Nine months after getting a desperate family’s hopes up, an Ohio man has pleaded guilty to impersonating the long-missing Timmothy Pitzen, whose mother took him from kindergarten in 2011 before committing suicide days later and leaving a note that said her son was “safe” that added, “You will never find him.”
Brian Michael Rini, 24, briefly dangled the hope of a happy ending in April, when he turned up on the street in Newport, Kentucky, and claimed to be a kidnap victim fleeing sex traffickers that he’d left behind in a Red Roof Inn.
He gave as his name Timmothy Pitzen, who then would have been 14.
A DNA test soon revealed Rini’s true identity. He was an ex-con recently released after being imprisoned for stealing and burglary who’d previously tried to pass himself off as a sex trafficking victim. He told authorities he adopted Timmothy’s identity after learning about Timmothy’s case and his father’s devoted search on ABC News’ 20/20, according to a criminal complaint that charged him with making false statements to a federal agent.
He was sentenced Wednesday to two years in prison with credit for time already served, reports WOIO.
“We’re glad he’s pleading guilty and not wasting any more time of the courts and legal systems or police that have better things to do,” Timmothy’s aunt, Kara Jacobs, tells PEOPLE. “We hope that he gets the help that he obviously needs, and we hope that the public continues to think about not only Timmothy’s case, but also any missing kids’ cases that may be in their area.”
She says Timmothy’s family has “no doubt in our minds whatsoever” that Timmothy is still out there.
Timmothy was 6 years old when, on May 11, 2011, his mother Amy — Jacobs’ sister — checked him out of kindergarten in Aurora, Illinois, without alerting her husband and the boy’s father, Jim Pitzen. Mother and son went to a zoo and then spent the next two nights at nearby indoor water-park resorts, keeping Jim at bay but making reassuring phone calls to police and Jim’s brother to say they were fine, according to authorities.
At the time, the couple’s marriage — Amy’s fourth — was teetering, and divorced had been discussed. Amy, 42, also struggled with depression, and had tried twice earlier to take her own life.
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Three days later, on May 14, 2011, an employee of a motel in Rockford, Illinois, found Amy dead in her room with self-inflicted slashes on her wrists and neck. Her cryptic suicide note was left behind.
‘Looking Back, It’s Easy to See Red Flags’
His family wondered whether their prayers had been answered on April 3, 2019, with the report of a young man, appearing disoriented and scared, who gave Timmothy’s name to strangers who approached him on the street in Newport, Kentucky.
News of the apparent recovery was quickly conveyed to Aurora police, who began to note inconsistencies in the young man’s story even before the DNA confirmation of Rini’s identity.
“Looking back, it’s easy to see red flags,” says Jacobs. “But we really didn’t think about red flags at first. It just doesn’t occur to you that it wasn’t him, or that somebody would lie about it. It just didn’t come across our minds that it could not be him.”
“Obviously the most important thing for us is that people continue to talk about missing kids in the country, of which there’s 400,000 at any given time,” she says, citing statistics compiled by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. “The public can absolutely help these families and these children by watching and being vigilant.”
The center has released several age-progressed images over the years, showing how Timmothy might look now.
Immediately after the hoax was revealed, Jim Pitzen told PEOPLE the setback did not deter his determination to reunite with his son.
“I’m waiting for an answer from the police department, ‘Yes, this is Timmothy Pitzen,’” he said. “It’s a big waiting game I play all the time on when he’s coming home.”
“The longer he’s away, the less time I’m going to have with my son,” he said. “One thing you can’t do is make up for lost time.”
He added: “I guess he’s just missed more every day.”
Says Jacobs now: “We know that we will see him again. We just don’t know when or how that will happen.”
“I know I’m excited to one day let Timmothy tell his own story, and hopefully help other people,” she says.
Anyone with information about Timmothy or any other missing child is urged to alert the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 1-800-THE LOST.