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An Ohio man who pretended to be Timmothy Pitzen, who vanished in 2011 at the age of 6, was slapped with a two-year prison sentence, officials said this week.
MIchael Rini, 24, was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2019 on charges of identity theft after prosecutors said he impersonated the still-missing child last year. U.S. District Judge Michael R. Barrett handed down the sentence on Tuesday.
Rini, who posed as a sex-trafficking victim in his scheme to assume Pitzen’s identity, pleaded guilty in January.
“I wish that I could just take it back,” he told Pitzen’s family during his sentencing this week, CBS News reported. “I am sorry to the family.”
Rini’s lies, prosecutors said, only inflicted further "unnecessary pain" on Pitzen’s fractured family.
“He needs to understand that when he tells lies like this, it does cause damage,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kyle Healey said, according to NBC News. “It hurts people, it hurts their families, and it takes law enforcement away from their very serious job of helping children who have been sex trafficked.”
On April 3, 2019, police found the 24-year-old wandering the streets of Newport, Kentucky. He appeared puzzled and perturbed. Rini, who told officers he’d been abducted when he was 6 years old, claimed he “just wanted to go home,” according to prosecutors. Local authorities matched the profile he provided to Timmothy Pitzen, who vanished in 2011.
Rini insisted he’d escaped from a hotel room where two men were holding him hostage, adding he’d been brutally sex trafficked for years.
He was later taken to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital after complaining of abdominal pain. There, maintained he was the missing child while being questioned by FBI special agents. He refused to be fingerprinted but later agreed to a DNA swab test, which confirmed he wasn’t Pitzen.
Rini ultimately confessed to the hoax, revealing he’d seen an ABC 20/20 special on Pitzen’s case, which had fascinated him. Investigators later learned Rini had previously posed as a sex-trafficking victim on two prior occasions, prosecutors said.
“Once law enforcement officers confronted Rini about his true identity, Rini immediately stated he was not the missing child,” prosecutors said in a press release. “He said he watched a story about the child on 20/20 and stated he wanted to get away from his own family.”
Rini added “he wished he had a father like Timmothy’s.”
The Ohio man’s DNA profile was already in an FBI database stemming from prior felony convictions. Rini had previously done time behind bars and was released from an Ohio prison in 2019, prosecutors said.
Before Rini’s identity was revealed, Timmothy Pitzen’s family was hopeful the unsolved case had been cracked.
"We always felt very strongly that Tim was alive," Kara Jacobs, Pitzen's aunt, told NBC Chicago at the time, according to NBC News. "What I've prayed about since he's been gone is that God will keep him close and take care of him. And that maybe, by some stroke of luck, he was with people who would love him."
Prior to pleading guilty, Rini could have faced up to eight years in prison for misleading federal agents.
“The news that Timmothy Pitzen was possibly found gave hope to thousands of families still searching for their missing loved ones," Angeline Hartmann, a spokesperson for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, told Oxygen.com in a statement on Friday. "We got calls from across the country. When we all learned it was a lie, this had a tremendous ripple effect, devastating those who wanted to believe that a missing child was found safely after all of these years."
His own family previously claimed the 24-year-old suffered from a number of mental illnesses.
"He's nuts," his brother, Jonathan Rini, 21, told CBS 19 in Cleveland. "He has Asperger’s, Bipolar Disorder, ADHD, the list goes on."
Timmothy Pitzen was last seen at a Wisconsin water park. Investigators suspected he was in the care of his mother, Amy Fry-Pitzen, who’d taken him from his elementary school days earlier, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. However, Fry-Pitzen’s body was later found in a Rockford, Illinois hotel room. She’d committed suicide.
Timmothy was nowhere to be found. Instead, a chilling suicide note authored by the dead woman was retrieved by investigators. It indicated the 6-year-old was safe — but that "you will never find him."
The mysterious case remains open.
"We believe that one day Timmothy’s family will have the answers they have been desperately searching for," Hartmann added. "Until then, we encourage everyone to look at Timmothy’s picture and the pictures of other missing children. We know it only takes one person to bring a missing child home.”
Pitzen would be 16 years old at present.
"I just prayed that when he was old enough that he would remember us and contact us," Alana Anderson, Pitzen’s grandmother, told NBC Chicago. "That was kind of the best I could hope for."
Rini, who received 20 months of credit for time served, will be released on probation in four months, according to the Washington Post.
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