duchess of Russia Anastasia Romanov.
In a general sense, according to Cincinnati trauma counselor Dr. Stuart Bassman, similar behavior can often stem from a desire for attention and control. Even if the deception will inevitably crumble, the ability to temporarily command a news cycle can be “intoxicating” to the right personality, he said.
Rini’s younger brother, Jonathon Rini, told WCPO sister station WEWS Brian had a long history of criminal behavior and mental illness. He had at one point received treatment for his various diagnoses, which included Asperger syndrome, bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactive disorder, but lapsed.
“He’s been doing stupid stuff — not this serious, but he’s been doing stupid stuff for as long as I can remember,” the younger Rini said.
— News 5 Cleveland (@WEWS) April 5, 2019
Brian’s actions earned him time in juvenile detention as a child, jail as an adult and finally prison at the Belmont Correctional Institution in 2018.
Court records show past convictions for offenses including theft, making false alarms, passing bad checks, disorderly conduct and criminal trespass, but also indicate he was in the care of a psychiatrist as recently as 2017.
Jonathan Rini said he had not spoken to his brother in several years and did not know how he would have learned about the Pitzen case. Investigators would later reveal he'd heard about it from an episode of "20/20."
Authorities said Rini told them he wanted to get away from his own family and that he wished he had a father like Timmothy's who would continue looking for him.
“I’d tell the (Pitzen) family I’m sorry for what he’s done, but for him, I wouldn’t even speak to him,” Jonathon Rini said.
Then, he reconsidered: “I’d tell him he’s going down a dark road.”